The history of rock music is peppered with bands that made their name through one song before disappearing into industry obscurity, never to be seen again.
The casual observer might want to throw Nada Surf in with this lot. Their 1996 hit single ‘Popular’ climbed to the top of both the alternative and commercial charts, acting like a curl-lipped kiss-off to the slacker rock that had defined the era. The Brooklyn three-piece then all but disappeared – as far as most people were concerned.
Indeed, tell your day-to-day radio listener that Nada Surf are touring Australia and their first excited question might well be, “They got back together?!” One wonders if the band get this a lot.
Frontman Matthew Caws’ laughter barrels down the phone line: “Every once in a while,” he says. “I don’t get it in person; it’s more on Twitter or something: ‘I can’t believe they’re back!’ It’s pretty funny.”
Funny for Caws, because Nada Surf never went away. Following the success of ‘Popular’ the band got mired in a two-year legal wrangle with Elektra Records over a sophomore longplayer, before wiping the artistic slate clean via crisp, spectral indie rock and releasing a further five records.
So, given it often wrongly pegs the band as a one-hit wonder and set up an excruciating legal fight, was ‘Popular’ a curse or a blessing for Nada Surf?
“I guess it’s probably both. But more of a blessing,” Caws explains. “Although at the time it was a relatively rocky ride, looking back it’s been really perfect, because to get your name around, see a bit of the world, and then disappear is a great place to be to keep going. Because then you can write in obscurity, which is what we did to make our third record, ‘Let Go’ – we wrote and recorded it in a vacuum, really. But then when it came out it had a leg up because people had heard of us already.”
And as anybody who’s lived through their teens will tell you, ‘Popular’ still packs plenty of truth. Caws talks about the band receiving letters from young fans who felt they could relate to its irony.
“It would be some sort of misfit, sweet, wrongly outcasted kid who’d say, ‘The footballers and the cheerleaders at my school really love that song, but I think it’s kind of making fun of them. Is that, maybe, true?’” he laughs. “It’s a lot more fun playing it now. At the time of our first tour when that song was on the radio, the shows were fun, but weird. There’d be a lot of football players down front.
“These days, we don’t play it every night. And the really funny thing is that we can’t win anyway: if we don’t play it, somebody in the crowd will be a little disappointed; but then you’d be surprised when we do play it, because there’ll be some indier-than-thou kid down the front saying, ‘Oh. My. God! How could you do this?!’”
Despite its significance, Nada Surf are destined to be remembered for much more than just ‘Popular’. Out of the turn of the millennium stasis the band emerged with ‘Let Go’, often regarded as their greatest work, and followed it up with a bunch more longplayers – ‘The Weight Is A Gift’, ‘Lucky’ and covers album ‘If I Had A Hi-Fi’ – all of which would rate highly with critics.
The upcoming Australian tour has a double purpose: to celebrate 20 years as a band, and to showcase a new album, ‘The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy’. Caws rates the new record as the most enjoyable the band have ever made, and sees that reflected in its ultimate quality.
“It’s saying a lot because I really love recording,” he says. “But this time we intentionally didn’t want to write in the studio, which is something we’d fallen into a little bit – entirely my fault, just because I would start too many songs, not finish enough of them, and then try to figure out how many choruses there should be et cetera while the clock was ticking. This time, we just kept on writing and practicing and rehearsing until we were totally done. We then tracked the basics in five days.
“And you know, it reminds me a little bit of our first record, and then a little bit of our most recent one. So it does feel full circle, and why not? It’s a good way to celebrate. We’re really only 18 or 19 years old right now, but in the German press especially everyone was jumping on it for being 20 years and that’s become a thing. But yeah, whatever you want to call it.”
Talking to Caws, you get the feeling Nada Surf aren’t too concerned with milestones. They’re one of that rare breed of bands where age wearies neither them nor their craft. They also happen to be one of the unique few that grew up during the major-label ‘90s before thriving in the post-millennial digital era, where bands often come and go in the time it takes to check your email. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nada Surf very much prefer the brave new era we now find ourselves in.
“Yeah, we do. I think it’s a lot easier to build an audience now,” Caws explains. “I think that if we were a brand new band it would seem both easier and then more daunting. More daunting because there are so many more bands out there, but easier because you can just build a little audience and be in touch with them. I don’t really take too much advantage from that, but the fact that you can talk to your audience at any time, say, in the middle of the night – that really is pretty great.”
As for the future, Nada Surf are set to roll on. There’s another record in the works, for which Caws is looking forward to returning to New York. But before that there’ll be a well-earned break after a solid year of touring.
“This year’s been pretty busy – partially because I really like the record so much. So we told our manager: ‘Next year, whatever you want to do – as many shows as you want. We’re down.’ And we’re going right until Christmas, so it will have been a perfectly contained year of doing everything we could … I’m not sure exactly when on the new record, but we’ll probably take a break. It’s good to go away for a little bit every once in a while.”Nada Surf play the Courier-mail Spiegeltent as part of this year’s Brisbane Festival, tuesday september 18.Click to view: Nada Surf playing Popular Live @ NPA