Nada Surf: Earthbound


After 2012’s blast into the cosmos, Nada Surf gets grounded

This time, there would be no beery acoustic renditions of new tunes in Nada Surf’s Brooklyn rehearsal compound. One phone call would have to suffice—which seems sort of appropriate, given the displaced, transatlantic nature of You Know Who You Are (Barsuk), the moody follow-up to The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, a breathless rush of power-pop adrenaline that was among MAGNET’s best LPs of 2012.

“On the previous album, we wanted to sound like we do live,” says the band’s 48-year-old leader, Matthew Caws. “On this one, we were trying to be open to anything. Some musical feelings came up that were kind of old, and some others that were more adventurous. I tried to be as clear as I could in getting things down. I tried to say what I was thinking.”

For anyone interested in labels, You Know Who You Are is Nada Surf’s “relationship” album. It contains some of Caws’ most emotionally direct lyrics to date, especially on “Rushing” (about the blinding uplift of new love) and the album-closing “Victory’s Yours” (an official sign-off on a dysfunctional union). He remains spot-on in conjuring wide-eyed wonder from a middle-age perspective. Hence, the deceptive simplicity of something like, “I don’t mind if it’s raining/I don’t mind if it’s hot/I don’t mind what you’re thinking/I don’t mind if you’re not.”

“Rushing” and “Victory’s Yours” were written with Grammy-winning songwriter (think Adele) and Semisonic alum Dan Wilson. “We sat for a whole day and just traded life stories, and over the next three days, we wrote, using that first day of conversation as a well to draw from,” says Caws of the collaboration.

Along with co-founding bassist Daniel Lorca and longtime drummer Ira Elliot, Nada Surf has now absorbed guitarist Doug Gillard as a full-fledged member. “On the last record, I played on and developed parts for every song, but they were already written and structured by the band,” says Gillard. “On this one, I was part of the rehearsal and writing process from the ground up.”

The group again worked with producer/guitarist Tom Beaujour in Hoboken, N.J., on the album’s initial tracks. The final 10 songs were culled from a variety of sources, and a few underwent fairly significant tweaks. The final version of low-key first single “Believe You’re Mine” is faster than the original. “That was a song where I tried all different kinds of versions and speeds and stuff,” says Caws, who did most of his singing at home, recruiting the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow to provide backing vocals on a few tracks. “All the harmonies on ‘Believe You’re Mine’ are Ken,” says Caws. “If you re-listen with that in mind, it’s pretty nuts. He knocked it out of the park.”

Another standout—and a natural choice for a second single—is “Cold To See Clear,” which was originally written for Caws’ upcoming project with Michael Lerner of Telekinesis. “When you’re sitting on your couch, at really low volume, you can sing pretty high without much effort,” says Caws, commenting on the origins of his signature falsetto, which reaches new heights on “Cold To See Clear.”

You could argue that Caws’ singing has actually improved with age. “I’d like to not be the one to say that,” he laughs.

Though he’s based in Cambridge, England, to be near his 11-year-old son, Caws has been spending quite a bit of time in Manhattan of late. For our interview, he’s retreated to his childhood apartment on the Upper East Side to find a quieter place to talk. “I’m seeing somebody in New York, so I’m back more than ever,” he says.

So, apparently, the airliner high in a cloudless sky on the cover of You Know Who You Are is no mere coincidence. “I have a lot of guilt about air travel. I have an enormous carbon footprint,” says Caws. “We’re in a world in grave danger, and we shouldn’t be flying—but here we are.”

—Hobart Rowland