Matthew Caws cops to being the type of person who's always wired, so perhaps it's a good thing that the Nada Surf vocalist-guitarist is discussing the state of his band while walking to the gym--presumably so he can burn off some of this nervous energy. But there's also something really charming about other byproducts of his hyperactivity; namely, a rambling, confessional discussion and a deft ability to crack himself up with jokes.
"I think the nose is one of the funniest parts of the body," Caws announces. "I've had these conversations with Ira [Elliot, drummer] lately. Funniest day of the week? It's Tuesday! Toos-day! It's just funny!" He laughs. "The funniest food? Soup. Funniest article of clothing? Pants."
Caws may giggle like a joyous kid on a Sesame Street binge now, but it's obvious he wasn't having much fun when writing lyrics for the New York City trio's fourth (and best) album, The Weight Is a Gift. Although it possesses a stubbornly optimistic core, Gift more often rumbles with varying degrees of betrayal, deception and heartache that sound like rather painful therapy sessions. Bolstered by the plush production of Chris Walla (Caws describes him as "nuts in a fantastic way, a mad scientist way, the Brian Eno way"), the melodic music is just as bittersweet, driven by sugary power-pop chords and fuzz-rock catharses that often spiral into wistfulness.
Nada Surf performs at the Gypsy Tea Room on Friday, February 17, with Rogue Wave.
"I feel like it's fairly obvious on this record that I went through some trauma," Caws says. "It's personal stuff, family stuff. It's pretty much exactly my real life. But there's more metaphor on this record. It's maybe one level further away from real life than most of the songs I usually write are, 'cause it's all basically diary entries to music.
"I feel guilty, because I let it out enough to sort of comfort myself. If I air my dirty laundry in such a metaphorically removed way, I get the joy of sharing and the alleviation I get from sharing. But I never really open up. It's like being noncommittal in a relationship. I've been noncommittal in the relationship with the listener. But I did open up all I could."
His fretful analysis and insecurity might come from what Caws considered pressure to produce something as good as 2002's Let Go, the album that freed them from one-hit-wonder status. But perhaps his second-guessing also has something to do with Nada Surf's introduction to the record business. Their Ric Ocasek-produced debut album on Elektra, 1996's high/low, spawned the aforementioned albatross, the scathing high-school-satire "Popular." But just two years later this same label refused to release a darker but equally stellar follow-up, The Proximity Effect, and Nada Surf found itself without a U.S. record deal.
Released in Europe on time (and stateside by the band in 2000), Effect at least kept the band on the indie-rock radar. So when Nada Surf finally recorded Let Go, it seemed a natural fit to put it out on the Seattle-based indie label Barsuk (Death Cab for Cutie's former home). While being on a smaller label naturally meant scaled-back expectations, if Go did underperform, this time the band no longer had anyone but themselves to blame.
"All that we had riding on it was our own happiness and reputations, which was enough," Caws says. "That's a lot! Every record is crazy important; it's insane. You can't even think about it, it would make you go nuts. The quality of the records will dictate the quality of my life. Isn't that insane? Those are pop songs! I mean, it's ridiculous!"
The unconditional support of their fans, especially online (e.g. nadasurfan.com, a Web site with a mind-boggling array of live sound files and covers), helped sustain Caws during the post-low, pre-Go "dark ages"--a time when he worked in a Brooklyn record store and basically forgot he was in a band people clamored to hear. Yet what kept Nada Surf chugging along even more was the close relationship Caws has with his bandmates, especially the "brother solid" bond he has with bassist Daniel Lorca, with whom he's been friends for 23 years.
"It was always there, which has really been invaluable over the years," Caws says of Nada Surf's closeness. "It was a constancy that we had with each other. I'm not married yet--and actually at the moment I'm single--but once in a while I've worried about, like 'Am I able to settle down, am I able to be in a completely selfless, committed relationship?'
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"Absolutely. You know why? In those moments I think, 'Well, I do know what it's like to really commit and put in the work, because I do it in my musical life.' There is definitely a kind of 'till death do us part' feeling in the band. Maybe it's one of the reasons you don't break up the band. It was the most constant thing in our lives, even if it seemed kind of like it was a roller coaster from the outside--from complete obscurity to all over television. From the inside, it's never moved."
Caws found this rock-solid support invaluable during the recording of Gift, when his scattered nature caused him to fall behind in his songwriting duties. He started "like, 9 million pieces of music" and finished very few but maintained his inspiration due to Nada Surf's unwavering chemistry.
"Here I am, living in a house in San Francisco, we were like a commune for three weeks or a month," he says. "And we're totally kicking ass, we're sounding good--OK, I haven't written quite enough songs. I was a little bit behind the eight-ball 'cause I've had a lot of energy but was really unfocused.
"And here we are in the studio having such a great time. It felt so empowering. That's where a lot of the joy on the record comes from. Things like 'Blankest Year,' to me it's a very celebratory song--even if it is, like, 'Blankest year, blah, blah, blah, lies.' It's got some NC-17 in it for sure. But the spirit of it--'Oh fuck it, I'm going to have a party'--comes from the family feeling."