Nada Surf: Life After The One-Hit Wonder

From Devo to Nada Surf, a look at the one-hit wonders who go on to become much more

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Matthew Caws of Nada Surf

On my subway ride home from work the other day, a young man pointed to my headphones and asked, “What’re you listening to?” This is an awkward question for music journalists. Sometimes we listen for personal enjoyment and sometimes because work requires it. (On some wonderful and rare occasions, it’s both.) But I answered him honestly. I told him was listening to Nada Surf.

“Nada Surf?” he said and then quietly laughed. “Like, that ‘Popular’ song?”

Yes. Nada Surf.  I was listening to The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, a new album by the 1990s alt-rock band with the half-spoken, half-sung 1996 novelty hit “Popular.” So what? (And by the way, if you’re trying to hit on a stranger, it’s probably not a good idea to laugh at their choice of music.)

But as rude as he was, the subway stranger had a point. Most people, if they remember Nada Surf at all, remember them as a flash-in-the-pan group with the one song. In reality, Nada Surf has put out seven albums during its near 20-year career. The New York trio operates in exactly the type of guitar-heavy indie rock one might expect from a band that formed during the height of grunge and refined its sound in the early 2000s when softer bands like Death Cab for Cutie were all the rage. Nada Surf’s optimistic lyrics and poppy hooks — not to mention frontman Matthew Caws’ emotive vocals — make the band a joy to listen to. Take away their one hit (“Popular” peaked at No. 11 on Billboard’s rock chart) and you don’t have a musical dud, you have a solid, under-the-radar rock band that’s done pretty well for itself.

But that’s not what people expect when they think about one-hit wonders. When a band or artist has one major song and then drops off the pop culture radar, we assume that they have failed, that they’re unable to follow up with anything as successful. It’s the cliché embodied in Tom from Bridget Jones Diary, a man who, “only wrote one hit record, then retired because he found that one record was quite enough to get him laid for the whole of the 90s,” as Renee Zellweger’s character explains in the film. And sure, that happens. After making it with “867-5309/Jenny,” Tommy Tutone’s lead singer Tommy Heath reportedly became a computer analyst. But many musicians who might be considered “one-hit wonders” wind up having prolific careers behind the scenes, in other projects, or sometimes right in plain sight.

“After the attention from ‘Popular’ died down, “people seemed to get the impression that we’d somehow fallen from grace,” says Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws. The song had been everywhere in 1996; MTV aired the music video incessantly and even included the song on one of its Buzz Bin compilation albums. But without a follow-up hit, the band went from playing large venues to small clubs filed with just a couple hundred people. “After shows, people would come up to us with pitying looks on their faces.” Even their record label dropped them. Sure it was hard, says Caws, but all Nada Surf had ever wanted was to be a small indie band, anyway. “I don’t think a major label was right for us. When we put out [second album] The Proximity Effect on our own in 2000, I was more proud of that than anything else.”

“Artists deal with the ‘one-hit wonder status’ in different ways,” says Bernie Kaminski, an executive producer at VH1 and the man behind many of the station’s Greatest One Hit Wonders countdown shows. After VH1 comes up with a list, which are usually divided into decades, it asks artists to appear on camera and comment on their fleeting mainstream success. “Some people embrace it, they’ll say, ‘Yes, I’m a one-hit wonder,’ while other people try to live it down, saying ‘I shouldn’t be defined by this song,'” he explains. Kaminski wouldn’t name names, but he said several artists have turned down his offer to appear on VH1’s series, preferring to believe that the rest of their music is widely popular too.

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“I’ll admit it, most people only know Devo through ‘Whip It,’” says Mark Mothersbaugh, lead singer of the new wave rock band that had only one mega hit — a song that VH1 named #15 on its Greatest One Hit Wonders of the ’80s  show. “In a different world, I’d like to be more recognized and not have to work as hard as I do to make a living,” he says. “But most people probably feel that way.” Mothersbaugh says Devo never tried to distance itself from its chart-topper. “You know, not everyone could be at CBGBs in the 1970s. If ‘Whip It’ is a doorway into what we were about, I think it’s a good one.” The band still plays it at every show, wearing little red “energy dome” hats and all.

If Mothersbaugh sounds content with his place in pop music history, that’s probably because “Whip It” doesn’t even come close to encapsulating his musical career. You’re probably familiar with many other of his other tunes even if you don’t realize it; by his own count, Mothersbaugh has written music for 75 TV series, including 50 theme songs — that’s him on the themes to Peewee’s Playhouse and Rugrats — and he’s scored dozens of movies, including most of Wes Anderson’s films. “Little do people know that they hear music that I’ve created almost every single day, they just don’t think of ‘Whip It’ and put two and two together,” he says.

While Mothersbaugh has found his home in film and television, many other “one-hit” artists have quietly succeeded in pop music. Marshall Crenshaw had one Top 40 hit with “Someday, Someway,” off his self-titled 1982 debut. Over the years, he’s developed a strong cult following and his albums are almost always critically lauded. But even if you’re not familiar with any of that, you might know another hit song he wrote — Gin Blossoms’ 1995 smash “Til I Hear It From You.” The New Radicals have been silent since their 1998 hit “You Get What You Give” but frontman Gregg Alexander has been chugging along as a record producer and writer of hits like Santana and Michelle Branch’s 2003 “Game of Love.”  Linda Perry, of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” fame, has produced a slew of hit songs, including Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and Pink’s “Get the Party Started.”

Where else are the one-hit wonders hiding? For a while, Trevor Horn of the Buggles (“Video Killed the Radio Star”) played in the band Yes; he is now a successful music producer, working with everyone from Paul McCartney to Seal. Bobby McFerrin — the “Don’t Worry Be Happy” guy — hasn’t had a Top 40 song since his hummable ditty, but that’s probably how he likes it. These days, the musician spends most of his time conducting and performing with orchestras and symphonies. He’s also collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and hosted a multi-part concert series at Carnegie Hall. I recently saw McFerrin do some vocal improvisation at a packed New York City jazz club; the audience cheered his scatting and percussive chest-thumping, never once asking to hear his one hit. (McFerrin didn’t offer it up, either).

Life as a one-hit wonder isn’t all that bad. (Except maybe if you can’t come to grips with that fact — then things might be sort of depressing.) “There are things in the plus column and things in the minus column about having one hit,” says Nada Surf’s Caws, “But in the end it balances out.” “Popular” presented several problems for Nada Surf when it came out; because it appeared on the band’s very first album, 1996’s High/Low, the national attention took the young band by surprise. Also, the song’s spoken word, sarcastic tone was atypical for the otherwise poppy rock band, and Caws says that the fans it earned them didn’t always like the rest of the group’s music. “We’ve tried playing ‘Popular’ at concerts now,” says Caws, “If we don’t play it, someone is grumpy. If we do play it, someone else is grumpy. We can’t win.”

Like most of Nada Surf’s work these days, the new album, The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy, has a fuzzy, lo-fi quality to it, but the mid-tempo tunes feel succinct and tight. “We’re not reinventing the wheel or anything,” Caws admits, “I’m just making pop songs. That’s what I do.” Stars takes its title from something Caws’ father, a philosophy professor, likes to tell his students (and also, the Internet); it means that the the universe is going to stay its course whether you name the planets or not. Similarly, Nada Surf will continue to make music, even if you or I or the guy on I met on the subway are unaware of it. “From the outside it probably seems like Nada Surf’s had various ups and downs,” says Caws. “but our second career was really the one we wanted in the first place.”

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