Often times, when an artist has success with a hit single off of their first album, they are unable to shake their "one hit wonder" status. In the case of Brooklyn-based Nada Surf, however, the bands best work came following the success of the single "Popular" from their debut album High/Low. Instead of wallowing in obscurity, Nada Surf churned out quality albums, full of smart, precise power-pop that helped them retain their cult audience, while simultaneously securing their indie-rock credibility by eventually moving from a major label to the more home-grown confines of Washington state-based Barsuk Records.
Nada Surf's singer/guitarist and main songwriter Matthew Caws grew up the son of two successful professors. When Caws was a child, he lived in Paris while his parents were on a sabbatical, and it was there that he began his early schooling. Eventually, his family moved back to New York, and chose to enroll Caws in a school that taught French. At school, Caws met future Nada Surf bassist Daniel Lorca, who was a huge music fan, and major admirer of bands like the Clash. The two formed a mutual bond over music, and began playing together in various bands. Caws told Catalystclub.com, "Our first band was called The Cost Of Living, but I kicked Daniel out eventually." Lorca explained in the same article, "I went to live in Spain for a year. I was in a band there, did an album, then quit and eventually moved back to the states."
Initial Release in Spain
In 1988, Caws and Lorca reconvened in New York to again try their hand at starting a band together, forming Because Because Because in 1991, with a different lead singer. The two long-time friends were unhappy with the direction the group was going, so they decided to pull the plug on the project. In 1993, Caws began concentrating more seriously on becoming a songwriter, and decided to give another band a go, again with Lorca handling bass duties. With Caws doing a majority of the singing, they formed Nada Surf, and started recording some demos immediately. The bands first release was issued in 1994, a seven inch for the songs "The Plan" and "Telescope." Next, Noneties released the North Sixth Street sessions in 1995, containing songs that soon found their way to Spain. Caws told Catalystclub.com, "A friend of ours put a couple of the songs out on a small label. I sent thirty copies to Daniel, who was visiting his relatives in Spain." On the strength of that initial release, a Spanish label signed the band, prompting them to record an album that would be released in Europe.
After Nada Surf finished their recording, the bands original drummer left the group. Thankfully, Caws and Lorca remembered their friend Ira Elliot, whom they met back in 1984, when he was the drummer for New York glam/psychedelic band the Fuzztones (who put out a number of albums, most notably 1989's In Heat on Beggars Banquet). With a new lineup, things were looking good for the burgeoning band, but a blow was dealt when the European record deal fell through. The band played on though, functioning with somewhat low expectations. But, a copy of their already recorded album made it into the hands of ex-Cars front man Ric Ocasek. Ocasek, who had produced a number of successful albums, including records by Bad Brains, Iggy Pop, Bad Religion, Possum Dixon and Weezer, offered to rerecord the songs from the unreleased album if the band wished. It started to look like the band might "make it" after all.
A "Popular" Hit
In 1996, the band signed with Elektra Records, and began recording their debut album with Ocasek behind the boards. By the time High/Low was released in June of 1996, alternative rock had hit a high point, with bands like Superdrag, Cake, Nerf Herder and Weezer all riding the current "nerd rock" revival that was capitalized by bands like the Elvis Costello, the Cars, and Pavement in the late '70s, early '80s, and on into the early '90s. Combining crunchy power-pop hooks with a smart, sarcastic, and self-aware style of lyrics and dress (often characterized by ill-fitting sweaters and horn-rimmed glasses), Nada Surf's brand of raucous grunge-pop fit right in with the apparent trend. The first single released from High/Low, the teenage-clique mocking "Popular," was released and followed by a subsequent video that featured the band as teachers in a cliché high school. Depicting images of homosexual football players and the like, the band struck a chord with music fans who identified with the feeling of "not fitting in", and the single and video became a massive hit on alternative rock radio and MTV.
Because of the success of their video, Nada Surf saw their career take off to unexpected heights, granting them the chance to release EP Karmic on No.6 records, which contained songs recorded from the original version of High/Low. But, with their newfound success also came newfound troubles. When the band decided to release their next single, Elektra Records pulled the proverbial rug out from under their feet. In a quote on Anecdotage.com, Caws said, "We'd agreed a long time ahead with the A&R guy on what our three singles would be. But when it was time for the second single, the radio department said they didn't 'get' it." The band continued to tour, but their second single flopped, leaving the band a bit high and dry. Consequently, things were starting to change in modern rock in the mid '90s, as heavier bands like Korn, Tool and Limp Bizkit were beginning to rule the airwaves and MTV, prompting tons of labels to drop many of their pop-oriented, alt.rock-leaning acts.
Nada Surf, however, tried to stay headstrong, and in 1998, went back into the studio to work on new material for their sophomore effort. When they handed Elektra demos from their recording sessions, their contact at the label came back to them and suggest they try harder. Instead, the band decided to attempt to get Elektra to release the album, titled The Proximity Effect, as is. Caws told Mediummagazine.com, "We really wanted nothing more to do with them. I loved music as an escape, but this escape hatch was leading me somewhere I didn't want to go." Their plan was mildly successful, as the label agreed to release the album in Europe in 1998. But, they really wanted another "Popular"-esque hit, and when the band didn't deliver, Elektra subsequently dropped Nada Surf. The band, however, was happy about Elektra's decision to drop the band, as Caws told Mediummagazine.com, "Looking back on it, the whole "Popular" experience seems surreal. It was like an amusement park ride, like a haunted house, where everything's fake."
The band still had to deal with the reality of getting the rights back to The Proximity Effect, which would take almost two years. Caws told Inmusicwetrust.com, "They'd lower the price and we'd bargain and they'd lower it some more. After year of arguing it, they finally gave it to us. It was a point of pride for us. We just wanted to put it out the way it was. They wanted us to add songs and change the artwork. It was just too much of a headache for us." In that time, Caws worked as an employee at a record store in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lived, toured Europe numerous times with Nada Surf (who had gained popularity there, thanks to The Proximity Effect's initial European-only release), and also decided to start a record label, MarDev. In 2000, MarDev finally released The Proximity Effect in the United States. Popmatters.com's Devon Powers said, "For those who remember and enjoy the 1996 single 'Popular,' this album will be a welcome mat to an enduring relationship of fandom. There're soft, mix-tape worthy ballads, power chords driven by angst, happy-go-lucky party songs, zippy guitars, experimental beats and off-the-wall instrumentation."
For the Record …
Members include Matthew Caws, vocals, guitar; Ira Elliot, drums; Daniel Lorca, bass.
Group formed in New York City, 1993; released first 7" record, 1994; signed with Elektra and released High/Low, 1996; single "Popular" from the album became a smash hit on MTV and alternative radio; released The Proximity Effect in Europe, 1998; dropped by Elektra; released The Proximity Effect on independent label MarDev in United States, 2000; signed with Barsuk records and released Let Go, 2002; released The Weight is a Gift on Barsuk, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Barsuk Records, P.O. Box 22546, Seattle, WA 98122, website: http://www.barsuk.com. Website—Nada Surf Official Website: http://www.nadasurf.com.
A Second Chance
Much to the bands surprise, they found that some of their audience from the "Popular"-era still cared about the band. This time around, however, the band gained respect and credibility for not only fighting Elektra for rights to their own record, but also choosing to release it on their own. After a mostly successful tour of the United States supporting the already 3-year-old album, Nada Surf decided to return to the studio to record a follow up to The Proximity Effect in 2001. Caws told Magnet Magazine, "We were really recording for a ghost indie because we didn't know who it was going to be. It was recorded on pocket money. We toured from New York to L.A. in June of 2001 and paid for studio time with our t-shirt money. It was funny because it was this huge pile of cash, but it was all singles and fives. We didn't have to please anybody, and if you're with an indie, you only have to be true to yourself. Working with a major was awful. It was a really bad experience." Once the album was recorded, Nada Surf began to shop their new record to various labels, almost signing with Astralwerks. However, it was Seattle-based label Barsuk, home to Death Cab for Cutie and The Revolutionary Hydra, that was picked to release the record, titled Let Go, in October of 2002. Rolling Stone called Let Go, "… an excellent rainy-afternoon album, full of gentle and melancholic beauty—Nada Surf show enough panache to leave most of their nineties-rock peers eating hot dust."
After over two years of touring on Let Go, with the likes of Sondre Lerche and Death Cab for Cutie, Nada Surf released The Weight is a Gift for Barsuk in September of 2005. Filter Magazine said the record, "plays out like the best bedtime story: One that riles you up, spooks you a bit, makes you think, then eases your mind. And when you go to sleep, you might know a little something you didn't when you woke up that day."
High/Low, Elektra, 1996.
The Proximity Effect, Elektra, 1998.
Let Go, Barsuk, 2002.
Live at l'Ancienne, EMI, 2004.
The Weight is a Gift, Barsuk, 2005.
Entertainment Weekly, June 21, 1996; February 13, 2004; September 23, 2005.
Interview, March 1, 2003.
"Nada Surf," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 27, 2006).
"Nada Surf," Filter Magazine, http://www.filter-mag.com/artists/interior.133.html (December 21, 2005).
"Nada Surf Bio," Catalyst Club, http://www.catalystclub.com/bios/nada_surf_bio.html (January 22, 2006).
"Nada Surf Interview," Magnet Magazine, http://www.magnetmagazine.com/interviews/nadasurf.html (December 12, 2005).
Nada Surf Official Website, http://www.nadasurf.com/ (January 18, 2006).
"Nada Surf: Singular Stupidity," Anecdotage, http://www.anecdotage.com/index.php?aid=17979 (January 27, 2006).
"'Popular' Band Back with More Catchy Rock," In Music We Trust, http://www.inmusicwetrust.com/articles/37h09.html (December 22, 2005).
"The Proximity Effect," Pop Matters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/n/nadasurf-proximity.shtml (January 27, 2006).
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