The rock trio Nada Surf experienced a collective epiphany as they rehearsed new songs for their ninth album, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy. The band, formed in New York City 20 years ago, realized it would be helpful to polish their new songs in practice before they attempted to record them in the studio.
“It’s embarrassing to have had this realization at my age, which is that having songs finished before you go into the studio is a really good idea,” the band’s lead singer and guitar player, Matthew Caws, said with a wry laugh during an interview with On Tap. “Yeah, that seems really obvious and we’d always meant to be totally ready before going into the studio but we hardly ever were. This time…we just stayed in the practice space until we had all the songs finished.”
The hard work is evident on the new, tightly-coiled rock record, as is the fact that Nada Surf has cranked up the “rock” quotient in their infectious, melodic music. The band hasn’t tinkered with its straight-ahead formula, but the new tunes are certainly more muscular than those on its last few records. The new sonic oomph is not an accident.
“We sort of got into this thing over the course of the last couple of albums where we would get a little careful in the studio,” Caws explained. “It was like ‘ok,…you garage rockers, you’re making an adult album here.’”
“Somehow we got careful and I guess we were afraid of running away with it or something, but in fact, this (the new record) is what we really sound like,” he added. “The mid-tempo thing, we’ve really done plenty of that. Now we’re going back to how we really like to play.”
The lead track, “Clear Eye Clouded Mind,” immediately sets the tone. The song comes roaring out of the speakers, all chiming guitars, crashing cymbals, and melodic but aggressive vocals. The pace hardly lets up until the eighth track, “Let the Fight Do the Fighting,” a mid-tempo, horn-inflected retrospective of the band’s teenage years.
Nada Surf, which formed in 1992, first rose to alternative rock prominence in the mid-1990s after they managed to get a copy of their early demo tape, Tafkans, into the hands of Ric Ocasek, lead singer of the legendary new wave band The Cars.
Nada Surf suggested Ocasek produce their first studio album but didn’t really expect it to happen. Three weeks later – as Nada Surf was negotiating a major-label deal with Elektra records, Ocasek called to say he wanted to produce them. High/Low became the band’s first studio record and as they toured with Superdrag in the summer of 1996, their song “Popular” became a summer anthem.
Nada Surf’s relationship with Elektra faltered, however, after its second record, The Proximity Effect, failed to generate commercial success. Elektra dropped them from its roster and the band’s profile in America dropped precipitously, although they remained popular in Europe. The band eventually ended up on the indie label Barsuk in 2002, where they’ve been ever since. Caws said in hindsight, their lack of appeal in America in the late 1990s was a blessing in disguise.
“In the states we kind of hit a big hiccup,” he recalled. “We got around on our first album and then disappeared for awhile. But it helped us maintain [popularity] in Europe and keep it unbroken and let us carry on.”
Meanwhile, Caws said Nada Surf is happy without the backing of – and interference from – a major record label.
“We’re much happier on an independent label than we ever were on major labels, that’s for sure, and we’re never going back,” he proclaimed.
What about the band’s name? What does Nada Surf mean? Caws said the musical group, which includes Ira Elliot on drums and Daniel Lorca on bass, is sometimes misconstrued as a surf rock band by people who haven’t heard them. Obviously, that’s not the case.
“It’s actually referring to something much more existential, it’s just surfing on nothing,” Caws has been quoted as saying. “Being lost in your head or in your imagination but you know, whenever I listen to music I always find myself off somewhere, somewhere in space. You know, in mental space and it’s a reference to that.”
That description also fits how Caws described the way Nada Surf recorded The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy. He said working out the arrangements – and nailing them cold – helps the live performance, as well as the recording.
“We’re not trying to do the two things at once – performing and analyzing [the songs] at the same time,” the bandleader explained. “We got used to arranging things on the fly and I think it did the band a disservice. Basically, this time I did my homework.
“You’re not thinking anymore, you’re just playing…you’re having fun and that’s the difference,” Caws said, again referring to the decision to hone songs to perfection before recording and touring. “There is more looseness to it. The shows we’ve been doing have been feeling really natural. We just played it the way we did it and it feels right.”
Caws seems to shrug when asked if any particular musical label that gets affixed to Nada Surf bothers him. The “power pop” label seems especially prevalent in reviews of the band’s latest record.
“I don’t mind it – it’s really out of my control,” he said. “I do feel like power pop as a term is kind of changing over the years. Not that I’m defending it, but it seems like when I was growing up, power pop was something very specific – almost like the Knack or something.
“Now it gets hitched up with bands like Teenage Fanclub and looking back, Big Star, and groups like that I am really proud to be lumped in with,” he added. “So, I’m really fine with it.”
Caws also riffed on the constant evolution of the terms critics have used to describe Nada Surf and other indie bands over the decades.
“If somebody in the grocery store sees me carrying a guitar case and asks me what kind of music I make, I’d hesitate and say ‘I guess it’s indie rock’,” he declares. “But before that it was alternative and before that college rock, and before that it was post-punk and before that it was punk and before that it was underground.”
“Emo is a hilarious term because it’s meant three or four things,” he added with a laugh.
Caws said Nada Surf’s relationship with Washington, DC – and especially the 9:30 Club where the band is set to play on April 10 – is longstanding. He recalled jaunts from New York to DC when he was a roadie for the band Winter Hours.
“I’m always really psyched to play there,” he said. “I also used to go down and see shows there sometimes. In 1986, I’d go to see Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians whenever they played on the East Coast.”
“We played the old room (at 930 F St. NW, DC) …before it moved,” he said. “It’s fantastic. DC has such an incredible musical history and I’m very honored to [play] there.”
Nada Surf will perform April 10th at 9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com