Frontman/guitarist Matthew Caws candidly discusses his creative process.
Matthew Caws plays his trademark Les Paul at a concert in Italy on February 23, 2012. Photo by Marina Ravizza
Though Nada Surf’s first hit was the Weezer-esque “Popular” (from their 1996 debut album, High/Low, which was produced by the Cars’ Ric Ocasek), the irony for New York-based trio of Matthew Caws (vocals and guitars), Daniel Lorca (bass/vocals), and Ira Elliot (drums/vocals)—who are still going strong 16 years later—is that it has also been their biggest to date. “Popular” reached No. 11 on Billboard’s Modern Rock charts, but the band never quite achieved big mainstream success with its follow-up efforts. But when you consider the tune’s sardonic tear down of the whole concept of coolness, that failure to ignite big-time might not seem like such a surprise after all. But it gets even more ironic.
When it came time for the threesome to record their 1998 sophomore effort, The Proximity Effect, Elektra Records didn’t think it was commercial enough and told them to record a few cover songs and/or an acoustic version of “Popular” to release as singles. In the spirit of their breakthrough song, Caws and company declined—they felt the album was just fine as-is. Elektra responded by dropping the band after the album’s European release—right in the middle of the subsequent tour.
One gets the feeling the label still regrets that decision, though, because Nada Surf came into its own during that period: Though fickle fate hasn’t since struck with the same fortuitous (and financially rewarding) timing that it did with “Popular,” Caws, Lorca, and Elliot have since perfected their power-pop hooks, delectable multi-harmony background vocals, and dynamic guitar layering approach in a way that could’ve been exploited to great effect by a major label.
And with this year’s super-energetic The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, Nada Surf proves the intervening years have only made their infectious songwriting more potent. Chock-full of radio-ready choruses augmented with cranked, harmonically rich power chords and crystalline acoustic textures, Astronomy builds on Surf’s successful approach by bringing in former Guided by Voices guitarist Doug Gillard to act as a creative foil to Caws’ ’68 Les Paul-powered foundations.
In our recent interview, Caws proved anything but indifferent to his craft, going into great detail about his love for his Marshall JCM800 and his collection of low-powered vintage amps, as well as his painstaking songwriting process and his meticulous methods for laying down bracing, multitextured guitar tracks in the studio.
The new album is a tour de
force of guitar layering. In a
song like “Clear Eye Clouded
Mind,” which part came
first—the quarter-note power
chord foundation or the more
riffs that complement it?
Doug [Gillard] plays the eighthnote riffs, but we tracked the songs completely until he came in and did extra little bits and bobs. The big blocks come first, unless it’s something like the beginning of “Waiting for Something”— which is its own little piece of music. I tend to write from the bottom up: Y’know, acoustic guitar and C, D, G type of stuff.
So you tend to get the chord
progression and then add melodies
and harmonies to it?
Exactly. Well, I get the chord progression and the sung melody at the same time. For years, I’ve recorded little bits and progressions, etc., onto tape and I’ve scribbled in a zillion notebooks, but most of that stuff just disappears. What tends to stick are the songs where the chords and vocal melody come to me at the same time.
So you still use tape, despite
all the modern conveniences,
Yeah, I just sit down with a Panasonic or Radio Shack tape recorder—even though I’ve had 8-tracks and 4-tracks and Logic and GarageBand and everything. I like cassette players because they’re so instant and you don’t have to look at a screen. And it’s also so unintimidating— because you know you’re not doing anything permanent, so you feel kind of free.
I usually write a third or half of a song, and once I get something I like, instead of finishing, I generally, like, get hungry and want a sandwich [laughs]. And then I fill up these tapes with that stuff, and every couple of years I force myself to sit down and listen through these—it’s like pulling teeth. It’s 98 percent forgettable—or painfully mediocre—but it’s worth it for that two percent of stuff that actually turns into something that we use on a record.
How do you know which ones
are the two-percent keepers?
Well, because I’m not cringing, first of all [laughs]. That’s the first indicator. It’s, like, “Oh my god, I’m not in pain—wait a minute! I’m not hiding under my own desk!”
Why would you be cringing
and in pain?
I don’t know how other people do it, but I have to feel free to just say anything or sing anything or try anything. And that’s why I can’t write with other people nearby, even if we’re on the road and have separate hotel rooms—which is definitely not all the time, because we’re not on that kind of a budget. But even if we have separate rooms, if somebody I know is in the next room, I can’t do anything. It’s such a private thing. Here’s the other thing: If I’m working on something and I wake up the next morning and it’s not in my head, that’s a bad sign. But if the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning is the hook I was working on the night before, then it gives me hope and I work harder on it.
Is that usually the lyrical hook
or the melody—or both?
Both. It’s singing the hook and thinking the chords. But even if it’s just a little guitar hook or a harmony—if I feel a little haunted by it for a couple of days, then I’m on to something. Before a record gets done, I’ve probably sung in my head or listened to those little pieces a hundred times each—because I just do it and do it and do it until I get sick of it, and then I throw it away. But if I listen again and again and again, and I don’t get sick of it, then I think that might be something that’s going to last.
Is the cringe-inducing stuff
usually the words you’ve
laid down, the whole thing
together, or either one of
Oh, it’s the words. A chord progression will never make me cringe, it’ll just make me yawn. It can only be boring—it can’t be, like … stupid. But it only takes a couple of choice words to make it stupid [laughs].
Has your process of writing
changed over the years?
It’s been pretty constant. But when we did the release party for [2010’s covers album] If I Had a Hi-Fi, we prepared for it by playing all of [2002’s] Let Go in one club one night, all of [2005’s] The Weight Is a Gift another night, and all of [2008’s] Lucky the next night in another club. So, to brush up on those songs, I had to listen to those three records a lot, and it really struck me that those versions sounded so different from how we ended up playing them onstage—and also different from the way I remembered writing them and playing them in early practices. I found that we’d sort of grown into two bands—one that’d kept the same energy onstage over the years, and one that had started to kind of slow down in the studio.
At first I was really frustrated, thinking that we’d gone into some kind of groupthink. Like, “Okay, we’re older now, and this is our career, and we’re trying to make stuff that’s going to last. Slow down! Calm down now! Hold on a minute—don’t run away with it, you kids!” But then when we recorded Hi-Fi, it was so much fun and there was so much good energy coming from the drums, for example—Ira [Elliot] is an incredible live drummer— and I realized that it was actually all my fault. It was because I was finishing songs in the studio for years—not on purpose, but just because I’m an idiot and couldn’t finish them on time. I realized we play so differently when we really know the stuff and we’re not tracking while also thinking, “Hmm … should the chorus be two times or three times? Let’s try this one more time, but do the chorus twice.” That kind of thinking on the fly was keeping us from sounding like we do live—where we just kind of go for it. So I made a concerted effort this time to just write 10 songs, instead of working on 25 half-done ideas. I got a big kitchen table, spread out 10 pieces of paper, and just tried to finish.
Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws rocks his Black Beauty in Mezzago, near Milan, Italy, last February. Photo by Marina Ravizza
Well, it worked—the songs
are tight and they rock like
you guys have been playing
them for a while.
Exactly, and we haven’t had that luxury in ages. We made our first album [1996’s High/Low] twice. We made it with a different drummer with our pocket money for a tiny label in Spain, and then they ended up wanting to market us to the rest of the world but we were, like, “But you guys don’t have anything going on outside of Spain. We can’t give it to you—sorry!” So when we made it with Ric Ocasek, it was the second time, so we knew those songs cold. That was the only other record we’ve made so fast. This one we made in five days of basic tracking. And, this time we didn’t go out of town to get away from home distractions, as we’ve done for years. When we’ve done that, you have that period of closing up shop, packing up your apartment, shipping some gear, arriving in Seattle or San Francisco, and then taking a day off to recover from jet lag. When you finally get back in the studio, you’re, like, “Wait—how did that [groove] feel again?” This time, we finished the last practice on a Sunday, rolled the gear three blocks away to the nearest decent studio, and the next day at noon we were tracking. We didn’t have to check a metronome, we didn’t have to ask any questions—we just did it. And it came out just like it sounded in the practice studio—which is exciting, because now I don’t have to listen to it through some filter, like, “Yeah, well, y’know—it’s an album. It’s a little different, but that’s cool. How mature.” This time, I hear it and I’m, like, “Whoa—that’s us. Cool!”
The bass is locked in so tight
with the guitar on pretty
much all the songs. Do you
work extra hard with Daniel
to get a tight groove that really
maximizes that punchiness,
or is that lockstep power just
a result of how long you guys
have played together?
That’s just us playing together for so long that, when we kind of go into your basic, eighthnote chugga-chugga thing, we’re pretty locked—just because that’s what we’ve been doing for so long.
Did you track everything live
in the same room, with amps
in isolation rooms?
Yep, it was the three of us—me, Daniel, and Ira. Doug [Gillard] came in just for overdubs. My guitar was going into two tweed Deluxe replicas that my friend J.J. built for me. He collects new-old-stock parts [NOS], and he made me a couple of tweed Deluxe clones that have new parts for everything that could break down, and everything that won’t break down is old.
Are those your go-to amps
now, or were those just what
you happened to use this time?
My go-to amp is a ’65 Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue with a Jensen Special Design speaker. The Jensen speaker is important, because the speaker the Deluxe comes with is pretty brittle. I usually use a THD Hot Plate, too, to tame it down so I can really listen to what it sounds like without it hurting—because I do like a pretty hyped-up Fender sound. With an AC30 it’s impossible to get the right tone without blowing everybody off the stage—you really have to crank it. My go-to heavy sound is from a Marshall JCM800 50-watt head that I’ve had for years. Live, I always run two Fender-type amps—or Vox-type or Orange or Silvertone—flanking a JCM800. On this last tour in Europe, I had an AC30 on one side and a Deluxe Reverb on the other. The two on the outside are always on, and then the Marshall I turn on and off the same way you would a fuzz box. For years I tried channel switching, but I got frustrated with it, because in recording you don’t do that—you get to the chorus and you just add stuff instead of taking it away. To do that, I use a Morley George Lynch Tripler pedal.
Do you have a go-to setup for
your jangly rhythm parts, and
if so, what are your preferred
pickup selections and amp
and effect settings?
The Deluxe Reverbs and tweed clones are my go-to amps for jangly parts. And I really only have two main guitars in the studio: One is a ’68 Les Paul Custom Black Beauty, and then I have a ’69 Tele that’s really light. I tend to always be on the bridge pickup—I’d rather have the guitar always sound bright, and then just dial the treble back on the amp. The only other variables are how much gain to use on the amp or whether to turn off the Hot Plate and turn the amp down a bit to get some sparkle, or to bring the Hot Plate into it to get some muscle. Live, though, the amps tend to be pretty cranked. I really like AC30s, but I think the Deluxe is really my favorite, because it does its own kind of gain thing: You can find a sweet spot where, if you play lightly it’s crystal clear, but if you dig in it’s crunched up. That’s the best, because then it’s just a question of your hands deciding what you want to hear.
Are the Les Paul and Tele
Yep, I only changed the tuners on the Les Paul—I put some Waverlys on there. But of course I kept the originals. I got both of those at Main Drag Music in Brooklyn about 15 years ago.
Are those the same guitars you
take on the road?
I only take Les Pauls on the road. I have a 1960 Les Paul reissue from 1996, and I also have an Edwards, which is an incredible Japanese knock-off made by ESP. They can’t export them here—they call them lawsuit guitars because they’re so perfect. They cost about a grand, they’re light as a feather, and they sound incredible. I actually may have played that more than my Black Beauty on this record.
Why do you only play Les
Pauls on the road?
For years, I was the only guitar player, so I got completely hooked on the thickness of the sound. Even now, with Doug playing with us on the road, I’m still hooked—it’s what I know.
“Waiting for Something”
begins with a beautiful arpeggiated
part that’s doubled on
acoustic and an electric that’s
barely breaking up. When the
song kicks in, the driving, jangly
electrics lean a little to the
left side of the stereo field, and
you punctuate things occasionally
with drier, more straightahead
rock chords and riffs on
the right side—and then when
that muscular solo comes in
the middle of the stereo field, it
hits you right in the face. What
drives your decisions on stuff
like that—and do you make
panning decisions like that in
the studio during mixdown, or
do you actually envision parts
that way when you’re writing?
We do little mixdowns as we go. I’m a big believer in really checking out rough mixes and making sure you don’t have to add too much to it [at final mixdown]. I do tend to want to double and triple guitars all the time, and Chris Shaw—Astronomy’s great, great producer—did sort of hold me back now and again.
“When I Was Young” has a
gorgeous acoustic 12-string
sound, with the bass strings
panned left and the trebles
panned right. What did you
play for that part, and how did
you capture such lush tones?
Oh, thanks! That’s actually a 6-string doubled with a guitar playing Nashville tuning [a 6-string with the E, A, D, and G strings tuned an octave higher than normal]. When we made The Weight Is a Gift with [producer] Chris Walla, we were listening to a lot of [Traveling Wilburys and Beatles and Roy Orbison producer] Jeff Lynne productions and noticing how he puts Nashville tuning on everything.
Which guitars did you use
for that, and why did you use
two guitars instead of a single
12-string to get that sound?
Because fingerpicking on a 12-string is a sloppier affair, and I’m really not much of a fingerpicker. I used a 1991 Gibson J-200, and the Nashville tuning was on a big, blonde Guild F-50 jumbo.
One of the big lessons demonstrated
by these tracks is how
the different layers need to contrast—
or tonally—and yet still lock in
and complement each other. For
instance, the middle section of
“When I Was Young” has these
anthemic, ringing chords on
electric guitar that give you an
image of a rock god in power
stance on a huge arena stage,
and it stands in such bold, stark
contrast to the lilting acoustic
beginning. How much time do
you spend thinking about and
working on contrasts like that?
I hope we’re not guilty of doing the same thing over and over again, but I always gravitate toward certain things. I mean, if a part is slow and big, I tend to want to think in a Crazy Horse way. Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” [from 1975’s Zuma] period—with those booming chords—was a huge influence. When I’m thinking that way, I’ll go for this really saturated sound and I won’t play much so that the chords can really ring out and bloom. It’s like when you set a compressor the right way on a crash cymbal. A lot of people hit cymbals too hard so they choke. That was a big thing about [Led Zeppelin drummer John] Bonham—he hit the drums hard, but he didn’t hit the cymbals hard. If you hit a crash cymbal lightly, it’ll go whoooosh, and I think guitars can be the same way: If your amp’s really singing, you can play less and let the harmonics really do stuff.
Do you ever struggle with
having too many cool guitar
parts for a single song? How
do you know when to say,
“enough is enough”?
I don’t usually have too many parts, but I can definitely have too many tracks. At some point, you have to go, “Okay, it’s getting smaller.” The problem is that I’m so addicted to doubling. But if you’re, like, “Oh, let’s try this guitar and this amp. And how about these …,” before you know it, you’ve got four tracks of rhythm guitar—which can be okay if you can control it in the mix. But when you have too much, it starts to get smaller [sounding]. The transients are all getting squished, because there are so many of them—they’re blurring together. So sometimes it does take a bit of an effort to dial it back.
Your doubled guitar parts are
incredibly tight. Do you work
extra hard to track them that
way from the beginning, or do
you nudge them in Pro Tools
after the fact?
I’m not so into using Pro Tools to move stuff around. I got my big lesson on doubling with Ric Ocasek on our first record: Whenever we’d have a song with a typical, here-comes-the-chorus, kaboom-type of thing, we would triple-track it with a Les Paul and a Marshall. I’d do the first track, and it was usually cool, but for the second and third layers, he’d make me do it, like, 15 times—until that first fraction of a second hit like a wall. I’d hit the chord on the second or third track, and Ric would be, like, “Yeah, that’s good. Do it again … Good. Do it again … Good … Do it again ….” And then I’d hit one where it was just completely invisible—and I’m a believer now. When the stuff is really tight, it just does something really special to the impact of the song.