There’s a few things a gal from Southern California can’t live without. Burritos for starters. Somewhere high on that list is surf rock. The Beach Boys, Dick Dale, The Ventures. Sometimes it’s hard to indulge in these classics without feeling like a cheeseball.
I first heard Florida natives Surfer Blood at a Junior Lifeguards summer camp (which is exactly what it sounds like). My tiny brain reasoned “they’re called Surfer Blood. I surf. They surf. We all surf.” Though only one original member of the band actually shredded waves, their debut album Astro Coast (2010) offered plenty of relatable beach anthems: “Swim”, “Floating Vibes”, “Anchorage.” Surfer Blood hit the surf rock nerve from a side perspective, incorporating a wide net of guitar pop and indie influences. As I entered high school, the guitar-driven bangers kept coming. Tarrot Classics (2011) and Pythons (2013) built on the momentum established on the first record; both albums are packed with catchy riffs and anthemic choruses. It’s no surprise they landed coveted festival slots and even toured with all-time rockers, the Pixies. Next in their discography was 1000 Palms (2015), which received lukewarm ratings from critics. For me, the album was analogous to a cheese pizza. Because cheese pizza is still a damn pizza and definitely hits the spot.
Surfer Blood’s fourth full album, Snowdonia (2017), is set for release February 3rd. This is the first album since the departure of two members from the original lineup, including former guitarist Thomas Fekete who passed away last year. Recently, I was able to speak with frontman John Paul Pitts as he and the band were en route to a show in Tallahassee about the past, present, and future of Surfer Blood.
The name “Snowdonia” seems to be a 180-degree pivot (rhetorically), including the album art which features an iceberg from past albums with tropical connotations such as 1000 Palms and Astro Coast. Can you comment on the significance of this shift?
For me, the name Snowdonia is something that actually came to me in a dream. I was reading this novel that, at the time, one of the main female characters (before she’s born in 1920s jazz age, New York) is this sort of Greek muse for beauty and thought and carefreeness. And I guess that got into my head somehow, because I had a dream that night where I met my own sort of floating muse person and her name was Snowdonia. And I woke up and I was already kind of working around on what would become the album’s title track. It’s kind of just, you know, writing a lot of parts and putting them together, and I just wrote all the lyrics in one go for that song. It felt like the song that the album revolved around and showcases a lot of stuff we were exploring on this record.
I saw that picture of an iceberg from my friend, Deborah, who does sculpture up in Rhode Island and she took all these pictures when she was on a trip with her family to Antarctica. She’s really into geology and a lot of her art is based around that. I saw that picture, put the name and the picture together, and it all came together in my mind. I found out later that Snowdonia is the name of a national park in Wales.
That’s what I had assumed it was referencing!
Yeah, apparently, it’s this whole national park that’s often covered in snow. I think we’ve actually driven through it. I just never knew what it was before. So that’s kind of a cool coincidence.
It’s my understanding that you mixed this yourself. How did you come to this decision and in hindsight are there any discrepancies between how you felt going in to it and now that it’s finished?
You know, I spent a lot of time on every step of this process. This was the first record where I was writing alone without the help of Thom and Kevin who were in the band for a long time and who had become really integral parts of my whole process. We recorded it all in the studio in a few days, and I took all the tracks back to my apartment in Oakland where I did all the mixing for it. We’ve had every variety of recording experience now from our first album (which was me mixing it in my apartment in Florida), kind of losing my mind and trying to figure out how to actually mix the record. Since then, I’ve learned a lot. We recorded in really nice studios with some really talented people. I felt like it was really important for this album because a lot of the songs don’t necessarily follow traditional structures that I wanted to flow together as a body of music. I figure the worst thing that could happen is that I fail at it and we would have to go back to the drawing board. But I’m really happy with the way it turned out and I think it has a nice, warm quality all the way through. I’m glad I didn’t write that idea off and followed through with it.
Is there anything in particular that you feel is a point of growth from this experience?
While we’re the same band, I feel that we’re always trying something slightly different on every record, and that’s a point of pride for me. We were constantly hearing new music and drawing inspiration from new places. It still feels like we’re trying to make all our favorite records but you know, maybe just our favorite records change as the years go by. I’m really proud that a lot of these songs don’t rely on repeated hooks or parts, for the packaging of the songs. They all kind of exist on their own, in their own universe, but together, and I think this album’s really unique for us.
Do you have a favorite lyric you’ve written for this album?
Oh, God. The second half of the last song, “Carrier Pigeon.” Because a lot of these songs sort of have multiple movements and stuff, I was kind of writing a lot of songs at once, taking them apart, and putting them together. The second half of that song is one of the more personal things I’d ever written. 2016 was quite possibly a terrible year for the world but it was also a pretty shitty year for me too. It started off in January when my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer. Pretty much first month of the year. And my mom and I haven’t always had the greatest relationship through the years. She was the one who was really against me dropping out of college and going on tour with my friends with a band called Surfer Blood. And she’s accepted it now because it’s pretty clear that I’m probably not gonna stop doing it now.
Was she concerned you were going to go off and become a rockstar and fall down the rabbit hole?
Well you know, it was just a big leap. I was going to college and it seemed like everything was going good but honestly I had no idea what I was doing there. I was a pretty bad student and was not going to commit to a major anytime soon because I was pretty preoccupied with trying to write music and play shows and stuff. But this whole thing has really brought us a lot closer together. It’s really just about that and all my different feelings there. I usually cloak my lyrics in a few layers of metaphor and try to make them sound pretty, stuff like that, and they’re always really personal but that’s one of the more naked songs I’ve ever done.
That’s interesting that you say that, I’ve been listening a lot to Astro Coast lately, which features a lot of song titles and themes that are tongue-in-cheek and sort of humorous. Would you say that is in the past or is there any desire to revisit this initial, more lighthearted tone now that you’ve delved into heavier, more serious themes?
At the time, we were, I think, really just kind of showing off how much better of a band we had become. The thing is, we toured on that record for a year and those songs are pretty hard to play live. There are some good rhythm guitar-driven songs on this record, kind of the whole first half of it. Because that’s the kind of thing that feels really good to play live, and I’m really excited to play a lot of these new songs. Astro Coast is one of those records that has some pretty goofy song titles just ‘cause when I was making it I had no idea whether people would ever hear it. I just finished it because I had already gotten that far. There’s songs called “Fast and Slow Jabroni.” It’s pretty preposterous, but at the end of the day I’m so glad we did that instead of trying to pick a grown-up title.
Those two songs in particular have this sort of energetic, jam vibe. How do you reconcile that energy and that feeling with recording where it becomes more constructed?
Well, I’ve always thought that we were a little bit of a jam band at heart. We were playing in Joshua Tree about a year ago, my friend had come to the show, and she told us that it was like watching the Grateful Dead. And I was just ecstatic, I was so happy. That was like the highest praise because we do like to noodle a lot live and we do like to make our sets longer and louder, all the things that the Dead were doing.
That goes back to your earlier comment that you wanted to diverge from the classic song structures and repeating hooks, is there any of that on the new album?
Plenty of that. It’s something that I like to do and I wanted to capture some of that energy live. Obviously it’s an album, so you put a lot more time into doing multiple takes of parts. I still want it to be that free and improvised energy that we put into our live shows, and I even wear socks and sandals onstage a lot of the time.
I see that you’ve played several different guitars throughout your career, which do you play on this album?
For this album, we really embraced our inner guitar nerds and basically called in every favor, every time we’ve ever done anything nice for them even if it was years ago. We’re like, “Hey, I saw on Instagram that you have a really nice amp. How about you let us borrow that amp? We let you borrow something half a decade ago.” So we recorded with a lot of old amps from the fifties and sixties, very low wattage amps that are actually really small. One of the cool things we did on this album was that we recorded through one of those rotating speakers that you see with Hammond organs a lot. We found a way to get the signal so it can pick up a guitar input and it sounds really crazy! It doesn’t sound like a guitar and it doesn’t sound like an organ. I think a lot of people are going to be scratching their heads trying to figure out what it is. I think people have done that in the past but that was real. . . we might have overused it honestly!
Now that the album is done, are there any artists or active bands you’d like to collaborate with?
Oh yeah. A lot of my heroes are still alive and I’m available to collaborate! I met Stephen Malkmus in a train station once. And that still–just even meeting him and talking to him was amazing and everything I thought it was gonna be. He’s one of my favorites. I love all the Jicks records and kind of worship all the Pavement records.
Oh yeah, I’ve been listening to Brighten the Corners (1997) non-stop!
Exactly. So good! So that’s one person who I would be very excited to do anything with. Who else? Johnny Marr is a hero of mine, he does play in a lot of different bands and does seem very open to collaborating with other people so that would be really cool. I mean, these are all pipe dreams but you can dream. Those are two of my guitar heroes.
I wanted to ask if I could ask—I recently found Thomas’ album Burner (2015). Would it be okay if I asked a few questions about that?
Were you involved at all in the creation of that, either directly or peripherally?
I wasn’t around. He made all of those in his bedroom, in the midst of going through chemo and all the ups and downs that come with that. I know he had a hard time even walking at the time, so the fact that he was able to sit down on his floor with a guitar and a 4 track is courageous. It sounds really cool. It sounds like something Thom would have made, and it’s a great embodiment of his personality. I was shocked that he was still finding the time and energy to do that.
Do you know any bands that might have influenced the album?[specifics were given but the phone connection cut out and this is what I could catch] Very weird, like, bedroom, like very quiet music. But it’s really interesting. Thom always had amazing taste in music. He worked at a record store when I met him back in 2009. So he’s always introduced me to some of my favorite bands.
What I really admire about the album is what a wide range of musical stylings it has. Did you two ever write songs that didn’t necessarily fit the Surfer Blood sound?
Thom came up with a lot of ideas that ended up on some of our records. The song “Covered Wagons” on 1000 Palms was a guitar riff that he came up with and I wrote lyrics over and we finished it together. What’s really weird is the song on that same record “Point of No Return” was one that was based on an idea he had and the lyrics I kind of ended up writing about him. And this was all before we found out that he got sick so playing that song still feels really weird and eerie just because of all that.
Well, I want to thank you for your time. I have one last question for you. Surfer Blood has had a successful career, a huge fan base, you’ve been able to tour all over; do you find it difficult to keep setting goals considering you’ve achieved so much?
Well, you’re always striving for more. I’m just grateful that I can wake up every day and think about music, think about doing stuff for the band and working on songs. That’s all I ever really wanted. So I’m happy about that. Again we’ve seen doing things from the most DIY standpoint to being on a massive label where things were really crazy and we were definitely way out of our comfort zone. I think we’ve been able to learn what works for us and everyone’s always telling you to step out of your comfort zone and I say yes, but in moderation. I think we struck a really nice balance now that we’ve been doing this for as long as we have. Hopefully, it’ll be more records and more tours for the years to come and I think that’s enough to make all of us happy.
Surfer Blood is touring the United States and will headline The Chapel in San Francisco February 7th with support from Brazilian psych up-and-commers Boogarins.
Written by Ally Mason