At the dawn of the decade—a blink of an eye ago, and yet seemingly a bygone era—South Florida’s Surfer Blood seized the indie blog zeitgeist with their brand of perpetually sunny, reverb-drenched power-pop, spearheaded by singles like “Swim” and “Floating Vibes,” the choruses of which are still echoing in fan sing-alongs, TV and video game soundtracks.
Since then, however, the tide has turned in on itself time and again, almost on a yearly basis. From being dropped by Warner Brothers Records following their sophomore album Pythons, to lead guitarist Thomas Fekete’s re-diagnosis and succumbing to cancer between their last two releases, Surfer Blood’s trajectory has been constantly re-routing since it first began. On the music front, they’ve faced a similar situation to other bands of an “endless summer” outlook that debuted around the same time (Best Coast, Wavves, etc.), who have had to contend with the storm clouds of the increasingly divergent and sometimes grim-faced modes indie rock has taken.
All of this says more about the capricious whims of the novelty-hungry hype machine than the artistic evolution of the band. The past few years has seen Surfer Blood regroup to produce some of their most interesting, well-crafted statements. It may be a gentler, more reflective, fine-tuned beast than the one encountered in the brazen wash of their first two albums, but the Surfer Blood of 2017 (two original members, John Paul Pitts and Tyler Schwarz plus two new additions, high school friends Lindsey Mills and Mike McCleary) has managed to stake out a new swath of territory to explore, with their most ambitious songwriting to date.
Whatever clouds may have hung over the release of their fourth album, Snowdonia, back in February, the result was a faithfully balmy, yet more melodically complex installment in an oeuvre marked by insuppressible optimism. Aside from a decidedly psychedelic flavor on tracks like “Instant Doppelgängers” and the title track (their longest song at nearly eight minutes), the clearest indication of a change in artistic latitude is the stark, understated Antarctic photography that serves as the album’s artwork. If the group has come to a similar place of icy stillness and reflection, then it is only on the route to warmer climes.
In October, they issued their latest release, an album of cover songs fittingly titled Covers, which showcases every facet of Surfer Blood’s sensibility, and confirms their efforts to embody a mood rather than a genre—the coy romanticism of New Zealand indie band The Verlaines, the unkempt rock exhibitionism of Mudhoney, the hyper-pop surge of Outkast’s “Hey Ya!,” the nostalgic chug of Polaris’ “Hey Sandy” and the latent unconventional inclusions by Pavement and Cream.
On Jan. 20, 2018, a string of West Coast tour dates will bring Surfer Blood (once again) to Blue Lamp in Midtown. In preparation, we recently dropped a line to John Paul Pitts to talk about the role of the band’s far-flung influences, finding solace in a time of tragedy and transformation for the band, and settling into the creative long-run.
I wanted to talk about influences, because the most recent release from Surfer Blood is a covers album. What do these songs mean to you? Had you always planned to do a covers release at some point?
I’d say they’re artists who a lot of them were around during my formative years as a young musician, like The Verlaines and all the Flying Nun Records bands that I got into. Some of the songs we’d already recorded for fun, like “I Melt With You” by Modern English, and over the course of six years or so, they start to pile up, and we realized we had enough material for an LP. Mike [McCleary] the guitarist has a studio space—many of them we had done in band practice before. All of the songs sound really different, recorded at different times in different spaces, with different equipment, with different band members—just sort of all over the place. If nothing else, it’s a nice trip down memory lane.
You’ve said you went to a more arts-oriented high school. Would you say you were introduced to “indie” or “underground music” at an early age? Did you have any older siblings that influenced your music taste?
I think I was into what most kids around me at the time were into—At the Drive In, a lot of emo and some older punk stuff, a lot of the DC hardcore stuff. I was messing around, playing a little bit of guitar. I didn’t have any older siblings, but I did have an older friend who was very influential. He gave me a copy of You’re Living All Over Me by Dinosaur Jr. when I was in ninth grade, and it was like the mother lode, because it still had the same sort of edginess as the contemporary stuff I was into at the time, but it was also sensitive, and the singing was softer. The guitar solos were very melodic and emotional, and I really connected with that. I just started writing songs in that vein. You know, sincere and a little bit sappy, lots of layers of buzzy guitar, fast tempos. This was when all of the pieces connected for me as a songwriter, so I’m very grateful to my older friend for introducing me to such great music. I started taking it all in, and here I am, 15 years later.
There’s more of a psychedelic bent to Surfer Blood’s latest work. What influenced this change?
I’m always being exposed to new music. When Thomas [Fekete] was alive, I was very lucky to have somebody who was seemingly a bottomless well of knowledge. He could talk with authority about most forms of musical genres and movements. Most of it is just being around people who are smart and have really good taste, and aren’t afraid to tell you what their opinions are. I guess for Snowdonia, I was listening to a lot of Can, which was one of Thomas’ favorite bands. I admire their level of improvisation, which is something I’ve tried to cultivate with this band in the past few years, turning the live show into something more extended, jammier and dynamic.
I think [on Snowdonia] there was a deliberate focus on not coming up with an idea and automatically assuming that it had to be a straightforward pop song, and I’m really happy with the result. When you’re brainstorming, I think it’s probably a good thing to not have too many preconceived plans or notions about the ideas that are coming to you.
The time period of Snowdonia’s recording and release was heavily affected by Thomas’ passing.
It’s definitely put everything into perspective, that life is so short and fragile. You can only take all of this so seriously. At the end of the day, the music has to be fun, and it has to be enjoyable … Now, it’s so clear that everything happens for a reason. If I hadn’t met Thomas, I might still be in Florida working at a restaurant or doing some other job. This was always my passion to be writing and recording music and touring. You know, we got to spend the golden years of our lives traveling around the world with our best friends and playing music together. In hindsight, all the work was its own reward. And I’m really grateful to have gotten the opportunity to be on the level that we’ve been able to.
You’ve said that the idea for “Snowdonia” came from a dream where a muse-like figure—a wintry snow-woman—came to visit you. Why do you think she came to you?
Probably just because I needed to be comforted by something at the time … I was making demos for this album, Thomas had left the band months before for health reasons, and Kevin, who had been in the band for years and who I had known since we were kids, was leaving the band and moving away to have a more stable adult life. I was back in my apartment again writing these weirder songs, wondering if it was a huge mistake, or if I was on the right path. There was something about that dream that tried to help me get the ball rolling, and this long, winding song, “Snowdonia,” came out of it. The character represents the solace, and ironically, the warmth of committing to something again.
What was it like writing songs alone for the first time?
It was extremely hard because, I guess like a lot of millennials, I like to get affirmation super quick as soon as I get an idea, and there was just crickets, you know? But I’ve been trying to stop being so much of a perfectionist and work and rework the same songs over and over, and unfortunately that’s my nature.
After eight years and four albums, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself/being in a band?
If there’s one thing I learned about this, it’s that maybe I don’t do too well under pressure. When we were on a major label, working with really notable, talented people with lots of experience, I don’t know if that’s great for me, actually. But now, even though this record was challenging, I think things started coming my way. As I get older, I realize I’m more private and introverted than I thought I was when I was younger. Going from 2010, just being a community college student to someone traveling the world and constantly being interviewed, it was more shocking than I thought it would be. I’d been a bit optimistic in thinking I could bite off more than I could chew. The whole thing was a learning experience.
Would you say the current iteration of Surfer Blood has found its footing? Has your approach to music changed?
For one, I’m much older, and probably much wiser than I was when I was young. I can say that now. I try not to set expectations anymore. I think setting expectations is what caused us to sign to a huge label that we had no business being on so early in our career. Now we’re in a zone that’s comfortable, and that’s not a terrible thing. We’re on a label that really appreciates us, has tons of good ideas and is super supportive and helpful—just a great overall place, and I’m sure we’ll continue making music with them. We’re touring in a way where we don’t get too burnt out or homesick, or where it gets too uncomfortable to be fun, and without spending too much money. Right now my bandmates are the easiest people to be with eight to 10 hours a day, I know them all well, they’re super easy-going, they’re not dramatic, and all the stars are aligned to keep doing this in a sustainable way where we’ll be healthy and keep chugging along.
What’s changed in indie rock or music in general since you started out near the turn of the decade?
It’s hard for me to tell. I mean, obviously, the elephant in the room is that record labels won’t stay in business forever. People were complaining about that when our first record came out, and a decade before that. Most people are just trying to make their way in this crazy world where people are over-stimulated with all the content falling in and out of their lives. I know things change, but at the same time, nothing changes.
Finally, what music should I listen to this week that’ll change my life?
There’s this guy named Tony Molina who lives in Oakland who I have gotten really into the past six or seven months. He used to play in this band called Ovens. You can find the album online—it has a black and white cover, all the songs are like 20 seconds long. If you hear it, you’ll definitely understand why someone in Surfer Blood would like a band like that.
See Surfer Blood live at Blue Lamp (1400 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento) on Jan. 20, 2018, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $14 in advance and can be purchased through Abstractpresents.com. Terry Malts and Honyock will also be performing.
**This interview first appeared in print on pages 16 – 17 of issue #256 (Jan. 1 – 15, 2018)**