Posted December 16, 2011 by whopperjaw in Tunes

Nada Surf singer-guitarist philosophizes about band’s new album”The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy”

It’s been almost 20 years since Nada Surf first came together and infused indie rock with a sensitivity that would evolve into something like what we currently consider “emo.” Not that the band was really “emo,” but its vocal harmonies and catchy melodies were more pop than most of what passed for indie rock during the time period. Perhaps that’s why the band got a good second wind in 2002 when, after being dropped by Elektra Records, it regrouped for Let Go and re-emerged with a new set of young fans who have loyally followed it up to this point. Singer-guitarist Matthew Cawes recently spoke to us in a phone interview about the band’s longevity and its terrific new album, The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy, which is due out in January. The album is a bit rougher around the edges as it tries to evoke the band’s approach to playing live, but it’s still loaded with plenty of pop gems and insightful lyrics.


Start by telling me about the album title. What was its inspiration?

It came from my dad. It’s an expression of his. He’s a philosophy professor who has been saying that in class for a few years as a way of expressing something about our relative insignificance in the universe. He says something like a bird doesn’t know it’s called a bird and a dog doesn’t know it’s called a dog and the stars and planets doesn’t know that we gave them names. It doesn’t really matter to them. It resonates with me on several levels.


So does the album title speak to a theme on the album?

It speaks to one of the themes which is about nature and being out of touch with nature and climate change, which is the central issue of our time and in a lot of ways we’re just ignoring it. I’m not one to talk; I’m in a band. I fly airplanes all the time. But I’m not trying to shirk my responsibility. I think that’s the folly of the age. We can make a difference and isn’t this the time to do that. If you were a huge industrialist, you’re one of the leaders in the village called Earth and our tribe is in some trouble. If we’re worried about losing our place at the front of the pack, this is where it counts. So the title is about that but also on a personal level, the idea that life itself is stronger than your ideals. Time will stop for no one and every second time is going to go by at the same rate. I’m a time waster and then waste my time worrying about wasting time. It’s ridiculous.


Have you always been so philosophical or is that a byproduct of being older?

Yeah, it’s maybe a byproduct of being a little bit older. It’s also a product of wanting to eliminate or curtail a certain kind of song that I’ve been writing forever. Deep down, I only have one or two types of songs, and this realization came in part from doing these record release shows where we played our albums in their entirety on three consecutive nights. I was like, “There is so much here about just what I was talking about — self-discipline or the lack thereof and wasting time, blah blah blah.” And then there are songs about confusion as it relates to love and I was like, “We have a lot of those types of songs.” In trying to get away from them, it was like I built this camera on this flimsy tripod and it’s been pointed at myself and I’ve been wrestling with it and trying to point it at something else. There are songs like that on the record. “Waiting for Something” is in the classic vein of “why am I rehearsing for life?” But there are fewer of them. I think that let some of the other topics come to the fore. I felt like I was trying to do something new.


You’ve said you wanted this album to sound more like how you sound live. Talk about that approach?

I think that what had happened was that over the years, we had splintered into two bands, one live band and one studio band, which became a little bit different. For our first record, High Low, we had made them with a different drummer so we knew them well and pounded them out pretty quick. That approach went away slowly over the years because as we got older, on an unconscious level we wanted to make adult sounding records. We were still making teenage pop. After doing all these record release shows, I realized we have a lot of poised pop songs. Maybe we don’t need to do that anymore. It’s not a self-critical thing. You have your comfident side and your insecure side. Your confident side says, “We have nothing left to prove and can do whatever we want” Your insecure side says, “Are we going to bore everybody to tears with this stuff?” I think it’s been a bit of a surprise for people over the years. Maybe they like “Inside of Love” and then got this rocking band. We want to bring those things together we can play these songs off this record live and not be doing something wrong. We found ourselves doing that, much to our frustration. It was completely my fault. There was so much that we were arranging in the studio. Ira is a great live drummer and really natural and if we had the opportunity to learn the songs, he might bring that energy to the studio. Another weird thing that had happened was that Daniel pointed that out that on the last few records we were always sitting and for this record we were standing this time. I think that was my way of saying to Ira, “I’m ready. I’m not just expecting you to bring that energy.”


I think the different sound is apparent in the opening track, “Clear Eye Clouded Mind,” which sounds like it’s played at twice the speed as most of your songs.

It was so much fun. We’re always looking for that energy. We’ve been working everything out at practice so we can stop working.


Is Doug Gillard a full-fledged member of the band now?

Well, it’s not exactly clear. Certainly as a live band, he’s a member. I don’t want to do a single show this year without him. If we have to, we will, but I want to do everything I can to be sure he’s at every concert. He adds so much. It’s an honor because I’m a fan of his. It just works. From the first time, we practiced, it didn’t feel like something that needed to be worked in. He found his place. The way it happened was that we knew each other socially and I went to a Bob Mould show and I knew the bass player. I was standing around and we were shooting the shit and Doug, who was a little bit lit and a couple of beers ahead of me came up to me and was like if you want to play some licks on your record. I was like, “Really? That would be great.” He played on If I Had a Hi Fi and we didn’t want to go on tour without him. It’s a real kick. It’s like having the same car with a much bigger engine all of a sudden.


Take me back to the band’s formation in 1992. Did you and Dan have any idea that you’d be doing this 20 years down the road?

I really, really didn’t. I thought if I could ever play Irving Plaza and have the lights kind of low and play catchy music, I would be happy for the rest of my life. And I’ve gotten to do that. All these years whenever I land at JFK or Heathrow and I have to fill in a card and fill in my occupation and I have to write musician, it’s only now started to feel like it wasn’t fraudulent. I now feel like, “Yeah, that’s what I do and it’s my skill set.” In years before, I was like “still”? Why am I not writing high school English teacher or administrative assistant. I can’t even read music, but obviously you don’t need to. It really was a hobby that went right. A long time, we were in a couple of bands that really tried to make a career of it. But when the roots of this band came together, we had moved on from career ambition and just wanted to do it for fun and get that joy back. We had been in a network-y band. It was ridiculous.


It’s often the case that you succeed when you’re not trying.

Exactly. All of a sudden, we weren’t as needy anymore, which really helped the music. It’s like you not only have to escape from what you think you should be but also from what you can’t help but want to be. When I first heard the Pixies, I was unsure of myself for a couple of years. I knew I couldn’t make their music because they already made it. I didn’t think I wanted to make any other music. Nothing was as cool as that. It was hard to shut that critical eye especially when it’s criticizing you for being somebody else. It was much easier to do that when we weren’t hoping it was going to pay our rent.


The band caught a second wind in 2002 with Let Go. What was the key to your resurgence of sorts?

Well, one thing we were good with was that we were a little bit older when we got signed to Elektra. We were like 27 or 28. When that didn’t go well, I was already old enough to not really believe in it. We wanted to be on Matador or Touch N Go anyway, but we never had that shot. When we got dropped, we weren’t left wishing we were back in that castle. We never wanted to be in that castle. It was like, we could get back to what we wanted to do in the first place. We could go straight forward and we didn’t have to waste our time with some other major label deal. The other thing was that we had just enough success so that when we were in this purgatory, there was still this feeling that people wanted us to continue as a band. If we had broken up after that, I would have felt that at age 30 I hadn’t given it my best shot. If I had been older, I would have wanted a career. I didn’t put that pressure on myself. It was such a blessing. It was like having a second childhood or making a second first album. That experience set us on a great path. That really, really helped us later when we were making more modest records.


Given everything that’s happening to the music industry, how much longer do you plan to keep Nada Surf going?

I don’t know if we’ll always put in as big a year as we’re about to put in, but I’m pretty sure we’ll be doing this for a long time. We were able to embrace the changes in the industry. I don’t really care. I’m on Twitter and I’m only old fashioned in the sense that discussions aren’t about albums anymore but individual tracks. I like movies to be about an hour and a half long and I like three meals a day. I like the album. I’m content walking down that road and it doesn’t matter what other roads there are.


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