You have a new album, The Weight is a Gift, coming out in September. How are you feeling about it?
I’m excited. I’m just jumping out my skin. The future is so bright I’ve got to wear shades. The album comes out in the U.S. on September 20th on Barsuk Records. Next week, we’re going to be in Paris doing promotional interviews and playing in the Fete de la Musique.
[Update: June 30, 2005. View Fete de la Musique Pictures]
They know you over there?
The French, actually, are probably our biggest market outside the U.S. In the past, when things weren’t going so well here in the States we’ve always been able to string together 15 or 20 tour dates there and that’s really saved our asses. It helps that both Matthew [vocals and guitar] and Daniel [bass and vocals] speak fluent French. They can really connect with the audiences and conduct interviews and the like.
Is there a story behind the title of the new album?
It comes from one of the lyrics on the album. The line goes “Maybe this weight was a gift. I had to see how much I could lift.” We were searching for album titles and I heard Matthew sing that line and it really jumped out at me. It really sort of made me kind of tear up when I heard it because I thought it was so very true. What he did was he took a situation that was very difficult for him, a personal situation, and turned it into something really beautiful and positive and that is the core idea of this record, that you can take something really awful and depending on how you deal with it, you know, you can let it sink you or you can just get stronger and swim with it.
That’s what Matthew did. And watching him write these songs and really get it off his chest, it was a really amazing lesson in what songwriting is about. It’s just about your life and you just have to take things around you that are right under your nose and simply… I say simply and it’s really not. I know as a frustrated songwriter how difficult it is just to turn the simplest things of life into a song.
Speaking of simplicity, Inside of Love from your most recent album, Let Go… I have to say, on a personal level, the song’s honesty, directness and simplicity touched me, but a lot of reviewers really slammed it for precisely that same reason. One critic went so far as to call Nada Surf " clearly well meaning saps.” Any thoughts?
I love that song. To me, as a drummer it’s like playing a soul song. It’s not being all cryptic and talking around the issue. It just comes out and says it, “I want to be in love.” I don’t see anything wrong with that. I view it as a classic, like I’m playing a song with Al Green because it’s kind of sexy and romantic. Matthew is a romantic person. His songs are about love relationships and I understood that. And for my part, I’ve tried to reduce the sappiness by keeping it simple. Simple and sexy. I think that simplicity serves the song well.
Any songs you look back on now that you think “Ouch, that’s embarrassing?”
Nothing embarrassing, but there were some songs that were experiments that failed. And experiments can, by definition, succeed or fail. Like Popular, that was an art experiment that succeeded. There were some songs on our second album, High/Low that we sort of tried to engineer. For example, this one song called Mother’s Day, which was a very pointed song about date rape which we sort of thought, if we can get a single on the radio it would be this song, because at that time New Metal was coming in, groups like Rage Against the Machine and all that. So we thought we need a heavier, darker single, but the song, the angry tenor of the song, doesn’t really suit us. I mean people love that song and ask us to play it all the time, but we almost never do. In fact, we haven’t played it for two or three years. It’s not that we’re embarrassed by it, but some things just don’t work over time.
You just mentioned Popular. That came out in 1996 and became a pretty big MTV and radio hit. Almost ten years later Nada Surf has yet to match that song’s success. How have you felt in the past when some of your critics have referred to you as one hit wonders?
Better than a no hit wonder. At least we had one, even if it annoyed the shit out of some people. It comes by different names, but we’ve always called it the “golden ball and chain.” It helped us and hurt us. The year or two that followed Popular were kind of rocky because it was tough to rise above it. Nada Surf equaled Popular. It was the same thing to the average music listener and we were out to prove, of course, that we were so much more. But It would be stupid for me to complain about that song because it’s the reason we’re sitting here talking right now.
I think overall, when you take everything into consideration that song mostly helped us insomuch as it sort of jump started a career and enabled us to work together as a creative unit. and allowed us to continue on and do what we really wanted to do which was make records together. Not produce hit singles together, but make records together. So having this fluke hit single was a great blessing.
What’s your personal involvement in the Nada Surf songwriting process?
Matthew lays all the ground work. He writes the lyrics and the melodies, but the songs are created through a pretty democratic process, like what’s the emotion of the song? Is it going to be a lopsided thing or more traditional verse and chorus.
It’s very unusual for Matthew to come to us with an entirely formed… like here’s the drum part, here’s the bass line. It’s usually like chords and melody and then we decide between the three of us how it’s going to sound, like what the arrangements going to be, how it will start, how it will end, like, you know “okay, we’ve come this far, we have, okay, the verse works and when we transfer to the chorus, how do we get back?” If we need another part that’s usually a communal decision. We trust each other. That’s one of the hallmarks…
You know, one of the first things I noticed about the band? My first rehearsal with Nada – I had listened to the tape -- and I was playing and Matthew says “You know what, not that what you’re doing is not really great, but could you try doing this other thing instead?” And no one had ever said that to me, this “Could you please try this other thing?” It was always like “You’re doin’ it WRONG. It’s supposed to be like THIS.”
Just the way he approached it, it was like he apologized. I was so shocked by the amount of respect I was getting and of course my response was like “Hey, baby, any way you want it. I’ll play it with my knees.” That’s how it’s always been, there’s this respect for each other, musical respect.
In casual conversation you portray yourself as a bit of a Johnny-Come-Lately to Nada Surf. What’s up with that?
Well, because I’m the fuckin’ new guy.
Ira, you’ve been in the band since 1995.
Well, yeah, I’ve been there for ten years but they never really said I was a member of the band. They just quietly, tacitly agreed to let me play the drums.
But you know what? Really, the fact of the matter is that Matthew and Daniel, the two of them have known each other since they were like 8 years old. They were in school together and they had their first band together when they were 14 years old, so yes, I was the new guy. And technically speaking, there was another drummer in Nada Surf before me, there was a guy named Aaron.
Yeah, and there was another drummer in the Beatles...
You know, funny story. I knew Matthew and Daniel since 1985. I was a member of the Fuzztones and Daniel was a fan. That’s how I met them initially. So Aaron leaves the band and it’s this weird thing because within ten shows of when I joined the band Nada Surf is signed and within a year we’re on Elektra Records and we had our first record out. It was a very strange time for us. Everything happened very quickly for us. And don’t think I didn’t think that, like “I’m Ringo and he’s Pete Best.”
I felt guilty about the whole situation. I kept thinking about Aaron and how he must be like “Oh my God, I was in the band like a year ago and suddenly Nada Surf is on the radio?” If I was him I would be freaking out. But Aaron was always very cool and we've become very good friends over the years. Whenever people are looking for a drummer I send them to him. He's a really great drummer by the way. He plays in a band called Tiger Mountain now.
You didn’t think to yourself “Ha! They got on the radio because of me?”
They did get on the radio because of me.
I sense you’re being serious here.
I’m being totally serious. Me joining the band wasn’t all of it, we loved playing together and we had chemistry, and of course a good song, Popular, but it was a part of it, maybe like a third of it. I’m a very good drummer and I make a difference. I’m one of those guys, you want me in your band because I’m really good at what I do and I make everything sound together. When I join a band they get better and shit starts to fly. It happened with the Fuzztones and with other bands too. A band that’s already pretty good, with a drummer who’s really good only goes up. As Joe Strummer famously said, “A rock band is only as good as it’s drummer.”
So okay Johnny-Come-Lately, now you’re saying “I’m a great drummer.” How does that square with your whole humble pie “Oh, I’m just a guy they let play with them” riff?
That’s just a defense mechanism I have, to play myself down, because my basic nature, the reason I’m a drummer, the reason I’m a good drummer, the reason I can tell you that I’m a good drummer is not because I’m like the greatest drummer in the world, but if you believe you’re a great drummer that’s half the battle. It’s sheer egotism. Like, all a drummer ever has is this sort of like bold self-confidence to pull rhythm out of the air and translate it to the instrument. It’s totally nervy. It’s a ballsy thing to do. I mean, I’m not a ballsy person but I know that I’m really good at doing that. So I’m egocentric about that. It’s one of my great strengths and I’m very proud of it.
And there’s this other thing. Drummers, we’re underappreciated. We do this really important job but no one ever sees us, we’re in the back…
So you’re the guy in back. Ever wanted to be the guy in front?
There’s a part of me that’s always wanted to be the front man of a band. When Matthew asked me to join the band back in 1995 I was thinking “Well, you know what, I don’t really want to play the drums anymore. I think I want to play the guitar and start my own band.” That’s still a back burner idea, but I’ve been writing pieces of songs for a couple years now. I have a big stockpile. And I can tell you that pieces of songs can become entire songs with a minimum of effort. But my problem, my weakness, is that I’m completely lazy. I don’t put the effort into forming them into complete songs. If I did, dude, I’d be a force to be dealt with.
And there’s definitely a part of me that’s always wanted to be a celebrity. You know what I do in my spare time? What I do when I’m alone in the house? Some people like to get naked and dance around like Iggy Pop. Me? I pretend I’m being interviewed. Drummers never get interviewed. So, occasionally I’ll be wandering around my apartment alone and if there’s a topic that I want to expound on, something I think I’m completely genius and knowledgeable about I’ll start to interview myself, I’ll just turn, as if I was sitting next to Conan O’Brien and I’ll say, “Well, you know the thing about that Conan is…” and I’ll just go back and forth with myself.
Think you'll get on to Conan with The Weight is a Gift?"
We already played Conan for Let Go. We think we have a good shot at Leno and Letterman also this time. Dreams come true sometimes.
Are there ever times you feel like a rock star?
You know, this idea of the rock star, people use it like it’s a pejorative, but I’m totally comfortable with the idea. I like the idea. I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to be a rock star? It’s like being an astronaut or a cowboy. It’s the same thing. I like this idea of being on stage and people recognizing me and appreciating a performance. I think that’s an amazing thing. Maybe it’s sheer egotism, but I totally identify with it. I’ve felt like a rock star since I was 15.
And yeah, actually I do sometimes feel like a rock star. Especially at shows. We’ll be there in the bar before or after the show and people will lean into each other and whisper and point at us. And it’s funny because it’s like they don’t expect us to be there, they think we’ll be sitting backstage with whores and donkeys…
Which is great if you have whores and donkeys…
Of course. But it’s just not like that really.
Any personal projects?
I have no personal projects… uh, I’m trying to save the world, no that’s not it.
Oh, alright, alright. Personal projects. Personal projects. Hmmm…
Well, okay, for the past month and a half I’ve been foused on this idea that’s been floating around since I was like 15-years old. You know, we’re a very simple band, just three guys on a stage, not a lot of bells and whistles, no props or anything, and so I thought what is the most interesting thing we can do visually? And I remember I’d watch Don Kirshner’s “Rock Concert” when I was a kid and they would show the drums from above using a mirror and I always thought that was a really cool thing to do, because to see the drums from above, that’s the best angle to see the drums from. The average viewer in a rock club gets to see the heads of the guys in front and maybe some sticks and cymbals moving. And most people, they only see a band once or twice ever so why not make the most of it for them?
So I got these two big convex supermarket mirrors, like fisheye things, and if you angle them the right way, kind of put them low and flat over the kit it allows people 20, 30, 40 feet away to actually see what’s going on with the drums, which I think is really exciting for a rock show.
Why not just go digital? Use cameras?
Oh, come on man. Analog. We’re an analog band. When we start playing stadiums, yeah, then we’ll be like U2. I’ll have a series of cameras on the kit. We’ll have like my butt cam and my nosehair cam… But seriously I like the simplicity of the mirrors. It’ll look really cool, like two big silver UFOs floating over the kit.
And, you know what I did? I put a silver bass drum head on the front of the bass drum so it’s a third silver disk, it’s like three big silver reflective disks and it’s all about the number three. Nada Surf is all about the number three.
Well, because there are three of us. We’re a trio. That’s the beauty of Nada Surf.
Yeah, solipsism. Wow, I haven’t used that word since college.
Ira, sitting here rapping with you, man, you love to talk. How the hell do you stay quiet during shows?
I figured early on the last thing people want to hear is the drummer talking on stage. Dude, it’s gone horribly astray when the drummer starts talking. I think the drummer should just shut the fuck up and play the drums.