Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws Breaks Down Every Song on Let Go

Interviews
05/30/2018
Dusty Henry
All photos by Alley Rutzel (view set)

TRANSCRIPTION BY MOLLY WYMAN

There are records that when mentioned in certain conversations can spark an immediate kinship. Albums that connect lonely hearts seeking for the right words to sing-a-long to and make themselves feel okay if even just through a couple more choruses. When you really dig into it, it’s no surprise that Nada Surf’s Let Go fits that bill. The band’s third record is packed with songs about being on the outside of love, drowning in your id, and even finding comfort in listening to your favorite records. When vocalist and songwriter Matthew Caws sings about Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde on, well, “Blonde on Blonde,” it’s easy to imagine someone else relating similar emotions to Caws’ own work. Now as the record turns 15 this year, it’s emotionally resonance has only increased over time.

Let Go marked a turning point for the band, in numerous senses of the term “turning point.” After the single “Popular” from their 1996 debut High/Low landed on Billboard charts and MTV rotation, you’d think that the band would’ve been riding the wave of success. Instead, pressure from their label Elektra to reproduce a single with similar chart-power was ceaseless. Eventually they were dropped from the label, self-releasing their sophomore record The Proximity Effect (after an initial Elektra release outside of the U.S.) when self-releasing wasn’t nearly as viable of an option as it is today. Elektra’s loss would become up-and-coming Seattle label Barsuk’s gain. Free of the pressure to repeat success, Nada Surf was able to craft one of their most beloved and emotionally transparent records in their catalog with Let Go.

After Nada Surf stopped through KEXP earlier this month to perform the album in its entirety in our studio, Caws sat down with us to breakdown every single track on the record. To hear Caws reflect on each of these songs and the moments and feelings that inspired them, it becomes more and more obvious why this record connects with so many people. Caws often says some of the songs are “nebulous,” trying to capture a feeling you can’t always explain. Yet he finds a way via stories of fruit flies, blizzards, and space itself. He reflects on rock discos in Munich, old garage rock 45s, and the magic realism of the New York subways. 15 years later and Let Go is still revealing more emotional truths.

As an added bonus, watch and listen along to the band's performance of Let Go from our studio below.

 

Blizzard of ‘77

Matthew Caws: I sort of wrote it and recorded it in a little half hour period in a bathroom in Amsterdam. Daniel and I were sharing a hotel room, and he was asleep. I wanted to... I had this idea, and I had a little, very noisy, tiny four track that I had brought on tour, and it ended up being kind of a strummy, quiet, quiet-ish song because of not wanting to wake him up. That's making it. But then I was always really fascinated by blizzards. I grew up in New York City and pretty near Central Park. And when a blizzard would come, you know, it really sent the city back to nature. And there were big blizzards in New York, so the cars being lumps on the snow was literal, especially with a little drift and cars, you know, would be just a lump, you know, like a one foot topography. And relaxing when there's turbulence on a plane is something that feels pretty natural to me for a really weird reason and that's that if a plane crashes it's not my fault. So I'm pretty comfortable with it, which may be a poor indicator of something in my character. I think a lot of people are very unhappy flying and need to be in control and I don't, necessarily. I think I have a pretty relaxed fatalism. Now, I've never been in terrifying turbulence and if I was maybe all this I'm saying would evaporate and be just for show. But I do try and really relax on a plane. But in life in general, I'm a slightly nervous person, and I fight it a lot. I'm trying to be the opposite of what I really am. In a good way, I hope.

The Blizzard of '77 was an actual blizzard, right? :

It's funny, a lot of people mention that it was actually '78 because there was a really big one in Buffalo in '78 that was like, famous. That's the most famous one, but there is a Blizzard of '77 board game. Now, I don't know if that's a mistake and someone is just getting the Buffalo Blizzard off by a year. I'm not sure, but there was definitely a big one around then. There were just a bunch in my childhood. It's just that '77 rhymes better than '78.

Happy Kid

A long time ago I was walking down the street, and I had an idea for a song, and I sprinted home because I was so excited about it. And I told Daniel and Ira, and they really didn't like it. It was something like, it does sound so stupid now, but it was something like, "I've been happy, happy, happy, happy ever since I was born. Sad, sad, sad, sad ever since I was born." It had a melody, and I won't sing it for you. But I've always felt kind of split that way. You know, we've had people write about us saying that we have very sad songs, but I feel like they're always kind of celebratory or trying to be positive. You know I'm totally fascinated by goths – musically and aesthetically, but I don't think I could be one. I have too many freckles, and also, I never want to celebrate sadness. I don't find it more romantic than happiness. I'd rather be happy. I find it a challenge sometimes. I'm a little bit oversensitive and kind of an idealist and fail myself in my own idealism and obviously feel failed by the world, of course. Not me personally, but you know, I don't mean the world is failing me. I feel like we're failing ourselves because we're really capable of so much good, and on the bright side we are pretty organized, you know. People obey traffic laws. That's pretty great, and you know kids are so positive. Babies are so positive. I just had my second child, and seeing his completely non-judgemental, non-vindictive, I mean, he's only ten months old, so it's weird to be talking about vindictive, but really, you know, he's just such a sweetheart. So I think that's probably how we are at the beginning and then, maybe, some of us have a hard time, and then it goes south.

You mentioned the idea that you don't want to celebrate sadness. On a song like "Happy Kid" do you feel like you're celebrating happiness in that song? And how do you weave that idea into your music or specifically this track?

I've never thought about it. So "I'm just a happy kid stuck with the heart of a sad punk." Hmmm. I think, like a lot of songs, it's just aiming right down the middle of a kind of directionless attempt at figuring things out, you know? And there are a lot of songs where we're just looking to understand ourselves or somebody else or something. And that's another one where I think I always feel the pull of opposites: "Drowning my id, always hungry like it's on junk." I mean, I don't really know what I'm talking about. I know what I'm saying, and I know what it means. But I think that's, like, what I do a lot. I think a lot of people do that a lot. It's just reach out in the dark and see what you find.

That song in particular and that line, "I'm just a happy kid stuck with the heart of an old punk" seems to really resonate with people. Going back to the album and doing some research and reading peoples' comments, it seems like with that push and pull you kind of are able to latch onto some sort of feeling that's common.

We have a song called "Teenage Dreams" that's not on Let Go, but we've been playing it at shows lately and I've been saying a lot to the audience after that song: You know, it's not that I want to be a teenager. And actually the dreams I had when I was a teenager are, first of all, I don't remember them, but I don't have any more. That's for sure. But I think we're all of the ages we've ever been. I really think it's true. I'm 50 and I'm definitely still 35 and 17 and 41. You know, it's just there. And I think the first time I really noticed that was in my parents when I was maybe in my 20's, maybe. I started to notice how they were teenagers, and that's not a bad thing at all. And, in fact, it made me feel closer to them and understand them more. Like, “Wow. You have some complicated, irrational feelings, and you basically mean well. You mean very well.” But we're all a little hung up... We're a collection of ages. So saying I'm just a happy kid is like, “Yeah, I'm still a child who wants to laugh. Ideally.

So you now still feel like a happy kid with the heart of an old punk?

Yeah, yeah. I don't think a heart of an old punk before my time. I think, you know, a certain world weariness or life weariness can hit you pretty young, and it's not debilitating, and it's okay, and it's always temporary and fleeting. It's fine.

Inside of Love

Well, now that I'm married I feel very, very at peace because this is what I always wanted, you know? And, like a lot of people, I've had a number of relationships because I was trying, and I was trying to find something that really worked and that would bring out the better in me. So, I don't know. I've always been conscious of wanting to find it. Scared of looking, too, because I'm very scared of getting it wrong. Again, to mention my parents for the second time. They are such wonderful people and had what I would qualify as a difficult marriage. They split up when I was 15, and I saw how hard that was for them. So I grew up really scared of having something happen to me where I ended up in a relationship that didn't really work.

So it's, it's daunting. But we have this drive to find it. You know, I think we really, we love friends. We love companionship. And I really, really like taking care of somebody. So I've had really incredible relationships in my life and with some really, really wonderful people. It's something we want, you know, and that felt kind of universal. I like that song because I haven't written a lot that make that much sense. So, like just now, trying to explain "Happy Kid" like, I don't know. I was just reaching, but I like that "Inside of Love" is kind of clear about: That's the thing I want. Here is how I want it. Here's what I kind of imagined it to be. Here's the trouble I'm having getting there. I'll be alright. I've got to keep trying. All right. This is difficult. Clearly worth it. I really want it.

In that song you're being really emotionally vulnerable. You're giving these specific details, and that's part of what makes the songs so resonant is that you talk about making out with strangers or staying up late watching TV. It's hard to say those things out loud sometimes because those are the secrets we keep. Was that hard to put out there in a song like this?

I don't feel like I'm an exhibitionist or anything, but I do get a little thrill out of that kind of honesty. I don't always find it easy because I don't always think it works. But when I stumble upon something that feels very personal and very revealing that rings a lot of things can ring true, but they don't necessarily ring as a good idea. So when I find one I'm pretty psyched about it and that psyched-ness helps me get over the embarrassment. I shoot a lot of lines down that are really personal and feel dumb. It's hard to find them but when you do maybe it's easy to expose them.

Fruit Fly

I feel lucky with that one because it happened really fast and that's rare for me for songs to be kind of instant, and it's kind of funny. I was sitting down – it's so literal – I was sitting at the table and eating take out, and there was yesterday's take out still there in a bag that I hadn't taken out and there was some fruit flies – and I know, it's really terribly embarrassing. I will say that I'm much tidier now, and I wasn't always that bad, but that particular day I guess I was. And I got up and wrote the song and sat back down and finished dinner. And that has not happened again that fast. But you know what was really exciting about that one was that I've always pretty much sung exclusively about myself. And that's not because I want to. It's because I've tried to think about other people or invented people, and I find it hard and haven't hit the mark that often, but that's a song that I'm singing about a fly and it's tiny. It's a little start, literally a tiny fruit fly, but also, it's a pretty small brain to try and get inside of. I think of John Vanderslice. I like him a lot and he has a song about an assassin and it feels totally convincing and that feels like something to shoot for; just to sing about other people or to inhabit other characters. So I inhabited a fly.

What about the fruit fly captivated you to want to just sit down right in that moment and write that down?

Two things. One is the shape. Well, three things. The shape of how they fly and those patterns, you know, they make these herky jerky kind of instant turns. That's one thing. The second was guilt because I felt like my leaving this food out had caused them to be born, and then the third thing was being stoned, which I personally don't do that anymore. But at the time I did, and that certainly, that was a positive experience that it would make me focus so much on this little creature and what it was doing. And also my goal, really, songwriting-wise is I'm just trying to get where I used to get in an altered state, which was unembarrassed and unencumbered and unselfconscious. So I'm slowly, over the years, getting there where I'm... I said this in an interview in the other room, but being self-critical is useful because it gets your standards up and sharpens you. But it's also very limiting and can slow you down and inhibit you. And so I'm trying to be less self-critical. Why am I talking about that? Just the state of mind of when I wrote "Fruit Fly," I guess.

It's cool that you had the intuition or foresight to capture that feeling in that moment, while you were there. That could be an easy moment to disregard in your day.

Yeah, that's right, that's right. And that's why it's so important to jump on something when you've got that little feeling- that little spark. I usually don't, but I'm saying this out loud to you, but to myself too, that it's important to do that. And I keep meaning to learn to jump on it. Just do it, you know, when you get that feeling. Even if you're eating.

Blonde on Blonde

You guys had mentioned [in the in-studio] that when you recorded it, it was the first time the band played it together.

Yeah, I'm not sure. Yeah, I guess I'd written it really recently, and I guess we worked it out in the studio. That's true. It's also a really literal song, just like "Fruit Fly." It was a day that I was living in Brooklyn, and I needed to go into Manhattan to buy a birthday present for somebody, and it was raining really hard, and I'd woken up kind of sad for some reason. I don't know why, or I don't remember why. And I took the subway into town, and I got off at 14th Street and 1st Avenue, and it was raining really hard but I had a hood. You know, I had a hooded raincoat of some kind, and I had a Discman, and I was listening to Blonde on Blonde, and I just had one of those... what washed over me was a feeling of gratitude that this rich album was in my possession. I had it in my Discman, and it hit me that I'll be able to listen to it for the rest of my life. I'll always have this really rewarding, complex, beautiful, funny piece of art to be entertained by. And it really cheered me up, and I felt totally satisfied and good and warm. Just better. So it made my day really good, and it felt like it was worth documenting it.

That's a really cool idea because I feel like we don't stop and think about the permanency of music. It's incredible. Like, I'm going to listen to this song, of course, I love this song but to think that it's going to be a constant...

We've grown up in an era of recorded music. It's absolutely incredible. You know, you just go back. I don't know. I don't know when the first recordings were.You know, I don't know when it was, but just to think that in the span of human existence that if we just go back one tiny, tiny percentage. Poof. Recorded music is not there, you know? And then there'd be a question of luck. Like, are you born near musicians? Are you one yourself? Is your mom a singer? Like, is there music around? Is it only at church? Is there a church? Do you live near a church? Do you want to go to one? You know? Our opportunities are much, much slimmer when you go back in time. So it feels really lucky and, you know, and I feel lucky to be born when they're dealing records around among hundreds and hundreds and thousands of other records that we're lucky to be born near. But Blonde on Blonde is a good album.

Is that a pretty big record for you?

I mean, yeah. Yeah, it is. I'm not nearly any kind of Dylanologist. It's wild that there is- I think there's actually a book that's about books on Dylan. It's that deep. Yeah, it's really deep and, you know, there's a lot of classes about him and stuff, and I'm, I'm really just on the surface. My knowledge is surface, but my love is deep.

Hi-Speed Soul

A lot of places that we played in Europe turned to discos after. And that's not something that I'd experienced that much in the States. But like rock discos. It turned into, you know, people come dancing, and we would join in at a lot of shows. We don't play those kinds of places that much anymore. This is, like, when we were playing slightly smaller places. Not that we're playing big places a lot, but you know what I mean. For whatever reason we're not there as much anymore, and we just had a really great few nights early on, and I noticed in one place, it was a place called the Atomic Cafe in Munich, he was playing a Simon and Garfunkel record at the wrong speed, and people were flipping out because it was so great. Some other parts of the song are about a night in Stockholm where I met somebody who I ended up dating, but who spoke really quietly, but somehow I could understand what she was saying, and that's in the lyric.

You know, it's a celebratory song about the joy of dancing and, again, being kind of shy, I really like dancing because I get over my shyness, you know? I also really like, for the same reason, watching marathons because, you know, when everyone's yelling everyone's name really loudly. “Go George! Right on! Looking good!” Everytime I go to a marathon I'm watching from the sidelines, and I feel repressed or something to yell out someone's name, but three minutes later I'm screaming along with everybody. It just feels really good to put yourself into a situation where you're drawn out of yourself. So, yes, those rock discos were really fun.

There's a lot of imagery in this one that's kind of, almost, surrealistic or fantastical, almost like you're looking at aliens or disassociating a little bit. Does that play into what you're talking about observing and of being shy in this crowded room?

So you know the expression jamais vu, right? I'm sorry, deja vu. What I meant to tell you about what the opposite. So, deja vu is when you feel like you've seen this before but jamais vu is when you suddenly feel like you've never seen this before. I've had that a lot. Maybe you have to? You know when all of a sudden you, even in the middle of a conversation with somebody you know really well, it can be like; Oh my God, I'm talking to this person, and they're in the middle of a story, and I'm really I'm here. This is wild, you know.

You're kind of seeing yourself from above. Like, “what's happening?”

Yeah. It's like you just unplugging and plugging back in, kind of like an accidental restart, which you didn't mean to... you didn't mean it to happen and all of a sudden, like wow, this is weird that I'm sitting right here with you. Like, with you, right here.

Well, the fantastical, I always feel drawn to that. I don't always feel like I can really put my finger on it or express it well, but I really like – well, the simplest way to put it is that I like fantasy. I like stories. I like fairy tales. And, as an adult I like magic realism in film, and I guess what it really is is that I like dreams, like everybody. It's incredible, you know? I think it's really good for people to know about themselves. Like, if you don't feel like you're a creative person, imagine the dreams that you have. You wrote all that and you cast it and you directed it, made the props and you edited it and did the after effects. I mean, it's all in there and everybody's got this, sort of, wild interior. So it's fun to try and allow that into the day sometimes.

Killian's Red

Without getting too, too personal about it, I was kind of… I had a friend, and it seemed like maybe the relationship was going to go further, but it would involve someone breaking up with somebody, and I didn't want to cause that. And we were just friends, but I could sense that there was maybe something more on the way. That song was kind of a goodbye to that, allowing the feelings to come to the surface for three minutes and then trying to stop… I don't know what the right thing was, but I was too scared. Of drama. So yes, some of that song is... Sorry. I'm frozen because I don't really know what to say about it. That's the basic gist of what it was.

But, you know, like a lot of love songs they can become more than what they started because other parts of yourself, or other stories or impulses sort of bleed into it. Or, like a snowball, it picks up other stuff. But that's the origin of it, and I guess it's also like a lot of the songs. It’s like looking into a dream and describing it. Something that you want or imagine. I've written a lot of love songs about imaginary people. The feelings are real, though. It's incredible how we all fall in love and are capable of it. So it's like we have this incredible drive, like I was saying a few minutes ago, to take care of somebody and to be taken care of and to have someone to share your experience with. So maybe it's no surprise that love songs can be imaginary too because you just have these feelings and you want to give it to somebody. So maybe you're just giving them to a dream.

Just something you can put it onto. Like, if you don't have a person. It's like an idea of a person…

Right. Right. Yeah. I don't know what this has to do with it, but I remember when I got my first pair of Timberland boots I had them next to my bed because I was so excited. I was really young, but it's like I wanted a muddy puddle. So instead, I would just look at them sitting on the floor and imagine muddy puddles.

One thing I think is kind of representative of a lot of what you do on this record that I think is really great and on other albums, as well, is that you do a really good job of setting a scene. Just the way you describe the bar and how the door says Killian's Red on it and everything. Do you think about a sense of place when you're writing songs? Is it important to you to kind of set the scene?

I think it's... I'd like to say yes, but that's not honest. I think it's just…well, maybe where I am is a start. And, but that's kind of like in meditation, you know, you're trying to just... I'm not a good meditator, but I've finally turned the corner and realized that that's the whole point, in a way, is not being good at it. You know, because you might not be learning so much if you could instantly empty your mind of all thought and be totally calm. Well, you wouldn't really be strengthening any muscle. You're hardly using it, you know? But I have no idea how I got on this tangent. So, yeah. So, just being present, I guess, and I guess in a song maybe that's something you can do. You've got this feeling you want to illustrate because something wants to come out, but maybe you don't know what you're going to say. So where are you? What do you see? Maybe it's, like, a simple way to start.

Like a prompt, almost.

Yeah, exactly. That must be what it is. I mean, I'm just talking around it because I don't know what else to say. I'm glad if it seems like I do a decent job of setting a scene. That's very exciting. I would guess, like most songwriters, I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. You know, really. So if it seems like I do,well, that's fine.

Also, musically, it's a lot more expansive and maybe a little more psychedelic than the rest of the record. What was the thinking behind the arrangement?

So there is a band called Come who I really like, and they had a song called the "German Song." It was really beautiful. And we played in Boston about a month ago, and the singer's name is Thalia Zedek. I may be pronouncing her name wrong. I don't know her, but I ran into her in a music shop the morning of that Boston show, and I invited her. She came, and while I was singing "Killian's Red" my mind wandered a little bit about who was in the room and I remembered that she was there, and it all of a sudden hit me that I'd tried to lift the feel of this song I was obsessed with.

And then, I'd bought a Sunny Day Real Estate record for [bassist] Daniel [Lorca] because... it's happened a few times, where I hear something that I like, but I have a feeling he's just going to flip his lid over. So I got him this record, How it Feels to Be Something On, and he was really obsessed with it. I think our bass line kind of comes out of that feeling a little bit, but I think another driving impetus in that arrangement is, kind of like what you said about "Hi-Speed Soul" there being some fantastical lyrics, I think I always want a song to generate a special atmosphere, and in my own case I think that they rarely do. We have a lot more songs that are just kind of sonically and arrangement-wise, pretty traditional, unfortunately. But I feel like ideally every song would. And so maybe when we have a song that's got a little spark of that, like just a special feeling of space or place or something a little spooky, I probably want to underline it. I really love songs that when you put them on it feels like the room freezes. You know that all of a sudden the atmosphere of the song just completely fills the room right away. I'm not saying that song does. I'm saying it's something I like in other people's music.

The Way You Wear Your Head

So there's this band from Boston called the Lyres who are a garage revival band who did a lot of covers of, like, 60's garage punk. I'm sure most people are familiar with what garage punk is, but in case you're not, it's basically like the Beatles and the Stones got really big in the States really fast, right. So all of a sudden it's like; Oh, my God. There's this British music. What the hell is it? And a lot of American kids bought instruments and learned how to play in a matter of months and all of a sudden were making records. And so there are all these singles of these bands who had just learned how to play, and what's really exciting about it is that I feel like almost every band in the world has one great song. You just accidentally make this total, to use a modern term, like, banger. You know, probably every corner band has one, and if they're going to make a single it's going to be that song. So there are all these 45s of really obscure bands playing something really good.

Anyway, that's a roundabout way of saying what the Lyres are like. They're really great. Tough, catchy music. And I had this thing called Dr. Sample. It's this cheap, small sampler, and I sampled part of a Lyres' song, and it's just a groove on an F sharp, very chugging. A bit like a faster "How Soon is Now," maybe. The Smiths song. I played against it, and I really liked playing it. The song is a big F sharp major chord, and I loved playing other chords against that chord, and I'm sure that maybe it's a really common trick, but for me it was a really big deal to have a chord be in harmony with another chord. So I was moving these shapes around and really enjoying the spread. Like, what a B sounds like with an F and what a C sharp feels like with an F and then an A. Oh my God, you know.

I was really having fun with that, and it was like a song like, I guess My Bloody Valentine records have a lot of that, where there's a lot of density in the chords and different big things happening at the same time which is causing a lot of fun, kind of creamy tension. So yeah, it's a song around that. That's how it was written. I met somebody with really, really pale eyes once. Like so light blue that the eyes look like wolf eyes. Which is what that line is about. "The strangest color eyes." That's it. What else is in there? There's a Cheap Trick lift. "I want to want you and I need to need you" is just, like, an inversion of "I want you to want me. I need you to need me."

I think of any song on the album it feels kind of akin to your first couple records with the bigger rock sound. Was that kind of intentional? Do you still have the itch or is it just how it came out?

It's never intentional, but we definitely still have that itch. Lately where I live has been an influence in calming our music down. I've been living in Cambridge, and the house that I was in for a few years had incredibly thin walls. I'd be sitting around playing guitar and someone would bang on the wall to shut me up, so it's been weird to go on tour and sing all the songs really loud and then get home to Cambridge, and I'm like, well, first of all, I can't do that. Second of all, all of a sudden I can't think of anything that I want to say really loud. Like, what am I yelling about? What the hell is going on? But in fact, I think it's just that any lyrics you're into you can just sing louder if there is a drummer. But, if you know what I mean, if there's no drummer then I'm not naturally somebody who would sing loudly. It's a weird thing to do.

Neither Heaven nor Space

So our band name is really weird. You know, Nada Surf, but that's kind of what it means. It is neither heaven nor space. I've always, when listening to music, or making music, sort of imagine myself floating somewhere. I guess it's like anything you love puts you in a peaceful place. So I imagine, no matter how loud the music is, I feel myself going to a peaceful place, and I imagine that, for whatever reason, being in the sky and being pretty high in the sky. And it's not quite space yet, and it might not be heaven, either. So I don't know why that phrase is... I wasn't intentionally trying to describe the band name, but it just happens to be a place or a feeling that I'm after a lot as a kind of floating, peaceful thing.

What else about that song? Yeah. It's weird that you hear trains in New York City because there are subways and there are train trains. It feels like the sound of the country, you know, a train whistle. Sometimes you hear them in New York, and I've been a million trains, but I've never been in a train in New York with a whistle. So I don't know where that sound comes from when I hear it in Brooklyn. Maybe I'm imagining it. There's that thing, right, when you're in a city that there's so many noises and so, who knows what you're interpreting in the soup.

Do you feel like that song, in terms of your band name, is a song about you trying to write about capturing that feeling?

No, no. No, that's just me literally trying to capture the feeling. Not writing about writing, exactly, but I think that's another one of those songs where I couldn't tell you what it was about. But some of my favorite songs I don't know what they're about, and I'm convinced maybe that the person who wrote it doesn't either. When it works I think it's really great because it's like our subconscious speaking.

It kind of makes it nebulous in a way that you can really, in this song particularly, you can kind of project your feelings onto it.

That's right; that's right. You know, I'm glad you brought that up. Some of my favorite songs are ones I don't understand, but what I really love sometimes are singers whose enunciation is bizarre, and I wish mine was more bizarre. I think, unfortunately, I'm a really clear singer. At least that's the way it seems to me. Like it is pretty easy to understand what I'm saying. What I really like is when when I hear a song, and I can't understand anything the singer is saying, but then a few words jump out and they're good. Then it tricks my mind into assuming that all the words are great, but I don't know what he's singing about, which frees me to imagine anything. So it's just this feeling of quality, you know, or a good mystery or good excitement or, you know, somebody, like, massaging your brain. So, why am saying that? Just to say that when songs have these kind of nebulous couplets in them, I do really like that.

Là Pour Ça

So Daniel usually sings that, and he wrote that.

He wrote that, yeah. I helped with the music a bit, but, you know, those are his words

How did you guys end up making that into a song for the record?

If you speak another language, you feel like you should probably try writing in it. I found French really hard. I've only written one song, and it was a B-side for our Lucky record, but, for Daniel, French is his first language, So he's French-ier than I am. And, so yeah, just he'd been collecting expressions. The drive is just because you can. Whatever the French version of whatever record company we've been on has always been pushing us to do, like, covers of French songs and stuff. It's hard because French is really a very precise language. You know, that's a silly thing to say. All languages are precise; it's how you use it, but okay.

So I have a pocket theory about this. Geographically if you look at France it's in the middle of... it's surrounded by really strong cultures that would love to export all their words to whoever will take them. So, yes, England, which I think is on the border of France. It's just the channel is so narrow, right. And then Germany and Italy and Spain, and there's also Belgium and Switzerland. But that's a lot, and so I wonder if, like, the French are very protective of their language because they feel like it's threatened, and they want to preserve it. And this French school that I went to in New York when I was a kid, and I got to know a lot of my friends' parents. And these are people who've been living in the States for 40 or 50 years, and their accents had not budged one shade. You know, it's still the very same. And I think that they really like their phoneticism and are going to keep it. Again, I have no idea why I'm telling you that. Yes, Daniel wrote it, and the lyrics are pretty awesome. Maybe we were listening to a bunch of Bossa Nova at the time. Not that it's a Bossa Nova rhythm, but it's stripped down in that way. It's our very primitive attempt at casting another feeling.

You guys kind of talked about that in studio as well, about certain phrases that just don't translate super well. Do you feel there's an advantage to writing in a different language? Do you feel like you could do something in French that you couldn't do in English?

I definitely couldn't. I don't think I could. Like, I don't have any additional... I don't feel like there are any extra tricks or something in a second language. I just feel like it's harder to express myself. But, but it's fun to try, you know. I think that, just like if you play a particular genre of music exclusively, to then pick up your instrument and try and play something in a different genre is fun and liberating. I think it's the same thing. Speaking of the language. I love on the Pixies records those little bits of Spanish that snuck in there. They just feel great. It just throws this exciting spin on things and also teases your imagination too. You know, because this person that you're trying to figure out is all of a sudden a different person, and that's exciting too.

Treading Water

In terms of influence, there was this band, Chavez, from New York that I was really, really into. Around '94, '95, '96, '97. And that influence kind of hung around for a little while and that guitar riff is pretty dramatic, and I think is trying to get a little bit of their drama. The thing that they've mentioned, this band, Chavez, is they were really into bridges and were trying to make songs that strung together like a series of bridges. You know how some 70's songs the bridge is, like, incredibly dramatic. Like, "Don't Fear the Reaper." That's just nuts. It's just completely crazy. Anyway, so that's our much smaller caliber attempt at a kind of drama off that band.

My father grew up in a fundamentalist Christian cult in England. Very intense people who thought that they were following Christ's teaching more closely than anybody else and that people in other religions were doomed, which I think is the great flaw. Anyway. I think our big mistake is only believing in one religion at a time. If you believe that story, why don't you believe one more, you know? Wouldn't that be convenient? Then you wouldn't have as many enemies. So there's that line about... how does it go? "I talk to missionaries when they're standing at my door. They tell me what I should be reading. I still can't see what for. We both stand there politely trying to change each other's core." I've definitely talked to a lot of evangelists, a lot of Mormons, a lot of Jehovah's Witnesses at my door, and I always feel like my heart goes out to them. Being on a mission seems pretty tough and pretty lonely and what a sadder world it would be if you thought that so many other people were damned. So I feel very sympathetic to them. But, of course, I'm also always trying to think of the one thing that I can say that's going to, kind of, shake it up. I've probably given that up now. I think this was more in my 30's and 20's, you know. I'd want to try and change somebody's mind. I might not do that anymore. I might just look for common ground because I really do just respect everybody. We all arrive at some place and some belief and who knows how we arrive there, and I definitely can't say mine's any better. But, yeah, I'm very sympathetic to them even though, maybe, that lyric, on paper, it looks like I'm competing. I'm not sure, but that's not the intent.

And then the rest of the song, "Treading water, treading white wine, seeing borders, seeing straight lines." I think that's more of that kind of nebulous. It's like if you can't figure life out, which I can't, trying for a couple of minutes gives you some peace, you know. It feels good to just give it a shot, even if you know it's not going to work. I'm being nebulous talking about nebulous right now.

Paper Boats

The subway in New York has a couple of lines that run parallel. The local Express run parallel on the East Side and the West Side, and this may happen in a lot of cities, but the incredible thing about parallel tracks is that another train can be going at the same speed as you and be right there, and it's really weird because it's like looking at a mirror that you may not be in. Vampire style. As you're going Uptown after you pass 42nd Street there was a moment where the Express track rises and probably at the same time the local track descends. And then, right, because of 59th street they're going to be above and under each other. One is going up, and one is going down. And if there's another train, they're going at the same speed. It's amazing because the Express train appears to float. It just lifts away from you just, held by helium balloons or something. And, yes, it's an amazing thing to see. I've seen it just a couple of times, and this one time I was just reading a book and vaguely aware of another train being there and then looking up as something caught the corner of my eye of this train floating away. Well, that's one lyric. So we got part of the way there [laughs].

We just played all those songs and during "Paper Boats" just now, sometimes live, I'll sing these Echo the Bunnymen lyrics at the end from this song called "Ocean Rain." And I bring that up because I think that a kind of magic realism that that band seems to hit on a bunch of records is also something I yearn for and really want. I was probably trying in that song and, again, this will be the fourth or fifth one that we've said this about, but "All I am, is a body floating downwind," is another way of attempting to put words on that feeling of how special and weird it feels to be alive and to be a person and to be a soul. You know, all the contradictions like: we're very alone, we can be very lonely, but you're in a city with millions of people, and you really feel close to all of them because you're in the same tribe and that's very, very, very warm and encouraging, but also maybe you're sitting at home and not sure what to do. It’s just another bunch of shots in the dark.

I love how you take those abstract ideas but then you put them against that verse where you do that back and forth dialogue of “why are you sad? I don't know.” That's really interesting to me, and I'm curious about that contrast.

There's nothing intentional about the contrast between those two things but I always feel sad in that part of a conversation. When someone asks you what's wrong and you can't say, “I'm actually really lonely.” But very often it feels like you don't want to say exactly what you're thinking. And in a relationship, if you're a sensitive person and maybe something has happened that kind of rattled you or made you feel lonely or misunderstood or something. It's really hard for me sometimes to know whether the right thing is to be honest or not. And as I get older I think I'm drifting away from feeling like I need to describe every little zigzag in my mind. I kind of don't want to anymore. And maybe that's because I've gotten better at labeling those feelings more correctly. Like it's just a wobble. You know, I just had a hiccup, that's all. Maybe I don't need to show it because I maybe I don't need to be fixed. Maybe nothing's wrong. Maybe I'm just sensitive, and maybe that's ok. I had a blue wave, you know. So maybe now those moments don't make me feel so sad because I don't feel weird about saying nothing's wrong because maybe it's the truth, you know. Is something bothering you? Yes. Does that mean something is wrong now? No, maybe not. Maybe everything's fine.

It's kind of freeing.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But, anyway, I put it in a song because I've definitely noticed those moments as poignant.

So why end on that song?

Oh, it's funny with the last ones, right? I described it to somebody once that all the theories that there are about sequencing. Your first is a bit of a calling card. If you have a hit you put it third. The weird one that you really love is number seven. Sorry to say it, but the weakest track is going to be number eight. And the one you don't know what to do with is number nine and then the one that you hope has enough magic in it to make someone want to repeat that whole record again is the last one. And, also, I tend to think the last one as being a bit of a slower, downbeat song is okay, but I bet there's a totally valid philosophy that you should go out on a rocker. Also, I feel like it's the end of the night. You know? The last song has to put you to bed. It has to function two ways. It has to make you want to start the record over or peacefully go to sleep. So, I don't know. That seemed like the right one.

I like that idea. It's just closure. Like, all right, you can rest now. You made it through.

Yeah. Put you down easy. You know, gently. You're about to hit the ground. Go down slow. Also, I think at the end of a record is a good place to put the most nebulous thing.

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