Ahead of the release of their stunning new live album Peaceful Ghosts, we chatted with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Read on as Caws opens up about how the two unique shows captured on Peaceful Ghosts came to be, what the process of playing a rock show backed by an orchestra is like, and what some of his own favorite rock-meets-symphony moments are as a fan.
NoiseTrade: Your brand new live album Peaceful Ghosts captures the band over two nights backed by the Babelsberg Film Orchestra and the FM4 Radio Symphony Orchestra. What sparked this surprising-yet-mesmerizing partnership?
Matthew Caws: It came as a total surprise to us! Apparently the Vienna radio station FM4 and the Vienna Radio Symphony, who share a building, have a joint venture every year where they ask one rock or pop act to put on a concert with the orchestra in a beautiful theater downstairs, which the station simulcasts.
This year they asked us. That was the good news. The bad (or not great) news was that the question came in right as I was in the home stretch of finishing our latest record, You Know Who You Are. But as luck would have it, the band who had done it the year before was Calexico. Our friend and sometimes extra touring member Martin Wenk is in Calexico and has a wonderful understanding of arrangements, along with an intimate knowledge of our songs. We asked him if he would produce the project and we're very glad that he agreed.
NT: How did the collaboration process work between the band and the orchestra for the two shows?
Caws: Martin hired the same composer who had written the Calexico arrangements, Max Knoth, from Hamburg. Martin made up a list of songs that he felt would work well with an orchestra, showed it to us, and after just a couple of substitutions he gave the final list to Max.
During the couple of months that Max was composing, Martin visited him a few times to get a feel for what was coming. He must have been happy with what he was hearing because as far as I know he didn't have to steer the project. Max has a wonderful style, very filmic, which seems to manage to both support the songs and challenge them. What I mean by that is the additional melody and movement felt neither totally safe (i.e. just following the chords that are already there) nor destructive. Rather than obscuring or transforming the songs, these arrangements seem to expand them and give them more and brighter life.
We heard synthesized versions of the arrangements, which was very useful because it gave us an opportunity to get used to them before the performance. The day before the concert, we spent a couple of hours playing alone as the conductor watched us to see, understand, and interact with how different our live style is from the records. We had to make some adjustments. Generally speaking, we play our fast songs faster than we do on record and, conversely, our slow songs slower. We were also learning to follow the conductor's hands, which was an interesting learning experience. My impression was that classical time is more about a speed limit (we were to stay just a little behind what he was expressing) and so much can be read from the conductor's face.
After those two hours, the orchestra arrived and we spent three hours going over most of the material. There was a lot of discussion of beginnings and endings. We were so excited to meet them and they seemed to really enjoy the experience. In terms of working together, we were both really working with the conductor, letting him figure out how to fuse our two groups (of drastically different size!)
NT: From a songwriting perspective, how rewarding is it to hear your songs expounded upon in this manner? Were there ever any moments of creative tension with the orchestral direction?
Caws: Goodness, it's very rewarding. Even just hearing the synthesized versions was a thrill because again, as I said, Max really did so much more than just increase the instrumentation. He managed to, for lack of a better way of putting it, add more heart. Standing onstage with the orchestra doubled that thrill. it was so rich and so loud. I've used the word "filmic" already to describe the arrangements, but that's really it. We felt like we were standing on a big imagined plain, with a James Bond feeling on one end, and a Walt Disney feeling on the other, with new expression all around us.
The only creative tension was getting used to the arrangements, which was not always easy at first. If it had all been easy, the rewards might not have been as great. The example that sticks out are the bluesy and bending swells near the beginning of "Animal." I disliked them right away, but that only lasted about three listens. I stuck with them and ended up loving them. By the time of the performance, I couldn't have imagined the arrangement without them.
NT: Having released the explosive Live at the Neptune Theatre 3xLP release last year, how do you feel that this album stands out differently as a sonic snapshot of the band’s live abilities?
Caws: It's really a whole different picture, mostly because it doesn't represent our live abilities. Well, you know what I mean. It represents our ability to play with 50 additional musicians! So I guess that's exactly it, your question really contains the whole reason we're happy it's coming out. It's so different. It's only "explosive" in very small moments - for example, at the end of "The Fox" and some flourishes in "Believe You're Mine." In general though, it has more contained energy, still a lot of momentum and power, but more barge than speedboat. Of course, it's much prettier than we manage to be on our own.
NT: Finally, do you have any favorite rock-meets-symphony songs or albums that you really enjoy from a fan’s perspective that our readers should check out?
Caws: One of my favorite strings-meets-rock moments is "Cybele's Reverie" by Stereolab. The strings on that song are likely a mellotron, a wonderful instrument that plays tapes of real instruments being played, which results in reality plus a lovely decay. I've just been listening to the new Okervill River album, Away, which has some very lovely subtle instrumentation, often sounding like a small orchestra. The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds really stands out as one the most wonderfully orchestrated records of all time. Ah, but that wasn't your question! You said symphony. I'm sure there's a lot out there, but I haven't listened to much rock music with an orchestra this size. I was lucky enough to be a guest vocalist on a couple of songs in one of the "Big Star's Third" concerts. This one was at Bumbershoot and Big Star was accompanied by the Seattle Rock Orchestra. That was really tremendous. If you have the chance to see one of those shows, definitely take it.
As for these songs, now that the arrangements have been written out, we're hoping to do it again!