Entering their twentieth year and currently touring their latest album The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy (Barsuk), New York pop-rockers Nada Surf are living the rock and roll life without all the usual pressure and chaos. Drummer Ira Elliot describes the band, who first caught national attention with the 1996 summer radio hit "Popular," as "in our own little Green Zone."
"We never got so huge that we had to deal with backlash or the pressure to have another, bigger hit," he recalls with a laugh.
"For a long time we were defined by 'Popular,' but we got out from under that," he continues. "The industry changes, but we started and got ourselves established before all this current madness. And the Internet came along at just the right time for us, so our fans could find us even if we weren't being played on radio every 15 minutes."
Nada Surf formed in 1992, but Elliot joined original members Matthew Caw and Daniel Lorca in 1995. Shortly after, their first big break came when Ric Ocasek of the Cars saw one of their shows, heard their demo cassette, and agreed to produce the band's first full-length album, 1996's High/Low.
Its first single, "Popular" was enough of a hit to get Nada Surf a major-label deal with Elektra Records, but the band and the label went to war almost immediately when Elektra refused to issue the band's second album, The Proximity Effect, in the U.S. without a single that had a similar sound to "Popular." The fledgling band took a year-and-a-half hiatus while they worked out a deal with Elektra to buy back the album.
"They wanted another hit single similar to 'Popular' – it was as simple as that, really," recalls Elliot. "From our side, we thought the record was just what we wanted as far as our sound, where we were artistically at that juncture. So we dug our heels in and they did too. But it all turned out for the best. Not being on a major label is probably one of the luckiest accidents that ever happened to us."
Which brings the drummer back to the Green Zone.
"I'm not saying it wouldn't be great to have a hit record. No one in this business would turn that down," says Elliot, who met his first wife during a gig in Houston. "But when you go down that major-label road, that looking for a hit with every album road, you really have to play ball with the industry.
"You have to make yourselves available, you have to do the press, do the showcases, shake the hands," he continues. "We're just rock musicians, and we're not super-comfortable with that. The way we're set up now – independent label, a minimum of management and organization – we don't really have anything in the way of pressure. And that makes the job more fun.
"It's like this friend of mine in Los Angeles texted me yesterday and said he heard one of our songs while he was shopping at one of the big hardware chain stores," Elliot relates. "Obviously that's a thrill, every musician would enjoy getting that text."
Still, he adds, "when "Popular" became a hit, sure, we were excited, but we came back to earth after that early experience pretty quickly."
Elliot says while the band has never been busier, their schedule is bearable and affords a life outside music. The band tends to work in yearly cycles, touring for a year after an album release, then settling into New York home life while Caw comes up with new material.
"We don't write on the road," Elliot explains. "So when we finish touring an album, it really becomes a question of when will Matt have that next batch of songs."
While the band is reliant on Caw for most of its musical direction, Elliot notes that organizationally, Nada Surf is pretty democratic.
"We all fall to our level," he says. "Matthew does the brunt of the writing, but Daniel [bassist Lorca] is the most A-Type person, he's always super-organized so he handles lots of details like flights, hotels, our schedule. But we all have our strengths and we all look to each other."
One long-running L.A. rock band recently broke up after two members began to feel like "we were becoming our own cover band" because it had been so long since the band had released new material. Elliot laughs and agrees that after 15 years with Nada Surf there are times when he's had that same feeling.
"But that's not really a problem for us," he notes. "Sure, when you've played some of these songs for 15 years, you have those moments when you think we're like our own cover band, but we've got enough material that we don't have to play 'Popular' every night. And the songs go through gradual changes, too.
"We're also lucky to have a fan base that doesn't necessarily demand the same 20 songs over and over," adds Elliot.
Noting that Nada Surf hasn't played Houston in a good while, Elliot sees the Internet coming to the band's aid.
"We just got back from South America, where we haven't been in seven or eight years," he explains. "But our crowds were larger than ever, and I've got to think a big part of that is people keeping up with us or finding out about us via the Internet. It's been our experience that word-of-mouth or person-to-person is the best kind of advertising a band can get."
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Does Elliot, who also plays guitar, ever wish he could get out from behind the kit and move into the spotlight?
"I keep saying I'll do a solo record one of these days, and I'm actually thinking I may do that after this tour," says Elliot. "I'm very comfortable making a fool of myself onstage, so it's not a big step for me to do my own thing. And I'd like to do a record, do some gigs, but things are so comfortable for this band right now, we're all still getting along, still good friends away from the gig, so I'll probably be playing drums with these guys until I can't."
"But, yes, not a day goes by I don't think about pulling a Dave Grohl," Elliot allows.