Interview with Matthew Caws:
Nada Surf celebrating 15 years of «Let Go»

In Interviewsby indiespect

This year Nada Surf are celebrating 15 years of their third record «Let Go». They are currently on anniversary tour on which they play the whole record and a second set containing hits, covers and rarities. On the 6th April Nada Surf will play one of those special shows at the Dynamo in Zurich. I met singer Matthew Caws in Zurich on the 18th March. He was in town to do a support show for «Calexico» and took some time to talk about Nada Surf’s hit record.

Indiespect: Right now, you’re on tour with Nada Surf, celebrating 15 years of «Let Go». Now you have a few days off. Why did you decide to play solo shows instead of relaxing a bit?

Matthew Caws: Just because Calexico had asked me to do it. They also asked me before but I wasn’t able to. Martin Wenk, one of their trumpet players is a part-time Nada Surf member. He had always asked if I could jump on the bus with them for a few days. I thought I should take the opportunity.

Indiespect: But you’re only able to do a few of the dates?

Matthew: Exactly. It’s only for three shows. Yesterday we were in Fribourg, today in Zurich and tomorrow we’ll be in Linz.

Indiespect: Usually, when you go solo you play in smaller locations like bars or small venues. How does it feel to be on a bigger stage on your own?

Matthew: It’s cool, I’ve never done it. Definitely something I want to do in the future.

Let Go was released on Barusk Records
September 17, 2002 (Europe)
February 4, 2003 (USA)

  1. Blizzard of ’77
  2. Happy Kid
  3. Inside of Love
  4. Fruit Fly
  5. Blonde on Blonde
  6. Hi-Speed Soul
  7. Killian’s Red
  8. The Way You Wear Your Head
  9. Neither Heaven nor Space
  10. Là Pour Ça
  11. Treading Water
  12. Paper Boats

Indiespect: During your anniversary tour you don’t have a support act but two slots on your own. The first is the complete «Let Go» record and the second is a set out of hits, rarities and cover songs. So, the concert will last for about three hours. Is it hard for you to play such a long show?

Matthew: I definitely have to stay healthy for keeping my voice and stuff. I just don’t have to drink a lot, not stay up too late. I don’t smoke, that’s good already. I think when you’re the singer you have to take special care.

Indiespect: How did you choose the songs for the second set? Because in a regular Nada Surf setlist there are already quite a number of «Let Go» songs. Now you had to choose completely different tracks.

Matthew: We have so much. We’re still leaving awful lot of songs. We have too many to choose from. It’s never a problem having enough it’s just a problem having too much. But there are a lot of things people haven’t heard for a long time. And just surprises. We knew that they would know exactly what to expect with the first set obviously.

Indiespect: If you could choose an album of another artist to be played in its entirety. What record would it be?

Matthew: Songs from Northern Britain by Teenage Fanclub, Gone Glimmering by Chavez, Melodies of Certain Damaged Lemons by Blonde Redhead. Then it’s stuff like Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan but he’s not gonna do that.

Indiespect: I think more and more bands are doing this kind of shows. Is it only because it gets requested by fans?

Matthew: I think it’s that, too. But it’s also one of those rare instances where a very commercial decision is also a very good artistic decision. I think most of these tours are usually the idea of the management. But it’s okay. I don’t think it’s something a band would do on their own. It wouldn’t have occurred to us alone without somebody suggesting it to do it.

Nada Surf

Current Line-Up of Nada Surf: Ira Elliot (drums), Daniel Lorca (bass), Matthew Caws (vocals/guitar), Doug Gillard (guitar)

Indiespect: «Let Go» is not only a special record because it’s the favorite of most of the fans. Also the way you did it is quite unique. It was a hard time for you as a band.

Matthew: Yes, totally. It was like a hustle, for sure. We didn’t have anything going on and didn’t have any money. But we did have time which was nice. I wrote it kind of slowly. It probably took two years to write it.

Indiespect: I heard that the style of your sound did change because of that slower process. Also because you had more time and no pressure. Is that true?

Matthew: The style changed really because we had no pressure. It’s not like there was potential to live up to. On our first record we had a little hit. On our second album the record company really wanted us to somehow do it again. But it was an accidental hit and I’m not good at just sitting down and writing a funny song, you know. So, by this third record we were just doing it for ourselves. There was no expectation. There was nobody on the phone telling me that they were worried we didn’t have a hit on the album which I’ve been through a lot. So, we were very free.

Indiespect: After «Let Go» became a success, did you feel that pressure again at some point of your career?

Matthew: The pressure comes back. I think Let Go was a surprise to some people. But then once you do that you can’t do it again. Aside from some fans the general impression of the band from the beginning was like kind of joky. We had funny videos and stuff. Then nobody really noticed the second record because it was dropped after coming out. So, it didn’t really exist anymore. And then Let Go was kind of a surprise like I said. Oh, those guys? They have pretty good songs, okay. And that’s gone by the time you make the forth record. Then they’re expecting it to be good.

Indiespect: You have to be quite a strong band to release an album that way. When you have to pay all the stuff on your own again. I heard you payed it with your merchandising money.

Matthew: Yeah, yeah. That’s right.

Indiespect: Was there never a thought to drop the band?

Matthew: No. That would’ve been simple but we’ve always had a really nice audience at the shows. We knew something was special and we knew it was working. I never thought about dropping it. We got a suggestion like that from our manager who is a really nice guy. I like him a lot. He was our manager for the first record and when we were making Let Go he said: Do you think you should keep the band name? I know it’s kind of a dumb name but it’s our name. He didn’t mean because it’s a dumb name but because we had some failure. So maybe we should reinvent. I was like: No, why? We just keep going.

Indiespect: That’s also part of the progress you make. If you change it, you somehow want to push that hard time away…

Matthew: Yeah. So, we never thought about giving up. Maybe it’s laziness, too. Because if we had given up then I would have had to go to graduate school and choose a career. I would’ve had to get very serious in life. I’ve managed to not do that (laughs).

Indiespect: Was it at that time you worked at a record store, again?

Matthew: I did when I was really young. When I was 17 I worked at a record store. But yes, around Let Go I was working at a record store. Before that I’ve worked at a magazine called Guitar World as a writer and editor. I wasn’t very good. But I thought that’s one of the things I would have done if I had to. Go to journalism school and to to become a better writer.

We never thought about giving up. Maybe it’s laziness, too. Because if we had given up then I would have had to go to graduate school and choose a career.Matthew Caws, Nada Surf

Indiespect: On your current tour you play quite a lot of your old songs. As many as you never did on any tour before. Do you still find time to write new material?

Matthew: Yes, I’ve had plenty of time. But I just had a baby. So, I’ve been a little bit tired. But I’m catching up. I try to write a lot right now.

Indiespect: You also got married. And you did play a song of yours at your wedding.

Matthew: One song at the wedding, yes. I played with this guy Dan Wilson. We wrote that song Rushing together. He came to the wedding and we played it. Because it’s kind of a song for my wife.

Matthew Caws

Matthew Caws played «Rushing» during his wedding. © The New York Times

Indiespect: In the beginning you said that you got asked by Martin Wenk to join Calexico on this tour. Is there also another connection to the band?

Matthew: We’re both on City Slang. A label based in Berlin. That’s the big connection. And then, also we’ve formed around the same time. We’re both around since 22 years.

Indiespect: Martin was not only on tour with you but also responsible for the record «Peacful Ghosts» which you did with the «Deutsche Filmochester Babelsberg» in 2016.

Matthew: Yes, he produced that. He chose the songs, he chose the composer and worked with him on the new arrangements. He didn’t write the arrangements but made alle the choices.

Indiespect: Your newest release is «Standing At The Gates: The songs of Nada Surf’s Let Go». It’s a benefit record where other artist cover your songs from «Let Go». You broke your own rule when you asked Aimee Mann to do one song on it. You said that you don’t want to ask the artists by yourself. Why did you want her to be on that one?

Matthew: Because she’s so good. And I knew she was a fan of the band.

Indiespect: Do you have a favorite cover on the record?

Matthew: I like the Ron Gallo one of Happy Kid. I think that’s amazing. It sounds like he wrote it. Manchester Orchestra is also really good. But yeah, I’m not picking. They’re all amazing. There is also a whole Spanish album: Tu Aura Brilla Más. And it’s all Spanish bands covering songs of Let Go. It’s a whole other version of the same record.

Calexico

Matthew Caws on stage with his friends from Calexico. Martin Wenk (on the left) used to be a touring member of Nada Surf and produced their live record «Peaceful Ghosts».

Indiespect: «Let Go» was made when you were still a three-piece. Your guitarist Doug Gillard was not yet part of the band at that point. Will you bring him on tour anyway?

Matthew: No, we won’t. He was on the first two Let Go tours, the one’s we just finished. But for the next two he has shows with Guided By Voices, so we can’t have him.

Indiespect: So it was not a decision because he wasn’t involved in the recording process of the album?

Matthew: No, no. He played on these shows and it was just great to have him. There’s often more than one guitar part. I’d love having him around. We just can’t because we share him with Guided By Voices. There’s nothing we can do.

Indiespect: You played at the «Zermatt Unplugged Kaufleuten» in Zurich in 2016. There you have also played without Doug Gillard. Was he also on tour with Guided By Voices at that time?

Matthew: In Zurich, unplugged? Yes, that’s right.

Indiespect: During that concert your bass player Daniel Lorca always had a cigarette in his mouth without lighting it for a single time. Maybe it was because of the strict non-smoking rules. Wasn’t that quite hard for him?

Matthew: He still plays with the unlit cigarette. He doesn’t smoke since two years. But he always has a fake cigarette in his mouth. He explained it the other day and it makes sense. He is the kind of person who, if he wasn’t smoking and something stressful happened in his life, he would start smoking again. But because he has this fake one all the time it’s kind of a placeholder. Now if something stressful happens in his life he doesn’t start smoking because he’s already fake smoking.

Indiespect: Thank you for your time! Have a great show tonight. I’m really looking forward to your anniversary concert on the 6th April.