Nada Surf rocks: Why the indie band, with a new live record, is one of life's great pleasures

Salon speaks to singer Matthew Caws about how the band bounced back from a bad name and a goofy hit song

Published December 10, 2016 11:30PM (EST)

Nada Surf   (Barsuk Records/Bernie Dechant)
Nada Surf (Barsuk Records/Bernie Dechant)

If you were born around 1950, you would have spent your teenage years watching albums like “Rubber Soul,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Something Else,” “Pet Sounds,” “Aftermath,” “Revolver,” “Blonde on Blonde,” “Forever Changes,” “Younger Than Yesterday,” “Between the Buttons,” “Axis: Bold as Love,” “The Who Sell Out,” “Odessey and Oracle,” “Music for Big Pink” and “Astral Weeks” coming out, sometimes separated only by a few weeks.

Those albums by the Beatles and Dylan and The Kinks and Beach Boys and Stones and Love and the Byrds and Hendrix and The Who and The Zombies and The Band and Van Morrison and many others, including one with a song called “A Day in the Life” on it — all arrived in the 48 months between 1965 and 1968. And each one was loaded with catchy, melodic songs that somehow simultaneously pushed the outer limits of what was possible in popular music. You might have lost your virginity to one of these vinyl LPs spinning in the background, joint smoking silently in the ashtray. One of these groups may have played a party at your high school or college. It might have seemed like this was just business as usual, that it would all keep going on forever.

But if you were born around 1970 — with Nixon on his way to the White House or already there, an endless war in Indochina and American cities enjoying their “Taxi Driver” phase — these albums and others like them would have seemed like buried treasure. As a young teenager, ears bludgeoned by nonsense by REO Speedwagon and Foreigner and Yes and synth rock and a few dozen tired, overplayed hits on radio stations formatted by corporate edict, you might have taken solace in those old records, which you found in a neglected LP stash on your divorced mother's bookshelf or heard about from your babysitter or were turned onto by a cool uncle. They’d seem like messages in a bottle.

As you got older, the chime of early R.E.M. would sound like a lost Byrds recording, the pop and hiss of Guided by Voices albums would recall the Who bootleg your older cousin loaned you, and Belle & Sebastian would make you think The Zombies had reformed and hired a woman to play cello. These days you might dig Real Estate and The Clientele and Allah-Las.

And if this is you, and you don’t have all of the records by the band Nada Surf — from 2002’s "Let Go" to the new live album, “Peaceful Ghosts” — you are totally missing out.

* * *

If you were part of the indie scene in the '90s, there would be little reason to think we’d still be talking about Nada Surf two decades later. The band, which formed between onetime high school friends in New York City, released an “ironic,” slightly annoying hit single, “Popular,” in 1996  and recorded several generic-sounding albums that eventually got the group dropped from its label. The bandmates drifted a bit — singer-guitarist Matthew Caws worked at a Brooklyn record store, dreadlocked bassist Daniel Lorca programmed computers — and at times it wasn’t clear if they’d ever be heard from again.

Then in February 2003 (but five months earlier in Europe), the band released “Let Go,” a power pop masterpiece that managed to be energizing without wearing a forced smile, anthemic without being cheesy, reverential to the past without being predictable. It also included songs like “Blizzard of ’77,” “Inside of Love” and “Blonde on Blonde” — about the joy of listening to Dylan on a portable stereo on a rainy day — that have become staples of their invigorating live gigs and show up again on “Peaceful Ghosts.”

Even after this triumph, the group had to fight against being written off as a train-jumping one-hit wonder. “This wasn’t an especially serious band when it started,” Caws told me by phone from Cambridge, England, where he settled recently after decades in New York. “Popular” didn’t help. Nor did the band's goofy name, which was originally kind of a throwaway idea: Caws conceded that it sounds like “a California skate-punk band" instead of a serious group of craftsman making music for grown-ups for whom it’s always 1966 and anything is possible.

Caws, who comes across as both boyishly wide-eyed and mildly aristocratic — he grew up on the Upper East Side and was educated at a lycée  — can talk for hours about bands he loves, especially the Beatles, whose influence is not hard to hear in Nada Surf’s music. He geeks out over what he calls “the one-two punch of ‘No Reply’ and ‘I’m a Loser,” the bittersweet songs that lead off “Beatles for Sale,” the sounds of the seagulls George Martin added to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the Paisley Underground bands of '80s Los Angeles, the guitar textures in early Echo and the Bunnymen, the way the drummer in The Feelies, Stan Demeski, once added the snare drum to the band’s songs halfway through a live set so that the entire room seemed to lift off. Caws is not the only music obsessive in the group: Drummer Ira Elliott and guitarist Doug Gillard play in a band dedicated to the Beatles black-leather Hamburg repertoire, Bambi Kino.

When asked by cabdrivers or people whose musical reference points he doesn’t know, Caws usually describes his band as “the bad Beatles.” Not bad as in Brian Jones, bad as in, We're trying.

* * *

Nada Surf’s latest record, a live rendering of existing songs, looks like a kind of clever alternative to a greatest-hits album. But it came about mostly by accident: The band has a longtime connection to a radio station in Vienna, often stopping by for interviews, and the station’s associated philharmonic — the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra — asked the Caws and crew if they could accompany the band in concert. (“Peaceful Ghosts” was also eventually recorded with the German Babelsberg film orchestra.)

Caws wasn’t entirely confident at first. “It’s a little risky,” he said. “Because it could easily sound overblown, if you just play your loudest songs and add 50 musicians.” He was so intimidated by the project that he handed song selection, the orchestral parts and the album’s production to Martin Wenk, the trumpeter for Calexico. As hard as it was originally to figure out how to play with a conductor and dozens of classical musicians, Caws is now eager to play with music-school orchestras or chamber groups or whoever wants to do so.

“Peaceful Ghosts” is the latest in a run of sterling albums that begins with “Let Go” and includes “The Weight is a Gift,” “Lucky,” “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy” and this year’s “You Know Who You Are.” This roll also includes a 2010 covers record, “If I Had a Hi-Fi,” which includes a bracing version of The Go-Betweens' “Love Goes On!” and songs by Kate Bush, Bill Fox and Spoon. (A 2004 live record recorded in Brussels is fine but less revelatory.) The band has a knack for covers; its new version of The Pixies' "Where is My Mind" is a dark gem.

One of the odd things about Nada Surf’s music is that despite the fact that its songs often concern heartache and painful longing and its music is often bittersweet, there are few more rapturous experiences than listening closely to the band’s music or seeing one of its live shows. (For a ’60 besotted Gen Xer, it is the perfect drug.)

Caws has a hunch why. Partly, he said, it’s because music was originally, in the days before recording, a communal art form presented to a gathering of the tribe. “Even the saddest song," he said, "was going to be performed in front of people standing together.” And part of it is that music making itself can be an ecstatic experience, no matter what a song’s subject. “The process of writing, recording it, working on it, is so joyous. Even if the impetus for a song is comes from a troubled afternoon, by the end of the day, I feel joyous.”

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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