Chameleon Club Presents...
WATERS, Cozy Galaxies
223 North Water Street
Lancaster, PA, 17603
This event is all ages
The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
"Did you ever, as a kid, want to crawl into the speakers?" asks Nada Surf singer-guitarist Matthew Caws. "I did — here was OK, but there was much better." And that's pretty much what Nada Surf is all about — Caws, bassist Daniel Lorca, and drummer Ira Elliot are in love with the way rock music can transport you to a new and wonderful place in a beguiling rush of beats, chords, hooks and words. And they do it ten times over on their brilliant sixth album, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy.
Before, Nada Surf albums simply took on the character of the songs that the band came up with at the time. This one was different — there was a plan. "We've always played faster and a little harder live," Caws says, "but we'd always play so carefully in the studio. So with this album, we made a conscious decision to preserve what it felt like in the practice room, when you play with that new-song energy. Just embrace it and not worry whether we're overdoing it, kind of get all the thinking out of the way."
Sure enough, The Stars leaps out of the gate in a blaze of guitars, swarming distortion and a sweet melody riding atop "Clear Eye Clouded Mind." Throughout, the crackerjack rhythm section of Lorca and Elliot puts the power in Nada Surf's pop, Lorca playing equal parts pedestal and filigree, Elliot ever the stylish dynamo. The tempos are high, but the songs bristle with hooks, breathtaking changes, and Nada Surf's trademark genius bridges. The educated ear will hear the influence of many bands from '60s Brit-pop to post-punk and vintage indie, and yet there is an unmistakable Nada Surf sound: a certain rhythm section groove, introspective chord shapes and the unique emotional weight to Caws's voice, both boyish and very soulful, a combination of wisdom and vulnerability that can admit to being "moved to a tear by a subway breakdancer."
"I really love Nada Surf," author Jennifer Egan told Minnesota Public Radio this year, adding that she listened to the band's music for inspiration while writing her 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. "What they write about is very subtle moments of everyday life. They make it all look and feel very easy and natural."
Which is quite a trick when, as on The Stars, the running theme of the album is nothing less than the passage of time. As Caws sings on "Looking Through," "Every birthday candle/ that ever got blown out/ is one more year/ of someone trying/ to figure it all out." The songs ponder all kinds of questions: what to take and leave from youth, how to deal with the burden and the honor of responsibility, how to remain curious and alert even when you're content and how to remain in the natural world as the march of progress pulls us ever further from it. It's all summed up in the last lines of the album: "and I cannot believe / the future's happening to me."
Stars is Nada Surf's first album of new material in almost four years. After touring 2008's acclaimed Lucky, they released 2010's palindromically titled If I Had a Hi-Fi, an album of covers of some of the band's favorite musicians, like Kate Bush, Arthur Russell, Bill Fox and the Go-Betweens on their own label Mardev. They originally approached it as a quick, fun project, but quickly threw their all into it, majorly reinventing the songs, making the most of the studio and playing with typical passion, brains and heart.
Nada Surf had made all but their first record outside of New York, figuring they'd avoid distractions. But if you want to preserve the energy of the practice room, why not record in the practice room? So for The Stars they set up shop in their rehearsal space in Lorca's long-time loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The place is nicknamed The Sitcom because it regularly hosts a revolving cast of colorful characters and some legendary parties. There were some issues though — "We couldn't do vocals late at night," says Caws, "because the music from the bar downstairs would come through the floor."
Chris Shaw came in to record and produce. Shaw, who's made records with the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Super Furry Animals and Wilco, had mixed Nada Surf's indie hit "Always Love," impressing the band with his quick and expert work, not to mention his sense of humor. They recorded on a strict schedule — in fact, things were so tight that Caws finished his last vocals just 30 seconds before he got in a taxi to catch a flight to London.
A few years ago, Caws met guitarist Doug Gillard (Guided by Voices, Death of Samantha) one night at a show, when the latter ambled over to him and offered to "lay down some James Honeyman-Scott licks" next time they recorded. Caws happens to revere the playing of the late Pretenders guitarist, as well as Doug's, so the affable Gillard wound up playing on If I Had Hi-Fi and touring the album with Nada Surf. Gillard became such an integral part of the band's sound that they invited him to play on Stars too, and while his solos do somewhat recall Honeyman-Scott, they ignite the music with a brilliance all their own. "What's amazing about Doug is that he's got classic rock chops," explains Caws, "but a sideways new wave brain."
"Making this album was such a joy, the most fun we've had with a record," Caws says. "The whole thing felt adventurous and we stayed constructive. I wrote 'Looking Through' in one night and brought it in the next day. The take that wound up on the album is the first time we played it all the way through. There wasn't a lot of talking, it was just bang, there it is."
Immersion in the work of some of the band's favorite musicians on If I Had a Hi-Fi sparked Caws into a songwriting spree — but this time, he was just writing for the joy of it. "For many years I'd only tend to write if I had something troubling going on in my life and I needed to break through," Caws says. "But now I wanted to get past writing about just myself — it's such a big world, you know? That new outlook, for me, was the engine for making this record."
Sure, the songs are introspective and yet on songs like "The Moon Is Calling" and "Clear Eye Clouded Mind," and "No Snow on the Mountain" the outer world supplies a lot of the imagery this time, as well as the profound title, which is a saying of Caws's father, a noted philosophy professor. Instead of self-analysis, songs like "The Future" feel more like a voyage. Some feel unconscious: "I like the lines 'bring me up / deliver me out/ take me to the door/ I'm not running anymore,'" says Caws of "The Moon is Calling," "because on a certain level, I had no idea what I was talking about, but I felt ecstatic making it up."
And so The Stars has a somewhat more optimistic, more outward-looking tone than previous Nada Surf albums. On the yearning "Waiting for Something," Caws sings, "This new peace/ I can feel it now," and that serenity — and not anger — is actually what fueled the music's extra kick. "Peace doesn't make me want to calm down musically or physically," Caws says. "Just the opposite, actually — all that energy that I used to spend fretting, can now be put towards the music. And the fact that these are more rocking songs might have weeded out some of the more downbeat elements — those sentiments just don't stick to that sort of music."
The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy continues the notion of music as an alternative reality, and songs as things you can keep by your side for inspiration and support. Which is what makes Nada Surf a truly beloved band.
Spring 2010 saw the demise of Port O'Brien, and founding member/front man Van Pierszalowski needed a break from the hectic, wonderful mess that is touring. He stumbled into respite in Oslo, Norway, and spent some time away from making music. Van explored the new city, swam in the Norwegian fjords, enjoyed the weather and the experience of seasons changing. He found his bearings and fell in love again.
Inspiration arrived and as he wrote, Van was compelled to fuel the process further by changing his environment once more. He spent most of the next year traveling: to Alaska, where he'd spent summers working on his father's commercial salmon fishing boat; to California, where he'd grown up in a seaside town off Highway 1; and eventually to New York, where in Brooklyn he endured relentless blizzards and a cold nearly reminiscent of Oslo.
Van gave his new project a name: WATERS. These new songs he wrote veered away from the frequently loose, punchy anthems of Port O'Brien, and as he intensively pieced each one together, he sought a bigger sound – something louder than he could play on his own. So Van returned to Oslo, where his new journey had begun. He put together a band of fine Norwegian gentlemen and spent every day of the next two months rehearsing in a small practice space outside of the city.
This band went with Van to Dallas, Texas, to record with producer John Congleton. Over a brief 10-day recording session in April, Congleton – who has worked on some of Van's favorite albums (by artists including St. Vincent, Bill Callahan, and yes, R. Kelly) – kept the production stark, maintaining the songs' intimacy and emotional intensity. Out In The Light has a louder, fuller, more aggressive and raw sound than any of Van's earlier works. It's a mix of fuzzy, pealing guitars and crashing drums, and easy, alternately soaring and languid, indelible melodies.
According to Van, "The record is about waking up. It is about getting out of a situation that seems endless, and realizing you're not too old to make dramatic and sudden changes in your life. It is about starting over."
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