If you’ve been following Surfer Blood since their debut in 2009, you’ve certainly been in for a hell of a ride.
If you’ve been following Surfer Blood since their debut in 2009, you’ve certainly been in for a hell of a ride. The band’s first album, 2010’s Astro Coast, was very well received by critics and fans alike and an EP that followed shortly afterwards seemed to point to them as a band to certainly keep tabs on in the coming years. As you may have guessed it though, their story took a different route.
Shortly before their second album and major label debut, 2013’s Pythons, was released, news broke that the band’s frontman John Paul Pitts had been arrested for a domestic violence charge with his girlfriend at the time. Though the charges were ultimately dropped, the band understandably faced a great deal of backlash from the music world with many of their peers silently distancing themselves from the band and many critics and fans publicly calling for an outright ban on their music. Following that, their second album seemed to fall short of its promise and it was clear the band was uncomfortable being on a major label. While the band seemed to bounce back with the news of a third album earlier this year, the Florida quartet was dealt another blow with the news that guitarist and founding member Thomas Fekete was diagnosed with a cancer that had spread to his lungs and spine. Still, the band treks on and with the release of 1000 Palms next week, it’s definitely intriguing to see just what direction Surfer Blood goes from here.
We talked with the reserved John Paul Pitts on the eve of the band’s return to Richmond this Saturday night and whether you sympathize with him or despise him, it’s no doubt that the frontman has experienced more in the past five years than most musicians have their whole career. While the topic has been discussed ad nauseam by now, it’s clear that John Paul Pitts and Surfer Blood will remain polarizing figures for the near future, even if 1000 Palms lives up to the promise they had back in 2009.
Can you offer us any updates on Thomas Fekete?
Well, he made it through surgery and he’s recovering nicely. I don’t know a whole lot after that, but he seems to be okay. He’s doing his best to get his health back together.
Were you surprised at how well the GoFundMe campaign has been?
Not surprised. I was optimistic about it for sure, but the response was really overwhelming and I wasn’t expecting such an outpouring of support. It just goes to show how generous people can be when you really, really need them to be. While it’s a terrifying thing for Thomas and everyone else to be going through, that kind of support means a lot.
How’s the dynamic now without Thomas?
Well, we have a guy named Mikey filling in for Thomas and he’s a friend from high school so we go way back with him. He’s a great guitarist and even though we threw him into a mix when we found out about Thomas, he’s been keeping up really well. It’s not quite the same though. It definitely feels like something’s missing. We have a record coming out this Tuesday and a whole tour booked so things are still really exciting despite all of this.
1000 Palms is out this Tuesday. Other than just the fact of making new music, what about this new album are you really proud of or really excited for people to hear?
Well, I’m just proud about the fact that we told ourselves we were going to write and record an album without overthinking and getting anyone else involved and we did just that. I’m really proud of the way it sounds, how different it is sonically, and how subtle it is. It just goes to show that trusting yourself is a really important thing. I’m really glad that when our band drifts off and just presses record to see what happens, it’s still quality stuff. That’s really reassuring. I just think it’s a really colorful and dynamic record.
What do you mean about how subtle it is?
Well, when we started writing and arranging the songs, it was a conscious decision to sort of let the songs go wherever they need to go. Don’t try to fit them into any format or structure or things like that. Basically don’t overthink it and if it sounds good and feels right, go with it. I think now that we’re all a few years older and we’ve been playing together for so long, it seemed only natural to embrace some quieter stuff and some different instrumentation. Consequently, there’s a lot of stuff on this record that we’ve never tried before and I think it really works well.
So do you think you overthought your past two records?
I’m definitely guilty of overthinking and overdoing everything. You know when you’re recording and mixing a song and someone hears something that no one else does? I’m always that guy. For Astro Coast and Pythons, I think we overthought certain aspects for different reasons. For Astro Coast, I was 22 years old when I was making that record and wanted to make all my favorite records at once. Pythons was more going back and forth with people at a major label who have your fate in their hands. If that doesn’t make you overthink something, I don’t know what will.
In regards to the label issues, you guys have gone all over the place. You went from an independent label with your first album and subsequent EP and then joined the Warner Brothers umbrella and now you’re back on a new independent label with Joyful Noise. Do you think all of this shuffling around has been detrimental or beneficial to the band?
It’s going to be beneficial in the long run. Warner Brothers seemed like a good idea when I was 23 and had been on the road for nine months with no money. In the long term, it wasn’t a great decision. Ultimately, we just want to be in a band that keeps putting out records every year or two, touring a lot which we have always done, and then just find a way to make that sustainable. Make it translate into a long term thing.
I remember you said that the lyrics on your last record weren’t influenced at all by your domestic violence claims, but would you say that incident fueled the lyrics on 1000 Palms or have you put it behind you at this point?
I’ve been trying every day to try and move past that. No one wants that to be the thing they’re remembered for. Basically, after that came out, I definitely felt like I had been worn down and I had been focusing too much on Pythons and the band. I had put everything else in my life on the backburner and I realize that I was the only person who was going to make myself happy. I moved across the country and I’m in a really loving relationship with a girl that I’m celebrating a three year anniversary with in June. For the first time in years, I feel like my head’s in a really good place. A lot of songs on 1000 Palms are about moving forward and trying to carve out a nice life for yourself and trying to make everything work for the long term. I think that’s more of what the lyrics of the record focus on than anything from the past. Like I said, I’ve been trying to move forward from that for years.
I’ve noticed that you’ve always kind of had a guard up in interviews and talking to people, even before this incident. Do you think it’s hard to be a lead singer of a band with any modicum of success and still have a guard up?
I don’t know. I’m not sure how to answer that actually. I think it’s important to think about what you say. Being in an interview setting is not something completely natural for me. I’m honestly not the most expressive person off the stage. I’m pretty reserved for the most part. For me, doing an interview when Surfer Blood went from nobody knowing who were to tons of people want to talk to us for interviews, it was a difficult transition for me. When you’re talking about an issue so sensitive and personal on top of that, I think it’s only natural to have a guard up and maybe it’s not a bad thing.
Obviously you haven’t let your guard down yet, but do you feel more relaxed in these settings now?
It feels like I know what I’m doing more. It doesn’t feel any less bizarre though. Setting time aside to basically talk about yourself is a strange thing at any point. I think when “Swim” first came out, I would talk thirty minutes about like a Dinosaur Jr. record and not about Surfer Blood at all. I definitely feel like I’ve gotten better at it, but it still feels very weird.
Over the years, you guys have toured with countless bands and the diversity of these acts is pretty amazing. What would you say is the weirdest band you got paired with as an opener for?
I don’t want to badmouth any band we’ve ever been on tour with because all of them have been so gracious. We’ve toured with Pixies, Death Cab, Interpol – all bands that I grew up listening to so those were all pretty special. But the weirdest one has to be the time we opened for 311 for one show in Kansas City. I’m not sure why Warner Brothers thought that’d be a good fit. I don’t think 311 fans are really going to become Surfer Blood fans by the end of the night and they definitely did not like us. It wasn’t that they were on the phones and just not paying attention – they actively did not like us. That was definitely one of those times where we just ended up thinking why are we doing this and why are we here. Afterwards, we had a long conversation with Warner Brothers and basically said we don’t want to do stuff like this again.
I know your concerts are very lively and may feature things like you wondering into the front row of a show and just sitting down. Do you have anything planned for the show in Richmond?
Honestly, our stage shows can be very lively as you said, but we never really plan anything, I know that sounds weird, but we basically never talk about it and never make plans for it, but try and make it different every night. It’s sort of like an obstacle course, but I’m very much about breaking down that fourth wall and going and being with people in a crowd at a concert. It’s nice and it gets everyone in the band excited and hopefully it gets everyone in the crowd excited. Sometimes it doesn’t though, but that’s just how it is. Nothing in particular planned coming up, but I’m sure I’ll think of something stupid and ridiculous by the time I get to Richmond this weekend.
Surfer Blood plays The Camel this Saturday night alongside Manatree and Garrett Whitlow & Michael Latimer from Sideways Orange. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, click here.