My feature on Nada Surf originally appeared in the North County Times. The band appears on Monday at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, Calif. and Tuesday-Wednesday at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. Go to www.nadasurf.com for more info. Photo by Autumn de Wilde, courtesy of Big Hassle PR.
When a band decides to do a covers album, it is usually because they’ve had the urge for awhile or need to bide some time until the creative juices start flowing again.
Neither reason applied to indie rockers Nada Surf, whose impressive new release “If I Had a Hi-Fi,” is due out June 8. According to Matthew Caws, the musicians had actually soured on the idea several years ago.
“We decided, after having contributed songs to three tribute records (Pixies, Iggy Pop, Big Star), not to record cover songs anymore. This was more of a reaction to the varying quality of tribute records than the act of interpretation,” the singer/guitarist said via email, before Nada Surf appeared at a Swiss rock festival.
The idea came about spontaneously when the New York City trio was prepping a final European jaunt in support of 2008 studio effort “Lucky” and wanted frequent collaborator/tour mate Louie Lino along for the ride. The keyboardist reluctantly declined because owning a new recording studio in Austin was taking up all his free time.
Caws asked if a raise would seal the deal. “He said the only thing that would help would be if we made a record there. Deciding where we’re going to make our next studio record takes some thinking, so I suggested a covers record” and he agreed.
From the well-known (Moody Blues, Depeche Mode, Kate Bush, Spoon) and revered (Dwight Twilley, Go-Betweens) to more obscure names (Bill Fox, Soft Pack, Coralie Clement), the range of artist compositions on “Hi-Fi” is eclectic.
“While we tried not to have any hard-set rules with regards to song selection, something being lesser known was attractive. We certainly didn’t want to make a record that you could guess at the sound just by reading the song list,” wrote Caws. No stranger to singing in French, he does another one in that foreign tongue as well as Spanish on the album.
Each member of Nada Surf brought a potential song stack and played them for each other. “It was really very random and natural. There weren’t many songs that we’d been thinking about for years." The only exceptions: drummer Ira Elliot had wanted to do the Moodys’ “Question” for awhile and Bush’s “Love and Anger” had been one of the frontman’s favorites since its release in 1989.
"We were really trying to capture the spontaneity inherent in doing an album of original songs...and tried to choose [ones] that would either, a) sound different enough just by virtue of what we sound like, or b) would feel so natural to us that we’d be in ‘they could have written it’ territory.”
Spoon’s “Agony of Laffitte,” inspired by a poor experience with Elektra Records, definitely struck a personal chord for Nada Surf. It was also on the label’s roster for 1996 disc “High/Low,” which spawned the sarcastic modern rock radio hit “Popular.”
“I remember selling that EP when I was working in a record store after we got dropped [by Elektra]. We’d known the parties in question, so it resonated in a unique way.”
For Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” Nada Surf - rounded out by bassist Daniel Lorca - used subtle keyboards, driving guitars and vocalized the key melody line. Caws said “reworking that song was a big thrill…people do radical reinterpretations all the time, but it was a first for me!”
The Moodys track ended up both aggressive and luxurious in their hands, thanks to an actual string section. “Ira suggested we approach the fast parts in more of a Stooges manner - really pushing it. We used to do a lot of tempo shifting in the band’s early days. It was fun to go back to that kind of structure, where the landscape changes completely.”
Earlier this spring, Nada Surf performed three of its albums front to back for the first time at different hometown shows. “A couple songs we’d never played because we’d somehow internalized the idea that they were too difficult. Of course, as these things go, those turned out to be the easy ones.”
Afterward, “the biggest upshot of the whole experience for me was looking back at this huge stack of songs and thinking, ‘that’s a whole lot of power pop, check, now what?’
Caws said fans heading to the Belly Up can look forward to hearing at least half of “Hi-Fi” (which sports a cool hand stenciled cover of multiple speaker stacks) live. “Learning so many songs has loosened something up in us - in a good way - and the shows have been feeling really good.”