Surfer Blood's 2009 debut album, Astro Coast, generated an intense wave of buzz, propelling the indie-rock band out of West Palm Beach onto stages at major music festivals. It was a dizzying rise for John Paul Pitts, who, as the band's singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter, went from making music in his bedroom to being cast by music critics as an indie tastemaker. What's more, he felt pressure from the band's label to produce hit songs during the recording process for the follow-up album, Pythons.
"We were on a very big label," he says. "It was the sort of pressure I should have expected but didn't for some reason. It was sort of perplexing, the first time it was brought up to me. I wanted to make a great record; I didn't want to make a great single... It was a lot of pressure, and when you're 23, you think you can walk into any situation and be fine. But I won't
The band entered a rocky period around the same time. In 2012, Pitts was charged with domestic battery following a fight with his girlfriend (the charge was eventually dropped). Guitarist and founding member Thomas Fekete quit the band in 2015, just prior to the release of the band’s third album, 1,000 Palms. He had been diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that had spread to his lungs and spine, and died the next year. Another blow came when longtime bassist Kevin Williams told Pitts he, too, was done with the band.
It was a roller-coaster experience, but life as a musician recently leveled off for Pitts. The band picked up guitarist Mike McCleary and bassist Lindsey Mills, the latter of whom is Pitts' friend from high school; founding member Tyler Schwarz is still behind the drums.
"The band gets along really well, and none of us are particularly dramatic; we're all really supportive," Pitts says. "Everyone wants to travel, and they're excited about the music. So the band dynamic is great, and we've been on the same label with the same management for about four years, and now there's no pressure to write songs that are radio-ready."
After releasing its fourth album, Snowdonia, Surfer Blood spent 2017 on the road, playing about 200 shows. This year was mostly devoted to writing and recording a still-untitled album now in the mixing stage. Pitts says the new material takes a sharp turn from where Snowdonia left off.
"As an artist, you're always reacting to the last thing you did," he says. "Snowdonia had lots of long songs with different parts and different layers, but this one is stripped down. The songs are really short and compact, and there are a lot of them. Honestly, there's more material than I know what to do with, which is a really good problem."
Pitts has a knack for producing curious two-part songs that end nowhere near where they began, à la Neutral Milk Hotel. For example, “Anchorage,” a six-and-a-half-minute epic on Astro Coast, is split almost exactly in half, with a head-nodding guitar riff kicking in around the three-minute mark and looping through to the end. It’s been a winning formula throughout the band’s history.
It can be difficult, however, to re-create such behemoths with a four-person band. Pitts admits that playing songs such as "Snowdonia" every night tests the members' endurance — and his own
"Sometimes I get a little bored with it and just want to play something fast and play some shitty solo through a fuzz pedal, you know? I kind of miss doing that," he says. "There's something powerful about playing stuff from Astro Coast, which is usually three chords — nothing too technical. I want to do something like that again. If we're going to play 200-something shows again next year, I want to make it as fun as possible for all of us."
The Holiday Ball. With the Heavy Pets and Surfer Blood. 7 p.m. Friday, December 21, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-449-1025. Tickets cost $15 to $18 via jointherevolution.net.