Nada Surf’s bandleader Matthew Caws likes to ponder. He’s the introspective type, which you may have gleamed from the band’s records. He is also one hell of a nice guy. So if you ever have the chance to ask him a question, do it and expect a thoughtful response.
After 20 years of crafting intellect power-pop, Matthew should really be running therapy workshops for songwriters in need. Just check out the man’s track record. Nada Surf’s discography provides one of the best examples of how a band can mature gracefully over time. Every singer-songwriter dreams of having what Matthew Caws has – a distinct identity that hasn’t pigeonholed them into any one particular style.
The longevity Nada Surf enjoys has also meant they’ve had an opportunity to pretty much do everything. From working with different labels (and being screwed by some), doing a covers album, releasing a series of deep cut B-sides, to playing a show in a bullfighting ring. BYT was fortunate enough to be able to talk with Matthew about the band’s upcoming live album, which was recorded March 24, 2012 at the Neptune Theatre. The album is chock full of your favorite Nada tunes (except for “Popular” fair enough), and obviously some thoughtful stage banter from Mr. Caws.
With such a dense and varied discography to pull from it must be hard crafting the set list? Though I must say I think the new live album at Neptune Theatre does a good job showcasing the different facets and personalities of the band.
Thanks. I do feel like not only is it our own impression, but from requests and the way fans talk to us, and the songs they focus on, we sort of have this sense we’re two or three bands stuck in one. You know some people really focus on the love songs, other people on the sort of philosophical uplift…by love songs I mean for example, “The Inside of Love” and a uplifting, quasi-philosophical song would be “See These Bones.” And then, there are rockers. And we want to cater to the parts we like as well. But I really do feel like, possibly more so than other bands, that besides from the sound of my voice, which for better or for worse I can’t get away from, we really sound like two or three different bands.
That must be a good, solid place to be in as musician.
Yeah, definitely. It’s probably part of what keeps us going. That we don’t feel stuck doing one kind of thing. If you were in a really one styled band I could imagine waking up on tour one day and being like I’m sick of this.
So what we have to do, though is switch out standards, so a song like “Hyperspace,” for example, which we opened our set with for years, we just retired it completely for a while. The same thing with “Popular.” We didn’t play it for three or four years, now its back. It’s like volleyball, if you have more team members then positions on the court, you rotate them out. Or like any team. So maybe that’s it, the songs are team members and not everyone can be on the field at the same time.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmVvChSpngg
We just go with our enthusiasm and excitement. If we’re not feeling jazzed about playing a certain song, there’s plenty more, we’ll just put it away for a while. But of course it gets a little harder with each record. There are three or four new songs I’m hoping to get to in these shows, but that means we’re going to have to drop a whole bunch of other ones that we’ve gotten use to and there’s a sense we need to play them at every show. But I guess that’s a good problem, and its just part of being in a band for a long time—the set list gets tricky.
One of the things I find so interesting about power-pop is the ability to play around with sound dynamics within familiar song structures. In a way do you feel like the structure of these songs—intro, verse, chorus, outro—allow you a kind of freedom to play comfortably mess with song dynamic?
In our case, it was a flow development. We weren’t as musically sophisticated as lot of other bands. On our second album there was a song called “80 Windows.” It was by far the quietest, slowest thing we’d ever done. And then on our next record, Let Go, there was like four songs that chilled out. It was slow for us to learn we didn’t have to rock all the time.
But you know we started in Manhattan, like two bands ago, it was the late 80s. Daniel (the bass player) and I used to practice once a week in mid-town, which made us play a little faster. In our first band, The Cost of Living, we only knew roughly four songs, maybe three, by the Clash, and one or two by Lords of the New Church. All we could afford was two hours a week, because nobody had a basement or anything. So I think the fact that we only had those two hours contributed to us growing-up playing pretty fast. We were just overexcited excited—you’ve been waiting the whole week to do it, you only have a couple hours, and it just put you in this forward-leaning state. I think it took us a while to shake that out of our bones. And still to a certain degree it will always be in me. I’ll always want things to cook. I think it may have been Johnny Marr that said, ‘I only have two speeds pretty fast and pretty slow.’
Either fast or slow there is still something enormously satisfying with a well written two to three-minute pop song.
My feeling about songs sometimes is not that they’re magic, but I think the analogy of a spell applies. That’s why I think the very beginning of songs are so important, and the very beginnings of recordings and mixes and stuff are so important, because you want to cast a spell over the listener and never have it break, and if you can get to three to four minutes without having lost that feeling of being arrested by it…if you like the song, of course, it could not be you’re thing, and never have gotten to you. But if the listeners are connecting, if you have them for three minutes, you’re probably done.
I always think this, that it only takes five minutes to write a great song, but finding those five minutes is hard, because sometimes those five minutes don’t come for months. That’s the problem; you can’t schedule them.
I heard you say that the title of your album “The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy” is something your father, a philosophy professor, likes to say. Does philosophy factor into your writing, it often feels like your songs take on a more philosophical perspective?
I always hesitate to say it. I mean I appreciate it if someone says that about our songs because it’s definitely an aspect that I’m glad is there. But I’m hesitant to say it because, though my father is a philosophy professor, I never really studied it. Although I do have admiration for and am drawn to ideas for designs for living and morality and how you interact with other people and communities and what you try to focus on in life, though obviously we can’t always choose what we focus on. I guess its something I often find myself wrestling with.
So you would say you’re an introspective person?
Absolutely. To my own frustration I think. Because I sometimes really wish that I spent more of the day focused on the outside, but I keep being drawn back in, trying to figure myself out or improve my outlook or control it.
And it’s difficult to have a revelation when you’re stuck inside your head. That stuff tends to happen when you let yourself float, like with meditation.
I just started meditating again. I tried before and had troubles with it. But recently I turned the corner and realized the fact that I find it so difficult—that sense you have that you can’t empty your mind—is kind of the point anyway. Because if you could, if you could just calm your thoughts and focus on your breathing, if that came easily for you, you’d never be working that muscle—the muscle in your mind that quiets the noise and brings you back to the present. And so by failing again and again, you’re doing something, which is repeating that action of bringing yourself back to the physical present.
I met a man…his name is Stuart Firestein. I met this guy at a party and he was explaining that failure is so important, and if you’re only failing 30% to 40% of the time you’re not taking enough risk. You need to fail much more. His defense of it was that that was how ideas grow. He was speaking just from a scientific point of view, but I think it applies to life as well. At least you’re trying; at least you’re looking for something.
I also saw Bruce Springsteen once give a talk at SXSW, and he was talking about the importance of being able to hold on to two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. He was speaking specifically about the bands, and saying how it’s good for you to be confident and remember or focus on how you’re awesome, but it’s also important to remember that you suck. Holding on to those two things at once is part of the trick, and I think that’s the way it is in life as well. To remember that, certainly in terms of politics and dealing with communities, you need to be able to focus on many ideas at once, and if you hold on to one too tightly that’s where fanaticism comes from every stripe. Its dangerous because you need to be able to work with others and find common ground and you can only do that if you can accept differences in other people and by expecting those you’re allowing there to be various, and possibly opposing, ideas in yourself.