Surf’s Up

Photo: Michael Schmelling

A decade ago, Nada Surf was alt-rock’s flavor of the moment: Ex–Cars front man Ric Ocasek took a shine to the boys and invited lead singer Matthew Caws over to the apartment he shares with his wife, the former supermodel Paulina Porizkova. “It was surreal,” says Caws. “As I left, Paulina said, ‘He likes your phrasing,’ and then I got on my bike and rode home.” Ocasek ended up producing the band’s first record, which spawned the MTV hit “Popular,” a clever if unsubtle jab at high-school life.

Then a funny thing happened: The album didn’t sell. Elektra wanted another goofy novelty hit, and when it didn’t happen, the band was dropped. Caws took a record-store job while bassist Daniel Lorca became a computer programmer and Ira Elliot lived the drummer cliché to its limit. “Two thousand and one? I don’t think I did anything that year,” Elliot says. “Anything.”

Then a weirder thing happened: The band didn’t break up. It went on the road and raised a few grand for a new album. “We told people at our shows, ‘Buy our T-shirts and you will get a new album sooner,’ ” says Caws. “We paid our producer in wrinkled ones and fives.” Eventually, Nada Surf signed with indie label Barsuk and released 2003’s Let Go, a stunning album of glossy, slightly neurotic guitar pop. Caw’s lyrics, once Smash Mouth–snotty, were now introspective and irony-free, including a four-minute ode to the pleasures of listening to Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.

The new album, The Weight Is a Gift, was harder. Caws interrupted recording for six months as he tried to overcome writer’s block and depression. “There is a guy in Vienna who turned our lyrics into his doctoral thesis,” says Caws, a boyish 38 with a LOVE THE TROOPS, HATE THE WAR button on his backpack. “I went to the index under my name, and there are references to ‘focus, lack thereof,’ ‘wasted potential,’ ‘no self control,’ ‘very depressed.’ I thought, God, I’ve been writing the same two songs for ten years.

Last spring, the band reconvened in San Francisco for three weeks. The togetherness worked: Caws demo’d new songs on an acoustic guitar as Lorca cooked dinner. While The Weight Is a Gift lacks the cathartic burst of Let Go, it is in many ways a better album. The band’s playing is leaner: The guitars are louder and sharper. There’s little wasted energy; even the ballads are taut.

Meanwhile, Nada Surf is cool again. It had a song on Six Feet Under and covered O.M.D.’s eighties classic “If You Leave” for an episode of The O.C. As for that song/millstone “Popular,” Caws insists, “I still like it. I’m just glad it’s not our ‘My Sharona.’ ”

The Weight Is a Gift
Barsuk; September 13.
Nada Surf plays the Bowery Ballroom October 6 and 7.

Surf’s Up