Caws for Celebration: Nada Surf Are Better Than Ever

Caws for Celebration
Less popular now, Nada Surf are better than ever

Ask Nada Surf drummer Ira Elliot about the band's audience, and he says guys in their 20s often bring their fathers along to shows. No surprise there, given the moody-yet-smooth guitar pop the band have perfected. But on a recent tour of Europe, Elliot noticed a new demographic.

"It's all young girls," he says, laughing. "That's not a complaint. But the number of really young—like teen—girls was surprising. I'm wondering what's driving this. The music is not teen bop. It's a lot of chords."

Whatever the cause, that means the newest generation of Nada Surf fans discovered the band via word-of-mouth or the odd song on The O.C., not thanks to the fluke '90s hit "Popular." With four strong albums under their belts since that first one, 1996's High/Low, the Brooklyn trio have managed to shake the bad reputation that comes after getting dropped from a label. In fact, they're thriving on the beloved independent Barsuk.

Now that indie rock is more mainstream than ever, does it mean Nada Surf have started fielding major-label offers all over again? "We haven't," replies Elliot. "I still perceive us existing in some little alcove off to the side. Our profile is definitely up, but we're still not the record-selling kind of band."

After Elektra cut them loose in the '90s, Nada Surf self-released The Proximity Effect before hitting their stride this decade with an impressive trio of albums—2002's breakthrough Let Go, 2005's The Weight Is a Gift and the new Lucky. Driven by front man Matthew Caws' bracingly melancholy lyrics, the band's songs nod to rock icons such as Dylan (the song "Blonde on Blonde") and Zeppelin (the lyric "There's a feeling I get when I look to the West") in between immaculate dissections of Caws' relationships, from family to friends to lovers.

"There are running themes," Elliot agrees. "There was this kid in Switzerland who did his thesis on Nada Surf lyrics. I think Matthew made it through four pages, and then got queasy, like, 'I've been writing the same song over and over.'"

It's a funny anecdote, but how does a band keep things interesting after playing together so long? "What we've learned over the years," says Elliot, "is there's a lot of different ways to go about [writing songs]. We just wing it. At this point in the game, I'm the new guy, and I've been in the band 13 years. We can read each other like a book."

That comfort can be heard throughout Lucky, Nada Surf's most kinetic and accessible album yet. Driving anthems ("Whose Authority") sit snugly next to drowsy folk ("Are You Lightning?") and swooning pop (the Coldplay-ish single "See These Bones"), as Caws' airy vocals unfold over crisp arrangements. Produced by John Goodmanson (Blonde Redhead, Sleater-Kinney), the album came together "like a breeze," says Elliot. "[Goodmanson] did his job really well. We ended up with a lot of material, and he was the one who had to crack the whip."

So what happens to songs that don't make the cut? "Some of them die. Some of them you revisit years later," he says. "When you start a new record, the first thing you do is go to the vault."

Lucky includes guest spots from a slew of Nada Surf's friends, from Ed Harcourt and Calexico's Martin Wenk to Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and the Long Winters' John Roderick. The closing "The Film Did Not Go 'Round" was written by pal Greg Peterson and features vocals from Brooklyn songwriter Lianne Smith.

There's even an appearance by Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger, another band that worked with Goodmanson and is sometimes considered a one-hit wonder. "There were a lot of similarities," Elliot admits. "I met Sean when he played in the Long Winters. He had some interesting stories from back in the day. The whole thing with [their hit] 'Flagpole Sitta' really traumatized him. He asked me to play drums for their 10-year anniversary show, and he almost freaked out [while rehearsing that song]."

All things considered, Nada Surf survived their brush with Top-40 stardom quite well. They may even be writing the best songs of their career.

Nada Surf and Sea Wolf perform at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Fri., 7 p.m. $14.

 
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