From the January 2017 issue of DRUM! | By Bob Doerschuk | Photo by J L Combet
“Sometimes when I’m playing, if I’m worried about tempo and things don’t seem to be locking up, I’ll imagine that the world’s greatest cowbell player is behind me, laying down some hot polyrhythm that will state the underlying quarter-note or triplet of the feel.”
So says Nada Surf’s Ira Elliot. But these days, his imaginary soundtrack has expanded to the point that he’s hearing an equally unreal orchestra as well. “On slower things, I’ll imagine strings playing quietly,” he notes. “I’m like, ‘Does anybody else hear this? Is it me?’”
He laughs before continuing. “It’s all about keeping your ears open, isn’t it? It’s all about listening. And even though the instruments aren’t really there, they still sound amazing to me.”
Though he’s been a Nada Surfer since 1995, Elliot began exploring these new frontiers of nonauditory inspiration only since the band recorded Peaceful Ghosts, which captures them live in Berlin. The material consists of hits and deep cuts, some from years past and a few from You Know Who You Are, the studio album released just a few months earlier, in February 2016. And violins, brass, woodwinds, and percussion, courtesy of the Babelsberg Film Orchestra, frame each song.
The idea came from Vienna, where the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra had staged similar efforts over the past few years. In 2015 Calexico was the featured band. Their trumpeter, Martin Wenk, followed up by connecting his friends in Nada Surf with the orchestra for collaboration the following year.
“We were in the middle of finishing You Know Who You Are,” Elliot says. “We really didn’t have time to do anything, so we handed it over to Martin and asked him to figure out which of our songs would be appropriate. He contacted Max Knoth, who had done arranging for Calexico, who wound up orchestrating our studio recordings. Then it was a matter of having two rehearsals with the orchestra and — go!”
For Elliot, what followed was exhilarating and a little unnerving.
“I was probably less in my element than the other guys because I’m a rock drummer,” he says. “I’m used to playing decisively and loudly with a lot of digging in. So I didn’t realize how quietly I’d have to play. I brought some really skinny 7As with me to the first rehearsal, but Max came out and said for this I couldn’t even pick them up. I had to play with bundle sticks, as lightly as I could.
“Then the question was how to work with a conductor, which I was also not used to. Orchestral conductors have a language that I had no way to understand. Like, I want down to be the downbeat and up to be the upbeat, and they do it exactly the opposite.”
Working with a conductor posed another hurdle that Elliot, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Matthew Caws, guitarist Doug Gillard, and bassist Daniel Lorca hadn’t anticipated. “Max had made his arrangements from our original tracks,” Elliot notes. “But over the years, our tempos have changed. Things became slower or faster. So we all had to get back into how we did them when we recorded them. I spent a couple of weeks in advance listening to the records. When we started rehearsing, I had all the tempo numbers there. A lot of times I would click them in, so before the song started I would get a bar or two of 98 or 123, and then I was in that zone.”
Tempo, Elliot adds, is an especially critical concern when Nada Surf hits the studio. “We spend a lot of time working on that, like, should this be 121 or 122? We’ll record three versions at three tempos that are only one or two notches apart. That makes a huge difference in how a track feels. That being said, when you get in front of an audience and there’s a different energy, it’s mostly about keeping the show alive. That’s not a problem for some bands. Like, I watched the Pixies’ live video from a few years ago — and they played ‘Here Comes Your Man’ at exactly the same tempo every night. And I know they don’t use a click. We’re a little more anxious.”
Here Elliot pauses before following a new thread. “Actually, I want to tell you a great drummer story. See, I don’t delineate the tempos in Nada Surf. Matthew does. That’s why a large percentage of our songs begin with the guitar. So if he takes off like a shot, I’m supposed to follow him. Well, a couple of years ago on the road, he and I were at loggerheads. We had a terrible conflict because my natural drummer instinct was that if he starts fast, I’m going to dial it back. Matthew would gallop away at the beginning of song and I’d gear it back in the first three or four bars. He’d give me a dirty look and I’m like, ‘Screw you, man! I’m the drummer! I’m keeping the time!’”
Another self-deprecating laugh and Elliot goes on: “Finally, I had the sound engineer record the shows. And when I listened to them, Matthew was absolutely right. I was absolutely wrong. If you start a song at 140 and by the fourth bar the drummer is at 136, the song deflates like a balloon. So I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a jerk! I’m the worst drummer ever!’”
The lesson stayed with Elliot through the Peaceful Ghosts show and remains a mantra of sorts for him to this day. “The drums are probably the least important thing in Nada Surf,” he admits. “I love being the drummer, but in the big picture of things, Matthew’s voice is the most important thing. And he’s running the show. He’s up there singing, playing, doing a thousand things — and I’m just sitting there behind the drums, having a smoke. I could eat a sandwich while I’m playing. Really, it’s easy to do my job!”