To say a lot has changed since the last time Nada Surf performed in Washington would be an understatement.
“Empathy is good. Lack of empathy is bad,” frontman Matthew Caws shouted from the stage of the Black Cat earlier this year, as heads bobbed in the crowd.
It was the end of January, and music venues were still packed and sweaty. The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump was the big thing on people’s minds, and COVID-19 was still a distant threat.
Nada Surf was touring ahead of its ninth album, called “Never Not Together” — a title that suddenly took on new meaning once the pandemic hit. Like many bands, this one had to cancel a lot of their plans.
But for Caws, the challenge remained the same.
“I want to find a way to communicate beyond the tribalism,” he told Heard on the Hill in a phone interview last week.
“Music has a special trick that text doesn’t. A tune or melody can bypass your defenses. You can’t choose to like or dislike it,” he said.
A steady presence in the alternative music scene since the ’90s, Nada Surf is best known for their single “Popular,” a sarcastic roundup of advice for teens. If you turned on the radio in the summer of 1996, you could hear Caws’ increasingly frantic voice yelling out rules for how often to wash your hair, backed by drummer Ira Elliot and bassist Daniel Lorca.
They’ve been pushing back against their one-hit-wonder reputation ever since. While “Popular” was dripping with cynicism, much of their music is earnest, filled with calls for social change and dialogue across party lines.
Recently, Caws has moved into explicitly political territory. He even wrote a song just for Congress.
“In the Capitol building, the chosen few / I wrote a song for you,” goes the track, released last year.
Angered by the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the southern border, Caws wanted lawmakers in Congress to know the nation was waiting for their response.
“The muse of history writes everything down / She writes just what she sees in Washington town,” he wrote.
The song may be the only one set in Statuary Hall, among the Capitol’s art collection.
“As you walk through Statuary Hall / Do you hear the marble breathing? / All the statues are trying to talk / What do you think that they’re saying?”
If the image seems oddly specific, that could be because it first came to Caws as he walked through the Capitol on a private tour several years ago, looking at the statues and wondering if the people who worked in the complex ever imagined them coming to life.
The tour came about because he had at least one fan on the Hill — namely David Schnittger, who worked for Speaker John Boehner at the time as deputy chief of staff.
Now a lobbyist, Schnittger has clear memories of that day too. He was a fan of Caws’ work in Nada Surf and another band, Minor Alps.
“He’s a wonderful guy whose personality is just like his music … just vibrant, melodic, sincere,” he told Heard on the Hill. “He took a chance on me years ago by accepting a tour invitation from a stranger, and he ended up getting the inspiration for a song from it, which is just fantastic to think about.”
The song isn’t exactly a love letter to the legislative body, but the message is ultimately a hopeful one, complete with gently soaring strings.
Caws took a different (and louder) approach in another recent effort, “When History Comes,” a get-out-the-vote track tied to the current election. Released last month as part of a compilation to benefit the nonprofit Spread the Vote, it returns to the spoken-word vibe he almost left behind with “Popular.”
“Will any Republicans hear this outside of my liberal music bubble?” he wonders in the intro, before getting a little meta with the question: “OK, what should a protest song say?”
While Caws ultimately decided that a protest song should denounce injustice and rail against postal service delays that could interfere with voting by mail, he also wants people to recognize that society and culture change over time.
“The idea that history freezes doesn’t have as much traction in the U.K. as it does in the U.S. That seems to be a uniquely American problem,” said Caws, who splits his time between Cambridge, England, and his hometown of New York City.
Whatever happens after the election, Caws wants to keep using his music to reclaim concepts that, in his mind, shouldn’t belong to a single partisan group.
“People on the right seem like they have a sense that they own ‘patriotism,’ and I want to dispel that. Just because you protest the government doesn’t mean you’re not patriotic,” he said.
Not everything will be as overtly political as “Song for Congress.” During the pandemic he finished a new short music film, “Just Wait,” which includes meditations written by his father Peter Caws, who was a professor of philosophy at George Washington University and died earlier this year.
“I want to give people a moment of peace or reflection, and to appeal to a larger sense of American grandeur,” Caws said.