When I call Matthew Caws, Nada Surf’s frontman and songwriter, to talk about his group’s brand new modern masterpiece Lucky, he is preparing to leave for Europe on Thanksgiving Day for a short string of dates. When I mention that skipping the holiday could be a good thing, less familial pressure, Caw agrees, joking that Thanksgiving abroad will also be “less filling.”

Caws has every right to be in good spirits. He, along with bandmates Daniel Lorca (bass) and Ira Elliot (drums), is following up Nada Surf’s critically acclaimed 2005 record, This Weight is a Gift, with the only thing that could top it: a set of perfectly crafted pop songs that cover the expanse between melancholy and pure excitement. While Weight lingered more on the blue side of the emotional spectrum, Lucky is an absolute revelation, retaining the beautiful arrangements that have become Nada Surf’s signature while continuing to follow the story of the musician’s lives as they sail into calmer, more contented waters.

Caws, unlike most rockers, is more than willing to admit that his lyrics are autobiographical. “It’s good to write that way,” Caws says, “because that way, you’re always current. There’s nothing weirder than men in their 30s singing about parents and getting grounded.” He adds, “It also makes it seem more personal, more conversational.”

That sense of intimacy that the listener can easily share with a Nada Surf song has helped them stay afloat for the twelve years. The honesty in their music has kept people listening and given their audience the ability to literally come of age with them, maturing from their 1996 snarky teen-hit “Popular” to 2005’s defensive, heartbroken “The Blankest Year” and finally landing on the sage, contented “Here Goes Something,” Caws’ ode to his young son. Caws brought us along to share in the experience as professionally Nada Surf dealt with their major label miss and personally as he became a single dad, and he is now letting us share in the joy of the band’s stunning Indie success.

Lucky fits into the sequence of albums perfectly. The last three Nada Surf records have fallen into the “grower” category, meaning that they tend to reveal more with each listen. On first spin, Lucky feels soft-paced and ballady, but by the fourth spin the key turns and the excited urgency is unlocked. “The energy in our songs comes from a conscious decision.” Says Caws, “It’s there, but we hold them back. And on the slow songs, we’re excited on the inside.”

Caws attributes his songwriting approach to both his love of hip hop’s ever-changing verses and the band’s shared admiration for the Brooklyn band Chavez, whose music Caws describes as going from “peak to peak without being conscious of the changing of tracks.” He explains, “We take each song, and write a new song on top of it. The music underneath doesn’t change as much as it’s the stuff on top that changes. Sometimes I revisit a song, and I want to write a different melody for it.”

Nada Surf chose to employ that songwriting style, jumping from moment to moment, layering new melodies into each verse and chorus rather than conforming to the ABAB pop style. “We made the conscious decision to stay away from the cookie cutter aspect,” says Caws. “The songs are so simple, they can afford to evolve.” In songs like “Beautiful Beat” from Lucky and “Always Love” from Weight new choruses appear spontaneously, creating a track that is more linear than circular. The style serves to lead the listener forward to the next song, eliminating the divisions between tracks and making the album into a complete package.

The record’s final track, “The Film Did Not Go Round” is a small, sweet piece of Americana featuring plucked guitar, cello, and warbled vocal harmonies that sounds like nothing Nada Surf has ever done before. “I’ve had a secret ambition to write dissident, slightly spooky simple songs,” says Caws, and recording “Shutter…” which was written by Greg Peterson, gave him the opportunity to do just that. As the strings grow under the repeating patterns in the melody and the drums step in like faraway thunder, the song progresses from what at first sounds like an old timey standard to what is unmistakably Nada Surf. When the record begins again, the songs sound older. After hearing “Shutter…” the other tracks suddenly seem to be bearing their roots more obviously. And perhaps the smartest way to end a record is to change the listener’s idea of everything they just heard.

Nada Surf’s journey to Lucky has been arduous, and their music has always been marked by disappointment and unhappiness. But Lucky carries a message of serenity that is both unexpected and welcome. “It’s got less of the classic slacker ennui because I just don’t have time anymore,” says Caws. “We had some disagreement in the group about the title, but by now I’ve spent eighty songs and twelve years chronicling my unhappiness. Even the fact that I wanted to call the record Lucky is good news.”

–Lavinia Wright

http://www.nadasurf.com

 
  1. [...] Nada Surf: Beyond Slacker Ennui When I call Matthew Caws, Nada Surf’s frontman and songwriter, to talk about his group’s brand new modern masterpiece Lucky, he is preparing to leave for Europe on Thanksgiving Day for a short string of dates. … [...]