Palm Beach County band Surfer Blood plays the Vagabond
He expected his mother to have reservations, but it didn't matter. So Surfer Blood's 23-year-old frontman, John Paul Pitts, broke the news in his parents' kitchen this past August. Instead of enrolling as planned for fall classes at Florida Atlantic University, he would hit the road with his band. His mother cried. "You'll never go back," she said. "You'll never finish school."
The odds were in her corner. The stories of failed indie-rock stardom are many. But Surfer Blood has experienced a tsunami of hype in the seven short months since its inception. They've received glowing writeups from bloggers, and after appearances at the recent CMJ Music Marathon in New York, they made it into the pages of the New York Times and Rolling Stone. It has been a ton of exposure for a band that seemingly came out of nowhere and whose official debut, Astro Coast, won't drop until January.
Blog-band status can be fleeting, and indie audiences are fickle, but Surfer Blood has a real shot at longevity. Not bad for five kids from Palm Beach County suburbs who are just in their early 20s.
"I think the hype is well deserved," says Steve Rullman, promoter for the Lake Worth club Propaganda, who has booked the band more than a dozen times. "You see things in bands and you think this band has something special. I saw it in Marilyn Manson, I saw it in Chris Carrabba, and I see it in [Surfer Blood]."
Rullman, who used to book shows for Respectable Street in West Palm Beach, was the first to book the band in its earliest days — that is, last year. Back then, it called itself TV Club and constantly rotated members.
Then one night this past March, TV Club played a show at Churchill's Pub. Later that night, Pitts and Surfer Blood drummer Tyler Schwartz went to an afterparty for Ultra Music Festival. That's where they met future bandmates Thomas Fekete and Marcos Marchesani.
"We were probably a little out of place that night," Pitts recalls. "But we were in Miami. What should we do? Let's go party. So we hung out with [Fekete and Marchesani] the whole night." Fekete eventually admitted to Pitts how much he liked the band, and Pitts invited the two of them by to play. By this past August, the quintet embarked on two 14-date tours, one up the East Coast and one across the rest of the country.
What should have felt triumphant for the fledgling band, though, turned out to be one of its darkest periods. Stress levels were high and tensions boiled over as they played to empty venues and, often, dealt with delinquent promoters in city after city.
"It's hard to keep your head straight when you're playing really awful shows," Pitts says. "We're too young to be jaded about that kind of stuff, but it was pretty draining, especially when you drive six hours to a show and then the promoter's not there. And you have to go to the ATM at the end of the night to put gas in the tank and drive to the next city."
But a break came during the last of a string of four shows the band played in New York. Blogger and Brooklyn promoter Todd P caught a performance at Williamsburg music spot Bruar Falls. He tweeted about the band, and a chain reaction of coverage crowned the quintet as the newest darlings of the indie community.
"The fact that that could happen that quickly, it was unreal," Pitts says. "It was so bizarre, and it's been snowballing ever since."
Musically, it's easy to understand why Surfer Blood is so appealing. The band touches on almost every recent indie-rock trend, layering its sound with fuzzy guitars, then clean guitars, then impossibly catchy pop, then blissful choruses, and then lo-fi post-punk. And when the surf-inspired harmonies chime in, the music sounds and feels like Florida.
It wasn't just fans and indie labels that recognized the band's potential early on. The group officially signed with Kanine Records in September at a "signing party" at Propaganda. But they couldn't avoid being courted by creepy major-label guys. One from Columbia Records stands out in Fekete's memory.
"He was wearing a necklace with brass knuckles, if that tells you anything. It was ridiculous. They're completely clueless," Fekete recalls. The exec took them to his office on Madison Avenue and kept bringing up Hey Monday, the popsters from Palm Beach County who traveled on the mainstream Warped Tour. "And we were like, 'Do you understand we're very different from them?'"
The antagonism seemed to be mutual, though, according to Fekete. "He looked at us like, Who are these weirdo kids? I think he thought we would be better-looking or something."
But it wasn't until CMJ, an annual music industry extravaganza in New York, when the band's new status was truly cemented. Surfer Blood played 13 shows in six days. Various music news outlets noticed, though almost none was as important as the New York Times, which began an umbrella piece about CMJ with a description of Surfer Blood as "self-starting and hardworking in the ways that fledgling bands have had to learn in order to survive."
Immediately, the number of songs played on the band's MySpace page went from a hundred a day to a thousand. Their songs were played on BBC 1, and Rolling Stone's December 10 issue gave three and a half stars to the single "Swim (To Reach the End)," a song that marries echoing guitars and vocals, Weezer-style pop, and an anthemic garage sound.
In a symbolic turn, the band soon shared live dates with indie darlings Japandroids and Art Brut, two acts that have survived similar onslaughts of early hype.
Considering there are probably fewer fish in Florida than there are aspiring indie rockers across America, Surfer Blood will hopefully help shine a light on the quality of work coming out of South Florida's burgeoning musical community. When they stop touring at the end of January, the bandmates plan on coming home to work on their next album.
"We have so much material that needs to be shaped, lyrics that need to be tweaked," Pitts says. "But we definitely have a lot of ideas ready to go, and we can't wait to get home and start writing." Until then, he says, there will be a lot of nights spent sleeping in a maroon 2001 Dodge Caravan, crashing on floors, and playing to meager audiences.
"There are still definitely shows where it's miserable. And there are no guarantees, obviously," he says. "But ever since [the New York Times] article, my mom seems to be OK."
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