How Indie Rockers Surfer Blood Made It Through 2016’s Tidal Waves

Frontman John Paul Pitts discusses the band’s first album since the death of guitarist Thomas Fekete.

Surfer Blood (Credit: Zak Bennett)

It’s a rainy Friday morning and I’m talking to Surfer Blood’s leadsinger John Paul Pitts about his plan to avoid the presidential inauguration.

“I’m just not really looking right now,” he says over the phone from his home in Oakland. “Maybe I’ll read about it later or something, but for now, I’m just going about my day, pretending nothing’s wrong.”

But “pretending nothing’s wrong” is easier said than done, especially for the frontman and the other members of the indie rock outfit who lost founding member and guitarist Thomas Fekete to cancer in 2016.

“When Tom was 17, he had a battle with cancer,” Pitts explains. “He was in remission the whole time he was in the band, so we always knew this was a possibility, but it just happened so fast.”

Surfer Blood’s first album, Astro Coast — a salty spray of guitar-heavy power pop released in 2010 — gave the Florida band plenty of buzz, ultimately charting at No. 124 on the Billboard 200 and garnering a coveted “Best New Music” accolade from Pitchfork. They continued gathering steam by relentlessly touring and sticking to the same catchy, exuberant song formula that Astro Coast was built on.

 

Later that year, their single “Swim,” a reverb-laden stomp of riffs and soaring choruses, caught the eye of Warner Music Group, who signed the band soon thereafter. Suddenly, the boys who had dragged their gear around Orlando playing Wednesday night bar gigs under the name Jabroni Sandwich were recording in a studio a room away from where Pet Sounds was created.

“People tell you your whole life to step out of your comfort zone,” Pitts says in regards to Surfer Blood’s short-lived time with a major label. “I would argue you should step out of your comfort zone in moderation.”

Only 23 at the time, Pitts says he was convinced that the pressure of being on a huge label wouldn’t go to his head.

“I was so wrong,” he admits. “It completely got in my head.”

Pitts explains that being in the ritzy confines of a Warner Music Group recording studio was a “strange fit” for the band, and it wasn’t long before Surfer Blood left the label to be independent once again. But at the time, given the band’s swift spurt of fame and success, signing to a major label seemed like the next logical step.

“I’m sorry for everything we put those people who work there through,” Pitts says. “Now we’re in a place where I feel comfortable. I feel like we could do this for years and it would be great. We’re all comfortable now. We make records on our own for very little money and they still sound pretty good. They sound more the way I figured I thought our band should sound when I first conceived of it, so it’s a good thing.”

Following the release of Pythons in 2012, Surfer Blood signed with Joyful Noise, which put out their third record, 1000 Palms, in 2015. Now, the band is prepping for the release of Snowdonia, their first record since the departure of bassist Kevin Williams and the death of Fekete. News of Fekete’s illness came just as 1000 Palms was announced and with tours of the U.S. and Europe already booked. Pitts recalls teaching current guitarist Mike McCleary the band’s entire setlist in the back of a van on the way to South by Southwest.

According to Pitts, despite the signs of his rapidly failing health, Fekete’s death in May 2016 still came as a shock.

“The fight went on for a year, and there were so many times where it looked like the end and then he’d miraculously recover or pull through,” Pitts says. “When he finally passed, it was shocking because we had all just kind of thought he was just going to keep amazing us by coming through. I couldn’t accept it for a long time, and then when it hit me, it hit me really hard.”

Around the same time, bassist Williams announced he was leaving the band. Now tasked with reassembling Surfer Blood, Pitts began searching for replacement musicians – and, fortunately, he didn’t have to look far. Current bassist Lindsey Mills went to high school in Florida with Pitt’s younger sister and McCleary had been in the year above. As it stands, the entirety of Surfer Blood comes from the same high school, making for an immediate personal connection that Pitts believes was vital to the band not falling apart amid such seismic changes.

Snowdonia, which came out today, Feb. 3, reflects these feelings, and is perhaps the most somber record yet from an act often associated with feel-good beach pop vibes. On “Six Flags in F or G,” Pitts reflects on how lonely it must be to die. Featuring wah-wah pedals and backing harmonies from Mills, the track is lyrically abstract but clearly inspired by the loss of Fekete.

“That’s definitely one of the darker songs, one of the darker rabbit holes we’ve gone down as a band,” he says. “Tom was so young when he passed. Just the fact that that was something he was staring in the face gave me chills when I thought about it. I was having a lot of really crazy dreams about him at the time I was writing that song.”

While Snowdonia reflects a period of great sadness for Pitts – in addition to Fekete’s death, Pitt’s mother was also diagnosed with cancer – the album has its uplifting moments, too.

 

Closing track “Carrier Pigeon” is a heartfelt reflection of how Pitts grew closer with his mother during her illness (she’s in recovery now), as well as a meditation on the divisiveness that Trump has created between himself and his conservative parents.

Given the double dosage of cancer in his life at that time, Pitt laughs when I suggest he should’ve named the album Fuck Cancer.

“I definitely felt that way a lot this past year,” he says, but adds that he’s now finally found some peace and come to terms with the past.

“I do feel a distance from that kid who was showing up at shows and borrowing people’s amps and playing through one speaker,” he says. “But at the same time, that’s still the energy that’s coalesced to push my life in this direction in the first place, and I still have a reverence for that spirit that got me here.”

Surfer Blood plays with Boogarins, at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 7 at The Chapel. $18; thechapelsf.com

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