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Rank Your Records: Matthew Caws Orders Nada Surf’s Records

With seven albums under their belts, the band is so much more than their unlikely MTV hit, "Popular."

by Cam Lindsay
Dec 10 2015, 4:20pm

In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

Ranking records can be an impossible mission for some musicians. Some find it to be the equivalent of picking between children, while others simply just don’t know what their favorite is. Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws initially bypassed the challenge and left it in the hands of his fans, asking for their ranking on the band’s Facebook page. The response to his request was pretty overwhelming, and even inspired one statistic-loving Surfer to collect all of the rankings and break them down to determine the fan favorite (it was Let Go, by the way).

“It was amazing,” says Caws. “I felt really good about what came out of it and we have kind of agreed with most of it. It was really moving to see how well people knew all of the records, and to just jump in with an opinion. Deciding on the first two is what made me turn to other people because I couldn’t decide between Let Go and The Weight Is A Gift as my favorite.”

Well, Noisey forced Caws to sit down and, over the course of 90 minutes, decide among the band’s seven albums. There was number switching and some humming and hawing, as expected, because since the late 90s, these New Yorkers have been one of indie rock’s most consistent bands for heartstring-tugging pop songs. Well, that is if you discount the guitar-heavy alt-rock of their 1996 debut album, High/Low, which birthed a very unlikely MTV Buzz Bin hit in “Popular” and hardly sounds like anything they did afterwards. But from 1998’s The Proximity Effect and beyond, Nada Surf carved themselves a very special niche they co-owned along with former Barsuk labelmates Death Cab For Cutie and the Weakerthans.

Of course, Caws already feels the band’s next, yet-to-be-titled album (coming “soon-ish”) is already primed to take the top spot. But then again he’s been wrong before. When he spoke to Interview Magazine last year, he ended up selecting the band’s most recent album, 2012’s The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, as his favorite at the time. “I think it’s probably because it was closer to that release at the time,” he says. “But then our new one, I’m really excited about the songs on it. I’m a little embarrassed I said that in the interview because I’m now wary that our new record is the best.”

7. If I Had A Hi-Fi (2010)

Noisey: So why is this your least favorite?
Matthew Caws:
It’s our covers record and kind of a technicality. The experience of making it was one of the most fun, but we play the least songs from it live. These days it’s zero. Our friend Louie Lino has played keyboards on a lot of our records and has toured with us before, and we wanted him to come on a particular European tour and he couldn’t really afford to. He had to keep working in his studio, which is Resonate in Austin, Texas. So we said, “What if we made a covers record down at your studio?” I should add that his studio is not struggling and he’s doing quite well now. So he said yes, and it was a way of taking a little break.

6. High/Low (1996)

Our first album. We don’t play that many of these songs either. I still have affection for that period though. It was an exciting time. I was in a band called Because Because Because and we’d almost had some success but we broke up. We were pretty ambitious and there was a lot of networking, which was a thing in the early 90s when all of these alternative bands were being signed, and we were really focused on that but I didn’t really enjoy the experience. I wasn’t feeling that great about the band, so I quit and then Daniel quit. I kind of wanted to do my own thing, but I had a friend who said, “You can’t do that, you’re not a strong enough singer to be the main guy. You’re just not good enough.” But I wanted to do it anyway. It was very low ambition. I started working at Guitar World as an assistant editor, and could pay my rent with what I earned, and I could ride my bike to work—life was good! I just wanted to be in a band for fun, and so did Daniel. So these songs were written in a good environment.

I feel like a lot of this album doesn’t sound like the band that Nada Surf is today.
Yeah. And what’s weird is that I feel like I sound like a different singer. Better or worse, I have no idea. I just sound like a different person. I was a huge, huge Chavez fan, they were the Beatles for me. And I think that influenced the stop-starting, the loud-quiet dramatics we were practicing in our rehearsal space. Versus had the room downstairs, and that was mega success to me. And we’d hear them practicing and think it was so cool. They were a weird, through-the-floor influence.

It must have been cool to work with a legend like Ric Ocasek.
Oh my god! Good lord! That whole process with how we ended up with him was such a fairy tale. Our first drummer Aaron Conte had moved on and Daniel and I had been such a big fan of the Fuzztones. So right as Ira [Elliot] was about to become a singer-songwriter, because he was getting sick of playing drums, we got him to join the band. And all of a sudden it felt like we needed to get serious if we were going to hold on to him. So I started to carry a demo tape in my pocket, which was a whole album we’d made for this Spanish label called Roto. We’d made a 45 with my friend Joe Hobaica for his label Stickboy, and Daniel brought that to Spain and this label wanted us to make a record, so we did. Aaron was working nights at the Power Station, so he got some free time for us to record 19 songs. And we put a cover together and sent it to Spain, and they were like, “Great! Actually, we’d like to put this out for the world.” And though we had relatively low ambition, we still had enough real world sense to say, “Well, you can’t have it for the world. You don’t have any American distribution.” And they said they could get some, but it just felt wrong. So we pulled out with a pretty much finished record, and I was trying to convince myself to give it to someone.

One day I was sitting on the subway next to Mitch Easter, but he just seemed so peaceful reading the paper so I didn’t want to bother him. Then years later I finally met him and told him, and he said, “You chose the other fork in the road, man! Who knows what would have happened?” So then I went to see a friend’s band at the Knitting Factory and when I was leaving Ric Ocasek walked in and of course I am a huge Cars fan, and I love that first Weezer album, and so I walked up to him and said, “Sorry to bother you, but I’m in this band and I have a tape.” And he was so nice and gracious, and said he’d give it a listen. So I kind of went out to dinner on that for two weeks, like, “You’ll never guess who I gave my demo tape to!” I never thought in a million years he’d call. And my roommate Michael told me one day to listen to the answering machine and it was Ric leaving me his phone number. So I called him and he invited me over to his house, about 20 blocks north of me. I biked over, and it’s funny because I locked my bike to nothing. It was still there when I left, but that’s how in space I was. Anyway, I went and there was a funny moment—which I’ve said before—where I was sitting next to Paulina [Porizkova, Ocasek’s wife] at the kitchen table while Ric was making coffee for us, and she said, “He really likes your phrasing!” So we went down to his basement studio and talked, and he asked, “What is this tape?” And I said, “It’s a record we made, but maybe we’ll re-record it with our new drummer.” And he said, “I think you can put it out the way it is. It’s great. But if you ever want to record these songs again I want to produce it and I won’t charge much.” And then he asked if we were signed, and we weren’t, so he said to stay in touch. It was great! It was the first time from the outside world where someone said what we were doing was good. So two weeks later we played a show at this small venue called Rebar, and this guy Bobby McKane, who worked at a record label called Number 6, came up to me afterwards. I knew the label because they’d put out a Dean Wareham single, but also Unrest’s Imperial f.f.r.r., which I loved. So I gave him a tape and he called me the next day and said, “I listened to the tape and liked it. But I also work at Elektra and played the tape for his boss, and he wants to meet you today.” So we went there and they offered us a deal on the spot. And there was a funny moment where they said, “If you do sign with us do you have an idea of someone to produce your record?” And we said, “Oh yeah, Ric Ocasek!” And they were like, “Well, yeah, if you can get him.” And we already had him!

Really, I’d wanted to be on Matador because so many of my favorite bands were on that label. Merge also. But I had sent tapes there and we didn’t hear anything, which is no surprise. We didn’t really have anything going on. I don’t think it often goes that way. So we went to Ric and told him about Elektra, and asked what we should do. And he said, “Well, the Cars were on Elektra and we had a pretty good time. But let me make some calls.” So he got a hold of Maverick and they flew us out to LA. And we met with Guy Oseary [who manages Madonna, U2 and Amy Schumer], an A&R guy and Freddy DeMann, who used to manage Michael Jackson. So we had a meeting with them and pulled out copies of every record Elektra released that year, and it was a teetering stack of CDs, and then he pulled out a stack of their CDs, which was a lot smaller. So that was pretty compelling. My sister’s program director at college radio was this guy Jeff Weiss, who was at Warner Bros., and I asked him for advice, telling him about Elektra and Maverick, and how we always wanted to be on an independent label, but that wasn’t really happening. We felt silly turning down the offers but we were scared to take them. So he asked for a tape, and then he offered to put it out on Warner Bros., if I’m not mistaken. But in the end we were overwhelmed and just went with Elektra, the first offer. And everything happened really fast after that.

We made that record with Ric over 19 days. We worked short days, because he thought it was diminishing returns after seven or eight o’clock. But it was really great. We knew the songs really well, and Ric was quick. He’d often use the first take. So yeah, it was kind of an overwhelming experience to go from not a lot going on to making a record at Electric Lady. Then we hit the road, and that was weird too. Most people only knew “Popular,” and there was a feeling like it had connected with two very different audiences: the misfits and then the jocks.

In an interview you did back then you said, “People come to see the band live expecting the band to be funny and we're not.” Do you think “Popular” was a bit misleading for listeners?
Yeah, a little bit. I don’t think it was a wrong choice. A label is going to go for the most commercial thing on the album. It’s not like I don’t try to write funny songs, I just don’t finish them. Or it’s not like I don’t try big concepts, it just feels like a goof and give up. There’s an interesting story to what I thought that song would sound like. I wanted something like “The Gift ” by the Velvet Underground, where there is a story on one side and a song on the other, or this Pavement song where there is a lot of talking on both sides. So what I had in mind was this kind of arty piece where there would be a male voice on one side and a female voice on the other side reading out of this book, Penny's Guide to Teen-Age Charm and Popularity, which I bought at a Goodwill for 25 cents. I was playing around with my four-track, and I’d come up with something that was kind of a Sonic Youth-y, dissonant verse, and I was reading this book and it was so ridiculous. A lot of the lyrics were lifted straight from the book, or close to it. So I wrote a chorus from the point of view of someone who saw high school strategically, and at early shows we had friends read a little from the book for us. And I did a little of that while we were recording and my friend Catherine did the same. And so Bryce Goggin was mixing demos and he asked me what was going on with that song, and I said, “My voice on the left really low, and her voice on the right really low, so you can’t hear any of the words.” And then he was like, “Well, check this out,” and put my voice in the middle, turns hers off, and cranks mine way up. I immediately panicked, and then he pushed the fader down, and after a while said, “I think that is a pop song.” I’d never heard it that way, and I never intended it to be that way, but he totally convinced me. It’s a lot gutsier than what I’d been going for, but I credit him with turning it from an abstract song to a pop song.

5. The Proximity Effect (1998)

This album was released first on Elektra in 1998 and then on your own label MarDev on 2000. What happened?
It came out on Elektra and then we were dropped. But it never came out in the States. It was pulled off of the shelves because the Americans had decided that there was no radio single. They’d already convinced us to record a version of this song called “Why Are You So Mean To Me?” by the Vitreous Humour, and I love that song and could see that it should have been a hit. But our version was not as good as the original and I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t get the market-testing reaction that they’d wanted. And then they asked us to go back into the studio and try some more, but by that time we’d already thought it was a good record and that it had some hits on it, “Hyperspace” in particular. So we said no. I didn’t think they’d then drop it. I just thought they would put it out and not get behind it. So I was surprised by that and pretty hurt, but not enough to say yes to them. So we just sat around waiting to get the rights back so we could release it ourselves, but that took quite a while.

It was certainly a luxurious record to make. We spent a fortune on it, recording at a bunch of different studios. And we had a lot to prove because our first record was kind of a fluke. Even getting signed was a fluke. The success of “Popular” sure seemed like a fluke. High/Low didn’t do as well as the single, and the single didn’t do as well as the video. “Popular” was supposed to come out as a certain date as a single, but it was sort of pre-released on a CMJ compilation, and that ended up on KROQ, and then all kinds of stations picked it up. So it was all over the radio before the video was out. And then the video did way better than anyone expected way before the album came out. So I believe those first two months, when it was the most played video on MTV, the record wasn’t in stores. And then by the time it was in stores it was slipping down the playlist. So the impression of that video was way bigger than the record. And all of this is to say that kind of contributed to the pressure on The Proximity Effect. The label saw that we had this enormous commercial potential, when in fact, I was this quirkier and still am a quirkier songwriter than that expectation of potential would require. And I think I felt that. So while making this record our A&R guy would get on the phone with us and say, “I love your songs but you’ve really got to deliver a hit or we’ll be dying on the vine.” And that doesn’t really help. It’s not something you want to hear.

But we made this record with Fred Maher, a great producer who made Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend and Luna’s first album, Lunapark, which I really loved, and Lou Reed’s New York album. He’s a great idea guy and we went all the way with this album, chasing whatever guitar tones we wanted and spending a long time on it. I think it’s a secret favorite for a certain kind of Nada Surf fan, like the fans who like our loudest music. I saw the Foo Fighters last night in Cologne, Germany, and I think that’s what some of our French fan in particular, and maybe our Spanish fans wanted us to turn into. Maybe a more emotional version of that big super rock.

So there was a period there where the album was done but it had been pulled. What were you doing?
We just had to wait to get the rights back, which happened in 2000. But even though things had gone downhill, we still played shows where the audience was very enthusiastic and we were still getting letters and emails from people who loved the first two records. And I sort of still felt there was something to still do in music. I started working at a record store called Earwax and my rent was really low, but I could afford to get by. I was having this post-college experience that I didn’t have after college when I was living in Manhattan working a stressful job at an investment bank and my rent was high. Here I was living in the early period of Williamsburg, when it was less crowded and cheaper, and I had a great life. I felt like I should maybe go back to a magazine or try journalism school to get a serious job, but I knew we might go on tour, so it would be dishonest to get a career job. So I just hung out working at the store listening to music and trading up for new equipment. I was maybe in denial about time going by, but I wasn’t in a real hurry to work on the next record since we were still waiting to figure out how to release The Proximity Effect. If a song came to me I’d go home and work on it, but I didn’t feel a lot of pressure. And so the songs on Let Go were written over this nice two-to-three year period, which contributed to it being a really strong set of songs.

4. The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy (2012)

This is a surprising choice considering what you told Interview
Dropping three spots from last year, apparently! [Laughs] I’m actually surprised that I said this was my favorite. I’m gonna have to go back and read that interview. To finish a record is an exercise in confidence, but that this was my first choice last year is problematic. But anyway, this record was a reaction to how long the previous one had taken. Lucky was over two long sessions instead of one, because I was finishing a lot of the songs in the studio. While, that was an experience I love, because the longer I can be there the better, it’s not fiscally sound and it’s also a little frustrating for some other people who are waiting for the record to be done, or have had to change their schedule to fit ours. So for this one, we rehearsed a long time and got our act together and make it quick with Chris Shaw, who’s amazing and very fast. You can do a rough take with him and then go into the control room and it already sounds like an album. He always has his eyes on the final result. And we made it at a studio called Headgear in New York, which is just a few blocks from Daniel’s apartment, which essentially was our practice space. We literally rolled the amps down the street. These are some of our favorite songs to play live.

Also, I want to add that this album is the first one that Doug Gillard is all over. And he’s now an official member of the band. It’s such an incredible enrichment and a natural step up. Doug is someone I’ve long admired on guitar, he’s so great. So we were friends of friends, and I went to see Bob Mould at Irving Plaza, and he came up to me and said he’d love to do something together. We were sharing our enthusiasm for James Honeyman-Scott, the guitarist for the Pretenders, and his way of playing intricate parts that are catchy and how he’s a hook machine. And so Doug came in and played on some of If I Had A Hi-Fi, and then I just felt I could never play without him again. He’s all over The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy playing so many incredible parts. I think that’s maybe why we play so many of these songs live. And now our new album is the first one that he’s fully participated in, with the arrangements and the first takes. But to have him involved in the arrangements was incredible, because I could hear the hooks he was adding and know if a song was finished or not.

You’ve admitted this album was an attempt to sound like the live version of Nada Surf.
That’s right, and the reason why it is a fast-ish record. We’ve learned over the years that we not only have an instinct to play fast live just by being over-excited, but also have an instinct to play slow in the studio because maybe when there aren’t people in front of you your energy is a bit lower. But I think it was more about noticing how different it was listening to our records later on. We just decided to speed things up now rather than later. And also when we practice, we’re in a comfy apartment with these couches where we can mellow. So I consciously stood up for all of the writing and practicing of that record. I felt more active I guess.

Your dad inspired the title of that album, correct?
Yeah, my dad very recently retired as a philosophy professor at George Washington University, and that’s something he used to say to classes: “The stars are indifferent to astronomy,” as a commentary to human hubris and how we think the sun revolves around us. The fact is that these planets we’ve named don’t care about being named, and they don’t know it because they’re just these giant things out there. Way bigger than the Earth, and even bigger than our ideas. It’s very striking. And also nice to get in something that your parents do.

3. Lucky (2008)

I sometimes think this is our best record. I feel really good about a lot of the songs on this record still. We made it with John Goodmanson, who had mixed two songs on The Weight Is A Gift: “Do It Again” and “What Is Your Secret.” And I absolutely loved the way they sounded. So we went to Seattle and set up shop at Robert Lang Studios. Like I said, we went there twice when we should have only gone twice, because I was finishing these songs in the moment. I wrote down one of the verses to “See These Bones” about ten minutes before recording the vocal. But yeah, I really love this record. I don’t know what to say. “The Film Did Not Go 'Round,” was written by Greg Peterson, and “The Fox” we rarely play. But those other nine songs we can play any night. It’s got a lot of guests I’ve forgotten about (Juliana Hatfield, Ben Gibbard, Ed Harcourt, Sean Nelson).

You’ve said this was a heavy record to make.
It’s lyrically heavy. I was going through some tumultuous times in my personal life and was struggling. I was looking for comfort in songwriting, which I always do, but I think maybe I needed more comfort than usual. And also I have a child and he was just starting to grow up, and “Here Goes Something” was about that, how you feel that change in you when you become responsible for somebody else. And how beautiful and heavy that is, because you want them to have a happy life and do their best. There’s a line in that song “your majesty,” which is a reference to that center and how you’re the most important person in your life until you have a child. And then it feels like that center moves out of you, and then in a way you’re serving them. And it’s “your majesty” in that regard and in seeing a life start. It’s a majestic, literally awesome thing to be a part of. So it was about me going through some struggles but also about family. “Ice On The Wing” is about my maternal grandfather and my father, and what their lives were like, and how it made me think about my own life. My grandfather was a fighter pilot in the first World War, and after the war he joined an expatriate squadron fighting the Bolsheviks for Poland in 1919. It was a squadron that was started by his friend Marion Cooper, who went on to produce King Kong. And he was a test pilot. And in the second World War, he dyed his hair and lied about his age, and bought an ambulance so he could get into the army when he was actually too old to do it. He was just a very extraordinarily brave person with these amazing stories. He was shot down behind enemy lines and crashed into a tree, which saved his life. He fell down to the ground and discovered he was in quicksand. And then he started kicking, which you aren’t supposed to do, but as he was kicking his foot struck a root and he was able to leverage himself out. And then my father was born into a fundamentalist Christian sect in London, and they were anti-modernist, so they didn’t read the paper or listen to the radio. He was born in 1931, and during the London bombings this sect didn’t go into shelters because if it’s God’s will, etc. So that song’s vaguely about family mathematics: how you are your mom plus your dad, and so on.

2. The Weight Is A Gift (2005)

So why is this your second favorite?
This was hard choosing because it was almost like making a second record again. Because your first album, you get noticed. Second album, alright we’ve noticed you, do something good again and prove your worth. But Let Go was like a second start for us because it found a new audience and it was this first slightly more public impression that we had good songs. So I had to deliver another batch pretty quick. With Let Go we felt very appreciated and maybe it shows in the songs on this album. And working with Chris Walla, who had mixed some songs on Let Go. So he was a little intimidating because Death Cab worked really hard and had their act together. We hadn’t really finished arranging a lot of these songs and we were hoping, as with our previous studio experiences it would take a few days to get up and running, so I could fine-tune what was missing, and he was ready in just a couple of hours. [Laughs] He was just waiting for us, while we weren’t always sure what to do. At one point he was frustrated with how slowly we were getting it together, and one night I came back to the studio to get my bag and he was in there working, and pulled the faders when I walked in, acting secretive. And the next day when we came we see a note saying he was gonna be a few hours late, along with a CD containing a song about us that he’d written, recorded and mixed it that evening. I think the message was, “Dudes, this is how fast you can do shit.” [Laughs] I really picked up the pace after that.

So yeah, the songs were written at a pretty intense point in my life. It was post-Let Go touring, which was a big life change to have that album do well and us tour so much. I think a lot of promoters weren’t sure if we had an audience, so we did a lot of touring where we were underpaid. And then a lot of people showed up, and then in order to pay our bills we had to do it all over again and get paid correctly.

I think of this album as the time you appeared on One Tree Hill.
That’s right! [Laughs] It was filmed in my mother’s hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina. And my dear Aunt Peg taught me to play my first chords on the guitar and gave me my first guitar, was in the back of the studio watching.

You seem to play a lot of these songs live.
I think we play more songs live from Lucky, than off this. But I have a lot of favorites on this record. Certainly “Do It Again, “Always Love,” and “What Is Your Secret,” and then “Blankest Year” has turned into our show closer. It’s a fun song. But yeah, I love the sounds on this one.

1. Let Go (2002)

For me this was the album where I rediscovered Nada Surf. Do you think that’s how a lot of people feel?
Yeah, I think so. Something notable is that Josh Rosenfeld at Barsuk and Jeff Barrett at Heavenly, both had never heard “Popular.” Not only when they signed us, but even a few years later. Maybe they just heard a tape of this record and later on became a point of pride? I have no idea. But yeah, it was definitely a rebirth in a lot of ways. With Let Go, we were a band finding our feet and our sound. And with The Weight Is A Gift, we had already found it. We were a band figuring out what we wanted to do or a band that knew what we wanted to do. That was the difference to me.

So why is it your favorite?
I just feel strongly about all of these songs. I’ve already said some things about it. We had a lot of time to write and led a low-stress, easy life. And really I discovered a lot of new music at the record store. Also taking those quieter moments off The Proximity Effect and using them as a jumping off point to explore playing softer and slower. And you would think that is an easy thing to do, but we were always this loud and fast garage band and I get so excited playing this music, which kept things amped up for a long time. So relaxing into songs like “Neither Heaven nor Space” and “Blonde On Blonde” was really exciting, like discovering a whole new side to writing and to playing. I always liked all kinds of music, but I just didn’t have the peace to do it.

Is it true that you paid for this album with $1 and $5 bills?
Yeah, it’s true! We toured from the east coast to the west coast to work with Fred Maher again, and we were scraping together money to make this record because we had no label support. So along the tour we encouraged people to buy T-shirts and CDs so we could make another album. And we paid for the recording in small bills, which was the merch money. It was a big stack of not very much. And Fred was supposed to make this record but he was offered a job to produce a Korn album that cost a fortune to make. One of his jobs was auto-tuning the bass. So he didn’t do this album, and there wasn’t really a producer. Chris Fudurich was the engineer on The Proximity Effect did it again, but there was really nobody at the helm. I hustled a lot of it, got some favors here and there, and it was mixed by all kinds of people. I was walking around with it on a hard drive going from studio to studio in New York looking for cheap time.

Cam Lindsay's mom says he's a catch and he's popular on Twitter - @yasdnilmac

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