Prolonging The Situation

12 September 2012 | 6:36 am | Tyler McLoughlan

"He said, ‘Listen, that’s a single. You hear that?’ I was like, ‘No’. And he’s like, ‘Keep listening – that is a single, you hear me?’ And I’m like, ‘Ohhhh, okay’… It didn’t even come out like we intended at all, so it was a funny surprise for me."

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American trio Nada Surf occupy an exclusive area of the industry reserved for those who quietly but proficiently go about their business, making lifelong fans of anyone they manage to touch along the way. Add to this that 2012 marks their 20-year existence with an unchanged line-up, and that their later years have produced stellar indie pop-rock records that continue to transcend the vigour of early efforts – notably their 1996 debut hit single Popular – and you've got a near-perfect combination of musical magic. Given this, all Nada Surf had to do for this year's seventh record The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy was keep on keeping on. But it was time to address some home truths.  

“A funny thing has happened to us in the studio where we take songs that we played at a certain speed with a certain click [track] in practice and we'd get in the studio and just slow them down,” frontman Matthew Caws admits. “I think because we felt that it was the mature thing to do or the thing that we were supposed to do, but then touring for those records, we'd find that the songs went right back to the way they were in practice which was a little more breakneck. And sometimes that could be a little troubling because we'd think that we were doing something wrong and then if we played it the way we felt it, [it felt that] that we were rushing.

“That change was alarming because we kept on wondering about it, so this time we said, 'Well, lets just keep the songs exactly like they are in practice' and we did, and that actually makes the gigs more fun because all the songs on the new record just feel so natural when we play them on stage…. I noticed this, I don't want to call it dichotomy, but you know, this difference between live and on record. I finally became fully conscious of what was going on and what had been happening so we just addressed it as soon as we realised that it needed addressing.”

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Caws also looked closely at his approach to songwriting for The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, prompted by the process of sifting through his life's work to prepare for start-to-finish performances of their records Let Go, The Weight Is A Gift and Lucky to promote their 2010 covers record If I Had A Hi-Fi.

“…I really had to listen to those records top to bottom a bunch of times to brush up on the songs we hadn't done as often. I found something that a lot of songwriters feel sometimes, the sort of, 'Oh my god, I just write the same two or three songs over and over again', and that happened to me in a big way while listening to those. It really hit home how often I look in a kind of psychological mirror and write about just about my own internal disappointments and conflicts and I guess I became a little self-conscious in a way that I think was hopefully useful, and that I didn't really want to sing just about that any more.

“The sort of mental image that comes to mind is that it's as if songwriting was a camera that I was pointing at myself, and for this record I kind of wrestled with it and tried to turn it, point it somewhere else and look at something else 'cause I realised that I didn't want to turn 80 one day and look back at an entire lifetime of writing songs just about myself,” admits the son of a philosophy professor, noting a particular interest in the natural world and the very external issue of climate change across the new record.

But these are not the only shifts abound in the Nada Surf camp; recently the trio has experimented with the addition of a fourth and sometimes fifth member.

“We have Doug Gillard from Guided By Voices who's playin' lead guitar with us, and it's lead guitar! It's unbelievable – he plays hot solos!” Caws exclaims, clearly chuffed. “Who would have thought? I mean, I have a secret love for really hot guitar playing but I don't (a) do it very much; and (b) I'm usually too busy singing or something to really get into it. So that's been a real pleasure, I mean it's such a treat to have him standing there and adding so much to the songs…” he says, thinking back to the Bob Mould show where the pair of Pretenders fans bonded. “[Gillard] said, 'You know, if you ever want me to just play some James Honeyman-Scott licks on any of your songs I'd love to do that'. And I was just knocked out, like, 'Of course I want you to do that! Yes.' And James Honeyman-Scott type licks played by Doug Gillard – even better! Let's do it!”

Packing Gillard along for the Australian dates, sometimes fifth member Martin Wenk is already booked due to new album commitments with Calexico. Nonetheless, Caws is pleased to finally have a visit scheduled in order to both spruik The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy and showcase back-catalogue highlights. Surprisingly, he's not tired of fielding questions relating to whether the almost-novelty song Popular will make an appearance.

“I still really enjoy that song; even after all this time it hasn't reached a kind of by-the-numbers or rote feeling,” he says of the talk-sing hit inspired by a '60s book on teenage etiquette, recalling how the end result was much different to the “kind of art piece” he'd originally envisioned. “There was this producer Bryce Goggin, who'd done some Pavement stuff and some Chavez stuff – another band I really love – and we were doin' demos with him and we played him this song Popular, our recording of it, and I said, 'Look my vocal will be over here on the right really low and [a female] vocal here on the left really low and you just don't understand the words and that's the deal'. And he listens to it for a while and he fools around with it and he goes, 'Umm okay, check this out' and turns her off, puts me in the middle and turns it way up. And I'm like, 'No, no, no, no – don't do that' and he said, 'Listen, that's a single. You hear that?' I was like, 'No'. And he's like, 'Keep listening – that is a single, you hear me?' And I'm like, 'Ohhhh, okay'… It didn't even come out like we intended at all, so it was a funny surprise for me.”

These days Popular is usually reserved for feel-good festival slots, though given the summer anthem's reception down under, Caws is told in no uncertain terms that it would be a hugely unpopular move to deny Australian's the joy of hearing it live once more.

“Alright, we'll play it then!” he guarantees with a delighted chuckle.

Nada Surf will be playing the following shows:

Tuesday 18 September - Brisbane Festival, Brisbane QLD
Thursday 20 September - Annandale Hotel, Sydney NSW
Friday 21 September - Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC