The Time Ric Ocasek Helped My Band Make Its First Record
I've been in the same band, Nada Surf, with the same core members, Daniel Lorca and Ira Elliot, since 1994, and amidst many events and adventures, making our first album with Ric Ocasek remains the most transformative and magical experience I've been lucky enough to have.
I have loved The Cars' songs and sound since my older sister started buying their records at the Sam Goody near our apartment on New York's Upper East Side, around the beginning of the '80s. The appeal was immediate, and almost automatic — here were huge hooks, wrapped in an extremely gratifying FM sheen. But there was something else going on that kept pulling me back in, though I wouldn't have known how to describe it at the time.
Dichotomies are often at the heart of rock and roll. The Beatles' "Every Little Thing" has sugary and contented lyrics about a young man in a happy relationship that is sure to last forever. But the melancholic strain in the melody gives the game away: He's worried that all may not be what it seems. The Cars' laser-guided New Wave precision and Ric's noir-cool impressionistic lyrics — You've got your nuclear boots / and your drip dry glove, Since you're gone / moonlight ain't so great — were transformed by the ache in his melodies and the keening in his voice, even while he often sang in a detached way. Ric's nighttime world was sexy and exciting on the surface, but yearning and heartache was around every corner. It's very human music. As I learned to play guitar and began writing songs, the futuristic sound of those albums, paired with the tunefulness of early rock and roll and sometimes abstract but affecting lyrics, remained a kind of shadow ideal.
In 1995, I was 27 and in my third band. We had released a 45 on a friend's label, which had led to an offer from a label in Spain, where our bass player is from. We made an album for the label, but they changed the terms: They'd wanted it originally just for Spanish release, but when they heard it they wanted world-wide rights. They didn't have distribution anywhere else, so we said no. I sent the record to the independent labels I liked, but hadn't gotten a response.
Though we had no immediate prospects, this was a particularly charmed time in my life. I had a job as an assistant editor at Guitar World magazine and I could bike to work. We were excited about our band and had a feeling of being on the cusp of something, even if we didn't know what it was or how it could happen.
One night in early summer, we went to see Blonde Redhead at the Knitting Factory, when it was still on Leonard Street. As I was walking out, I spotted Ric walking in — I approached him and gave him a demo tape. (I'd seen the producer Mitch Easter on the subway a few weeks before and had been too shy to talk to him and had vowed to never let that happen again.) Ric was very gracious and asked me if my phone number was on the cassette. The next day I excitedly told friends what had happened, though the idea of his actually listening, liking it and getting in touch seemed out of the realm of the possible. But two weeks later, I came home from a weekend away to find my roommate with a huge grin on his face, saying I should listen to the answering machine.
I called Ric back, and he invited me to his home in Gramercy Park. I biked up from Sullivan Street in the summer evening air and arrived at his elegant, white, double-wide townhouse, where he opened the door and greeted me warmly. Ric and his wife, Paulina Porizkova, and I stood around the kitchen table for a few minutes talking and I remember being struck by how down-to-earth they both were, and how quickly they put me at ease. She and I sat down while he made us coffee. She said, "He likes your phrasing." It felt like the first time someone from outside the band and our circle of friends had seen something in me.
Afterwards, we went down to his basement studio, where a light sculpture in the shape of a crucifix by Suicide singer Alan Vega hung on the wall. He asked me about our demo tape, saying we could release it as an album just as it was — but if we ever wanted to record it again, he would offer to produce it and would charge us very little money. I explained that we had a new drummer now, our final lineup, and wanted to record it again. He then asked if we had a record deal — I said we didn't. He said to keep in touch and to call anytime if I needed advice about anything. Back outside, I saw that I had missed the pole and had locked my bike to nothing, surely because I was in such a dreamstate. My bike still being there added to the New York fairy tale vibe.
From there, the fairy tale continued — a few weeks later, after our tape had been passed around there after an employee saw us play in a bar, the major label Elektra began showing interest in signing us. We were very surprised and a little wary, because there was a pattern of beloved indie bands coming to untimely ends on majors. But we were also thrilled. We went uptown and were offered a deal that day. We said we wanted a little time to think about it.
The Cars had been on Elektra, so I called Ric for advice. He said that he'd had a generally positive experience with them, but asked that we give him a few days to set up something else for us. He made a call to Maverick Records in Los Angeles, and we headed out there to audition for them. They made us an offer as well. One more offer came in, from Warner Brothers. We went with Elektra in the end, and a few months later we were at Electric Lady Studios, recording our debut album.
A couple of weeks before that, Ric invited me to his house again. We sat upstairs in his comfortable, book-filled study and talked about the music he loved, discovering that we had a mutual affinity for The Modern Lovers, Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly. Here was someone I felt so much in common with — but the songs he'd written told me that his knowledge was so much deeper than mine. He had a confidence and calm that were wonderful to be around. He talked about the Beat poets. I wasn't familiar with them, and he lent me two volumes of Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems. Then, he walked me through the basement storage space where he kept his equipment, showing me the '61 Gibson SG and Marshall amplifier that he'd used together to create the tight, palm-muted rhythms on those early Cars albums (you can hear it clearly on "My Best Friend's Girl"). He called it the "clicking" sound, and said he'd bring them to the studio for me to use.
The day before going into Electric Lady, we set up in a practice space and ran through the songs for Ric. He had only a few comments, structural suggestions like double a chorus here, cut a bridge in half there. We were lucky in that, with the exception of a couple of new songs, this was a record we'd already made, so we were relatively tight. But I suspect that he would have gone easy on us even if we hadn't been.
Our recording schedule was very regimented. I don't remember the start time exactly, I think it was noon or shortly before, but we stopped at eight in the evening. Like so many other young groups, we were accustomed to going as late as possible, to squeeze every hour out of every dollar. But Ric thought working too late brought diminishing returns — I have been trying to get out at a reasonable hour ever since. I don't always succeed, but like many of his lessons, it has stayed with me always.
As we began setting up with engineer Bruce Calder, Ric took up his spot on a couch in a corner of the control room, doodling quietly on a legal pad, but taking everything in. He would occasionally get up to lean over the mixing desk and make a precise tonal adjustment, listening until it was just right. I'd never heard anything sound so big.
While we were recording rhythm guitars, Ric paid particular attention to entrances. If, for example, an additional electric guitar track was being added to a chorus, it had to start at just the right nanosecond. This I was used to, and it's what I wanted too. But when it came to doubling that part for thickness, Ric was listening for a level of precision that I hadn't considered. I would do it again and again until he heard what he was looking for. When I got it, he'd turn up the speakers and play it for me. There it was, total fusion. Now the chorus hit like a ton of bricks.
But when it came to adding small touches, Ric encouraged freedom and looseness. I told him that I'd sometimes turn a distortion pedal all the way up and record a track of feedback noise and improvised primitive soloing and keep whatever I thought sounded cool. He was all for it, and helped me analyze the noise, preserving any happy accidents, no matter how sloppy or chaotic.
As we recorded the songs — it went very fast, recording for 11 days and mixing the record in eight — the three of us tended to choose the second or third take, because we'd usually settled in and had made fewer little mistakes. Ric always chose the first take, but nonetheless sent us home with cassettes so that we could listen to them all again and make sure. He was always right. Once the take was chosen, he'd casually ask me to go out into the live room and sing a scratch vocal. When I was finished, he'd ask me to sing it just one more time.
When we were done with guitars, I asked him if it was time to sing for real. He said "you're done, you did it already." I think he sensed that the "real thing" would have made me nervous, and he wasn't going to let me blow it.
From the Bad Brains to Romeo Void to Weezer and many others, Ric produced many talented artists very early on their careers. I think he had a particular knack for making young artists comfortable; he had a gentle and accepting manner, and may have stopped many young singers and players from overthinking, just like he helped me.
The record company had wanted to visit during the recording and he wouldn't let them. He didn't want them getting in the way. We knew how lucky we were to have someone with so much authority looking after us. Ric showed us so much kindness and generosity, as he apparently did to everyone he worked with. In 1997, he asked our drummer Ira to play a few songs on his solo album Troublizing,and the sessions were apparently just as low-key and relaxed as ours had been. Ric and Paulina also came to a few of our shows, and we were always thrilled to see them.
After working together, I dropped by Ric's house a few times over the years. He always seemed glad to see me, and would give me a big hug and make a little time to catch up. People talk about twinkly eyes — Ric really had them. He always looked like he was on the edge of crying happy tears. And, even years after I'd seen him last, I always felt that he was as near as the radio.
Matthew Caws, from New York City, has been the singer, guitarist and primary songwriter in since 1994.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.