Nada Surf singer/guitarist Matthew Caws is being overtaken by shiny sedans and swollen SUVs as he pedals an old bicycle through Tempe during an Arizona tour stop. Any visions of tortoise and hare are entirely appropriate if you consider his band’s career curve: damned as “one-hit wonders” after the positively rabbity radio sprint of their 1996 quasi-novelty single “Popular” was initially followed by turtle-ish inertia, Nada Surf have instead survived and eventually thrived as a touring album band who released their fifth full-length, Lucky, last month.
“Oh, an all-time high,” Caws enthuses of his band’s current contentment level, traffic noise audible as he wrestles with the retro Raleigh one-handed (his cell phone in the other). “It’s amazing: the crowds are bigger than they’ve ever been . . . if you looked at the number of people who come to the shows then we’d have a gold record in the old [pre-downloading] days.”
Formed in New York in 1992, Nada Surf (completed by drummer Ira Elliot and bassist Daniel Lorca) ambushed radio with the Ric Ocasek-produced, atypically sneering “Popular” from their debut full-length, High/Low. Their then-label Elektra were predictably foaming at the mouth for a “Popular 2,” and when this wasn’t apparent on follow-up The Proximity Effect, Nada Surf were dropped without that album even seeing a US release.
Yet, for all their business backstabs and “relegation” to indie-dom, Nada Surf’s intelligent power-pop—somewhere between The Posies’ wistful Cheap Trick-isms and Crowded House’s mega-melodic melancholy—sounds more perkily optimistic than ever on Lucky (released, like its 2005 predecessor The Weight is a Gift, by Seattle-based indie Barsuk Records).
“That’s because the music has nothing to do with my professional life,” Caws deadpans. “The recording of the songs and the willingness to go out on long tours etc. is my job; but the writing of songs is my hobby and it just so happens that my hobby turned into my job. But, thank goodness, that’s still the role [songwriting] plays . . . and I can never do it on purpose. When it’s time to record a record and I don’t have enough songs, I’m helpless.
“I think Lucky is a little more transparently positive [than previous Nada Surf albums]. We’ve had very positive songs in the past but they don’t seem that way and it’s sort of under the surface, but this one is a little more straight about it. I think most of our songs start with something that’s a little dark—either regret or straight-up depression or anxiety—and then it gets better. So it’s sort of the anti-goth in a way, because it’s all kind of dark but it doesn’t celebrate it—it just works to get out of it.”
Caws’ inability to manufacture hits to order was part of the reason why, by 1999, Nada Surf found themselves label-less. By 2000 they’d won the legal battle for ownership of The Proximity Effect and released it on their own MarDev label.
“We went independent out of necessity, but when we made copies of the second album ourselves and bought a van for $5000 and went on the road—and when we started selling that CD on a table at the back of the room—it just clicked and it felt right and we felt at home,” the singer recalls. “We realized that there was an audience there for us. And that, of course, we had to be making the decisions and we have to own all this because no-one knows better than the people who’re there [on tour] every night—and that’s only us.”
So graphic was Caws’ indie-epiphany that he actually sat on a panel at Austin’s South by Southwest conference earlier this month (where Nada Surf played no less than four shows in three days) discussing “The Moment of Truth”—that time when a band or artist embraces the do-it-yourself ethic.
Winding their way West from Austin, Nada Surf arrives at Pomona’s Glass House on Friday, March 21. After a decade and a half of touring, the road is neither a perma-party nor a purely professional promotional device for Caws & Co.
“It’s both at once. The dichotomy is that it gets better and better as the years go by because we have more songs so we get to choose from more and really keep it to our favorites—and secondly because we work with better and better people. But I just turned 40 and I have a son . . . and I’m in a serious relationship and I can’t stand leaving home—I hate it! And yet, once we’re out here doing it it’s—to borrow a phrase from the Navy—much more than a job.”
See Nada Surf at the Glass House, 200 W. 2nd Street, Pomona. Friday, March 21. Doors at 7pm.