Revisiting the past, a rock trio discovers an unexpected need for speed
In early 2010, Nada Surf treated hometown fans in New York City to full performances of what were then its three most recent albums. The material in question spanned 2002 to 2008—years in which the trio enjoyed a remarkable second act, cultivating a newfound cult success that eclipsed their lone mainstream pop hit, 1996’s “Popular.” Taking stock of the Nada Surf catalog, singer, guitarist and songwriter Matthew Caws realized how much he and his bandmates tended to go from “zippy live band” onstage to “slightly restrained” pop outfit in the studio. “It saved us from going further down roads we didn’t need to go down,” Caws says. “You need a blend of a little underconfidence and overconfidence, the accelerator and the brakes.”
The following year, as Caws began writing Nada Surf’s seventh studio album, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, he sought to capture the spirit of the Brooklyn rehearsal room where the trio—also including bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot—had always played faster and less self-consciously. When the time came to record, they opted to stay put rather than travel to a studio in another city. “When you go to Seattle or somewhere, you have to pack up the gear and take a day off on the other end to readjust,” Caws says. “Before you know it, the feeling is gone. In this case, we wanted to record it right in the practice space.”
Well, not entirely—basic tracks were cut over five days in a proper studio facility just three blocks away, so close the members were literally able to roll their amps over without losing any momentum. The speedy sessions suited the urgent and outward-looking material, which covers topics ranging from environmental degradation and man’s insignificance in the universe to finding optimism amid chaos. “You don’t want to get to the end of your life and realize you’ve just been ruminating about your own place,” Caws says.
Despite all the big-picture thinking, one of the disc’s most affecting moments comes on “Teenage Dreams,” as Caws finds himself “moved to a tear” by break-dancing teens on the subway. “Sometimes a burst of creative energy, like seeing someone burn white hot for a second, can remind you what we’re here for,” he says. “Aside from surviving and helping others survive, the other thing we’re here for is living a little electric, whenever we have the opportunity.”