By Tom Lynch
Matthew Caws speaks quietly at a measured pace, not unlike how he sings one of his ballads. A tender tone persists just this side of protected laziness—he puts you at ease, even if he isn’t.
He feels lucky these days. So much so that he convinced his band, long-lasting Brooklyn trio Nada Surf, to call its new record “Lucky.” A fine album, the band’s fifth in all and third for indie-pop-factory Barsuk Records, “Lucky” starts with a song about death—the dark, and then unexpectedly hopeful, “See These Bones,” a striking opener with peaks and valleys of Caws’ psyche. The nine songs that follow run the gamut of Nada Surf’s career; the heavenly pop melancholy of “Beautiful Beat”; the mid-nineties alt-rock of “Weightless”; the sheer screwball giddiness of “I Like What You Say.” Caws knows what he does well and doesn’t deviate, but there’s a sweet attractiveness in the relatively simple songs he pens, a zone of comfort that can both bust your heart and get you grinning when he tosses off a lyric like “They say if you’re not lonely alone, boy there is something wrong.”
“I tend to write when I’m looking for some kind of closure on an issue, some kind of understanding,” Caws says. “I’m kind of looking for a little bravery I don’t have, to manufacture a little armor.”
Nada Surf, which gained worldwide attention for the mid-nineties hit “Popular” from its debut disc “High/Low,” only to be written off soon after as a one-hit-wonder, went through a sort-of transformation around the turn of the century, after long battles with its then-label Elektra over the band’s sophomore record, “The Proximity Effect,” which ended with the band being dropped completely. Time off was necessary after the damaging experience—Caws even worked at his neighborhood record store—and in 2003, the trio partnered with Barsuk and released “Let Go.” It seemed a new band was born, as the “Popular” sound was practically buried; they had made an excellent heartfelt indie-rock album, and to make the matter even more appealing, it seemed to have come from out of nowhere. Two years later the band followed up with “The Weight is a Gift,” a difficult record by comparison that didn’t quite have the staying power. “Lucky” mirrors “Let Go” in many ways, but mostly because of its unnatural consistency—every song is, in its own way, as memorable and well-constructed as the next. The feeling bleeds from track to track.
I ask him how he thinks he’s changed as a songwriter since the band first came together. “There’s nothing different about the process—I don’ t know what I’m doing,” Caws says. “I just try to put stuff together. I bet a lot of people have relationships with what they do. I can’t deny I’m a songwriter, I certainly wrote enough songs, and people seem to take them seriously. I’m not saying I feel, like, shame. [I just have] no clue how to do it. What’s weird is that it’s always like a long series of gut decisions, for which there is no right or wrong answer. You could go to any chord, and you choose that one because it feels right.”
Before he began writing the new record, he actually traveled backwards, re-introducing himself to cassettes upon cassettes of old material—riffs, chord progressions, melodies—that he had recorded over the years as potential pieces of songs. “I had so much of a backlog of stuff, I was afraid to go through it,” he says. “It’s hard to listen to tapes when seventy percent of it is really mediocre and twenty-nine percent is a near-miss, you know?”
Lyrically, he admits the songs on the record don’t stray too far from his previous work. “Thematically,” he says, “it’s always the same, roughly, I think, with all our songs. [They start] with some kind of unease or anxiety, and then find some kind of peace and hopefulness by the end of the song. I think this time I was someone managing to try to be open and cheerful in general.”
Has that hopefulness played a part in keeping the band together for all these years, even when it looked pretty grim during the post-“Popular” hangover? “We used to have a stock answer [for that],” he says, “that we’re all good friends, we’re neighbors, we love to play. There was this rosy vision that we all love what we do. But now it’s a little bit in hindsight. Some of it was just an ill-advised perseverance, in that I just didn’t want to get another job…I’m really lucky that music worked out.”
He’s lucky in other ways. He’s a family man now, and equates having a child with having “a love bomb go off in your body.” So, is the title of the record the most direct way he can explain his life? “[It’s to] remind myself to feel that way,” he says. “I don’t feel particularly as lucky as I should. I have a really good life.”
Nada Surf plays April 4 at Metro, 3730 North Clark, (773)549-0203, at 8:30pm. $18.50-$20.