From The Desk Of Bird Of Youth’s Beth Wawerna: Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws On Small Things I’ve Liked About Some Guitar Players

Bird Of Youth has no business being this good. Really. If writing and recording a really beautiful album was as easy as Beth Wawerna and her crew made it look, wouldn’t everyone do it? That’s sort of the story here. For most of her decade in New York, Wawerna was, in the words of her pal Timothy Bracy, “the consummate green-room insider.” Her background in journalism and her unerring taste had led to a number of indie-rock acquaintances who eventually became friends. It sounds like a pretty good time, hanging out in Brooklyn with the Mendoza Line’s Bracy and Pete Hoffman, Will Sheff of Okkervil River, Carl Newman, Charles Bissell of the Wrens, Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws and others. But it turned out Wawerna had a secret stash of her own songs, which she’d worked on and demo’d and never, ever let anyone hear. Eventually, she decided it was time to set those songs free. Her pals not only liked them, they helped her form a crack band—guitarist par excellence Clint Newman, drummer Ray Ketchem, bassist Johnny North, keyboardist Eli Thomas and accordion player Elizabeth Bracy Nelson—and recorded them. Sheff and Phil Palazzolo (New Pornographers, Ted Leo) produced. Bissell contributed a terrific guitar lead on one song. Caws sang. Members of Okkervil River and the National played. The finished album, Defender, was released in May, just in time to give your summer a worthy soundtrack. Wawerna and Clint Newman will be guest editing all week, and once a day, Wawerna is having one of her famous friends guest blog. Read our brand new Q&A with her.

Matthew Caws is the frontman of Nada Surf.

Caws: These are 14 small things I’ve liked about some guitar players.

1. When I was 16, my older sister Hilary got me into the Soft Boys, and I became a devoted fan. Robyn Hitchcock was touring a lot with the Egyptians at the time, and I went to see them whenever I could. When he plays, Robyn does this crazy thing where his fingers kind of flit around wildly above the fretboard as if he’s pretending to play randomly. Meanwhile, he’s nailing all these lovely intricate parts. I saw ex-Soft Boy Kimberley Rew with Katrina And The Waves once, opening for Squeeze at Madison Square Garden, and he was bending entire chords, which I’d never pictured anyone doing. When I went back to listen to his old band’s records, I could suddenly hear him doing that all over the place!

2. We toured with Jawbox for a month. Such a great band. J Robbins and Bill Barbot would both occasionally bend the necks of their Schecter telecasters, really fast, right in the middle of a chord.

3.The high B and E pairs of strings of Roger McGuinn‘s Rickenbacker are a little out of tune with each other on those amazing early Byrds singles. It wouldn’t work so well if the parts weren’t all so perfectly constructed and executed. But because they are, you get to really enjoy those frequencies rubbing against each other.

4. When I saw Come at Brownies years ago, both Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw had blue jewel lights in their Fender amps. I’d only seen red jewels up until then. Because I was entranced by the band, I was entranced by the lights.

5. On the first song on Echo & The Bunnymen‘s debut, Crocodiles, guitarist Will Sergeant makes these really spooky and beautiful reverbed-out high sounds. I know there’s a slide involved and probably a delay pedal as well, and I guess by now I sort of know what he’s doing, but I prefer to still think it’s some kind of Liverpool voodoo.

6. I saw Camper Van Beethoven at CBGB when they were touring for their second album, II & III, and in the middle of the show, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel broke a string. The rest of the band froze where they were in that song, just chugging along on one chord while Jonathan reached into his gig bag for a spare string and calmly changed it, tuned it up, stretched it and tuned it up again. When he was ready, he nodded at the rest of the band, and as one, they continued the song as if nothing had happened.

7. I read somewhere that Mick Ronson used to tune slightly flat so that he could bend up to the notes a little.

8. There’s a Ringo Starr-directed T. Rex documentary called Born To Boogie that has, in addition to awesomely weird staged moments, a lot of great concert footage. Wearing a Marc Bolan T-shirt under his glittery jacket, with a giant Marc Bolan cut-out as backdrop, Marc Bolan joyously sneaks a few choice blink-and-miss-’em fast licks into his big simple songs. He loved to play stoopid, but he was actually a hotshot.

9. I was nuts about the Hoodoo Gurus. At Irving Plaza, supporting their first album Stoneage Romeos, singer/guitarist Dave Faulkner played through two Fender Twins, one set dirty and one set clean. He had two guitar cables tethered together. Between songs, he’d pull one cable out and plug the other one in, depending on whether a loud song or a quiet song was next.

10. I was lucky enough to be in the fifth row when the Smiths played the Beacon Theater on the Meat Is Murder tour. During “How Soon is Now,” Johnny Marr would hit a switch at his feet and the eeeeeoooooooo part would happen. I didn’t know what sampling was, so I had no idea what was going on. Everything else he was doing was so incredible that I believed he was somehow making his guitar do that right then with an effects pedal.

11. The first time the Breeders toured with Kelley Deal, they played at CB’s. I was standing right in front, and at one point Kim was looking at Kelley’s distortion pedal, as if she knew Kelley was going to forget to step on it at some crucial moment that was coming up in the song. I swear it was somehow plain on her face. Sure enough, when whatever part was about to hit, Kim jumped up and to the side, landed on both her and Kelley’s pedals at once and hopped right back in front the mic in time to sing the next line. Bad. Ass.

13. The only time I got to see Robert Quine, he was playing in Lloyd Cole’s band at Town Hall. His Fender Twin was facing the back of the stage and was turned way up. I’d never seen anyone do that before. It sounded incredible.

14. Our drummer Ira used to be in a band called the Headless Horsemen with Chris Cush, who ran Mojo Guitars, a store I visited often. I saw Chris do just about the craziest thing I’ve ever seen a guitar player do. Wanting to go one level higher at the logical end of a ripping Chuck Berry-style solo, he grabbed the high E string with both hands and snapped it off. Then, in something like three seconds, he proceeded to snap off all the other strings!