ew songs have captured loserdom in the ’90s as well as Nada Surf’s 1996 classic “Popular.” But the inverse isn’t true; that song doesn’t really provide an accurate snapshot of the band, especially since nearly two decades have passed since the song’s debut. While in Toronto supporting this year’s
ew songs have captured loserdom in the ’90s as well as Nada Surf’s 1996 classic “Popular.” But the inverse isn’t true; that song doesn’t really provide an accurate snapshot of the band, especially since nearly two decades have passed since the song’s debut. While in Toronto supporting this year’sThe Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy – their seventh full-length – I asked frontman Matthew Caws for his perspective on that iconic single, along with a handful of other questions he graciously humored.
I heard you jokingly say in an interview that you’ve been doing music for so long so you didn’t have to get real jobs. What were the last real jobs you had?
The very last real job I had was in a record store, which was also the first job I had, just different ones. I bookended my career with record stores. I was a personal assistant to a painter’s widow. I worked at Guitar World [the magazine] as Assistant Editor for a year and a half. I did the graveyard shift – 1AM to 9AM – at Bear Sterns the investment bank, just doing Word and Excel document stuff. You know, helping them edit their “we’re taking over this company” kind of internal dispatches. What else did I do? I worked at Lehman brothers doing the same thing, graveyard shift. I worked at a word processing house on thirteen printers in the basement that were all but flooded and would break down every few hours and you had to clean all the machinery and start them over on an old computer with a huge floppy disc that would go in and you’d move the cursor around with four buttons next to the screen.
Right now a lot of bands become huge, buzzy successes almost overnight. As a pre-Web 2.0 band with two decades of experience and a strongly dedicated fan base, what do you think about that?
I think in a way that’s always been there. There are flashes, and if they turn out to be flashes in the pan or they turn out to be long term fires, it’s hard to tell at the beginning. And maybe it’s hard to tell for fans too. They might be falling for a band and think it’s for life, and then it turns out it’s not, for whatever reason. It’s funny – with so many things we assume it’s totally different from how it used to be, and then deep down it’s kinda the same. We were at SXSW a month ago, and on 6th street – which is sort of the main drag – there were these lasers all over the place, so it looked futuristic. And yet, that was above the buildings; what was happening on the street was the same drunken mess. I was wondering what SXSW was going to be like in 20 years… a lot more lasers, but the same drunken mess.
What kind of relationship do you have with [your breakout 1996 single] “Popular” now?
One new thing is it’s starting to be a very long time ago. It never had been before. Our relationship with it is relatively simple: It’s one of our earlier songs, it got us a lot of attention, it’s funny – I still think it’s really funny – but it doesn’t always sit in the set list comfortably. Not only because it’s goofier than everything else but also because the exterior perception of it is kind of loaded. I don’t necessarily enjoy playing it at every show. I really like it at festivals, it kind of gets the crowd going.
But it’s funny, we can’t win. If we don’t play it somewhere, somebody in the crowd is going to get huffy. But when we do play it, you’d be surprised at how many indier-than-thou audience members will be like Grumble grumble grumble! Why did you do that? or Don’t remind me! or I wanted to hear something else. All in all my relationship with it is very positive, because it gave us an enormous jump-start. Had we not had that song we might’ve ended up on this kind of label like Barsuk that we really love eventually, it just would’ve been a different route. And we wouldn’t have had the little leg-up of having our name be well known.
I saw a video of you in Salt Lake City playing acoustic guitar and singing for a fan outside the venue. What’s the story?
Well he was 29 but his license had expired and the guys at the door were being hardasses about letting him in without valid ID. He told me that and I said, “hang on, I’ll go get a guitar and I’ll play you a couple songs,” I felt like it was the least I could do. And then they let him in! (laughs) I think maybe because we made a fuss, I think it made them feel silly and then they let him in. They weren’t such bad guys. I mean who knows what their boss is like. A lot of people are just doing their job.
You’ve alluded to the fact that you normally write your music when you’re going through troubling or upsetting times. Was that the case for this record?
It was maybe a little bit less the case for this record than for previous ones. When we put out If I Had a Hi-Fi, our covers record, we did a little event in New York where we played all of [our 2002 album] Let Go in one club one night from beginning to end, and [2005’s] The Weight Is a Gift in a different club the next night and [2008’s] Lucky in a different club the next night. And when I reviewed all the songs, it really hit home how I really repeat myself. I’m pretty sure most songwriters have this fear, that they’re writing the same songs over and over again and I definitely get that feeling. So I tried with this album – it’s just a matter of degrees, I didn’t succeed much, maybe about five or ten per cent – to shift the focus away from just my inner troubles and more towards the outside world… Discipline is difficult in regards to creativity because you can’t necessarily turn it on, you have to be in ‘the mood,’ and moods are beyond our control much of the time. But I did really make an effort to just be more regular and just “go to work” in the morning. So there are fewer songs coming from that, but that’s probably the basic thing I do. If I’m worried about something, or feeling guilty about something, or concerned about something, or confused by something, writing a song about it has always been a way for me to control it or to ease the level of pain or concern or worry or whatever it is. It’s like putting handles on something. A beat is reassuring, and maybe that’s why I go for the same reassuring chord progressions again and again and again – almost all my songs are the same three or four chords, just different colours or in a different key or in a different order or something. I always – probably to a fault – gravitate to music that is still comforting on some level.