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Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws on 'if i had a hi-fi' (and surviving the agony of Laffitte): A Music Mix Q&A

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Image Credit: Autumn de WildeToday is the day for all you Nada Surf fans to dash out to your local independent record stores and pick up a copy of if i had a hi-fi! The venerable trio has compiled a collection of covers from unexpected artists like Depeche Mode (“Enjoy the Silence”) and Kate Bush (“Love and Anger”), all handled in characteristic peppy-pop style. There are some inside jokes, too, like Spoon’s “The Agony of Laffitte,” an ode to the end of days at Elektra Records — and a couple of disappointing executives Nada Surf themselves knew all too well.

We sat down with frontman Matthew Caws backstage at Sasquatch(!) over Memorial Day weekend to get his thoughts on reinterpreting the work of others, as well as discovering the unexpected upside — now seen clearly in hindsight — of being dropped by a major label after one really popular song.

Entertainment Weekly: So why a covers record?

Matthew Caws: Because Louie Lino, our keyboard player, couldn’t come on our final tour for Lucky. He’d just built this recording studio in Austin, and he really needed to get it off the ground. And during the course of the 30-second conversation we had about this, like, “Can you do this tour?” “No,” I was like, “Is there anything we can do?” And he said, “Well, you could make a record here. That would help.” So I suggested a covers record, and then we went down there last September for three weeks and did it. Secretly, I wanted to avoid the eight-ball of coming home from tour for a while. Cause it’s not like we’re on this super tight album-tour-record-album-tour-record schedule — but kinda. I mean, I have other parts of my life, too, as an adult. The intent was to do it quick, cheap, without worrying too much. None of this happened. We took it as seriously as an album of our own. I think we just have one gear.

These are definitely Nada Surf versions of these songs, completely in character. How do you arrange a Depeche Mode song to sound like Nada Surf?

That was the most fun. It was a challenge, because part of the fun of doing a cover is pretending that you wrote it. So with that song, it’s like, Well, can I just push it around until it’s believable? Until I can sustain the fantasy? So I did. Took out a few chords, changed the melody a little bit. It starts with this kind of weird key change melody — [sings] “Words like violence / break the silence” — took that out. In the end, I’m really really psyched about it. But it was a funny moment as I was doing it, looking over my shoulder like, Can I do that? Which is kind of wussy and immature of me, because people have been reinterpreting songs radically forever. I’ve just never done it myself. And we tried to pick stuff where, just by virtue of us playing it like it was right out of the chord book, it was going to sound different. Like Kate Bush, for example. Just as a normal rock band, and not like a slap-bass, David Gilmour harmonics with a choir…

And you not being a lady…

And me not being a lady made it kind of different. Whereas other things like Dwight Twilley [“You Were So Warm”] and Bill Fox [“Electrocution”], those were just the joy of playing a great song. If we’re in any school, it’s definitely power pop, so those felt really natural.

Why call it if i had a hi-fi?

[Drummer] Ira [Elliot] floated that title a long time ago on Let Go or maybe Weight is a Gift. It seemed perfect for a covers record. If I had a hi-fi, I’d play these songs.

Let’s talk “Agony of Laffitte.” Did you experience the agony of Laffitte personally, when you were on Elektra in the late ’90s?

I experienced the agony of [then-Elektra CEO] Sylvia [Rhone], who is named in that song. [A&R rep Ron] Laffitte we met. He was part of the quoting process, came in to put in his good word for the company. Thought he was all right, but Sylvia sold us down the river in a huge way, like, huge, and I saw her do it to other people. I had some good friends in [girl-punk band] Tuscadero, and I think she had the sister angle conversation with them, like, “Women doing it together! We’re totally gonna support you! It’s all about longevity!” and like a week later they were dropped. But, whatever. I’m not bitter about it at all.

This isn’t you exorcising some demons?

Not at all. I really don’t care anymore. It was [bassist] Daniel [Lorca]’s idea to do the song. I thought it was funny. I’m glad we were dropped. It ended up being a super blessing for us, because we got to totally reinvent. The fact that we couldn’t get arrested for a couple years was good, because then I was just working in a record store, and hanging around and writing songs, really for fun, and really whenever. No schedule mattered. And once we got The Proximity Effect back, put it out ourselves, did the whole tour, realized that we could do this the real way, like, sell CDs off the card table in the back in little all-ages clubs — up to then, we weren’t working like that. We didn’t have an agent who cared about all-ages shows. So we kind of found our little world, and by the time we went to make a record, I had all these songs sitting there. So yeah, we got to do a first album all over again. Plus our name had gotten around. Even though it hadn’t gotten around in the best way — I think a lot of people liked that song [“Popular”], but you know, it got us a whole world of Weezer comparisons and all this crap that took ages to shake off. Despite that, it was still nice to make what was like a first album but with a band name that people already heard of.

I don’t know all these bands or artists that you cover here. Which should I definitely check out if I’m not familiar?

Well, Bill Fox. He was in a band called The Mice, who are kind of the Cleveland Replacements. Both Ira and I heard about him through this Believer article where the writer goes to Cleveland to try and find him. He’s written tons of beautiful songs. Mercromina, I don’t know a lot of their songs. They’re a cult band in Spain. That one [“Evolution”] we cut pretty much like the original, just for the fun of bringing it to a new audience. Arthur Russell — I’d only heard of him two months before we cut that song. There’s a documentary called Wild Combination, and he came to New York from the Midwest in the early ‘70s, gay, kind of checked out the club scene, but also classically trained, and was really threading together all these incredibly disparate kinds of music. This song in particular, “Janine,” what I love about it is it’s basically a 30-second song played three times in a row, as if he’d just written it. And I love that, because it’s exactly what happens to me. You’re not done yet, but maybe you’re so excited to have it, so you just put it down. To me, it’s got that just-written feeling, which is so exciting.

Are you learning how other people write songs through this, by deconstructing them?

A little bit, yeah. Like the Kate Bush song — I’ve been fairly obsessed with that song since it came out, but when I had to learn how to play it, I realized how it’s constantly evolving. You can’t just learn one pattern and repeat. It’s its own long, unique thing. That’s neat. Maybe that’ll be a cool thing to learn, since I’m a pattern dude. I’ve got such a simple pop-reptile brain that maybe this will shake me out of it. What happens to me all the time is, I have a chord, I go to another chord… and then I know what the third one’s gotta be! You just triangulate, and you’re like, “Well, clearly, you wanna go here, because that feels so right!”

When do you get the sense we might hear some new original stuff from you guys?

You know, I’ve been to this dance so many times, and I come home alone every time. I always think it’s gonna go faster. I think I’m just naive. I believe it’s gonna be “Very soon! You’ll have a new record in early spring!” I don’t know. I’m trying. We’ll see. I take comfort in the fact that it’s always a a good time for a good record.

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