In this installment of Nada Surf, band singer/songwriter Matthew Caws ditches his band’s old playbook and draws up a new plan of attack.
It all started as the band recorded a host of covers for their 2010 project, If I Had a Hi-Fi. As the band was working through a version of Bill Fox’s “Electrocution”, it only clicked when the band just played it through without pondering how the arrangement was going to work.
The light bulb went on in Caws’ head, as he realized the band plays differently when they really know the material. There’s an edge that comes out live that hadn’t been present on the band’s recorded material, which often is freshly written by the time the band enters the studio.
“I’ve been doing the band a disservice the whole time,” Caws says.
So the band, which rose to prominence on the cheeky, ’90s anthem “Popular”, crashed on the waves of major label stupidity and then resurrected themselves as the indie-cool cousins to Barsuk Records’ Death Cab for Cutie, decided to try a new approach for 2012’s The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy.
Instead of feeling at the mercy of their schedule and the desire to get a new album out, the band dug in and decided to stay out of the studio until they had an exact batch of songs ready to go. The goal was to marry the sound of the band live to the studio album, Caws says.
For Caws, that meant learning how to finish writing songs ahead of time.
“The heavy lifting for me is finishing,” he says, later adding, “A third of a song — that’s the unit I write in.”
Caws says having songs that were unfinished or just finished took some of the verve out of the band’s performances of new songs and led to increasingly more reserved albums.
“When we played in front of the red record light, we played different,” Caws says.
But on the covers album, the band didn’t have to hold back, because the songs were set in stone.
So with a finished back of songs, the band was able to go into the studio and knock out the basic tracking in a week.
The band also recorded without leaving New York, so they basically could end practice on a Friday and roll into the studio ready to go on a Monday.
The band worked with Chris Shaw, who previously worked with the band on their 2005 song “Always Love”.
When Caws went into a mixing session for that song an hour late, he expected the typical recording engineer huddled over some cords and tweaking some part of the recording equipment. Instead, Shaw was there ready to play through his mix of the song.
The new, efficient version of Nada Surf knew he was the guy to work on the new album, Caws says.
Caws had another relevation thanks to the covers album too. As they played shows in New York to support the release, they did consecutive nights where they played their three previous albums, Let Go, The Weight Is a Gift and Lucky.
Once Caws had a chance to think about all those songs, he decided his songwriting perspective could use a tweak too. So on The Stars Are Indifferent Astronomy, Caws wrote beyond first-person.
“I was trying to sing less from a self-analytical point of view,” he says.
“I don’t want to hit 80 and look back on a lifetime of writing songs and realize I never looked out the window.”
Caws writing process was aided by a gift from They Might Be Giants, who handed down their New York work space to Nada Surf.
“I think it helped my discipline,” Caws says.
Basically, it freed his own place from being surrounded by a mountain of equipment and provided a place to go to get free time to work on nothing but songs.
Even on the road, Caws says he finds it hard to write in an empty room, if he knows there are people in an adjacent hotel room.
“Peace is the thing that’s hard to fine,” he says.
The end of the process is that it’s led to the band playing more songs off of the new album than they’ve ever played off of a new release on tour.
“It makes sense that they’re a pleasure to play live,” Caws says.
Nada Surf w/ An Horse play The Waiting Room Lounge, 6212 Maple St., Friday, March 30th at 9 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance, $18 day-of-show. For more information, visit onepercentproductions.com.