Brooklyn-based Nada Surf has been called an indie rock band and a power pop group. Drummer Ira Elliot is less concerned with how the group is labeled than he is getting in front of new audiences. And in an era when streaming playlists and downloads dominate, he and his band mates still put value in the album as a whole.
Formed in 1992, Nada Surf has released 8 studio albums – 2016’s You Know Who You Are is the group’s latest – and two live albums including Live at the Neptune Theatre, released earlier this year. The band’s closest brush with the big time came with its very first single, “Popular,” from the 1996 debut album High/Low. But Elliot says the band is always looking forward: with each new release, they’re starting again.
“It almost makes me feel like a teenager,” he laughs. “I mean, who’s in a band? 17 year old, 18 year old guys are in a band! I am a 53 year old man – a grown, adult man – and I’m a drummer in a rock band. It’s crazy! It’s totally insane.”
Though he’s been Nada Surf’s drummer for 21 years now, Elliot’s history shows him to be a journeyman musician. In the 1980s he was the drummer for another beloved Brooklyn institution, the Fuzztones. He also spent time in “shoegazer kind of bands, gothy kind of bands, reggae bands, and punk rock bands” before becoming a roadie for the Smithereens. “It was fantastic,” he says. “I loved that job. It was life changing. And it reignited my desire to be the drummer in a band.” He brought that passion to Nada Surf, and has played on all of their albums.
Elliot says that a couple of years ago, he and his band mates – guitarist Matthew Caws and Doug Gillard and bassist Daniel Lorca – toyed with the idea of abandoning the album format. “We thought, ‘Let’s take a new tack. We’ll just become a singles band; we will release a new single every couple of months, and it will be great.’” But they quickly discovered that their working process didn’t lend itself to that approach. Releasing new music that often would require “getting together to record something and write something new every few months. Our lifestyles don’t allow that, because we live in different places.”
Instead, when Nada Surf gathers in the studio, the aim is to record an entire album. “Matthew will write five, six, seven things,” Elliot explains. “We’ll record those, and by the time we’ve finished, he will have written two, three more.” And then they continue recording. The results are reliably tuneful and rocking. “Our music is simple enough and appealing enough that anyone of any age can get into it if they so choose,” Elliot says.
But in today’s download culture, do listeners still want an album’s worth of songs? Elliot thinks so. “And we try to think of every individual song as a single unto itself,” he says. Presenting those songs as a collection on an album is “the way we’ve always worked, and I don’t think we’re gonna be changing that paradigm anytime soon. We’re gonna stick with our guns on this one, and just stay with the album format.”
And the band always looks forward to tours. “That’s the only way to keep the ball in the court, to keep things alive,” Elliot says. “You can’t rest. You can’t sit back and go, ‘Hey! We made all these great records. Love us!’ You gotta go out there and prove that you’re a real band and you can deliver the goods.”
For his part, Elliot believes he does just that. He says that if it were up to him, Nada Surf “would play twice as many shows as we’ve played this year. I’m like an aging tennis pro,” he says. “I just want to get out there. I am as good a drummer now – in fact, probably much, much better – than I was in my 20s and 30s. I will mow down an entire room of people. I’m out for blood. And I still feel like I have something to prove.”
You may also enjoy another of my interviews with Nada surf’s Ira Elliot.