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Interview: Matthew Caws

Matthew Discusses His Recent Work With the Salt Collective and Shares Info About What's New on the Nada Surf Front

As Mr. Aristotle once said, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Surely this is true in many ways and in several different groups, but it's especially true of a band. When each one of those parts is uniquely strong and notable, then the entire group becomes something extraordinary. That's what makes the idea of a musical supergroup so delectable; take several strong musicians, put their ideas and creativity together and see what happens.

Salt is a Paris-based collaborative music project led by French guitarist and songwriter Stéphane Schück. The core of the group was formed in the 1980s with Benoit Lautridou (drums) and Fred Quentin (bass). Their collaborations with others began in 2000. Their newest incarnation was formed in 2022 and features Matthew Caws (Nada Surf), Juliana Hatfield, Matthew Sweet, Peter Holsapple (the dB’s), Richard Lloyd (Television), Mitch Easter (early REM albums producer and Let’s Active), Anton Barbeau, The dB's rhythm section (Gene Holder and Will Rigby), Susan Cowsill, Pat Sansone (Wilco), and newcomer Faith Jones. The collection was produced and guided by Chris Stamey. Together, they created an album simply titled, Life.

Nada Surf's Matthew Caws joins me to discuss not only his contributions to the project, but to give a generous peek into his creative process and his lifetime of instpirations. Of course, we also talk about all things Nada Surf and - if you're a fan - you'll want to listen or read to the very end for some welcome news. The collective is also embarking on a short US tour this January; you can find the dates at the bottom of the page.

Matthew Caws: You have a beautiful record collection, my God.

Evan Toth: Well, thanks very much. I think Nada Surf is in there somewhere.

mc: Oh, awesome.

ezt: [laughs]

mc: Next to Nas or next to Nilsson. When I would look in record stores, it was usually Napalm Death.

ezt: It's funny that you say that, because sometimes I think about that, sometimes something weird is living next to something else alphabetically. That happens for sure. Tell us about The Salt Collective. You're a part of The Salt Collective. When you were a kid, did you ever know that you were going to grow up to be a part of The Salt Collective? You didn't know that.

mc: I did not. Life is full of wonderful surprises. Gosh, everything's a surprise, really. Being in a band is sort of a surprise. Being in a band this long is a surprise. Yes, this group, it's great. I was asked to write a couple of songs to some finished tracks. I was told about the project, and who was involved, and a lot of the names are people I'm a big fan of. That made it a very easy decision. I also really like the tracks. I did one at first, and then asked to do another. Yes, it's been really lovely. I think the record's really good.

Photo: Hector Di Napoli. L-R Chris Stamey, Matthew Caws, Stephane Schuck

ezt: Yes, it sounds great. Tell us a little bit about how the group came together? How you guys hooked up? It's just a lot of different personalities. How did you all meld together to get together?

mc: Well, a lot of the melding took place without me, before me. This French trio, Salt, headed up by Stéphane Schück. He had asked a number of people to be involved, and I guess wanted a lot of singer-songwriters to finish the songs. The Posies’ drummer, Frankie Siragusa, asked me to write to a finished track once. I think there are a couple other times that I've been asked to do that.

It's always a lovely experience, because it's so instant compared to how I write alone, from the ground up. Also, it's nice to not have musical choices. I think that constriction is really neat. It's like singing along with the radio. It just happens to be an instrumental channel, an instrumental station, and you're trying to see if anything's missing, or what might be missing, or what it makes you think about.

I love that. It's like an express train to the adventure and discovery that you have by yourself. A weird kind of-- This is a poor analogy, but I was thinking about how, when I first learned a few guitar chords, and got a first couple of chord books, like a tablet-- Not tablature, just chord books of like...

ezt: Showing the figures like how you play each chord. Yes, I have a few of those. 

mc: I was a huge early Who fan, I really loved-- They were my first band that made me feel transported. Also, like my secret, because when you hear something on the radio, it's not your secret, a lot of other people are listening at the same time. I went to a school where there weren't a lot of overt, or demonstrative music fans, we wore a uniform, first of all, so it's not like anybody could be wearing like a Rush patch on their jacket. There was nothing like that.

A classmate gave me a cassette of Tommy, and then I went to my local, found a local record store, and had to find one first, and then bought all the early Who records. Anyway, this is a long side story, but basically, when I got this first book of chords, it was like getting on a amusement park ride, like getting on a roller coaster, like climb into a song, and get this, I didn't have to think of it, I just, I knew it and I could play the chords, and feeling like somebody else, I think is part of the excitement of covering a song, is putting on a musical persona or something, or it's like putting on a costume or something. Anyway, writing to something that's finished is a cool hybrid of that, because I'm jumping on a roller coaster, but also helping steer it a little bit anyway.

ezt: Yes, that is an interesting perspective. It is a different way of doing things. I could see that being exciting. You get a product that's almost finished and you go, "Okay, now I have my chance to inject myself in here."

mc: Yes. Right. You get to do half the work, [chuckles] and not to call it work. It's always an adventure. I find the only part of songwriting that feels like work sometimes is like the last 10%, the--

ezt: Finishing, yes.

mc: Yes, finishing. I didn't feel that with this, because all the musical decisions were made. Also, it's such a hard deadline. A deadline, so much as a true line, like it does exist.

ezt: Right.

mc: It has to be finished because it exists. It will be finished.

ezt: You got to do this.

mc: You got to do this. I really enjoyed it. Then, we played one show. We played a private show in Paris for friends of Stéphane, friends and family at an old time recording studio. I was-- Really enjoyed it, and really fun to get together as a band. Also, Chris Stamey, the producer of the record, who did that wonderfully, I think he did a great job, also pulled the-- Steered the rehearsal too. That was that's fun for me too, because to be in somebody else's band is fun to try, and just be a good team member.

ezt: Yes. The management part of it is taken out of the equation a little bit.

mc: That's right.

ezt: You have a lot of characters on this album from different backgrounds. It's interesting, because listening to it, you feel like you're almost flipping through a little record collection. Everybody brings a little something different to the table, and everybody's showcased at different times. How did that work out? How was that decided maybe in the rehearsal, or the production element? How did everyone-- How did it come to be that everyone's strengths were highlighted?

mc: I don't know who, I don't know if it was Stéphane or Chris's decision to-- I wonder if it was Stéphane maybe who decided which songs to give to whom. I really don't know.

ezt: Interesting.

mc: That part, it wasn't like I was sent a bunch of tracks to choose from. I was just sent the one, and then sent one more.

ezt: I see.

mc: Yes. I'm not sure about that. I was just thinking, walking over here before talking to you about the common ground, the Big Star documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me, just started streaming. I hadn't been able to see it before that. I just started watching it last night. That touches a lot on how many groups grew up taking big stars and influence, and I was thinking about other-- Even individual songs that you can feel really spread out in interpretation, and in being an influence like "See Emily Play" by Pink Floyd, "Can't Explain" by The Who, I don't know, "Galveston," all the songs that have like electrified kids to [chuckles] pick up guitars, and make them want to pick up guitars.

For me, of all things, it's bizarre. I listened to radio obsessively as a child. I was a latchkey kid. My parents were out a lot. My sister and I were raised on radio.

ezt: You got home and put the radio and TV on, sure.

mc: Yes. Not that the TV was not as-- My parents would feel the back of the TV when they came home to see if it was warm, because we were not allowed to watch much of that. The first song that gave me chills was "She's So Cold," of all things, that Stones song, on Emotional Rescue, I think in part, it might be because there's a phaser on the guitars, which is such a slinky, exciting-- I love things that are like real and artificial, like double-tracking is like super reality, because it's two real things, but it's impossible because one person can't have two voices. It's like this fictional reality, like just one step away from reality. Anyway, maybe it was the phase shifters. I don't know.

ezt: Yes.

mc: I have misophonia, which is a sensitivity to little sounds. If I'm at a restaurant, eating with somebody, and there's a conversation at the next table, I don't want to eavesdrop. I definitely respect people's privacy, but there's something I cannot help but track it.

ezt: You zero in on it.

mc: I zero in on it. I think, I wonder if a lot of musicians have misophonia, which is known as a condition, I think, because like the sound of like an adult, kids don't bother me at all, but if an adult is chewing in an unnecessarily loud way, I've read that it makes some people angry. It doesn't make me angry. It just makes me uncomfortable.

ezt: How about like a clock ticking or something?

mc: That's okay, but not if I'm focusing on it and trying to sleep, that's impossible. Anyway, I don't know why I'm telling you all that. I don't know why.

ezt: It's good stuff!

mc: Oh, because I was thinking of influences. I think just thinking like where, what ties this particular group of musicians together, Matthew Sweet, Julianna Hatfield, Richard Lloyd, Mitch Easter, Susan Cowsill, it's like, not all from the same scene, but there's something about, for me, I'm 56 and '80s college radio is a super formative time, place, school grouping.

ezt: That sound comes through on the album.

mc: I feel like it does.

ezt: Yes, for sure. One of my favorite songs is the tune you're featured on there is "Another Bus Coming." I really liked that tune. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

mc: Yes. gosh. yes. Just great. I love how sometimes something can feel very foreign, and then you get to understand it, and then it feels totally right and natural. There's something about-- There's one bass note in there. It's the second note in the chorus, I think it's an E or something. Then, at first I, like a dog who hears some strange sound, cock my ear like, "What?" [chuckles] Now, it feels so natural and super catchy. It's about regret, getting over regret, not focusing on regret, and remembering that, what matters is from now on, there's another bus coming.

ezt: Another chance.

mc: There's always another chance. Always, always, always. Don't waste your time looking back, and don't catastrophize. I'm not a super catastrophizer, but I-- There's definitely a list of [chuckles] like things I've done wrong or whatever that is there. Part of growing up, or part of staying alive is learning to not look at it, not worry about it, or look at it and don't panic, "Just, it's all right. Everything's okay."

ezt: Roll with the punches a little bit.

mc: Roll with the punches. Don't get too attached. from now on is all you have anyway. It's a really-- It's a super positive song because that's, at any anxious moment I have, you always come out the other side of it, you always get past it. All those moments of getting past have in common, I think that relief of remembering that you're moving forward, and there's-- Life is only in one direction.

ezt: Yes. It sounds like you created a personal mantra for yourself there, and for others. Anybody that keys into the meaning of the tune, or understands it, "Hey, there's another bus coming."

mc: That's a great interpretation, and I hope so, that would be a nice feeling. It's pretty simple, but it's all true. I'm not good at math. [laughs]

Matthew Caws and a Fender Telecaster

ezt: It's funny. I really-- I caught onto that line myself because I'm also horrible at math. I think that caught my attention right quick, I went, "Oh, that's an interesting line," because I'm not good at math either.

mc: I was okay at first. I was with the pack at school. Then, one day, I don't know if it was sixth, seventh, eighth grade, somewhere in there, we learned division. Maybe it was earlier than that. I can't remember what year you learned division, but I was out sick that day. When I came in the next day, I saw that everybody had learned something new and foreign to me.

The teacher came over right to my desk and said, "Do you want me to show you?" Because I must have raised my hand and said, "Sorry, I missed this. I don't know how to do this." She showed me, and out of, and I didn't get it, but out of politeness, embarrassment, or whatever, I lied and said that I had gotten it, but I never caught up. From that little setback, grew a huge chasm between me and everybody who was keeping up.

ezt: The other math bus never came.

mc: Yes. The other math bus never came. Although my dad wrote me a little math book after that, which was so nice of him. This will sound silly, but the kindness of him doing that was so great. I was so conscious of it that, when I didn't immediately get it on the first page, I felt bad and that added to the pressure, and I wish I had it now. It was very nice thing for him to do. My dad was a really good, inventive, and a generous parent.

ezt: Yes. That sounds like a sweet thing to have done. On this tune, and of course, the other songs that you're involved with, how was the recording process? The whole project seems to be-- It was put together very uniquely. I'm just curious how you went in the studio, and did this, or did you do it in separate places, or did everybody get together, or how did it go?

The Salt Collective on vinyl record

mc: Totally separate. I think the Salt Trio themselves did some tracking in Paris, and then I think, The DBs did tracking, I think at Mitch Easter's studio and maybe somewhere else, but I did my part right here on this microphone. Yes, so there was a lot of-- I don't know about the other singers, I'm sure there was a lot of long distance stuff, which is a great way to work.

There are absolute pros and cons. The con is that you can't beat the feeling in a room together, but anyway, that's almost more important for tracking. I feel like, vocals are another thing. I've heard this story that when Van Morrison made Astral Weeks, I think he wasn't in the room with the band. I think he was in a little, what you call an iso booth, that's like a glassed off area.

I can't remember where I heard this, but I think the drummer never met him or something, [chuckles] it was a very separated experience, even though I think it was on live.

ezt: That's interesting: the vibe, but without the communal aspect. The new album is out on vinyl, of course. Were you involved at all in the production of this, or I'm just curious about your relationship, of course, with vinyl, you know what you have. Of course, what releases have been reissued on vinyl for Nada Surf, or just in your own personal collection.

mc: Sure. My first job was in a record store. There was a store called Record Runner on Cornelia street in New York. I was in there when I was 16, 17, and heard a couple of people talking about a Hoodoo Gurus concert coming up, and I was a big fan of theirs. I started talking to these other kids, and I think we met down at the store again, and I got friendly with the owner behind the counter, whose name was Michael Carlucci, who was in a group called Winter Hours.

I became very friendly with him. Then, he asked me to take over, while they were on tour. Then, eventually, I became their roadie for a little while. Why am I telling you that? Just to say, I loved that job. My last official job was also in a record store. That was 2001 or something. That's where I met my wife. She worked at the same store called Earwax in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn.

Our first album, Nada Surf's first album, High Low, did not come out on vinyl. That was in '96, and that was probably near the end of the big dip when vinyl disappeared for a while.

ezt: Right.

mc: Then, it has since come back, and it's the most durable format. Cassettes will wear away or get-- The tape will get stuck to itself. MP3s, I don't know if it's happened to you already, but it has to me, where, I've got some old hard drive somewhere, and I don't know where the power adapter is, and I didn't migrate all my stuff. I've got some old digital cameras that have some movies on them.

I better figure out how to get them off before it doesn't turn on anymore. I think Damon & Naomi from Galaxie 500, wrote a great essay recently, in recent years, about a digital dark age that we may be in. Because if we don't-- Everything, there's so much, and if it gets lost to-- I'm repeating myself, but if it gets lost because we lose the adapter to the hard drive, it's gone-gone. Yes, so I'm very glad it's on vinyl. I don't mean to say that records don't exist, if they're not on vinyl, but it sure helps them exist.

ezt: Yes, absolutely.

mc: It sure confirms their existence, so I'm glad this has been confirmed.

ezt: What about Nada Surf's catalog? What's not on vinyl right now, or any plans?

Nada Surf standing in a meadow

mc: High/Low.

ezt: That was reissued.

mc: That was reissued, and everything else. Proximity Effect probably didn't come out on vinyl right when we first released it, but everything else, but it's since been reissued, and every record since then has come out on vinyl, and I'm happy to say they're all in print, so we're very lucky that way.

ezt: That's cool. Do you listen at home a lot, or are you, even though we believe that vinyl is one of the best ways to archive music, which it's funny, I talked to B. George from the Archive of Contemporary Music. I don't know if you know that building. It used to be in Lower Manhattan on White Street. He's got about three million records. It's like a library museum.

mc: Wow.

ezt: I just interviewed him because they had to move the collection. Of course, Lower Manhattan became too cost prohibitive to have the collection down there, so they moved it out a few years ago, and they're trying to figure out what to do with these three million records.

mc: Wow.

ezt: My question to him was, "Hey, what do you say to people that just say, 'Hey, why don't you just digitize this stuff and be done with it, and call it a day, instead of hauling these 3.2 million records around?'" He says, very simply, he said, "The internet will not exist."

mc: Yes, right.

ezt: The internet's not going to exist. How are you going to listen to this stuff? I went, "Oh, wait a minute, okay."

mc: I hope he's wrong, but.

ezt: Right, but it could--

mc: It would be.

ezt: It could go away and come back, too, who knows?

mc: Yes, it would be certainly, whatever the word, presumptively, presumptuously overconfident to assume that it won't disappear. I spend most of my time listening digitally, because most of my time listening to music is walking around, or I'm doing groceries or whatever, or I'm at the computer, and I'm working or doing admin and stuff. I have a record player here, we have a record player at home, nothing fancy. I'm not an audiophile. I like, I think Crosleys are really unfortunate. It's great that they're so available, but that really doesn't sound great, but a lot of old portable ones do. I like a plain old Hi-Fi. I do listen to it a lot, and we recently got a new turntable at home. Got this, the Pioneer 500 or something, 500. It's great. It's got a 50%--

ezt: Speed control?

mc: Yes, speed. 50%, isn't that great?

ezt: Yes, so you can listen to all your old records, and really hear yourself...

mc: Yes, well, I listen to a lot of-- I really like 45s on 33. Some of them are totally marvelous. "Pinball Wizard" on 33, you should hear that. It's a thing of glory. It is so great. I keep meaning one day to do like a DJ night of all 45s on 33.

ezt: That's interesting.

mc: "These Dreams" by Heart.

ezt: Yes, I love that song, by the way. I can't believe you just brought that song up. Bernie Taupin lyrics there on that one.

mc: No, really?

ezt: Yes, he wrote the lyrics on that.

mc: Oh, I did not know that. That's great. I get, "Jolene" really got around. Do you remember those? That might have be what set me on the path. Although, I've also heard-- I haven't heard this in ages. I only heard it for a moment. Some of the Chipmunk's records, like Chipmunk Punk records are all sped up. If you slow them down, it's pretty righteous.

ezt: It's like the normal speed.

mc: Pretty rocking. I don't know if you had a night of records played on 33, if everyone would just have to drink Jägermeister or something very syrupy. [laughs]

ezt: Slow everything down a little bit.

mc: Yes.

ezt: You guys have some shows coming up. In fact, we're going to get this interview out before you hit New Jersey, which you'll be in the next two weeks or so. How's it been getting everybody together? I imagine everybody's-- You have quite a roster of people here to get on the same calendar, and everybody's busy with their own stuff. How's that been working?

mc: For sure. Thankfully, I didn't need to organize it, but we've already had-- There have already been a couple of days of band practice, though that was not Rob Ladd from The Connells. He'll be drumming and Mitch Easter wasn't present. We're going to have a day of rehearsal in Chapel Hill before the first show. Although they, some version of that, some smaller version of that group may have already been practicing, or will be practicing for that. I don't know, it's just good luck that everyone was available.

ezt: Yes, that's pretty remarkable. What about Nada Surf? What's going on? What can people expect to see happening soon?

mc: I don't know about the timing, but we are putting the final touches on mixing a new record that's done. It's being mastering later this month. What I don't know about timing is, when it's going to come out, but--

ezt: This year, I guess, right?

mc: Yes, this year.

ezt: By the end of the year sometime, yes.

mc: Yes. Yes, definitely by the end of the year. It's studio album number nine.

ezt: Wow.

mc: I'm very glad to have made it this far. I'm excited about it. This one took a little longer, not for any reason, probably the pandemic, which for a lot of people was a very productive time, and for other people was a more family-oriented time. That was the case with us.

ezt: Right.

mc: It's not-- I think you just add that invisible two to every time calculation.

ezt: Right. [chuckles] That number nine is pretty impressive. It makes me think, of course, you're in the band, but my connection with the band too-- That was, your first album was when I was in senior year in high school. To think of you guys putting out nine albums since then is also, for me, reverberates through the ages.

mc: Yes, definitely. Yes, nine's a lot. I agree, it's a lot. Hey, can you tell me about your record collection? It's enormous. What's the story?

ezt: The story is, and thanks for asking, I just started collecting as a kid. My mom liked to go to a lot of thrift stores, and stuff like that. In the, I guess, this would be, the mid, late-'80s. That's my-- I'm about 11 years behind you. I'm 45. That would have been my time when CDs became more popular, and people were selling records at garage sales and stuff like that, I was just bonkers for them.

You know how it was at that time. You couldn't get everything on CD that you wanted, and it wasn't the same. At that time, it wasn't really about high fidelity or anything to me. It was just collecting cool things. I love everything. I've got a lot of rock and roll here, a lot of jazz, a lot of world music. It's a big eclectic collection. I also was on a DJ on WFDU in New York City for many years, about 20 years.

mc: Oh, wow. Incredible.

ezt: I always had a-- You know one of the things about record collecting that I feel is, I want to share the stuff with other people. You feel like, "Oh, this is a great tune, and I've never heard this. I would like to put this on a show somewhere." That's part of my desire in record collecting is to make a playlist, or share with other people, and let everybody know about it.

mc: That's great.

ezt: That's the story there, but I have about 7,000, something like that. I have some over here too that you can't see. A lot of stuff from the '90s on CD in the other corner over there.

mc: I've got maybe-- I've probably got 2,000, but most of it is in storage.

ezt: That's a lot.

mc: When I moved to England a long time ago and left most of it there. It's in storage in Brooklyn. One day, we'll be reunited. My sister had a really big record collection, and she let go of a lot of it, and gave me a lot of her 45s. One of my favorite possessions is a Damned 45. I can't remember what the song is, but it's got rabbits on the cover. My sister and her husband had a few rabbits at one point. One of the rabbits nibbled the edge of that 45. I have the 45 with the rabbits on it, but it also has real rabbit tooth marks in it.

ezt: Like the rabbits ate their own album somehow.

mc: Yes.

ezt: That's funny. Well, Matthew, I really appreciate your time. Listen, if and when the Nada-- Well, not if, when the Nada Surf stuff comes out end of the year or whatever, if you want to do something, I would love to. I would jump in.

mc: That sounds great. For sure.

ezt: That'd be great. Absolutely.

mc: Definitely. All right, man.

ezt: Thank you, Matthew. Have a great evening.

mc: Thank you so much. You, too.

You can hear parts of Matthew's interview - and tracks from the album - below.

Tour dates are as follows:

  • Wed Jan. 17 - Cat's Cradle; Carrboro, NC

  • Fri Jan. 19 - 118 North; Wayne, PA

  • Sat Jan. 20 - White Eagle Hall; Jersey City, NJ

  • Sun Jan. 21 - Daryl's House; Pawling, NY

  • Mon Jan. 22 - City Winery, Boston, MA


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