The new album is a tour de
force of guitar layering. In a
song like “Clear Eye Clouded
Mind,” which part came
first—the quarter-note power
chord foundation or the more
riffs that complement it?
Doug [Gillard] plays the eighth-note riffs, but we tracked the
songs completely until he came in
and did extra little bits and bobs.
The big blocks come first, unless
it’s something like the beginning
of “Waiting for Something”—
which is its own little piece of
music. I tend to write from the
bottom up: Y’know, acoustic guitar and C, D, G type of stuff.
So you tend to get the chord
progression and then add melodies and harmonies to it?
Exactly. Well, I get the chord
progression and the sung melody at the same time. For years,
I’ve recorded little bits and
progressions, etc., onto tape and
I’ve scribbled in a zillion notebooks, but most of that stuff
just disappears. What tends to
stick are the songs where the
chords and vocal melody come
to me at the same time.
years I force myself to sit down
and listen through these—it’s
like pulling teeth. It’s 98 percent forgettable—or painfully
mediocre—but it’s worth it for
that two percent of stuff that
actually turns into something
that we use on a record.
Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws rocks his Black Beauty in Mezzago, near Milan, Italy, last February.
Photo by Marina Ravizza
It’s such a private thing. Here’s
the other thing: If I’m working
on something and I wake up
the next morning and it’s not in
my head, that’s a bad sign. But
if the first thing I think of when
I wake up in the morning is the
hook I was working on the night
before, then it gives me hope
and I work harder on it.
together, or either one of
Oh, it’s the words. A chord
progression will never make me
cringe, it’ll just make me yawn.
It can only be boring—it can’t
be, like … stupid. But it only
takes a couple of choice words
to make it stupid [laughs].
So you still use tape, despite
all the modern conveniences,
Yeah, I just sit down with a
Panasonic or Radio Shack tape
recorder—even though I’ve
had 8-tracks and 4-tracks and
Logic and GarageBand and
everything. I like cassette players because they’re so instant
and you don’t have to look at
a screen. And it’s also so unintimidating—because you know
you’re not doing anything permanent, so you feel kind of free.
I usually write a third or half
of a song, and once I get something I like, instead of finishing,
I generally, like, get hungry and
want a sandwich [laughs]. And
then I fill up these tapes with
that stuff, and every couple of
How do you know which ones
are the two-percent keepers?
Well, because I’m not cringing,
first of all [laughs]. That’s the
first indicator. It’s, like, “Oh my
god, I’m not in pain—wait a
minute! I’m not hiding under
my own desk!”
Why would you be cringing
and in pain?
I don’t know how other people
do it, but I have to feel free to
just say anything or sing anything or try anything. And that’s
why I can’t write with other
people nearby, even if we’re on
the road and have separate hotel
rooms—which is definitely not
all the time, because we’re not
on that kind of a budget. But
even if we have separate rooms,
if somebody I know is in the
next room, I can’t do anything.
Is that usually the lyrical hook
or the melody—or both?
Both. It’s singing the hook and
thinking the chords. But even
if it’s just a little guitar hook
or a harmony—if I feel a little
haunted by it for a couple of
days, then I’m on to something.
Before a record gets done, I’ve
probably sung in my head or listened to those little pieces a hundred times each—because I just
do it and do it and do it until I
get sick of it, and then I throw
it away. But if I listen again and
again and again, and I don’t get
sick of it, then I think that might
be something that’s going to last.
Is the cringe-inducing stuff
usually the words you’ve
laid down, the whole thing
Has your process of writing
changed over the years?
It’s been pretty constant. But
when we did the release party
for [2010’s covers album] If I
Had a Hi-Fi, we prepared for
it by playing all of [2002’s]
Let Go in one club one night,
all of [2005’s] The Weight Is a
Gift another night, and all of
[2008’s] Lucky the next night in
another club. So, to brush up
on those songs, I had to listen to
those three records a lot, and it
really struck me that those ver-
sions sounded so different from
how we ended up playing them
onstage—and also different from
the way I remembered writing
them and playing them in early
practices. I found that we’d sort
of grown into two bands—one
that’d kept the same energy