We met up with Matthew Caws from Nada Surf on the occasion of their show in Munich at Muffathalle. Check out the interview for information on the new record “You Know Who You Are”, tons of good advice for your own creative projects and an exclusive drawing of a Nada Surf fan favourite.
You guys have been touring in Germany quite a lot. Do you have a favourite city or a favourite place?
I like Hamburg a lot, it’s the first city in Germany where I made friends. Munich was exciting for us at the beginning cause we used to go to the Atomic Café. We played there once, maybe twice, and the shows were kind of crazy.
You’ve just released a new record. After having played together for such a long time, how does it feel to make a new album and get such amazing feedback?
It’s so nice, obviously. A new record always has this sort of turn-paper-feeling. I want to have done a good job. In the big picture, I don’t care that much about the reviews, but when a record is brand-new, I kind of do. I can’t help it. You put a lot of work into it and you just want someone to say “good job”.
I wanna feel useful, this is my job. It’s just a good feeling to know I’ve made somebody happy. Cause it’s not like you work all day. Especially when you’re on tour, you don’t write a song every day or every month. So if you release a new record and people tell you it helps them or it makes them feel really good, you feel useful.
I also think it was a good thing to go away for so long. People missed us a little bit.
Can you tell us a bit about the artwork?
I don’t know the person. A designer sent me some pictures and I wasn’t 100 % content with it, so I sent him a list of things that I liked including things like space, moonlight, NYC, perspective, windows, bicycles, navy blue and white, birds, and so many more. He picked up some of my suggestions, I guess.
One thing that I really like is that it’s the shape of a home plate in baseball, that’s kind of neat. Where you do stuff and where you try to come back to.
I really like it, I’m very happy with it. I also like that it’s not very high-res. We didn’t realise this until the vinyl came, it looks like it’s watercoloured, which I think is great.
You’ve been touring for such a long time. Are there any songs you ever get tired of playing?
I was gonna say “the ones we don’t play”, but that doesn’t really answer your question. I know that there are some songs that the people want us to play or that someone in the band wants us to play. I hope I never abuse it, but I’ve got some sort of veto power since obviously, you can’t make me play anything I don’t want to play. ‘Firecracker’ for example, which I like in a lot of ways, but also don’t.
‘Waiting for Something’, I like a lot, but it’s also very fuzzy.
The nice thing about having so many records is we can lean on the ones we want to play and don’t have to think so much about what we don’t want to play. If you only had one album and got sick of playing the songs you’d be kind of screwed cause you had to do it anyway.
We’ve got a little task for you. You have to draw…
Oh god, I’m terrible at drawing.
Please draw the song you like the most to play live.
I feel like I want to cheat and figure out the song which is the easiest to draw, but… okay, I’m not cheating. Honestly, ‘Always Love’ might be my favourite song to play live because it makes people happy. It’s just clear that that is the case.
Ira and I were in my apartment, having a kind of song factory. I had been in conflict with somebody for a little while and it was stressful. The weather outside was unbelievably beautiful, the sort that makes you feel really emotional and positive, like it is the beginning of something. Encouraging in some way. It just felt so good and I thought “Why can’t I just access the most positive part of myself, and if I can, what if I write the most positive song I can and then everytime I sing it for someone, it will be like a letter to myself to remember to move away from anger and move towards kindness”.
While Nada Surf were taking a short break, you collaborated with Juliana Hatfield and formed a band called Minor Alps. Do you think working with Juliana helped Nada Surf?
I think it did, yeah. I think it forced me to want to be more collaborative. I always wanted to be fully collaborative, but I think in the band I had to make more decisions, not cause I insisted on doing so but just because somebody had to.
In Minor Alps, we both had the exact same role, we were both songwriter, guitar player, co-producer, everything. You really had to let go a lot.
So when we came back to doing the Nada Surf record, I think I was more open to other suggestions, so that really helped.
Which three songs should be part of every road trip soundtrack?
‘Cortez the Killer’ by Neil Young.
Because it’s very good to repeat, and if it’s a really long drive you need something like that, to be in a good zone where you’re relaxed but awake… I once worked in a bank job from 1am till 9am and you were allowed to listen to music. It was a really stressful job and I remember listening to that song for four hours.
Other than that… I don’t know, what would you suggest?
Anything by Tom Petty, and ‘Take Off Your Sunglasses’ by Ezra Furman!
Yes! Tom Petty! Learning to Fly, so great.
Ezra Furman, also amazing. I put ‘My Zero’ on a lot of playlists actually.
What do you think of music streaming services like Spotify or Deezer? Do you think it’s a good thing or does it rather harm a band?
I don’t really know the science. I think there’s a lot of confusion about it. If your song gets played on the radio, you get a certain amount of money, but you don’t know how many people are listening. Could be a few, could be a lot, that money could be split up into a lot of pieces. In a big global way, musicians making so much money is kind of an anomaly. I don’t think singers have ever made a lot of money. Think of the bard back in the Middle Ages, he didn’t live in the big house.
Music is kind of a difficult craft, but not really. You’re just playing. Just exploring. A lot of it happens by accident. Maybe you’re born with an ear for melody, maybe not.
Streaming is very good and very bad. It’s complicated. It’s great cause people enjoy so much music now, but before the Internet, when you were really into something you had to hunt for it. And that thrill and excitement got kind of lost. When I was growing up, I got enough allowance to buy one 45 a week. So I listened to that 45 a lot, even if I didn’t like it. It trained me to be more open-minded.
It’s like if chocolate is your favourite thing. All of a sudden you have chocolate all day, all the time, constantly. Does chocolate taste as good when you eat it all day?
Ultimately, it’s probably good cause you get people to listen to music. Good, but complicated.
Harry Potter or Star Wars?
Star Wars, only because I read the first Harry Potter and liked it, watched a few of the movies and liked them.
Not all Star Wars though. I didn’t like all of them that much.
In a way, it’s hard to compare. They’re both magically awesome fictional worlds.
Cheese or chocolate?
I love them both so much. Anyway, cheese. Cause it’s a real food. And if you can only have one of them, you might as well have the food.
Which advice would you give to young artists who are only just starting with music?
Don’t rely on it. Find something else that you’re interested in and pursue that to make a living. If you ever get yourself in the corner where it’s “do or die” with music, that’s a tough place. Don’t get tempted to make a bad decision like “what would sell best” or “what’s commercial”.
One thing that I’ve learned from was hearing Bruce Springsteen give a speech. He said “When you go on stage tonight, remember that you are amazing, you are one of the best things that has ever happened, you are so good at what you do. Also remember, you suck.” I thought the point was amazing. It’s important to hold two conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time, and as an artist it’s really good to hold on to this. It’s not about vanity, but you should get exciting about what you do. That helps you to be adventurous. But you also don’t want to think that it’s actually totally magic, cause there’s seven billion people in the world, and under the right circumstances, seven billion of them could probably write a really good song.
It’s important to be objective, to see things unemotionally. Work emotionally, but not too much.
Another piece of advice which I think is so good is by John Cleese from his creativity lecture. It’s about giving yourself 90 minutes to be creative. Don’t postpone working on something, don’t be like “I can only work if my room is tidy” and then you don’t tidy up so you get in your own way. So you give yourself 90 minutes of almost holy, pure space, you turn everything off, your radio, your phone, your computer. You don’t do anything else. You just give yourself the time and the space to work.
John’s theory is that for the first 30 minutes you are in a landing phase where you might not get anything done, but then, you’ll probably have 60 minutes in that zone where you get something done. It’s all guessing, but I like the way he guesses. Just to give yourself the chance to get something done. It’s likely that if you put in that kind of energy and protection, it works out.