If you can pay rent with the money you make doing what you love, you’re lucky as hell–and this isn’t lost on the guys of Nada Surf, who are celebrating the two loud and fast decades they’ve spent together making that dream a reality. “We really love playing together,” says lead singer Matthew Caws, calling in from someplace between Washington, D.C. and Columbus, OH. “It’s corny and simple, but it’s why we’ve never broken up and have been around for so long. It’s because playing together is really fun for us. If there are more than 10 people who want to come see us, well, there you go. We’ll do the show. And there’s no reason to stop, as long as you can pay the rent and play as many shows as you need to in order to make that happen.”
As their two shows at the Bowery Ballroom Friday and Saturday have long since sold out, it’s plain to see that Nada Surf will carry on in the name of alternative rock long past year 20. After a year of touring consistently behind The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, their January release and the seventh record in their arsenal, Nada Surf will close out their final tour of 2012 with two sold-out nights at the Bowery Ballroom. The Bowery shows serve as a nostalgic return for the native New Yorkers, and Caws is proud of the fact that Nada Surf can contribute their demonstrated fervor to the musical fabric of the gritty city where they cut their chord-ripping teeth.
Congratulations on a successful 2012, and your 20th anniversary as a band! Did any monumental changes come along with celebrating such a big milestone?The biggest thing is the addition of Doug Gillard [of Guided By Voices]. The extra dimension of melody and harmony that Doug added from the moment he started playing with us has really grown this year. He helps bring the new songs to life just as he did on the album, but he has also rejuvenated all the old ones. His musicality is extraordinary. In real life I prefer bicycles, but musically it feels like we traded ours in for a motorcycle. I can’t even imagine being a trio ever again. It feels completely organic. We feel whole now, you know? I enjoy shows much more now than I did at the beginning. When we started out, concerts felt like a math test or something–I’d keep my head down and try not to make any mistakes. Now, I’m kind of able to experience it in a normal way.
Take me through a typical night with Nada Surf. What’s the experience like for you, between hitting the stage and heading out after the encore?
We always shoot out really fast, just to get those first few songs out of the way and really kind of land. With other jobs, if you were, a film director, if you managed to write a novel, any incredible vocation like that, you only get the premiere; if you write a book, you can do a book tour. But I think with music, it’s unique in that you go out and do this whole thing that you’ve worked on–say, a new record–and you get to do it in front of a lot of people right away. You get this reaction and confirmation night after night after night, and we’re really spoiled that way.
There’s an opportunity for reinvention with that, in the sense that the songs may take on a different life once you’ve toured behind them a few times.
You know, that’s happened less than any other time with The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, because the direction of this record was that we had gotten tired of that very thing you’re describing. It’s usually a good, but for us, it was sometimes a mixed thing because we would take the record on the road, and then all of a sudden it would be louder, faster and then we’d hear the record again and wonder if we’d taken it too far. This time, we thought, “You know, that happens with every record, let’s make sure to make this one feel in the studio the way it does onstage.” It’s pretty close! We’re playing these songs totally naturally, and they’re exactly how we want to do them live.
Looking back on The Stars and this past year in particular, do you think that there’s a song that really shows a special side of Nada Surf that we haven’t seen before?
They all do to a certain extent. I’m not saying they’re all home runs, but so often I start writing from some kind of a difficult place or an uncomfortable feeling or regret or something, and the act of writing and the act of choosing notes to put one after the other and the chord progression is such a joyous thing. In the end I think all the songs become celebratory on some level, even if they didn’t start that way. This record is really no different. We’re always looking for a bit of a lift-off. “When I Was Young” is probably my favorite song on the record. I was having trouble putting these two parts of the song together, and Doug suggested that the whole opening be one thing and the whole ending be another thing. It was kind of a sideways, non-typical pop way to put a song together.
What was the time frame like, from writing the record to releasing it?
The heavy lifting took about five or six months, and then we rehearsed it for two months, and then we tracked it in five days, which is faster than any other record that we’ve done by miles.
There’s a lot of reflection happening throughout The Stars. Is this an album 20 years in the making?
Yeah, I think so. And part of that was the process of elimination in that when we did If I Had A Hi-Fi, that covers record. To put it out for the release party, we did three shows in New York: one night we did all of Let Go in one club, then the next night we did all of The Weight Is a Gift and in another club we did all of Lucky. Listening to all those songs, to sort of brush up on the ones that were rusty, I heard so many songs of a certain type, a lot of self-doubt and a struggle with self-discipline and a certain kind of bittersweet, self-analytical love song, etc. It was just something that I thought I was doing again and again, which is what I think is a common songwriter’s fear–you think you have been writing the same one or two songs forever. Sometimes you have to figure it out for a really long time to figure out what those repetitions are. And so even though there are still all those things on the record, there’s less of it, because I was really trying to get away from that. I didn’t want to think that years and years from now I’d look back on a career of writing songs and making records and find that I was just staring in the mirror the whole time.
You’re closing out this tour–and 2012–with two (sold-out!) dates at the Bowery Ballroom. Has your relationship with New York changed?
It always feels full-circle, every time we play in New York, because our band was affected by the city so much from the very beginning. None of us had a garage or a basement or anything, so we would rent a couple hours of practice time at one of the music buildings, you know, the ones over on 30th Street between 7th and 8th. We could only afford two hours at a time, and so we would pay the three Clash songs we knew over and over and over again, and then work on one or two originals [laughs]. We did that every Saturday, and we’d call CBGB every Tuesday and Thursday for years and years. One night before playing CBGB, Daniel and I went out wheatpasting. We made these huge posters and put them up everywhere, and the gig was canceled the day afterwards because some label wanted to do a showcase there. Ron Wood had a club called Woody’s, and you had to sell at least 36 tickets. If you didn’t, you had to pay the shortfall. We didn’t sell enough tickets, so we left in the bottom of a cab, just jumped onto the floor and left [laughs]. Just the privilege of growing up in New York and seeing all those shows … I’m very grateful to the city. It was an incredible place to grow up and be a fan. The first show I ever saw was Simon & Garfunkel in Central Park, and then XTC at the Palladium, and 48th Street, the guitar street, where you go and dream as a teenager of the guitars you can’t afford … being in Williamsburg for so long and seeing so much change there is just unbelievable. When I was young, my ambitions were never to tour the world, it was to play at one of these places where I went to see bands.