Following a tragic 2016, Surfer Blood's John Paul Pitts is learning to chill out.
For many people in the United States, 2016 was a shit year. For John Paul Pitts, frontman and vocalist of Surfer Blood, it was an especially rough 12 months. Last May, founding band member and guitarist Thomas Fekete, only 27 years old, passed away from sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Pitts' mother had her own scare with the disease, from which she has thankfully recovered. In the midst of all this personal turmoil, Pitts had serious doubts as to whether the band would continue, not only in light of Fekete's illness but also because longtime bassist Kevin Williams departed the band in 2015 to pursue a new career.
Yet, speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Philly, Pitts sounds incredibly at peace. He even jokes about the unwanted attention Donald Trump has brought the musician's hometown of West Palm Beach.
"I can't stand seeing every New York Times article starting with 'West Palm Beach' or 'Mar-a-Lago,'?" Pitts says. "The problem is a lot of people think Palm Beach and West Palm Beach are the same thing. People assume we're all cousins of the Rockefellers or something. I've had to explain it to people too many times.
"Hopefully, things get better for our country," he adds brightly, without an inkling of despair.
That mood is reflected in Surfer Blood's fourth LP, Snowdonia, released in February. The consensus among critics is that Snowdonia is the sunniest, loosest record the band has crafted since its breakthrough debut album, Astro City. In past interviews, Pitts has made no secret of the anxiety he feels when writing and recording music, yet he sounds downright relaxed on Snowdonia. Was that the case?
"Not at first. I think the secret to writing this one for me was, again, for the first time in years, I didn't have Kevin and Tom in the room with me, helping me finish songs and put parts together. Honestly, the first week of me writing songs, I didn't know what I was doing. I was just throwing ideas at the wall and trying not to think of it as a new Surfer Blood release or I'm writing the new record right now. I tried not to put that kind of pressure on myself. I think it really helped me. I'm really a perfectionist, and I tend to overthink most of what we do."
In addition to lifting any self-imposed burdens, Pitts found that the new members, bassist Lindsey Mills and guitarist Mike McCleary, were a godsend. Not only did the two help save Surfer Blood, but they also came from a familiar place. The band is now entirely made up of former Dreyfoos School of the Arts students. Though Pitts might never have imagined his high school would figure so heavily into his adult life, he holds a fondness for both Dreyfoos and its people.
"It is a special place. There is no shortage of talented people who end up going there. When Tom was sick and Kevin was going to move and start a new career, I thought that was maybe the end of Surfer Blood. If Mikey and Lindsey hadn't jumped onboard and been so dedicated, I don't know if we would still be touring right now.
"It was just so overwhelming," he adds. "With Tom getting sick so suddenly and everything changing so fast, I didn't know what the future would hold. I think we had 60 shows booked; we had a new record [1000 Palms] coming out at the time; we'd booked like four different tours. Mike was actually learning songs in the back of a van on the way to some of our first shows together. [I would] play him a song on the car stereo and then show him the different parts, and that's how the first tour went."
In other words, no pressure. Just learn these songs on the fly right before going on.
"Yeah. By the way, there are 45 songs. Not all of them are supereasy, and we're touring them... now."
Snowdonia, with eight breezy tracks bursting with life, adds to that repertoire. Asked about the irony of a South Florida band named Surfer Blood releasing an album that has an image of an iceberg on the cover, Pitts, with a laugh and a slight hesitance, explains its genesis.
"The name of the record and the art came together at one time. I had a dream in which I met this sort of White Walker lady. She was this winter siren-type creature, and her name was Snowdonia. I was working on the title track anyway."
After recording the instrumentals and writing the lyrics, Pitts slowly became enamored with the name and thought it had a "magical" quality.
"I was looking at pictures by my girlfriend's friend, who did the cover art; she had gone to Antarctica with her family and had taken all these crazy pictures. It was like a different planet. That and having the name of the song, it all kind of came together in my head. It was that simple, really."
The new album gives Pitts an excuse to do something he truly enjoys: touring.
"2017 has been a blur so far; we've been touring pretty much since January. I guess for now we're on the road and don't have time to think about things very much. It's always good to be busy. When we're away from playing shows for too long, I really miss it and get really restless."
Pitts finds comfort in always being on the go. Nevertheless, there seems to be a stop-and-smell-the-roses quality in his life that might not have been as pronounced in the past. He says it's a result of both spending nearly a decade in Surfer Blood and, more important, no longer sharing the stage with his good friend Thomas Fekete.
"For me, it put a whole new perspective on everything. Obviously, when you've been in a band and you've dedicated so much of your life to it, you sort of live and die with the ups and downs of being on the road and writing music, getting all kinds of mixed reviews. I spent so long like, Aw, man, if we hadn't signed that major-label record deal with Warner Bros., maybe things could've been different for us.
"We had no idea what we were doing. We were 22. It was definitely a feeling of being in over your head when you're that young, with that much pressure. When you're 22, you think, I can handle anything; I'm invincible. I think I spent a long time regretting missteps. Now that Tom is not with us anymore, it makes me look back at everything that's happened. I'm 30 now. I've been in Surfer Blood for eight or nine years, and it's been a bunch of amazing memories and experiences. Who wouldn't want to travel all over the world with their best friends while they're still young enough to enjoy it? And when you see how fragile everything is, you get a different appreciation for it."
With Boytoy and Chaucer. 9 p.m. Friday, April 28, at Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-699-2669; gramps.com. Tickets cost $10.
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