By: Robbie ChaplickTwo career roads diverged in a rock world. But Nada Surf took the roadmore traveled by, and it made all the difference. Instead of startingoff their career as a hip, underground band, slugging their way towardfame and fortune, they signed the big contract with the big label thatwent for the big single–the MTV-friendly “Popular”–and then saidlabel abandoned the ‘Surf in a big way. For most folks, that’s wherethe story ends–little band makes enormous novelty hit, and no onewants to hear it after the 85th play. After all, who is waiting for thenext New Radicals single?
Twocareer roads diverged in a rock world. But Nada Surf took the road moretraveled by, and it made all the difference. Instead of starting offtheir career as a hip, underground band, slugging their way toward fameand fortune, they signed the big contract with the big label that wentfor the big single–the MTV-friendly “Popular”–and then said labelabandoned the ‘Surf in a big way. For most folks, that’s where thestory ends–little band makes enormous novelty hit, and no one wants tohear it after the 85th play. After all, who is waiting for the next NewRadicals single?
“There was no way we were going to beanyone’s pet band when we appeared on MTV out of leftfield. That kindof marked us for the up-and-down,” Nada Surf’s guitarist/vocalistMatthew Caws explains from the band’s adopted hometown of Paris,arguably the place where their fame is still cresting. “More than mostbands, we had some serious elements working against us–the song”Popular,” the fact that we got all these Weezer comparisons based onthe fact that we share the same producer, we wear similar glasses,etc.”
When it came time for the band to record a follow-up to their debut High/Low,Elektra couldn’t spot the single, and Nada Surf refused to record a new”hit,” so the label shelved the album. “Singles. It’s almost a badword. Too bad it’s not four letters,” jokes Caws. “My only realambition is to not have to think about the business anymore.”
Since U.S. business was null and void, the band turnedtheir attention to Europe, where they were able to release their secondalbum, the introverted pop-rock think-piece, The Proximity Effect, to critical acclaim. “Paris is sort of our biosphere, this alternate universe where things go according to plan,” says Caws.
But with Europe in their pocket, the trio from New York stillhoped to find their place in America. The first step was reclaiming therights to The Proximity Effect. After a long battle withElektra, they won the case and the album was finally released in theStates on Mardev, their own startup label.
“The moment we put out The Proximity Effect, I bought a van and we went on tour–and more people showed up than on our third High/Lowtour of the States, where we were on a bus and supposedlywell-supported financially,” says Caws. From that point on, Nada Surfwas no longer the band with “that song,” and were able to start thelong and arduous trek towards the long-term success they had cravedfrom the beginning.
“Oneof the things I’m happiest about is that I really feel like we’ve hadtwo careers,” Caws says. “You either have the slow climb, or you havethe peak and fall. And we always wanted the slow climb, but we weren’tallowed to have it, ’cause we got thrown up into the peak, and therewas nowhere to go but crashing down. But,” Caws adds, “now I feel we’redoing this slow and steady Little-Engine-That-Could thing, and I’m muchhappier with phase two.”
Last year, the ‘Surf finished their most recent album, Let Go,and shopped it around to a few American indies, retaining the rightsthey fought so hard for in the first place. “That was the bridge thatcould not be crossed,” explains Caws, who eventually led the band toBarsuk, home of indie pop stars Death Cab for Cutie and JohnVanderslice. “We had a lot of time to just fool around, and it was sortof mood dependent,” he adds. This mentality seems to lend itself toNada Surf’s most jarring songs, which delve into Caws’s psyche with apiercing honesty. But for Caws, “there’s a certain level where I’minsecure about my songwriting because I know it’s very personal, and Iwouldn’t blame anyone if they just wanted to take the damn record offand not hear about my problems anymore.”
On The Proximity Effect, the band has focused andhoned their pop chops, churning out delicious hooks alongside doubleentendres and lyrics brimming with brilliant self-deprecation: “I knowI have a negative edge / That’s why I sharpen all the others a lot,”croons Caws on “Blizzard of ’77.” Fans in North America who have yet toencounter The Proximity Effect may be thrown by the looseness of the record. But, in fact, it’s just a pleasant side-effect of freedom.
“The record was made in such a vacuum, no one wasparticularly waiting for it,” says Caws. “I think a lot of peoplethought we’d broken up, and that was kind of nice, because it felt likewe were making our own secret record. And that’s a good place to be.”