For the first time in its career, it's doing an anniversary tour, celebrating 15 years since its breakthrough third album, Let Go, was released. Frontman Matthew Caws vaguely remembers specifics about a Dallas show then. It was a good show at the Gypsy Tea Room although his guitar amp died that night. What he certainly remembers was the mindset he was in when he wrote the songs for the album.
Nada Surf could have become a forgotten band of the mid-1990s after an enormous hit on its debut album, High/Low. The tongue-in-cheek “Popular” was all over radio and MTV with its Weezer-like charm, but the song was anomalous to the rest of the band’s material. Songs like “Tree House” and “The Plan” were more of a college rock/punk rock hybrid in line with contemporaries such as Buffalo Tom, Superdrag and Dinosaur Jr.
When the band's label, Elektra, dropped it right before the release of its sophomore effort, The Proximity Effect, Caws and his bandmates, bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot, kept playing together, even when they had to take jobs to keep living and rehearsing in New York.
Since he graduated from college, Caws has worked and played in a band. He was no slacker.
“I never had a period where I could take it easy a little bit,” he says.
Caws had been a paralegal and a writer for Guitar World before the band took off but worked in a record store during the writing process for Let Go. He describes that time as a “happy period” in his life.
“I think we have a little bit of having a reputation for having sad songs, but I don’t think it’s true, really,” Caws says after a walk on a San Diego beach. “Although a lot of songs start from a sad perspective, they’re all trying to be celebratory or trying to feel better or trying to find a better path.”
Released by indie Barsuk Records in 2002, Let Go gave the band a new lifeline. It ushered it into the kind of career the band members always wanted to have.
“I have no philosophical objections to major labels at all,” Caws says. “But I knew from the beginning that we belonged on an independent one because I don’t think we make widely commercial music in the real world.”
A new audience that connected to songs like “Happy Kid,” “Inside of Love” and “Blonde on Blonde” embraced the band known for one hit. People saw themselves in lyrics like, “I'm just a happy kid/Stuck with the heart of a sad punk.” It was music for optimists who were surrounded by all sorts of reasons to not be optimistic.
“I have no philosophical objections to major labels at all. But I knew from the beginning that we belonged on an independent one because I don’t think we make widely-commercial music in the real world.” – Matthew Caws
Thanks to the success of the album, the band has maintained a sustaining career. Four proper albums, a couple of live records and two compilations later, it's at a steady pace of recording and touring. The band added guitarist Doug Gillard to the fold in 2010, beefing up its live sound. (Gillard has a North Texas tie — his niece is Denton’s heralded singer-songwriter Claire Morales.)
In addition to playing the Let Go album live on this tour, Caws is happy there’s a tribute album to Let Go by other artists, with all proceeds going to charity. Standing at the Gates features Dallas’ the Texas Gentlemen tackling “Inside of Love,” along with contributions from Manchester Orchestra, Rogue Wave and Aimee Mann.
Caws hopes to record some new Nada Surf material by the end of the year. For now, it’s about celebrating the album that helped the band get where it is. Connecting with an audience in an intimate way makes Caws believe that writing songs and playing in a band are useful to people.
“It makes me feel good that I’m not just indulging in my favorite hobby,” he says.
Nada Surf plays Thursday at the Granada Theater. Tickets start at $24.