Surfer Blood Sheds a Skin
ABOVE: SURFER BLOOD. PHOTO BY LILI PEPER
Surfer Blood has had a volatile few years, to say the least. After the success of the band’s debut album, Astro Coast, the Florida rockers toured for years, playing stints with indie rock luminaries including The Pixies. Before the band could return for a follow-up, though, lead singer John Paul Pitts was arrested for battery after an altercation with his then-girlfriend. While the charges were dropped, the scandal remains a sour note for a group whose fuzz-pop riffs and sticky choruses are the virtual opposite of the dark controversy (Pitts told Pitchfork, “I deeply regret everything that happened that night.”)
Still, the band is as tight as ever, and its new album Pythons distills everything that made the first LP a hit—shoring up Surfer Blood’s sound and bringing new fidelity to the band’s power-pop hooks. While the first record was released solely via indie record label Kanine, the band has since inked a deal with Warner Bros. and teamed up with producer Gil Norton (The Pixies, Echo & The Bunnymen, Foo Fighters). Interview caught up with the band to talk playing in the same place as The Beach Boys, navigating the major label scene, and python hunting in Florida.
NATHAN REESE: It’s been three years since your first record came out. How has your sound has changed from Astro Coast to Pythons?
JOHN PAUL PITTS: We recorded the record last summer in Los Angeles at a studio called EASTWEST with Gil Norton, who’s a rock producer who has been making records for 20 years. I think it’s a big step up for us in terms of songwriting, production, and everything else. It’s just a more cohesive record. A bigger-sounding record.
KEVIN WILLIAMS: It took a while to build the record. It went through several incarnations. We tried out several different producers. It’s our first record ever going into a proper studio and working with a real producer. It took a few attempts to get it right. We also tried out some other studios as well. We recorded at this place Chromatic in Chicago for some demoing. We recorded in L.A. at the drummer of Toto’s house, of all places. And we rehearsed back home in West Palm [Beach, Florida], where most of the record was written. It was sort of written all over America.
REESE: How much did working with Gil Norton and recording in a studio with so much history shape the record’s sound?
PITTS: It all felt really magical. That sort of history, Gil’s catalogue, all the records that have been made there. It definitely romanticized the place for us. It’s a nice studio, but having that in the back of our mind is definitely inspiring. Everything we’d done up until [the record] had been home recording projects either in our bedroom or our friends house or something. We were ready to take the next step and try something new. I’m glad we did it. I’m really proud—I think it turned out great.
THOMAS FEKETE: Adding someone like Gil into the mix, it’s essentially a new member to your band for a couple of months. It felt like Gil was just a talented, good friend as opposed to a big-time rock producer type. While all of the producers were great both personally and professionally, Gil seemed the most emotionally invested. It seemed to make the most sense to go with him.
REESE: Was signing with Warner a hard decision to make? It has to be pretty different having major label backing for this album.
PITTS: It was a big leap for us, and it was kind of a leap of faith. We didn’t really know what all that entailed; we just knew that we had this record we were ready to make. We didn’t want to make Astro Coast all over again. It can be frustrating being on a big label sometimes, because you lose sense of who does what. Kanine is just Kay and Lio [Kanine] at their house in Brooklyn. They do everything, and it’s great. You can call them on the phone 24 hours a day and they can try and make it happen for you. Warner Bros. is a big company, obviously, and you have to learn how to navigate it. And that’s something we’ve only learned in the past year.
TYLER SCHWARZ: There’s just a lot more opportunity, though.
FEKETE: You know, there’s a lot of positives and a lot of negatives. It’s nobody specific at the company—everyone who we were work with is great. It’s more of the big machine that’s in desperate need of repair. But there are aspects that are great—certain things that you’d never be able to do at a mom-and-pop label.
REESE: Did you have a concept of the type of record you wanted to make before you started writing?
FEKETE: There wasn’t much discussion or thought when it came to what the record was going to be. It’s just what happened. That felt great, that was really exciting. We’re a real band, in the sense that we kind of pull together and throw these ideas together and it just happens. There’s this exciting creative energy. I think as long as a band has that, they’re doing it right. The second you start discussing how you want to be or what you want to sound like, that’s when things start to get a little weird.
WILLIAMS: One thing that did probably influence the songwriting was that this was the first record that we were established as a band. It was the first record where we were able to see audience interaction, and be able to feel what’s working and what’s not. Because of that I think we were able to make a record that translates really well live.
REESE: There’s a lot of interplay between really poppy sounds and aggressive vocals—there’s noticeably more yelling on this record.
PITTS: One thing we had the benefit of for this record was that we actually had time to write the songs before recording. Here we had the chance to make a song like “I Was Wrong” that builds on itself and becomes more dynamic. Honestly, recording in a nice studio was great because the loud parts seem to hit harder and the quiet parts seem to be more touching.
FEKETE: So many different things inspired the record. One of them is being on the road for three years straight and relationships and friendships going sour. Feeling like a stranger in your hometown. The first record had a lot of lyrics that had to do with isolation and loneliness, but that’s even more so now. Even some of the fun songs on the record have really dark lyrics.
REESE: Whose idea was the cover?
SCHWARZ: It came out of my head. I was just sick of seeing two words: Astro Coast, Surfer Blood, Tarot Classics.
WILLIAMS: We had a few ideas floating around to name the record. Pythons was one we just kept on coming back to. T.J. [Schwarz] was watching the nightly news in South Florida and saw that there are actually pythons in the Everglades and they were calling for a python hunt because they’re an invasive species. We were group-texting and we thought it was a sign.
SCHWARZ: It’s also the Chinese year of the snake.
FEKETE: T.J. has a special way with words—he came up with the band name, too. And the whole theme of having the little kid flexing… youth and delusion, escapist themes—which is how we feel about playing music in general.
PITTS: What we do is escape from our real lives by playing our music. It might have started as something far fetched or delusional. I think that internal feeling is a lot of where the writing comes from, too.
PYTHONS IS OUT TODAY VIA KANINE / WARNER. FOR MORE ON SURFER BLOOD, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.