Surfer Blood has only been a band for six years, but they've already accrued enough drama for an indie-rock "Behind the Music." The quartet catapulted to blog-buzz acclaim with their debut LP, 2010's "Astro Coast" — a set of fuzzy, caffeinated sing-alongs recorded at frontman John Paul Pitts' college apartment in Florida. Soon enough, they were touring the world (including some opening dates for Pixies) and signing a major-label deal with Warner Brothers for their second album, 2013's "Pythons."
But the release was inevitably intertwined with the personal and professional disaster that preceded it. In March 2012, Pitts was arrested for domestic battery, following a dispute with his then-girlfriend. The songwriter pled not guilty in May but changed course two months later, proceeding with a "plea and pass" agreement. (The charges were later dismissed after he completed a court-mandated anger management program.)
"Pythons" already had a street-cred rap sheet: a more polished production style, a big-name rock producer (Gil Norton) behind the boards. But for some fans, it was also uncomfortable listening to the album knowing its real-life context — many "Pythons" reviews read like think-pieces about the sticky notion of separating art from artist. Is any chorus catchy enough to offset an ethical quandary?
Three years later, Pitts wants a fresh start. And, at least on a musical level, he's found one with his band's third LP, "1,000 Palms" – an album of sonically redemptive, lyrically radiant guitar-rock. The 2015 Pitts says he's in a healthy relationship, and he's just made the most accomplished album of his career. And though he prefers to detach his life from his lyrics, it's impossible not to read between the lines: "Nothing's complete if you're not my girl," he sings on the sugary sea shanty "Into Catacombs." "You bring me peace in this turbulent world."
Earlier this month, prepared to revisit his past once again, Pitts issued an FAQ statement on the Surfer Blood website, explaining, "I am not a violent person, and I have never physically hurt anyone in my life." He understands the arrest is embedded in his band's narrative — maybe forever. But with "1,000 Palms," he's rebounding with the sharpest, most hopeful songs he's ever written.
Surfer Blood – Pitts, guitarist Thomas Fekete, bassist Kevin Williams, drummer Tyler Schwarz — recorded the new LP during an especially uncertain time. After hearing they'd been dropped by Warner Brothers, the band played a New Years' 2014 show in Portland — then stuck around the city and rented a practice space to start tinkering with new songs. Free from the major label annoyances that came with Warner, they were able to indulge their weirdest ideas – from the demo-like acoustic closer "NW Passage" to the many-layered guitar outros that define anthems like "Point of No Return." It was DIY and spontaneous, recapturing the zest of "Astro Coast" but with a newfound confidence.
Now the pendulum has swung back. Earlier this year, after health concerns forced him to sit out from touring, Fekete was diagnosed with a sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, and underwent major surgery to remove a tumor from his abdomen. The disease has since spread to his lungs and spine, and the guitarist is preparing to start chemotherapy and explore alternative treatments. With he and his wife facing massive medical bills, Fekete has launched a GoFundMe page that has (as of this writing) already raised $80,000 of its $120,000 goal. "I not only feel great, but I am in great spirits," he wrote in a statement. "And I know this will soon be over like a bad dream."
It's a bittersweet time for Surfer Blood, but it's also an ideal time to clear the air. Pitts spoke to Salon about the past that's followed him, the frustrations of having your lyrics over-analyzed, and his band's winding path back to DIY.
"Pythons" was your first album with Warner Brothers, but I understand you found it to be a pretty stifling experience. What specifically did you find so frustrating about it? Were label executives making you run ideas by them all the time?
We were used to being on a label [Kanine Records] that was two people in their kitchen in New York, pressing records and storing them down in their basement. We'd never known anything besides being the center of attention on a record label. We went from basically burning CDs on a laptop in a bar and handing them out on the street to people to selling out shows all over the country and having people sing all the words. We had no real perspective — it seemed that things would keep going up and up forever. So when we signed a major label deal, we were pretty young and naive. We didn't have the best guidance. So all of the sudden, we're on a major label and doing these showcases for advertising people. I understand that's all a part of the whole thing and we should have been ready for that. But it came as a surprise to us. Having to send songs to A&R people and hear back, "That one doesn't have much potential, but that one does." I'd never had to deal with that before. It felt a little stifling, for sure.
It's almost the classic cliché: a band signs with a major label, and then business people in suits start showing up. It's depressing to be reminded that's a real thing that happens to bands.
It puts all this scary pressure on the situation. With this album, we talked about it early on. We weren't going to worry about, "This has to sound like that." It was more about the process — we weren't going to over-think stuff or have tunnel vision. We weren't going to try to fit songs into this "three-chorus, three-minute" type of deal.
Looking back at "Pythons," do you feel disappointed with the album? Are you satisfied with the songs and the way it came together?
I'm never 100 percent satisfied with anything we do. But now I definitely see there were some mistakes in the whole process. For one, there's no reason anyone needs to spend that much money recording a record these days. We were in the nicest studio we'll ever be in recording with Gil Norton — I believe the next record he made after ours was an AFI record. There were things about it that didn't really fit well into what we've been trying to do. But at the same time, it was like, "Say yes to this plan or you'll be sitting on your thumbs for the next six months or who knows how long." We kind of just agreed to it because it didn't seem like we had much of a choice. Luckily, Rob Schnapf, the guy who mixed the new record, also mixed "Pythons," and he got it. If he hadn't have gotten it, I don't know what would have happened with the songs on that record, but he definitely made it into something I was happy with at the end.
Obviously there was a lot of drama surrounding "Pythons" with the arrest and the aftermath of that. For a lot of fans and critics, the legal stuff put this cloud over the songs, and it was hard to listen to the album objectively and separate art from artist. Did you feel that way — that the album didn't get a fair shake?
I think any situation where you know too much about someone's personality – and not necessarily the good stuff – is going to shape how you interpret the songs. It was this awful time in that sense, and I'm definitely proud of the record, but when people are picking apart your lyrics with a fine-tooth comb, it's never going to really work out that well. I didn't really say anything when that news first came out — I've never been more embarrassed about anything in my entire life, and people started writing this "Jekyll & Hyde" story for themselves, and that's kind of how things went off the rails, I think.
I know some of the lyrics on that album may have foreshadowed that troubled relationship. But art is also more complicated than that.
To me, that's all speculation. I don't write literal lyrics — I never really have. Definitely not autobiographical lyrics. It's have never been an important part of the songwriting, anyway. I've always been more about the parts, the melodies — lyrics were always an afterthought. It's never a place I wanted to be in, having my lyrics under a searchlight.
The actual songwriting on "Pythons" was excellent, but the joyful energy of the first album seemed to be missing – partly because of the slicker production style. Now you seem to have re-captured that early spirit on "1,000 Palms." Do you feel that way, like you've come full-circle?
Yeah, [with "Pythons"], we were overlooking the little details. With this record, we sort of embraced that — if something was a little weird but had personality and was cool, we'd turn it up instead of burying it in the mix and making it subservient to this ancient songwriting that people still seem to believe in.
[For "1,000 Palms"], we wrote 10 songs in two weeks, and there was that excitement of moving really fast. We had a New Year's show in Portland, and we'd just heard the news that we were dropped from Warner Brothers. While kind of relieving, it was also like, "We don't have a record label for the first time in five years. What are we going to do?" There was a lot of uncertainty around that time, but it was also like a new beginning for us. We rented a practice space in Portland and basically stayed in town for three weeks after our show, playing shows in the Northwest to pay for the space. From nine in the morning until nine at night, we locked ourselves in there and wrote and wrote. When we recorded these songs, there was this excitement of recording something for the first time instead of demoing and demoing and going into the studio.
You worked on this album partly in an attic and partly in Tyler's parents' house — a pretty dramatic shift from recording in top-of-the-line studios.
Basically, we knew we had to do this record for a few thousand dollars. While that's limiting, "Astro Coast" was made for a few hundred dollars. It's fun to be industrious and try to figure out cool recording rigs. I'm a real dork for stuff like that. We knew it would be a challenge, but not an un-fun challenge.
You would think with this indie-band-turns-major story (and with a bigger budget), "Pythons" would have been a more dynamic album. Instead, it sounded pretty flat and one-dimensional compared to "Astro Coast." You recorded "1,000 Palms" relatively on-the-cheap, yet it sounds much more detailed and vivid. It's a pretty interesting contrast between the two.
It just goes to show that anything is possible if you take the time and think about it enough. Making "Pythons" turned us off of the idea of writing within a format and also the idea of having a cohesive sound throughout a record. If one song called for a really trashy drum sound and one called for a really tight sound, it wasn't like, "Is it going to be cohesive? Is this five-minute acoustic song going to fit with this really fast song?" That wasn't stuff we were thinking about.
There are a lot of interesting sonic detours, lots of extended guitar sections. My favorite thing about the album is that it feels like it could go anywhere at any time.
My favorite bands, like Yo La Tengo, have embraced all these little guitar interludes and stuff. I'm happy to have really long outro jams on this record. Surfer Blood has always had a really jammy aspect to it, and this was a good opportunity to showcase that. At this point, we're a pretty accomplished guitar band, and sometimes it's fun to embrace that — almost to a fault.
Was Thomas involved in every aspect of writing this album? Was his health a concern during that process?
The news about Thomas came about a month before we announced the record, so by the time we found out about all his health stuff, it was already mixed, the art was already coming together. I basically took on the role of producer on this record, as in I was the one sitting behind the controls the entire time. But it was definitely a collaborative effort.
It was kind of recorded all over the place, but we weren't precious about over-thinking riffs. Thomas would be noodling on something, and I'd say, "Why don't you play that over the first four bars, and when the vocals come in, just make it more simple?" I feel like in 2010, when we were touring around the world, we had our amps on 10 and weren't really listening to each other. We might as well have been playing in an isolation booth the entire time we were touring on "Astro Coast." So it's definitely great to listen to each other, to play off each other — rather than just play your parts as loud as you can.
The lyrical imagery on "Pythons" was pretty bleak at times, in sharp contrast to the levity of the music. But "1,000 Palms" has a most wistful, dreamy quality in both areas. You say you're in a healthy relationship now — do you think that had a direct effect on the mood?
I think it's pretty clear from what most people know about my personal life that I wasn't in the healthiest place when I was writing "Pythons." In a lot of ways, I had every reason to be happy. I'd achieved great things. I'd gone from basically a community college student in to someone in a band who was doing things, on a major label, and about to make this big fucking record. But I definitely wasn't happy or content with anything. I let my personal life fall apart, more or less, because I was so focused on everything else. So after "Pythons" came out, we toured on it for a year, and I just picked up and moved across the country.
I have a wonderful girlfriend I live with now — she's brilliant, perfect, hilarious. I found a peace I hadn't really had before. Dealing with all the backlash from my arrest and the speculation and the criticism, it's hard to hear all that stuff. At the end of the day, I think everyone wants to be liked; everyone wants to go to bed thinking everyone thinks they're a good person. Kind of wrestling with that made me realize that I'm the only person who's ever going to make myself happy. Now when I see people at our shows having the best time and losing their shit and singing the words, I'm more grateful for it now than I've ever been before. What can I say? My life is awesome now. I have a great thing going on, and I guess that's why the lyrics on this record have more imagination than the last one.
A good example for me is "Saber-Tooth and Bone," where you sing, "Sometimes I can dwell on shortcomings / But you can see the better part of me." On "Into Catacombs," you sing, "You bring me peace in this turbulent world." That more optimistic spirit cuts through.
Those lyrics in particular are about one of the themes that runs through the record: trying to build something that will last, something that's sustainable — both musically and romantically.