Nada Surf's Matthew Caws and Doug Gillard: Tonally Tubular

On the band’s seven previous full-length albums, Nada Surf has delivered infectious alt-rock that has won fans for its ability to be both unapologetically intelligent and unashamedly poppy.
By Dave Hunter ,

On the band’s seven previous full-length albums, Nada Surf has delivered infectious alt-rock that has won fans for its ability to be both unapologetically intelligent and unashamedly poppy. Credit much of the appeal to leader Matthew Caws’ literary bent. His mother and father—university professors in literature and philosophy, respectively—took him on sabbaticals to Paris and rural France when he was young, and then sent him to the Lycée Français de New York. Or you can simply credit that fact that Caws—the power trio’s sole 6-stringer until 2010—knows his way around a catchy guitar hook.

Shaking things up for its latest release, You Know Who You Are [Barsuk Records], the band made studio and tour-support guitarist Doug Gillard (formerly of Guided by Voices and Death of Samantha) a fulltime member. Then, after completing an entire album last year, they deemed the effort, “Good, but we can do better.” So the group returned to Nuthouse Studio in Brooklyn to improve on what they had, and to add new material.

Tapping influences as diverse as the Stooges and Krautrockers Can, Caws, Gillard, bassist Daniel Lorca, and drummer Ira Elliot hammered out the tracks largely as a unit, feeding off the vibe of making music together. The result of the creative re-boot might be their most textured set to date.

Do you prefer tracking songs together as a band, rather than building up parts individually?

Caws: Definitely. The push and pull of tempo—you know, we all drift a little bit—is natural, and it creates these eddies, like shifting tides. Also, if we’re recording separately, you can’t see body language, because it’s interesting to play to someone’s body as much as the beat. It’s a lot like when you’re dancing. Say you’re on the dance floor with a partner. I find there’s this kind of median where you’re really paying attention to your partner, but you don’t want to stare at him or her, because you’re doing your own thing. So you’re glancing, and you’re also feeling what everybody else is doing. It’s like saying, “I have my own ideas about how I want to dance, but I’m also enjoying what we’re doing together.”

Gillard: I find that I lock in rhythmically a little better when we’re all in the same room, or when I’m in the same room as the drummer. We did some overdubs, of course, but we played almost all the basic tracks together as a band. It was very organic.

As Nada Surf has had a good thing going for more than 20 years now, with a strong fan base and several hits under its belt, what prompted you to reassess and re-do the original tracks for You Know Who You Are?

Caws: There was an unconscious opportunity—that freedom of having nothing to lose when reassessing something that’s “finished” really allowed for some things to happen that might not have if we were under the even unconscious feeling that things had to be done in a certain way.

There are some compelling parts on “Gold Sounds,” between the ethereal, hypnotic lead parts and the creamy, sultry rhythm part. How were they achieved?

Gillard: TC Electronic’s Alter Ego pedal has an array of old tape-echo effects, and one of them is reverse delay. I used that effect for a lot of the atmospheric sounds. I also played the electric rhythm part—Matthew played acoustic—through a Boss Compression Sustainer.

The groove behind that song is very different for Nada Surf, too. The way it chugs along is utterly infectious. I found myself wanting to hit Rewind to hear it again.

Caws: Thanks. Gosh, I know that “Rewind feeling.” I think as musicians, and as listeners, we’re all looking for that. It’s funny—that drumbeat was actually by accident. It’s essentially the drumbeat for “Down on the Street” by the Stooges, the first song on Fun House. It’s interesting because Ira is such an inventive, kinetic drummer that for him to not do anything [other than repeating the groove] is kind of a big statement. I saw this BBC documentary on Krautrock, and the drummer from Can talks about how he was walking down the street and a guy came up to him and said, “You know, you should try being more monotonous.” And that was what gave birth to that Motorik beat that was so common in Krautrock.

The songs that we might call classic Nada Surf—“Believe You’re Mine,” “Cold to See Clear,” “New Bird,” and “Victory’s Yours”—have some extremely lush guitar tones. But “Friend Hospital” even goes beyond that, to some squealing lead tones that we don’t usually hear from this band.

Gillard: I love that song. It has a great mood and a great groove. I used producer Tom Beaujour’s Jazzmaster on the bridge pickup. I really wanted to play it with a fatter tone—with the neck pickup or middle- position—but the guys in the control room said, “That’s a great sound. Let’s go with the bridge pickup.” Teenage Fanclub’s “Everything Flows” was sort of the genesis of that solo.

Can you tell us about some of the other gear you used in the studio.

Caws: Tom Beaujour has been a friend of mine since we were three or four years old. Our parents were colleagues, and we’ve been talking about guitar playing since we were ten. Tom has a wonderful collection, so it was such a pleasure to choose between a ’63 ES-330 or a ’59 Jazzmaster, and then decide, “Shall we go through the modded Hiwatt or the AC15?”

Gillard: I brought my Les Pauls. I have a black ’76 Custom that I used on all the Guided by Voices records, as well as a tobacco burst ’73 Les Paul that I’ve had since about ’98. One guitar I kept going back to was Tom’s Gibson Custom Shop ES-330. It sounds really great. He also has some Telecasters we used, and I think I picked up a Rickenbacker for a couple songs. For amps, Tom had a great old Ampeg, and sometimes it would be a Fender Twin Reverb or a Prosonic.

Matthew, you have largely been a Les Paul guy through most of Nada Surf’s career.

Caws: Yeah. I have a ’69 Black Beauty [Les Paul Custom]. It’s lovely. It has a really good piano tone, and the sound is even across the strings. My main guitar now, though, is a Japanese Edwards Special Edition that I bought in Tokyo. They apparently don’t make many, because they wait for really nice pieces of wood. It’s very resonant, and, physically, it’s super well balanced—it almost feels weightless. It’s one of those “lawsuit guitars”—you can’t export it. And then I have a ’69 Tele that I bought at Main Drag Music in Brooklyn a long time ago. It’s really light and toppy, and it’s great for playing arpeggios.

You’re currently rehearsing for a world tour. Does that require simplifying sounds and stripping out parts that you can’t achieve with two guitars?

Gillard: You always have to work up your new songs for a live setting. I go crazy in the studio. I don’t even think about what it’s going to be like to play the parts live. For example, I did some crazy weird tunings on the album that I didn’t write down. You just do what you need to do to get it done, and then you’re on to the next song. To play those things live, you just have to figure them out.

Caws: Rearranging the guitar parts has been a fun process, but I wish we had a little more time. I live in Cambridge, England, so we didn’t have that many rehearsals. But Doug can play anything. He’s the only one in the band who has this jazz-level playing. He can just think of a part, and it appears. I can’t do that. I’ve often have to sit down and talk to my fingers. I have a little meeting, and say, “Okay, how are we going to do this?”

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