Q&A With Nada Surf

Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws isn’t big on organized religion, but when the spirit does move him, it always has a soundtrack. And that soundtrack has come a long way over the last 16 years. You’d be hard-pressed to discern so much as a whiff of snarky 1996 hit “Popular” amid the bracing, impeccably crafted power pop the trio hammers out with breathless efficiency on its new release, The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy (Barsuk). The transportive power of music is something Caws touches on quite frequently on Astronomy—that is, when he can tear himself away from more pressing concerns for our fucked-up planet. Caws will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our Q&A with him below, and check out our cover story on Nada Surf in last month’s issue of MAGNET.

“Waiting For Something” (download):

MAGNET: How are the new songs translating live?
Caws: Great. We practiced them so much before recording, playing them how we would at a gig. So they all feel really natural.

I love the line “All I feel is transition, when do we get home?” from leadoff track “Clear Eye Clouded Mind.” It sort of sets the transient tone for the rest of the album.
It’s that feeling that you’re rehearsing for life instead of living it—of not having landed, of being after this and before that, and not ever really being. I’m a terrible time manager. I like to say I’m an early riser trapped in the body of late sleeper. I’m always late for things. I always feel like I’m doing a good thing when I’m early, like I’m paying people back for all those times I was late.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Whoever put that fist in the square must have been a good friend to the mayor”—from the new single, “Waiting For Something”—couldn’t be more off the wall.
[Laughs] There’s this one roundabout in this town in Spain, near where my parents bought a house. Maybe 10 years ago, all of sudden, there was this statue there. It looked like a fist; it was this amorphous thing—kind of offensive. And after a couple of years, it disappeared. A bunch of the guys in the town said, “We’re getting rid of this.”

When I first saw “Jules And Jim” on the track listing, I initially thought of the Pete Townshend track from Empty Glass—until I noticed the spelling was different.
I’ve never been in a physical love triangle, but I was in an emotional one once—twice, actually. The first one was a long time ago, and I don’t remember anything but being completely conflicted. The second one was more recent, and I felt like I understood everyone’s position—I’m Jules, I’m Jim, and I’m even Catherine, like in the movie. It’s that bad place where you’re so close, then she goes to sleep and you’re like, “Phew, I can drop the mask.” And underneath, you’re a mess.

Explain the continuing evolution of your vocals.
For years, I wasn’t very comfortable with the sound of my voice coming out of the speakers. It felt a little foreign to me—a little forced. But I’ve gotten used to hearing it and being in front of a microphone, which has definitely affected the sound. I’m more able to sing the way I do alone in my house.

Where Lucky was more expansive in mood, texture and tone, Astronomy is streamlined and succinct. Was that the intention all along—to keep things relatively straightforward?
We wanted the record to sound a little bit lush, but also relatively direct. We’re all big fans of the Ramones. Obviously, our record isn’t nearly as stripped-down, but there’s something about that straightforward approach that we kept in mind. That being said, there are overdubs on their records, too—they’re just incredibly discreet. We were hoping that, if the songs had enough momentum, we wouldn’t be as tempted to embellish. I’m glad to say that turned out to be true to a large degree.

Have you ever written anything with your seven-year-old son in mind?
Yeah, “Here Goes Something,” on Lucky. If you have kids, they’re your new “majesty.” They’re who you answer to, who you’re working for, and also who you love and admire.

Onetime Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard has really settled in as the unofficial fourth member of Nada Surf. His contributions on Astronomy are many and varied. What are your favorite Gillard moments on the new album?

That little figure he adds at the top of the second verse of “The Moon Is Calling.” We play the chords twice around before the vocals start again, and the second go-around, he adds a bell-like arpeggio that makes the song sound so much wider. I also love his choppy rhythm part on “Teenage Dreams.” I never would’ve thought of that. But that goes for all the parts he plays. He has a really unique musical mind. We’re beyond lucky to have him.

—Hobart Rowland

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