From becoming “Popular” to Let(ting) Go and feeling Lucky, Nada Surf has ridden a wave of musical career trajectories that have allowed them to release consistently excellent and innovative material. Four years after 2012’s The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy and following lead singer/guitarist Matthew Caws’ Minor Alps side project with Julianna Hatfield, Nada Surf returns with this year’s You Know Who You Are.
In a recent interview, Caws spoke about the new album, taking a break from his main musical outlet and getting married.
Weld: There’s a gap of exactly 20 years between your debut album and this year’s release. Was that intentional or coincidental?
Matthew Caws: It just kind of happened. If anything, we probably shouldn’t have put out a new record and concentrated on a 20th anniversary tour. But if you’re inspired to make a record, you need to just go do it.
Weld: It’s been four years since the last Nada Surf studio album, but you’ve either released something Nada Surf related (b-sides and live releases) or some kind of side project every year since 2012. Were you just trying to keep the momentum going?
Caws: It’s not like we’ve been working crazy hard these past 20 years, but it’s been pretty nonstop and definitely felt like a good time for a break. You could kind of feel it in the band that it was time to have some time off.
I really love making music, so I didn’t want to stop, which is why I did the project with Julianna. I also did something with Kevin Devine, where I covered a song of his and he covered a song of mine; it was part of a split series that he did. I just love being in the studio. I would do it everyday if I could afford it and if I had enough songs.
Weld: With the Minor Alps album, how did a different approach in songwriting ultimately affect the new Nada Surf record?
Caws: It was good. It helped me reset to being democratic band. [Nada Surf] has always been a democratic band, but I think I probably ended up making a few more of the decisions over the years, just because somebody had to. I can’t really say why. I think doing something with Julianna where we had the exact same job and I had to let go and be open to other ideas, I think that really reset me, so [You Know Who You Are] was a real open and collaborative process.
Weld: Your titles almost have a sense of self-awareness (Let Go, The Weight Is A Gift, Lucky, You Know Who You Are). Is that just a natural theme of your lyrics?
Caws: I don’t know what I really have to offer, but I’m very reflective. I’m an anxious person and am always trying to get over that. It’s about trying to be a good friend and a useful person and not get in my own way as much. That takes some work. Maybe just talking about that aspect of being human is something that comes naturally to me, and like I said, maybe one of the only things to offer. I end up doing it publicly, in the sense that I put my feelings on record. Nothing is premeditated; I don’t plan what I write about. It just comes naturally.
Weld: What were some of the initial songs for this new album?
Caws: There’s one called “Cold to See Clear,” whack is probably the oldest song on the album. I wrote that one while doing another project with Michael Lerner from Telekinesis. We’ve done some recording together, and that was a song that I had written for that project that ended up not fitting with the other ones that we had. So I brought it back to Nada Surf.
“Out of the Dark” is the song most related to the album title. What I mean by You Know Who You Are is a way of trying to be comforting to myself or someone else when you don’t know what to do in life or you have a question you can’t answer, I was thinking about gut feelings. In our language, things like “do what you feel” and “follow your heart” mean we’re supposed to know what to do at all times. But what do you do when you don’t know what direction to take or what job you should have or what to study? What do you do when you face challenges in a relationship? should you work harder or let the other person go? There are so many decisions and questions in life.
My thought in “Out of the Dark” is if you don’t know what to do, maybe try to get some sleep and have some regular meals, go see a friend and take a walk around the park. Maybe you don’t know have to figure it all out right away. Just give yourself some time and maybe it’ll come to you. It’s an aspirational title with the idea being that somewhere inside, you know who you are and you know what to do. You just need to go easy on yourself and give yourself a chance to think of it.
Weld: I saw that you recently got married. Did that relationship impact the writing of this new record?
Caws: I think it just made me more stable, which meant the record probably got finished sooner. I think it also influenced the fact that the lyrics were more direct on this record than they had been in the past. I think I was trying to find my direction in life and be clear about it.
Another influence was an issue of Rolling Stone a few years ago on country music. There was a page dedicated to defining what country music is. I don’t listen to country a ton. I really love old country like the Louvine Brothers and Hank Williams. I had wondered though what makes a song country. Why is different than a rock ’n’ roll song or pop song? In this article, they stated that there was often a lot of clarity with clear lyrics and a clear story. There’s not a lot of abstraction like there is in rock music like the Pixies. I listen to it and I love it, but I don’t always understand it. I thought if that was interesting, and even though I don’t have any interest in switching genres, that helped influence the clarity a little on this record. I would ask myself if I was being clear or if I even knew what I was saying on the record.
Weld: You recently announced a Nada Surf collaboration with the Vienna and Berlin symphonies called Peaceful Ghosts that comes out at the end of October. Could you talk about how that came together?
Caws: FM4 is part of Austria National Radio. They have sponsored a couple of shows we’ve played. Once a year, they ask a band to put on a show with their Vienna National Radio Symphony. They asked us this year out of nowhere. It was really exciting. We were in the middle of finishing the new record, so we didn’t have a lot of time to think about it as far as choosing the songs and composer. Last year, they had done the show with Calexico, who are good friends of ours.
Martin Wenk, their trumpet player, has toured with us and has played on records. We asked him to produce the symphony show by choosing the composer and choosing the songs. He did a great job. When we finished our album, we went over to Austria for some rehearsals. We got to hear some of the compositions with the composer. He wrote some interesting parts that reflected soundtrack music. It was a really exciting experience, especially following the composer. Rock ’n’ roll time and classical time aren’t necessarily the same. I knew that if I dropped a note at any point, it’d be like sending an 80-person vehicle careening off the road. But it was exciting.
Nada Surf plays Saturn on Saturday, October 1, with Amber Arcades opening. The 18-and-up show is $18 in advance, $22 day of show. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.