UNIVERSAL CITY, California — When Nada Surf hit the airwaves with "Popular" in 1996, they were a one-hit-wonder waiting to happen: the kitschy name, the silly single, the even sillier video.
So where are they now? Serving cheeseburgers? Fixing cars? Selling real estate with the dude from Bell Biv DeVoe? Actually, someplace far more shocking: back on the pop-culture radar.
Ten years after their ubiquitous, Weezer-esque single came and went, Nada Surf have returned to the radio and are, well, popular — again.
"Someone sent me an e-mail with a scan of a page from Elle magazine officially [declaring the band] former one-hit-wonders," Nada Surf bassist Daniel Lorca joked of the backhanded compliment backstage at KROQ-FM's recent Almost Acoustic Christmas festival (see "Coldplay Salute System, Stripes, SoCal Torsos At Radio Fest"). "They had to put the one-hit-wonder in there, they couldn't let it escape."
"If anyone writes a story about us now, that's what they say," added singer Matthew Caws.
How did Nada Surf pull off a comeback that no one saw coming? Slowly, for one thing. Since 1996's High/Low, the band has released three albums, touring behind each for years at a time.
"I know there's not usually second acts in American life, so it's nice to have a second plot," Caws said. "The first plot was alright, but this current plot, the kind of slow climb, is what we always wanted to do. We just kind of got swept up in another thing for a couple years."
Like other one-hit-wonders, Nada Surf tanked with their second album, 1998's The Proximity Effect. Unlike some other bands, though, Caws and company shook it off.
"It felt silly, like, 'God, did that just happen to us? That's weird,' " Caws said of their rise and fall. "But we're really good friends, and we were living in the same neighborhood, and there was no reason to break up. And all the shows have been going great all along. Even if from the outside we do have what looks like a roller coaster — 'Oh they were this, and then they fell off the map and then climbed back' — our own real-life reality is that every show's been fun and great."
"It's all just the media thing," Lorca added. "Just because Iraq and Saddam Hussein were in the news during the first Gulf War and then disappeared for 10 years and now all of the sudden it's all over the news again doesn't mean that Iraq didn't exist and people weren't living their lives there. It's just a question of what you're focused on and the way the media is. They want the saga."
After The Proximity Effect, Nada Surf were dropped from Elektra Records, which worked in their favor. The band's third album, 2002's Let Go, earned rave reviews and made fans out of likeminded low-fi groups including Death Cab for Cutie, whose Chris Walla mixed a few of the tracks.
Walla was fully onboard for the follow-up, producing all of 2005's The Weight Is a Gift.
"He's equal parts mad scientist and just total [music] geek," Lorca said of Walla. "Like he's got entire volumes of 'The Acoustics of Air' or whatever, 'The Science of Air Pressure,' and he's also super musical. He's also, for us, very interesting because he's a second guitar player, so he's always playing complementary parts to what Ben [Gibbard of Death Cab] does. Something that I found really amazing is that he would immediately veer off, he would take a total left turn and Matthew would be playing some guitar part and he would immediately come up with a totally skewed other guitar part."
To Walla, Nada Surf's comeback isn't a bit surprising.
"They're solid songwriters," he said. "And I feel like they work together in a way that no other band I've ever known has worked together, like each of them is a third of that pie. I mean they're a band of brothers like no other like in the very realist sense of the phrase."
Walla's Death Cab bandmate, singer Ben Gibbard, agreed, and likened Nada Surf to Harvey Danger, another former one-hit-wonder who have redefined themselves as critical darlings (see "Remember 'Flagpole Sitta'? Harvey Danger Return").
"Nada Surf and Harvey Danger are good bands," Gibbard said. "I think they've just stayed true to why they play music in the first place, it's just because they love doing it and they love each other and that's the impetus for doing it, not trying to keep singles on the radio and on MTV."
Whether or not it was intended, Nada Surf are back on the radio with "Always Love," currently one of the most popular tracks on KROQ and Los Angeles' competing Indie 103.
"I wrote 'Always Love' in 10 minutes," Caws said. "It's a very positive song, more positive than I am in reality, but I was feeling good for three and a half minutes. And every time we play a show I think, 'Well I should probably be that positive,' but I'm not."
Perhaps the band's new bright future will change that. Or maybe the group will just return to where it started.
"Maybe next time we'll be former former one-hit-wonders Nada Surf," Lorca joked.