Pictured is the cover of "If I Had a Hi-Fi." The following are more excerpts from my email back-and-forth with Matthew Caws.
Q: A couple months ago, the band played three of its albums at different NYC shows. Had you done that before? What was the experience like?
A: We’d never done that before. The idea of doing our first three had been bandied about a few years ago, but it was a busy time and honestly it seemed like a lot of work! In the end, it kinda was a lot of work, but we’ve played so many of the songs off the last three records live that the stack of “new” songs wasn’t too daunting.
Q: You sing a song in French on the covers album, which you've done in the past. Does the phrasing come easier for you now or is it second nature since you were raised in Paris? Speaking of that - what ages did you attend school there? Did any French musicians serve as a later inspiration for your work in Nada Surf?
A: Well, the phrasing is second nature in that I don’t have to think about it to just roll the dice and sing in French. But there will be mistakes. My accent is far more convincing than my grammar. So, for actual recording, I have to take a close look at what’s going on in the details and run it by Daniel, who’s a little more native than I am. I lived in Paris for two school years - one when I was five and another when I was 12. Back home, I went to the Lycee Francais de New York from age six to 15. I really love some French artists: Serge Gainsbourg all along, Francoise Hardy all along. I am wild about a few songs in other cases, like Jacques Dutronc and Edith Piaf, and a fan of some current things like Charlotte Gainsbourg and Phoenix. Stereolab have a French singer and I love them. So, same influence as anything else, just in smaller proportion. If anything, Serge Gainsbourg works as an inhibiting influence in that he looms so large and his - pardon the word choice here - finesse, constantly playing with a language that, despite the frenchiness of the expression “double entendre,” can be quite difficult to play with. Clearly I’m making a gross generality here.
Q: One of my favorites is the Depeche Mode track. It really has a Nada Surf vibe now. Was deconstructing that one hard? How about the Moody Blues, with the tempo shifts and orchestration? Have you tried to pull off the latter live yet?
A: The physical act was relatively straightforward, just sitting down with a guitar and letting the song mutate until I could sustain the illusion that I’d written it myself. Convincing myself that it was perfectly ok to do that to the extent that I did was the “hard” part.
The Moody Blues song...we haven’t tackled live yet. One small regret of mine is that I didn’t get around to putting choral harmonies on the slow middle bit. Having a sing along there would have put an interesting spin on the torch song feeling inherent to that part.
Q: Another standout for me is the opening Bill Fox number, "Electrocution." How did you end up getting ex-Guided by Voices guitarist Doug Gillard to play on it?
A: I’ve been a fan of Doug’s playing for ages. We even started a cover of “Pop Zeus,” from ‘Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department’ - an amazing record he did with [GBV singer] Bob Pollard, where he played all the instruments. Doug is a great arranger and a damn fine rhythm section! I went to see him solo at Piano’s once and introduced myself. Such a sweet guy. I ran into him at a Bob Mould show. We had a conversation about [The Pretenders’] James Honeyman-Scott and I can’t remember if he offered first or I asked first, but whatever happened, we had a plan by the end of the night.
Q: Were there any covers you attempted, but just didn’t work as Nada Surf songs? What about extra ones you recorded, but didn’t make the album?
A: Maybe we were conservative in our actual ‘let’s-really-try-this’ choices, because they all kinda sorta worked. Songs in various states of disrepair or unfinishedness or hardly-startedness include “Spark” by the Bird and the Bee, the above-mentioned “Pop Zeus,” the Ramones’ “Locket Love,” Midnight Oil’s “Dreamworld,” the Charlatans’ “A Man Needs to be Told.”
Q: The last line of “Janine” coincides with the first one of “You Were So Warm.” Intentional?
A: Yes! Bless you for noticing.
Q: The credits diagram reminds me of something I might’ve drawn up in high school. Is it supposed to represent the inside of a speaker? Whose idea was it to use the great hand drawn lettering and illustration?
A: I don’t know that there was any specific reason for the shape of the inner drawing. I think Wolfy (the artist who illustrated the whole thing) was reacting in an interpretive way to a) the number of people involved and b) the unfortunately chaotic way the information was being delivered, due to our finishing mixes and stuff at the last second. A friend of his saw that diagram as he was working on it and noted that it looked like a shaker gift drawing.
The cover itself was originally a photo (that stereo actually existed for a day), but for one reason or another wasn’t working as a cover image. Years ago, when we only played in New York, I would send out little cards to friends and people on our mailing list, more often than not using a Shel Silverstein illustration as part of my primitive cut-and-paste and/or primitive collage art. I really love Wolfy’s drawing (we’ve been commissioning him and his partner Kayrock to make tour posters for us for over a decade). I asked him if he’d be willing to do a drawing of the cover photo. He was totally into it and what’s even better is that he went for my next idea, which was to imagine what the back of the stereo would look like and draw that. He ran with the idea and decided to do every single part of the package by hand. He didn’t have a lot of time, but he dove in and really did something amazing I think. Once the cover was going to be a line drawing, he decided to do the whole thing by hand.
Q: Did you want the brief instrumental to close the album on a dreamy note? That was written by your brother-in-law’s band, correct?
A: I did. Jonathan Caws-Elwitt has been writing really incredible songs for years. That particular one, “I remembered what I was going to say,” lives in the perfect-the-way-it-is, don’t-want-to-sing-it category, but I thought the instrumental theme, which is a thing of beauty all by itself, would be a lovely way to have the record sort of dance itself to a close. Exit music. Night music. I’d love to stage some kind of couples dance at the end of a show, but I feel like people don’t know how to dance like that, myself certainly included, so maybe it would play out like a slow motion mosh pit rather than a twirling ballroom.
Q: Other than David Bowie’s ‘Pin-Ups,’ which everyone seems to cite, what are some of your all-time favorite covers albums?
A: Well, yes, I love ‘Pin-Ups.’ I would like to join everyone and cite it as well. I don’t really have any other favorites. I love the cover of the Vetiver covers record - a thing of the past. I’ve only listened to Side One, and it’s pretty crazy good. I love the phosphorescent Willie Nelson covers album, ‘To Willie.’
Here’s my favorite though. There’s a great semi official, cassette only Replacements bootleg called ‘When the Shit Hits the Fans,’ which according to my vague recollection of the liner notes was conceived when someone was caught illegally taping a show and had the cassette removed from their recording Walkman, ostensibly by someone connected to the band. They just used it as a master and put it out. They do a lot of covers, half covers, quarter covers. Hilarious and totally (and drunkenly, natch) rocking. Here’s a partial list of songs: Robyn Hitchcock’s “Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus,” “I’ll Be There,” “Saturday Night Special,” “Iron Man,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Heartbreaker,” Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak,” Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” “Takin’ Care of Business,” “I Will Follow,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Radio Free Europe”…
Q: What else is on the horizon for Nada Surf in 2010?
A: We’re in the middle of a whole bunch of touring right now, with little breaks thrown in. We just took our second ever band holiday: 10 days in Ibiza (on the northern hippie end, not the southern oontz oontz oontz (attempt at techno/house as printed word) end. We listened to a lot of old unfinished songs and made up some new ones, but mostly listened to music together and got our minds around how we might approach the next album, which we’re hoping to be in the process of making by the end of this year. Amazing time. My horizon looks like this right now: show here in Geneva tomorrow, week in New York, starting to get new office / studio space together, West Coast tour, week in Japan, a few weeks off, month of European festivals and club shows, back to Japan for another week, month of odds and ends, then putting on of wooly thinking caps and off to the races with album number six!