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An Interview With Nada Surf

Article Ref: #NadaSurfInterview

Ines Punessen - 15th January 2013

Photography: © 2011 Jason Williamson & Michael Hollis

The Pro Audio Web Blog

TPAWB: How is life in Cambridge after having lived in New York for so long?


Caws: Awesome (interrupts question out of excitement). It´s good, it´s good. I really like it. It´s very different. I´m not late anywhere as it´s a small town and people ride bikes a lot. One thing I love about it is that the market in the square in the middle of the town has been running every day for a thousand years. Isn´t that great? It´s a busy market. There´s always a butcher, there´s always a fruit and veg guy, there´s someone who always sells ostrich burgers. There´s a tailor and somebody who sells albums and vinyls. It´s really great.


TPAWB: So how come you ended up in Cambridge?


Caws: I have a little boy. I moved there some time ago to be closer to him.


TPAWB:Are you missing New York though?


Caws: Yes, of course. I still go back sometimes and I´ve held on to a tiny apartment there and yes, I miss, but you know, it´s a long life and I´ve certainly spent enough time in New York. It´s not going anywhere, I have all my memories.


TPAWB: How is it working with the three of you being spread all over the World (Ira in New York, Daniel in Ibiza)?


Caws: Daniel hasn´t lived in the States in years anyway, so our days of going to the practice space three times a week, every week, are long, long gone. We haven´t done that for ten years. We just live a different kind of life. We do our own thing and when it´s time to make a record we get together for as many months as it takes. This time we spent six months in New York all there, just practicing and stuff. We don´t have to do this every year, it´s only every two or three, but it works out. I think having a loser approach to how we do it has helped us to last this long. I know some bands, like Fugazi, a band I really love, they would practice every day. Or three or four days a week, whether they were making a record or not. Being open to doing it in a different way has helped us lasting that many years. We would have cracked by now if we had to do it like a job.


TPAWB: Also, it has been the first album to be recorded in New York since High/Low. What did motivate this decision?


Caws: All those years we thought we need to get away from distractions of home or something. And it´s a valid theory, but it didn´t really apply anymore. First of all, maybe because we´re older and have a bit of a better discipline. If we got a job to do we just do it. The other thing is that we made the other records in Seattle and San Francisco and now we have a lot of friends there. It´s not like we´re gonna get away from invitations for dinner and stuff. It´s always gonna be happening. The other thing is, I´m sorry for giving you stale material, but it´s really the answer to the question, we´ve sort of become two bands. We´re the one on stage that always plays with a bit of snap (snaps his fingers), a little bit fiery which is how we like it, how we write and how we practice. However, in the studio we got a little careful and somehow we´d slowed down. It seemed like there were two problems. One was that I hadn´t finished the songs; the last two or three albums we sort of finished writing in the studio and when we did this covers record If I Had A Hi-Fi, I learnt a big lesson that is pathetic to learn so late in the game. It´s better to have the songs finished. We play a different way when we really know what we´re doing and when we´re not like wondering what the outro is. The other thing is when you travel to another city to make a record, between your last practice and recording the first take of a song, it could be a week or two weeks. You finish practicing, you close up your apartment, you pack up, you ship some gear over, you fly over, you recover from the flight, you gotta … It´s a long process and by the time you´re in the studio you´re like “What did it feel like again … that song?” The songs aren´t that complicated, so the feel of how you play them is kind of important and can sort of define them a little bit. In this case, we got to finish the last practice on Sunday and rolled the equipment in the street three blocks, literally rolled the amps down the street and the next day at noon we were cutting tracks. So it´s like muscle memory because it was so close we got to just remember exactly how we had done it. That helped a lot and that´s why we thought “Let´s just do it in New York”.


TPAWB: Have you never tested songs on an audience before you entered the studio?


Caws: That´s a great idea. The reason we haven´t done that I don´t finish them on time. The day that we have a bunch of songs ready that far ahead of time, that will be nice, but that´s not the way it´s happening.


TPAWB: So are you one of these people who leave things until the last minute?


Caws: A little bit. I mean I write all the time but finishing songs I find really difficult. Different kinds of pressure are useful. I think last minute stuff is great but also I really made an effort to write a lot of stuff ahead of time with this record and that helped too. I think you need all your personalities, you need different kinds of deadlines, long ones and short ones.


TPAWB: You (Caws) said that making The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy was the most fun you´ve ever had with a record. However, in earlier interviews you mentioned that you tended to write songs when things were not working out, serving the pThe Pro Audio Web Blogurpose of feeling better. What was different this time around?


Caws: No, that´s still true. It was just the simple thing that the songs were finished, and that´s what we´ve learnt from the covers record. You know writing in the studio is really exciting and those various feeling of potential, maybe you have this idea and then you can hear it back ten minutes later with this great sound. That´s fantastic but at the same time it´s really stressful, really expensive and I guess, maybe we´ve done enough of it. And it´s not very efficient. The reason why this record was a lot of fun to make was because we went in knowing exactly what we were doing, so we just got to enjoy the process and just got into playing. In the past, we´d work all day and then I would get back up into my room where I´d have a four track and a whole suitcase full of cassettes where I´m like frantically looking for that last little bit that´s gonna fix the song so that we have something to do the next day. Hard work.


TPAWB: I might have gotten it completely wrong but I reckon this record sounds more optimistic and hopelessly romantic, yet more settled than any of the earlier releases. Any thoughts on that?


Caws: Well, I´m older. There´s something about getting older that they didn´t tell me. I didn´t know this would happen (country/ blues music is on in the background, almost like drums awaiting his statement), which is really great. Once in a while, I just feel peaceful and good. I think it´s my body telling me “Wow, you´ve been around for a long time. Maybe everything is gonna be alright. You´ve made it through all this and you´re still ticking”. It´s a good feeling and comes out of nowhere. I feel a little more settled, I´m a happier person than I was a few years ago. And I can´t point out any specific reason other than that I´m just older and that it actually feels good.


TPAWB: A few years ago you said that it would be ridiculous to be playing in a band in your forties, yet that is what happened. How do you feel about it now?


Caws: Great, great. I mean Pete Townshend must have gone through ‘I hope I die before I´ll get old’ and he clearly is glad that he didn´t. It´s fine, I love being in a band. I´ve been doing it for a long time. Whatever person I was when I said that, I might have had some other redeeming qualities, but clearly I was not in touch with what life is really like. There´s no one interested in stopping, we are all still very into it.


TPAWB: Has your inspiration for songs changed in the course of time?


Caws: It´s still unconscious to a great degree but the only thing that´s changed is that I´m trying to make more of an effort to look outside rather than just focusing on feelings. There is still some introspection and self-analysis on this record, but there´s more stuff about the world, like things about the environment, about other people and putting myself into other people´s shoes.


TPAWB: So are you involved with any charities, parties etc?


Caws: I´m a registered democrat and I give money to the democratic party every year and I give money to Greenpeace. I´m not crazily involved or anything. I said this to an audience the other day, with regards to climate change, I don´t have anything intelligent or useful to say and the carbon footprint of the band is terrible. I mean we are in taxis, cars, vans, planes, trains, buses, but I really hope that people who are young and who have energy will do something. I really love what I do so I´m gonna keep doing it. However, I admire activists so much. I´m very grateful to them for the work that they do. But again, I´m just watching.


The Pro Audio Web BlogTPAWB: So when you´re in Cambridge do you cycle?


Caws: Yes, very much so.


TPAWB: So you don´t have a car over there?


Caws: Oh no no no no. I just cycle.


TPAWB: That´s impressive enough.


Caws: I´m doing my part.


TPAWB: It seems the main theme on Stars is the passage of time. Is there anything you would do differently now looking back at your career with Nada Surf?


Caws: Well, one thing. That´s when our second record The Proximity Effect was dropped in the States I would have stormed into the office of the president and made an enormous thing about it and would have jumped up on her desk and told them it´s an incredible record and they should put it out and that they´re crazy if they don´t. But I´m not even sure I have the nerve to do that now but I should have tried. Instead we were like “Oh, you´re not gonna put it out. That´s too bad.” We should have fought that. That´s it, nothing else.


TPAWB: Are there any sorts of character traits or features you have never lost since you were a child?


Caws: I think I´m both an eternal optimist and an eternal pessimist. I once described it like layers. I´m excited about the next week, I´m depressed about the next month, I´m excited about the next year. I´m not being precise about this but it feels like I´m carrying both ‘half empty, half full’ feelings around all the time. Nothing else really. Well, the same like in the song when ‘I Was Young’, when I get up in the morning I´m very often bewildered by being in the real world again. I find that shift from being asleep and dreaming to being awake and to your same reality that you had yesterday really hard. Life is too real. What is your character trait which you have kept since you were young?


TPAWB: Hmm, I guess I´m quite curious and am over thinking things quite a lot.


Caws: I´m the same way.


TPAWB: You sing ‘It always feels like I´m waiting for something’. What are your ambitions in life or is there something you always wanted to do?


Caws: I want to get up early and work hard, and I don’t. I get up late and I work half hard. I´m waiting for myself to grow up, to get serious. My ambition is better discipline and be in control. I´m trying but it´s hard. The sentiment in that song is kind of like you feel you´re rehearsing for life. When is it actually gonna start, this isn´t the real thing, I´m just practicing. This is of course totally wrong. It´s also about wishing or reminding myself to realise it´s here and now. I´m not working towards some fantasy of being alive next year. I´m alive now and I could do anything now. I don´t have to wait.


TPAWB: You mean that you´re basically living your life, not thinking a lot about it, thinking you´re living it and then something tragic is happening which makes you realise you´re not properly living it. It makes you notice that you were just rehearsing.


Caws: Yes, that´s right, that´s right. That can happen, absolutely. Something gives you perspective that you should have had all alone.


TPAWB: On Lucky, the cover features a sky full of stars and the new record even has stars in its title. Despite the latter being a metaphor, do you have a special relation to stars, the universe or astronomy?


Caws: Yeah, do you know what people say about looking at water at night? That it is like a total representation of your sub conscience. You know when you´re at the sea side, at a pier or a bridge in a town and you see the moon´s reflection on the water and it gives you this meditative feeling. People say it represents you sub conscience. I feel that way about stars. It´s just where you dream, you´re never gonna go there. But it not only is the biggest thing in the world, it is the world. The size of space is unfathomable and yet, we´re right looking into it all the time. It´s like a dreaming place. Whenever anybody asks about any imagery, I´m always just space, stars, stars, planets … You know that the album title is an expression of my father´s and it´s something he says to make a point about our real insignificance and that´s true. It sometimes is a comfort. It´s unbelievable sometimes how you don´t even see the rest of the world because you´re having some issue you´re thinking about. Like you said, you´re an overthinker, so you know what I´m talking about, when something is bugging you and you can´t even see the rest of the world because your little problem is eclipsing everything else.


TPAWB: Some journalists consider you as the last poet of indie rock. How does this make you feel?


Caws: Two ways. I think it is very flattering and completely untrue. It is a very romantic thing to say. Of course it makes me feel vindicated because I do work really hard on songs. It´s definitely the thing in life I´ve worked the hardest on, so I´m proud of it and it feels good to be complimented but I think that´s insane. I think there are incredible poets on every street, probably in every building. There are probably two in this restaurant. That´s a lovely, romantic thing to say, but I don´t think it´s true at all. I do think a lot of other people´s lyrics read better, I´m so hooked on how it feels in the melody and everything that this often dictates the way I write, but somebody like John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats. It´s such incredible writing. Or Will Sheff from Okkervil River. What amazing writers. Someone should say that about them instead. But still, it´s very nice. I should take a compliment well.


TPAWB: You are popular with three or more indie generations which can be noticed during your shows. Where would you trace this back to?


Caws: We´ve been around long enough to maybe have cast away a wider net. I remember going to Sonic Youth concerts in the late ‘90s and there were all these 13-year-olds and I thought ‘How do they know?’ Is it all older siblings? I mean I got a lot of my enthusiasm from indie rock. That´s gonna change, someone is gonna call it something else in ten years time. They used to call it ‘alternative’, ‘college’, ‘post punk’, all those words don´t mean anything. I mean punk used to mean really something different than Green Day who I love. Television was punk also, Patti Smith was punk also. I got a lot from my older sister. She went to college, became a DJ and would send me cassettes of what she was listening to, so she turned me on to Joy Division, Soft Boys, The Cure and all that. I might not have found it as I was listening to classic rock. I don´t know, but then there is no explanation why people like certain melodies. It´s just a human thing and I don´t think it´s your age. It´s what kind of buttons you have that are being pushed and I´d like to think those buttons are there in young people and in old people. So if those various people have reacted to what we do and they show up, that´s great.


Ines Punessen


End Of Interview