Incendiary talk to Nada Surf

"I took six months off from the record completely, just to deal with my life "

 

The air conditioned foyer of Amsterdam's Park Hotel can be a welcoming place in the height of summer. Wandering out of the muggy heat and the assault course of  road works that make wandering through Amsterdam such a treacherous experience into the foyer and it's cool, polished marble floors provided was very pleasant indeed, like a cold wet flannel to a feverish forehead. After the trials and tribulations I'd encountered traveling into town via every version of public transport imaginable apart from ferry and taxi, the cool, recycled air of the Park Hotel helped me to relax and unwind. For Nada Surf, on the other hand, the air conditioning seemed to crush them, for when Matthew, Nada Surf's singer and Ira, the drummer, wandered in through the revolving door they looked like death warmed up. Then again, perhaps it wasn't the air co but instead the sight of a bunch of eager and easily irritable journalists sitting around impatiently waiting for their prey, who were close to an hour late. Yes, on second thoughts, it was probably us. 

 

Pleasant handshake introductions aside, it was easy to see by the looks on Matthew and Ira's faces that the last thing they wanted to do was to conduct an interview and when their label rep explained that two of the waiting three journalists (I being the other one) wanted to conduct a video interview, the little colour that was left in Matthew's face drained away instantly.

 

Still, there was work to do and so professionalism took over and Matthew, Ira and the two other guys went off up to the room to conduct their interview whilst I, ever the professional, headed off in search of the bar.

 

Walking into the bar I was confronted by the sight of a man with long, blonde dreads hunched over a laptop computer, swearing feverishly. "Is everything alright there?" I asked. This was, of course, Daniel, Nada Surf's bass player, who threw me a stare that instantly said, "Who the fuck are you? What do you want?" and "No! Of course everything's not alright, would I have just said the word fuck four times in a row if everything was alright?"

 

Still, after a proper introduction I sat down and let him get on with his work. He was busy trying to finalise the artwork for their new album, The Weight is a Gift and his deadline was rapidly approaching. "This is the first time that I haven't done all of the graphics and shit myself, so now I've got to send this whole fucking, fifteen page document over to somebody else, in order to get him to do a few changes that, if I could do it myself, I could do in about ten minutes. And it has to be done today because if it's not done today then it won't be done in time for the release date and then the whole thing's fucked and on top of all that, the airline has lost one of our fucking guitars." Well, that explained the delay and I apologized to Daniel, for what I'm not entirely sure but it was simply a pathetic bid to try and make him feel better as he chugged down what I could tell was about his fifteenth cup of coffee in the past hour. He lit up a cigarette and bowed his head, getting back to his work and I started fiddling around with notepads and pens in a pathetic bid to look professional.

 

After a few minutes Ira wandered into the bar looking like a lost sheep, staggering around the place looking for guidance. Daniel needed him to approve some stuff in regards to the tracks that would appear on the bonus disc of the new album and Ira had taken the opportunity to run away from the video cameras. After giving some quick answers to Daniel he wandered off back to the elevator, only to appear again after a couple of minutes. "They're well into it up there so fuck it, I'll leave them to it," he said, then wandered over to the couch across the room from us, lay down and fell asleep instantly.

 

The label rep spent the next ten minutes ringing up printers, trying to find out a correct paint number whilst Daniel got on the phone to the airline in order to try and find out what had happened to the missing guitar whilst I sat there realizing that there's only so much fiddling you can do with a notepad and pen without looking like an idiot. Therefore I put them back into my bag and decided that drinking lager was a much better past time.

 

As Matthew's video interrogation continued upstairs and Ira dreamt soundly on the other side of the room, Daniel, the rep and I entertained each other with lost luggage stories for half an hour or so until Matthew entered the room, looking like he wanted to collapse. We introduced ourselves again and I said, "Shall we just get this over with?"

 

"Please," said Matthew and the two of us wandered off into the restaurant for a bit of privacy. As we entered the head waiter come swanning over, with a beaming smile on his face. "Table for two sir?" he said to me. When I explained that we were simply here to do an interview his smile was instantly displaced by a frown and he scuttled off, shoulders haunched and took his seat by the bar and resumed staring blankly out of the window. Poor fella. Still, it was time to get this interview underway.

 

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IN: So Matthew, it's been, what, ten years since you guys started the band?

 

M: yeah.

 

IN: Well first off let me congratulate you on staying together for ten years.

 

M: Thanks. I know, I know. We really should have imploded by now. For a while, in fact it was pretty early on, you know, like only five years into the band, we noticed that almost every band we'd toured with had broken up. We thought we had some curse or something but I think the fact that we're just laughing along with it all and, maybe technically should...I mean we have certainly been through some moments where, by the book, we should have stopped. I mean we even had a moment where we had a manager, who was very nice, very nice, but very old school and when we'd finished a lot of the tracks for Let Go I sent him the rough mixes and didn't hear back for him. I called him up after a couple of weeks and said, "So, did you get the tracks?," and he said, "Yeah, you guys are doing some good work." So I said, "Okay?".....And we didn't have a record deal at the time. We had nothing going on at all! So I said, "Maybe, can you think of anyone you should... Do you wanna take it around town and see what's up?" And he said, "So...the same name?"

 

And I'm like oh man that's is a big one! And he says, "Well you know you had some success and then you didn't so maybe it's the name and..." And I'm thinking to myself, "Actually, the name is weird," and sometimes I regret it, you know, making it up 'cause I made it up just about this sort of existential feeling that I get when I listen to music and I picture being in this far away place. Like it's taking you to somewhere much more peaceful and I like it. And just the idea of surfing on nothing and well, it seems kind of silly now and it makes people seem to think that we're from California but all of my reservations aside, what the guy was saying was that we were broken. You know, "You had something. You lost it and you should start over."

 

So that was one of the moments of...but we're really good friends and we all enjoy playing. And I think we all really like the band. A lot. You know we're all happy and trios are cool you know, because everyone gets real satisfaction. You know, we're all holding down a big job and we all matter to each other and I think we've kept going simply because it hasn't been broken, even when it's looked like that to other people.

 

IN: I was wondering how you would compare the band today, maybe not in philosophy, but compare who you are today to the band you were ten years ago?

 

M: Oh yeah. Well I think a lot less self conscious. Even just the fact that I'm no longer nervous on stage has made a really big difference. I think it's made a difference in writing a little bit because, you know, certainly at the end of writing a song, when you're tying it all together, you can't help but picture yourself on stage, you know? And that used to give me a kind of 'ooky' feeling because I'm not an extrovert at all. It's not a logical job for me. I mean, public speaking? That idea gives me the willies. Also, my Father has this natural tremor, which I've inherited and, like this right now...

 

(Matthew picks up his teacup, in order to illustrate his natural tremor, only for his hand to hold the cup perfectly still. He seems a little surprised.)

 

M: You can't notice it right now. It must be because I'm so tired. (Stares at his hand for another moment) Oh well, but anyway very often I shake and I was made fun of at school, you know, as a kid, I was made fun of. "Why are you nervous?" and I wasn't nervous, it was just this tremor, but I think it made me a nervous person when I wasn't necessarily inside. So I think even that one physical characteristic made it hard for me to be on stage but I always wanted to be in a band, because I love records so much. I really, really love them. So there I was, despite myself, put in the position of getting up on stage, under the lights, in front of people but the great thing about time is that you get used to anything and now I'm really comfortable playing. I think that made songwriting less scary because the association that songwriting has with performance doesn't bother me any more.

 

IN: So do you think that getting over that fear has helped to improve your songwriting as well? Because I find what you say somewhat hard to believe because I've seen you on stage three or four times now, the last time being at the Hurricane festival in Germany a couple of years ago and I got the impression then, that you were willing to just, not so much reach out to the crowd, but just kind of ride the crowd and bring them in to it. You looked like you were out to enjoy the gig with them.

 

M: Yeah and I could never even. I mean I'm not consciously thinking about that, but it's nice of you to say and I think I know what you mean. And I certainly, years ago, could never have given that impression because I always felt like it was a Math test or something you know, I had to get through it. So I think it has helped songwriting for sure. But I think the other thing that's helped songwriting is the fact that I need it more than I used to. Because I'm growing up and I'm having adult concerns now and life is no longer, umm... I mean I'm not saying it was a total bed of roses. You know, I had a funny childhood, like everybody does. You know noone has the perfect one. But now I have real concerns and I've got real adult responsibilities so that escape that songwriting was for, even listening to music, or the whole musical experience, what that always gave me I now really need. Now it's an escape that I not only cherish but want to go further into because when I need to forget about troubles it's the fastest way. It's also the way that's the least bad for my health. Because there are other ways, obviously, to escape and this one's much better.

 

IN: Well that answer's solved about four or five questions that I was going to ask you. Because I was listening to the new album and it seems so coherent as an album as a whole. There's such a really strong voice through it that flows all the way through from start to finish. In my own opinion and I don't know if you'd agree or not, but I think it's the most cohesive piece of work that you've done.

 

M: Oh yeah, I think so too.

 

IN: But also that it seems like there's such a good atmosphere in the record, whether you've got happy lyrics or sad lyrics. There's such a kind of togetherness in the atmosphere and I was wondering how that came about? Because I was reading somewhere that you had certain things going on in your life and then I was wondering was the album a means for you to forget everything? Did you use the studio as a way to escape?

 

M: Absolutely and also I think it was like...I don't know, I don't want to be too dramatic about it, but it was almost like a life preserver, you know? When you're going through hard times whatever you can hold on to you've gotta hold onto it really tight and so I needed to be, well not proud of it, that's not the word. That's not even the issue. But I need to be taken away and gripped by it. And also there's a lot of, you know, obviously it's self therapy – that goes without saying – but there's some idealizing that goes on that, well the easiest way to explain it is with Always Love. You know the song has kind of a pretty simple chorus, "Always love, because hate will get you every time." So what's it's saying is clearly, given the choice between being angry about some external circumstance that comes to you, beyond your control you know. There's getting angry, or not. And it sounds like the person singing the song is saying, very simply, "Oh, always love, you should never hate," but that's not always true, with me. But I wish it was. So if I write it and I sing it and I record it and I mix it and all that time I'm hearing this again and again and again, it helps. It's like an affirming thing. Or when you write something, or when someone makes you write something fifty times in school, it's as if I was doing that to myself, "You must sing, fifty times. I will always love. I will never hate."

 

But just putting it in print kind of makes it something that I have to live up to, or face or be reminded of. And to remind me that if I indulge in anger, I will get poisoned. You know, it's a virus. And someone once told me something that I thought was a great thing to say and that is, "You get good at what you practice." In whatever you do. And that has to do with compulsions and habits, you just get better at it as time goes by. It's like, I'm sure if you had a gambling problem, you'll know every short cut to the casino within a couple of years.

 

 

IN: Well I think I know exactly what you're saying because, aside from writing this stuff for Incendiary, I also write some of my own stuff, whether it's poetry or short stories or whatever, but I've noticed that I always write better when I'm depressed. Because when I'm depressed and angry I always think that I have to do something to get me out of it. So I sit and I try to put it onto paper and get it out of me. Because if I do it then it's gone, for at least a day and I can then see it, and it's there and the problem isn't in me any more. It doesn't kind of go away but,

 

M: I know exactly what you mean.

 

IN: But it's like you use that fear or that anger and you channel that energy into something else. So from that you can think, I've made this out of it and you can kind of reward yourself with that and I was wondering if you work in the same way, because there seems to be a lot of soul searching going on lyrically with this album, but it's so poppy and upbeat at the same time?

 

M: Sure, sure. But well, part of that is that there's a fun, built in trick to this thing. And it's got to be the same with writing and it's really the same in any creative process but rock and roll happens to have this in built trick which is that it is the happiest music. You know, rock and roll music, you know, man! It feels good, you know the kick and the snare and the chord changes that, just physically, you go down two frets. Whoa! You go up five. Whoa! You know it feels good. And the process, from the very beginning and I completely agree because I only write when I've got some trouble. When I've got either a trouble or some ache or even if I'm feeling great it's generally that I was feeling bad five minutes ago and that jump gave me a feeling that, "Ooh, that'll make something." So I want to celebrate this moment. I want to underline this moment. You know, the same way that I, well, I smoke cigarettes every now and again. Not much, but the thing is that I never light up out of sadness or frustration, for me it's always celebratory. It's all about having and remembering a good time.

 

A friend of mine wrote a line recently that 'happiness writes white,' which is a sentiment that you just said five minutes ago but it's a cool way of saying it. You know, it writes white, you can't even see it on the page. But even in the toughest moments, stringing together a few chords or looking for a melody and then finding one is just so much fun. It's really fun. It's a great, you know, it's just a good time and it really helps and I think we all feel that way. Partly because I think we all really like the band and enjoy playing together. Really what it boils down to is that, as a band, you just really want to please each other. Even when I'm by myself in my room I have the other two guys' aesthetics kind of in mind, you know? Like they're always the first audience and I think that if I'm working on five things and there's a couple that I think, "Those guys are really gonna like this," then that's exciting. So I think that it is childlike, it is totally fun. You're making a racket, or even when you're not making a racket and you're trying to make it real pretty and pretty harmonies, it's feels good.

 

But I really know what you mean when you say, 'putting it outside of yourself' because that is so powerful, it's so lucky because when you can't do that it's such a... I have such a bad feeling. It's like if I haven't written a song in like, six months, I have this real kind of heavy ache. It just doesn't feel right.

 

IN: One of the worst feelings too is when you've written something and you know what you want to say but you can't finish it. You can't get it right.

 

M: You know deadlines are good for that. Because you know I found myself with this record, I had a kind of manic year last year because, you know, I was just dealing with a lot of stuff and so I was writing lots of little bits and I just couldn't finish anything. I couldn't. We recorded a lot of the songs and I didn't have the third verse to anything. We had verse one, verse two and a chorus and then it was just missing one more thing and so the end to a lot of the songs were written just a couple of months ago, right at the very end and I had a deadline coming and the pressure was like crazy. It was not only because if we didn't finish the record we'd miss our release date and our release date is in September, so if you miss September, you're talking February – there's nothing after that.

 

I took six months off from the record completely, just to deal with my life and I felt a huge responsibility towards the other guys and they are so, such good kind of brothers that they totally had my back and they never gave me a hard time because, you know, their lives were put on hold too because I couldn't finish. I mean, they make a living off this, our manager makes a living off this so I felt this responsibility towards my rock family and plus, we knew the last record was pretty good and topping it was going to be really tough. So I found myself in this situation where, kind of like you were saying, going, "You know what it is? I know what I'm wanting to say but how can I say it? Why can't I finish this?" I was going nuts just trying to figure out, "What is the core? What am I not saying? What am I not facing? What am I not admitting?" and then it got to the point where, well I think I kind of lost it a little bit. I started to try and picture myself as a fictional character, as if to try and look at this as if it was somebody else, or as if this was a film. How would I end it? How would I figure a way out?

 

IN: Well you obviously figured it out because the album's here and I have to say that I found it a very strong piece of work overall. One of the things I like about it is that it sounds like you've really found your own sound this time. I mean, there's always been a Nada Surf sound, but I don't think you've ever managed to create a whole album with it, but this time I think that sound is there the whole way through and I think there's a real distinctive feel to it, would you agree?

 

M: Well I don't know? I'd like to say I agree, but I'm not so sure. I think it feels urgent to me and I know why. It's because I was in a lot of trouble and I had to find my way out of it. Also, I think it's because I was listening to a lot of hip hop last year and I think that helped to make this album fresh, because I was in a completely other world. I was listening to gangster rap and I mean, I'm absolutely terrified sick of violence, I've never hit anybody in my life but listening to these people singing about dealing and holding down half the town and all that kind of stuff sounded so foreign to me and also was really doing the trick because it sounded a lot harder than I was going through. Whereas listening to love songs just wasn't cutting it, you know, I needed something really bad to give me some perspective on things.

 

But also just the great thing about listening to other genres of music from your own is that, when you come back to pop music you get that kick again and everything feels new again. And for once my head wasn't full of like the new Teenage Fanclub record, like it normally is.

 

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At that point, Daniel appeared beside me with a smile on his face. "We've found your guitar". It was time for a drink. Matthew and I spent the next few minutes discussing our favourite albums of the year and I left him alone in the restaurant for a moment listening to my walkman whilst I went out into the bar to have my glass refilled. Daniel had finished his work for the day so he exchanged his coffee for a large beer and another cigarette and when Matthew finally joined us, we all sat down together for a cool beer and some more lost luggage stories as Ira slept soundly in the corner of the room. The colour had returned to Matthew's cheeks, which was probably down to the guitar being found rather than my skills at interviewing but it felt good to see him looking slightly more alive than when I first met him an hour or so ago. Daniel sat down, took a swig from his pint and relaxed into the chair he was sitting in. Now, finally, he could relax. I finished my drink, said goodbye and left them to enjoy the rest of their afternoon.

 

 

Interview and photograph : Damian Leslie