Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws on the band’s new album, You Know Who You Are
In my continued excavation of pieces written for the late, lamented hmv.com/ca, here’s my interview with Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws. The story was posted to coincide with the release of the band’s March 2016 album You Know Who You Are. A fine record, maybe one of my favourites of the year, and one I enjoy more every time I hear it. I’d also like to note that ‘Happy Kid,’ from the band’s 2002 album Let Go, is one of my all-time favourite indie-rock tracks. Top 10. Desert island. I was able to get in a mention of my favourite band, Guided by Voices.
Not many guitar-rock bands have the opportunity to recover from having a hit song on MTV.
If that sounds like a bit of a contradiction, then you don’t remember the nineties, when lines were drawn around bands deemed to be “credible” and those who, well, had hits on MTV.
Nearly 20 years ago, Nada Surf struck gold with “Popular,” a spoken/sung novelty song that even the New York trio would admit wasn’t representative of their sound. As a result, the band was too easily dismissed by alterna-world music fans who might otherwise have appreciated their melodic guitar rock. But, by the 2002 release of Let Go, their third album, “Popular” had been forgotten and, with their strongest batch of songs yet, Nada Surf found their audience (and vice versa).
Nada Surf, “Popular”:
You Know Who You Are (March 4) is the group’s eighth full-length, counting a covers record (2010’s If I Had a Hi-Fi). Once again, the band – the original lineup of Matthew Caws (guitar, vocals), Ira Elliot (drums, backup vocals), and Daniel Lorca (bass, backup vocals) augmented by guitarist Doug Gillard – deliver all the goods fans of bands from Big Star to Weezer could wish for: crunchy rockers, bittersweet power-pop and gorgeously evocative ballads, all with literate, incisive lyrics and a power-pop harmonies. Hmv.com talked to the modest and talkative Caws about the addition of fourth member Doug Gillard to the band’s lineup, and why he wants to keep making those sandwiches.
Shawn Conner: You have a French connection.
Matthew Caws: That’s right. My parents are professors, and my mom is a professor of a few things, comparative literature and also English and also French literature. We took sabbatical years in France when I was five and 12, living there the whole year. Then my parents bought a house in the south of France when I was five. Because that sounds fancy and I’m always self-conscious about not wanting to sound fancy, I have to tell you that this house was bought for 2000 bucks because it had no running water and no rooms for me and my sister to live in so we slept in tents and just got water from town for a couple of summers. But we had long summers, June July August, so I spent ten years spending long periods there. And we’ve toured there quite a bit.
SC: This sounds like a Monty Python routine: “We didn’t even have a roof!”
MC: Yeah – ‘You were lucky. We had to empty the lake with a slotted spoon every night.’ It was like that. It’s funny, at the time, I think both my sister and I were like, ‘Wait a minute… what is going on?’ But it was a rich experience. My mom said something interesting recently, that I overheard when she was talking to a friend. She said, ‘My children have never complained.’ And it’s true, I think having an experience like that in childhood where we didn’t even have a toilet meant that, no matter what the hospitality is like anywhere, I’m like ‘Awesome! Great! I love this. It’s a cup of water. I love water!”
That’s a healthy attitude when you’re playing indie-rock clubs.
Yeah, exactly. So then when we’re spoiled it’s just ridiculous, I’m like ‘Oh my God!’
The Guided by Voices connection
SC: Do you find with the addition of Doug Gillard, you’ve seen an influx of fans of one of his previous bands, Guided by Voices (Gillard was a member from 1996-2005)?
MC: I don’t know, I wonder. We probably have a little bit. His arrival in the band – I almost feel bad about it, it could’ve been a bigger splash, it should’ve been. It sort of became official slowly. I’d just met him when he played on If I Had a Hi-Fi, our covers record. I was a big fan of his playing and writing. He played on three songs, and literally within 11 minutes, whatever it took to listen to them, he became essential immediately. And so, on the following record, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (2012), he did a whole bunch of overdubs.
For this record, I’d been asking this for a long time. But bands are committees, and there are lawyers, accountants, and if you have an extra member you have to rewrite these contracts. For whatever reason, it was kind of a measured progression. But then finally for this record we really wanted to make an honest man of him and be a quartet from now on. And more importantly, we became a real quartet. We did all band practices together, we recorded the basic tracks together. What was really valuable about that was that he got to participate in those moments when I brought the song in for the first time. That was amazing because he’s the only guy in the band who has jazz skills, and I don’t mean jazz music, but, like, chops, like a jazz player he doesn’t have to hunt around with his fingers for whatever he’s hearing in his head. He can think it and play it immediately. What’s great about that is, the very first time I’m playing a song for him he can turn his immediate gut reaction into music on the spot. There’s something to that that’s different from how we mortals do it. It really helps in the arrangements.
Co-writes, and professional songwriting
SC: You co-wrote a couple of songs on the album with Dan Wilson (a Minneapolis singer/songwriter who had a hit with his band Semisonic with “Closing Time” in 1998 and has since gone on to write songs with Dixie Chicks and Adele). Would you ever want to do what he’s done, and become a professional songwriter?
MC: There’s a lot of reasons why that’s an interesting thing to do. One is that, if you have a bit more success, you can tour when you want to. I love touring but I can’t say that I want to do it half a year every year forever. I want to do it a bunch every year forever. Or, if I do do it for half a year, I’d like to be choosing to do it.
We’re going to do a lot on this record, and I have family. It’s a combination of things. I do feel that, after all these years, I have a social contract. If we make a few people happy and we can go out and make them happy again, I feel like I have to. I’ve been doing it this long. You don’t give someone a sandwich every day for two weeks and then just disappear. By making all those sandwiches you’ve kind of been making an accidental promise. So I’m going to keep bringing those sandwiches. But I also feel it’s like growing. A few years ago I think I would’ve been too embarrassed or too shy to make something up in front of somebody. But you only live once so you might as well push yourself a little bit.
SC: I love the crunchy rockers on the new album, but the ballad “Animal” is a pretty sweet song. It seems to hit on a theme that comes up a lot in your songs, which is the healing power of music.
MC: I think that’s in a bunch of songs, and will be in a bunch more. Just because that’s central to my life. And also, this is only tangentially related, but that song, like the title implies, is also about our animal selves. There’s a line in it, “I look for the sound of wind to put in my headphones.‘ Weirdly, that comes from Interstellar, the Matthew McConaughey movie. There’s a scene where he and another character are supposed to be frozen because they’re on a very long journey but they’re both up. One of them is listening to wind, or specifically the sound of a sailing ship at sea. And he says something like he’s listening to it to remind himself that he’s human in the middle of this great void. I was so struck by that. I was possibly in some kind of funk, a down period for a couple of months. I went through a lot of recordings and I found one of an hour-long wind storm. I started to listen to it on my iPod at home on headphones and it was really healing. Much like meditation brings you back to your physical body, or ideally back to the present, that’s what that sound did for me. It reminded me I’m not just a dude sitting on my computer in a dark room. I’m a person on a planet that has wind and rivers, and I have one life, and then there are these other people that you love and that you need to be in touch with. And you better get some work done and make sure you have shelter and food. It’s just a great reality check that I’m still into. I still put that recording on once in awhile.”
“Cold to See Clear”