The Art of Doing Nada
"Everyone else who gets the one-hit-wonder tag had real hits," chuckles Nada Surf frontman and principle songwriter Matthew Caws.
Of course, he's referring to the New York-based group's 1996 video for the appropriately titled song "Popular" off the band's debut album, High/Low. With its slow-creeping guitar line, loud/soft alterna-rock crunch, and increasingly frantic spoken vocal (not to mention the song's vague but undeniable resemblance to Weezer), the video became a minor sensation on MTV. But the band barely noticed.
"It probably seemed like a bigger deal to everybody else because we were on the road the whole time," Caws says. "If you're working, you're not just hanging around the house with your friends saying 'Oh gee, it's on TV again.' You just hear that it's on all the time. I think the transition [the band made from then till now] seems much bigger from the outside, because on the inside, it wasn't that big of a deal to begin with."
Caws is quick to point out that the album and even the song didn't sell much — which, ironically, may have worked in the band's favor. Since the band's second album, 1998's The Proximity Effect, failed to meet the expectations of then-label Elektra, Nada Surf has been able to sustain a more viable career on indie imprint Barsuk, with which the band maintains a good working relationship and has released its past three albums, including the latest, Lucky, which came out earlier this year.
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Much like the rest of the band's recent work, Lucky shows Caws and his bandmates, bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot, stirring up dreamy dust clouds of ear-pleasing pop music. By the third track, "Beautiful Beat," the band achieves the very sensation that Caws originally named the band after while distracting himself with music at an overnight banking job he hated: a sensation of floating freely and pleasantly in nothing.
To a backdrop of shimmying guitars, lush strings, and beautifully layered vocal harmonies, Caws sings "beautiful beat, get me out of this mess... lift me up from distress." From there, the album proceeds mostly at an unassuming pace which shows these guys aren't demanding much of you, but are still creating an imaginary realm you can get to only via their music.
"With all of the records I like," Caws explains, "it's like entering into the world of that record. It's something that has things in common with the real world but is also just an impression. You know, you don't imagine Steppenwolf hang-gliding in North Carolina or something. You imagine them on motorcycles. The world that they've painted is one where they're always wearing leather. And the Pixies' world is outer space; a lot of it's random, kind of funny, weird, totally sexual. They've got their own thing."
And if you could sum up Nada Surf's "thing" in a nutshell, it might be daydreaming. Even when the band is writing about difficult subjects like breakups and lost love, it clearly wants you to be happy as you listen along. And that makes sense, considering Caws writes music with the overt intention of making himself happy.
"Every song I write is born from the same kind of mood," Caws explains. "And that mood can fit no matter what's going on in everyday life, whether it's single parenthood, being at home, or love."
A regretful mood, perhaps?
"Sure," he answers. "Or any kind of mood that makes one need peace enough to try and create or work on something and pick up a guitar."
As easy as Nada Surf is to listen to, the music nonetheless contains recurring themes that reflect Caws' anxieties (and lack thereof) with motivation. Even the titles of the previous two albums — Let Go and The Weight Is a Gift — practically telegraph Caws and the band's go-with-the-flow attitude.
"From the outside," Caws offers, "it looks like these totally distinct chunks of 12 songs each, whereas in reality, you just keep writing. Our albums aren't ever made thematically. All the themes that are in them show up now and again."
Since averting one-hit status, life for the band has gotten strangely easier.
"It all happened really easily," he recalls. "It took a long time, but there wasn't a particular struggle. It was depressing to have the second record not be welcomed as warmly. But aside from that, we just did what we did. It was probably good, in a way, to have something go wrong, to have a forced three years off. That was kind of a luxury."
While the band had a clear understanding of where it was professionally, its fans didn't always get it. But the group's longevity has a lot to do with its easy-does-it attitude.
"We get asked, 'Did you think of breaking up?' a lot," he laughs, "and the stock answer is, 'Well, we're really good friends, and we live near each other,' but actually, one of the real answers is laziness. Because if I hadn't been lazy, then I probably should have lost motivation to do the band and said, 'I've got to do something else.' "
At 40, Caws says that being able to live at a slower pace in his 30s came as a welcome change from the days when Nada Surf were more actively pursuing success.
"It was a lot of free time," he explains, "but I wasn't tempted enough to think of having another career or go to grad school or something. I thought, 'Well, the band will be too busy to have a real job, so I'll just go work in a record store.' I had a great time for three years. It was like having a second childhood — or teenhood or post-collegehood."
Of course, the members of Nada Surf eventually got back to work, but they still like daydreaming on the job.
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