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Caws should know about real hits. His band scored one in 1996 with the song "Popular," off the band's debut album, appropriately titled High/Low. With its slow-creeping guitar line, loud/soft alterna-rock crunch, and increasingly frantic spoken vocal, the song and its accompanying high-school-setting video became a minor sensation on MTV.
"It probably seemed like a bigger deal to everybody else, because we were on the road the whole time," Caws says. "You're working the whole time. You're not just hanging around the house with your friends saying, 'Oh gee, it's on TV again.' You just hear that it's on all the time. I think the transition seems much bigger from the outside, because on the inside it wasn't that big of a deal to begin with."
Caws, however, is quick to point out that the album, and even the single itself, didn't sell much — a twist of fate that, in the end, might have worked in the band's favor. The group's second album, 1998's The Proximity Effect, failed to meet the expectations of then-label Elektra. This freed the band to head to indie imprint Barsuk, with which it has released three albums. There, Caws says, Nada Surf has been able to sustain a steadily building success. The title of its latest effort, Lucky, offers a clue as to how Caws and company feel about their career right now.
"Things are so much better now," he says.
And how much of a point of pride is it to the band to have averted one-hit-wonder status?
"Well," he answers, "it's the same point of pride as just keeping your job. And it all happened really easily. It took a long time, but there wasn't a particular struggle. It was depressing to have the second record not be welcomed as warmly. But aside from that, we just did what we did. It was probably good, in a way, to have something go wrong, to have a forced three years off. That was kind of a luxury."
Caws, now 40 years old, says that being able to live at a slower pace in his thirties came as a welcome change. "It was a lot of free time," he explains, "but I wasn't tempted enough to think of having another career or go to grad school or something. I thought, Well, the band will be too busy to have a real job, so I'll just go work in a record store. I had a great time for three years. It was like having a second childhood — or teen-hood or post-college-hood."