We hung out with Surfer Blood in May to preview their NYC shows. They’ll be in at the Flying Dog Brewery this Saturday for the Summer Sessions concert series. Tickets are only $25 and available here!
Surfer Blood are set to play two shows in NYC this week, the first being TONIGHT at Music Hall of Williamsburg, and the second being TOMORROW night at Bowery Ballroom in an extra-special benefit for guitarist Thomas Fekete, who is currently battling a rare and aggressive form of cancer. (Whether or not you can make it out to that, head HERE to donate to the fund that’ll help offset the cost of treatment // every little bit helps.)
In anticipation of the shows and the band’s new LP release 1000 Palms (out NOW on Joyful Noise), I was able to spend an afternoon with John Paul Pitts (one fourth of the band) to grab lunch and chill on that beautiful yacht that is the East River Ferry; over the course of our adventures, we got into the writing and recording process behind making 1000 Palms, as well as how it’s been adjusting back to non-major-label life, and about how the guys have managed to turn what began as a hobby into a fully-fledged career. Internet-eavesdrop on all of that below, grab a copy of the record for your very own, as well as tickets to one and/or both of those gigs, and be sure to donate what you can to Thomas’ medical fund.
HERE WE GO:
So you’re living in LA permanently now, yeah?
I guess pretty permanently; it’d be a huge pain in the ass to move, so I’m there for a while, probably!
Well that’s a solid place to be, I’d say. Now, backtracking to the East Coast, tell me about growing up in Florida! Because as a child of Nickelodeon dreams, that just seemed like THE ideal spot to live as a kid. Obviously you didn’t grow up in Orlando, but…
Yeah, it’s a big state, it’s a bunch of different states in one. Actually, all my friends growing up were transplants from the Northeast (New York, Boston, etc.), and they all had family houses down there. I was lucky; I was artistically inclined early on, and thank god there was a public school outlet, because my parents were not going to send me to any private school. I went to an arty high school that was sort of a magnet school, and all of my friends were creative people, and we grew up getting into cool shit together. There wasn’t much to do in my hometown, but we played shows, and the same thirty kids came to every one, so it was a lot of that kind of stuff. I feel like the lack of a music infrastructure makes you appreciate it more; the first time we played a show with a good PA, we realized what a difference it made.
Yeah, I grew up in kind of a small town, too, and so the center of the musical universe was always those battle of the bands competitions that would happen at the shitty roller rink that we had.
Okay, so you know what I’m talking about. There’s a lot of that stuff that you could see as cheesy when you’re eighteen, but when there’s nowhere else to play, it kind of rules.
Florida’s big on metal and screamo, so when I decided to be in a band that was going to rip off Sonic Youth, it took people a while to get it, you know? Because that was the height of all that shit, 2000-2010, that whole decade. But people eventually started to like it, and I got to have a band in high school, got to play music, and I found out that I liked that a lot more than I liked school.
I mean, I think that’s a positive thing, you know? You figure out what path you want to take early on, and you have so much extra time to pursue it and perfect it as much as you can. I always hated the question “What’s your five year plan?” in high school and in college, but it’s been about five years now since Surfer Blood majorly took off, so would you say that that was your sort of unspoken five year plan?
Honestly, yeah. It all happened for us, and it makes me super grateful, because this has always been “it” for me; recording and making songs better is really fun for me, and when I’m at home, I’m making music all the time. It’s a joy for me to get to do this. Learning how to make your band something that will be around for five years is a challenge, though. We’ve been really lucky, but we’ve also made a ton of mistakes along the way; there was a point where we were touring eighty days at a time, and for a while on our first tour I’d cough so hard that it’d trigger my gag reflex. I could’ve done that longer, but everyone else got burnt out on that. And then we went from playing to the bar crowd in Raleigh, NC to playing shows where people knew our songs and who we were, so it seemed like it accelerated so fast, you know? And then we signed a major label deal, and that was also a big change; we were so used to being the center of attention on our record label here, and the fact that we were even surprised by any of this just shows how we had no clue what to expect. I feel like living in LA I see so many kids with friends in bands who’ve been touring national acts or they have parents who worked in music somehow, so I meet eighteen year old kids who know so much more about the whole thing than I did even two years ago. So I feel like it’s definitely been a crazy learning experience the past five years.
Oh my god, I’m sure. And you’ve also since parted ways with the major label, so would you say that this record was less daunting to make because of having more creative freedom, and/or MORE daunting because of all the work you had to do yourselves to make it happen?
This was a different kind of stress; it was more like, we’re going to record it and we know what to do now, but we have no label, and is anyone even going to hear this? It was refreshing and intimidating. But we sat down, wrote it, and recorded the first ten songs. I mean, that’s what you do; you’re a band, so you write enough songs to have a full-length, and that was how we approached it, you know? Don’t over-think it, don’t over-write, don’t re-record the songs, just do it once. Let the songs be what they are, because that’s part of the charm.
Right. And so with less label pressure in terms of timing, too, what did the process end up looking like length-wise for you guys?
It took us a while to do it; we started writing in January and recorded the first tracks around March and finished in late July, so that’s four months. But that’s okay, because I feel like Surfer Blood has always been very detailed, and very nice sonically in a textural way. We got to take some chances, and it was something we were proud of once it was finished.
So was there any sort of concrete moment where you established a mission statement for what you wanted to achieve, either sonically or narratively?
We definitely wanted to have songs that weren’t 3.5 minute pop songs with bridges and traditional songwriting structure, and so we tried to stay away from that. Our first record is pieced together, and we obviously weren’t thinking about it in that way, which is always how I’ve preferred to write; I’d never really thought about things like “first chorus” and “re-intro” until we started working with a major label, because there’s this whole formula since radio is involved, and suddenly we had this tunnel vision. So with this one, we just said, “Well, radio people probably won’t give a shit because we’re not on a major label anymore, so let’s just do whatever comes naturally.” And honestly, not a whole lot more thought went into the planning of it than that.
And was there a lot of stuff that ended up being stripped away by the end of the writing process, then?
Yes. I recorded a lot of weird shit on my own while we were making it, so we definitely have a lot of extra bonus tracks. We have a label in Japan now, so we’re really excited for that to have the weird demos. Embrace the weird stuff, you know? Why not. Anything that makes it less fun than it can be is not going to result in your band being around for a long time. Keeping it fun, keeping it exciting, and keeping everything feeling new and important is what’s going to make us want to get in the van and play thirty shows five years from now. (Maybe. Hopefully.) [Laughs]
So tell me about the recording process, too, then. Where did that happen? You went back to Florida for at least some of that, yeah?
Well, we wrote it in Portland; Portland’s super cheap to live in, so we got a practice space from friends of ours who were touring and recorded demos (like iPhone demos) for two and a half weeks. After that, I went home and wrote lyrics for things (that part always comes later for me), sent our drummer some thoughts I’d had, went to Florida to the studio to record drums in two days (which ended up sounding amazing), and then I recorded vocals in LA thinking it’d be just like old times in terms of mixing, but that’s where I hit a brick wall. Now that we know better, we know what it’s like to have things be really well-mixed, so we got this guy Rob Schnapf that we worked with on the last record to do it, and he cut us a deal. We spent two weeks mixing with him, and he managed to breathe some life into it. (Because it was sounding a little glossy and flat.) So we did about two songs a day and made some changes, and it really is living proof that you can record yourself and then just put a little studio magic on it at the end. That’s what works for us.
And what was the realization for you that you were a singer? Were you always into singing, or was this a later in life realization?
I was always a guitarist, always a guitar nerd, and have been playing since I was twelve years old. But singing was always a necessity; it was always writing songs with lyrics and melodies, and I remember the first band I was in I had a contest with the drummer in his living room to see who would be the better singer. And everyone said, “I think JP is the better singer.” And he never forgave me for that. [Laughs] But ever since then, I’ve been the dude who writes songs and sings for bands. If I’d lost that contest, who knows? I might be playing guitar with a paper bag over my head.