Through Hard Times, Surfer Blood Charges Forward

John Paul Pitts performing at III Points Music Festival.
John Paul Pitts performing at III Points Music Festival.
Photo by Karli Evans

When the founding members of Surfer Blood first decided to be a band, they hit the road hard. Within their first five months, they'd already done four tours. Before long, the band had built a buzz that stretched between SXSW, CMJ, and beyond. Their DIY debut LP, Astro Coast, was a critical darling and had everyone drooling about the next big thing.

Six years have passed since frontman John Paul Pitts and drummer Tyler Schwartz formed their band in West Palm Beach, and the breakneck speed at which they began this ride hasn't exactly slowed down. That being said, there have been a few speed bumps to rattle the passengers. More than a few, in fact. For starters, Pitts and Schwartz are the last remaining members of the original lineup. Personal issues, circumstance, and plain bad luck have taken shots at Surfer Blood, which, with the release of its third album this past May, 1000 Palms, is proving to be incredibly resilient.

Speaking to Pitts over the phone ahead of a free gig at Miami's Joie De Vivre Hotel on November 7, the initial topic to come up was perhaps the most jarring piece of news in Surfer Blood's still-young career. Earlier this year, guitarist Thomas Fekete was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, sarcoma. Since then he's left the band and, with the rising cost of medical bills, started a GoFundMe page (which has raised more than $100,000) to pay for the treatments. His former bandmates have done their part, donating portions of proceeds from shows to Fekete, and according to Pitts, he's in good spirits despite the situation. “He's good. He's having ups and downs with his treatment," Pitts says. "It's tough, but he's hanging in there, being positive. I know it's really hard for him and really scary, but he's having such a good attitude about everything. I think his head is in a positive place at least.”

An ugly incident in Illinois over the summer in which the band saw its van broken into, gear stolen, and thousands of donation dollars snatched, nearly derailed their efforts, but Fekete and Surfer Blood persevere regardless. And as far as Fekete's condition goes, there seems to be hope. “There's definitely been some improvement; it's just going to be a very long battle. He's better than he was a few months ago, but he still has a long way to go.”

In the meantime, not cruelly but as a fact of life, the band carries on without Fekete. This version of Surfer Blood is also without longtime bassist Kevin Williams, who moved to Austin a few months after recording 1000 Palms. The split with Williams was amicable. “He's been on the road with us for five years, and he was moving to a new city and probably just thought it was time to get off the road and try and lead something resembling a normal life. I completely understand and wish him the best.”

Taking his place is an old high school friend, Lindsey Mills. Actually, the entire band is made up of old high school friends now. All four current members, Pitts, Schwartz, Mills, and guitarist Mike McCleary, attended A.W. Dreyfoos High School in West Palm Beach. The group shot the music video for its new single "I Can't Explain" at West Palm venue Propaganda. 

Having already toured the new album some, Pitts has had a chance to reflect on the band’s new sound. “We made a record that was a little more heavy than our stuff before. There's a little more variety in the songs — a little more complex and intricate. I think it's been one of those records that's been a grower. When we first started playing the songs live before the record came out, people were scratching their heads, and now people are just starting to hear it a little more.” One song in particular stands out on the record, the opening track and lead single, “Grand Inquisitor.” We wondered how such a left-field number came to be.

“I can't really tell you where the idea for the song came from; it was just one of those ideas that we had forever. We just never thought it was possible to execute it with a live band. And when we sat down to sort of write this record, we just had the guitar and drum part idea, and we thought what better idea than to start off the record with something so completely different than anything we'd done before. It ended up being one of my favorite songs. It's really fun to play live. The lyrics, I wrote them around the whole Lars Ulrich Napster thing. It really is all over the place. I feel like the third record is a great time to try and push yourself.”

This new direction isn’t surprising considering the band's last effort, Pythons. Although a decent rock album by many accounts, there were several critics who panned it and burdened it with the dreaded sophomore-slump label. It was Surfer Blood’s major-label debut for Warner Bros. and came at a difficult moment in Pitts’ personal life after he was arrested following an argument with an ex-girlfriend. There were no charges filed, but it still left a blemish for some.

Pythons didn’t sell as well as the higher-ups had hoped, and eventually Surfer Blood was dropped. The period Pitts spent under the thumb of the big-label process sounds like a learning experience. 

"It's often hard work, but at the end of the day, there's nothing else I'd rather be doing."
"It's often hard work, but at the end of the day, there's nothing else I'd rather be doing."
Photo by Karli Evans

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“There's something about our first record [Astro Coast] that is wild, simple, straightforward, and kind of weird. There's definitely a different vibe than Pythons. We live in the age where people don't really want to hear slick rock records right now, which I understand. I personally think Pythons had some great songs on it. Maybe the production ended up overshadowing some of the music, but that's what happens when a band is on a huge label with a crazy budget that they never asked for. I never have to ask myself, are we capable of making that record that sounds like the Foo Fighters or something. The answer is yes, we did it, and probably won't do it again for a long time. I think it's important to keep things different on every release. I don't want to make the same album over and over again for years.”

Surfer Blood is back on an indie label, this time Joyful Noise, and it seems Pitts is content with his band's new home. “It's definitely something I'm more comfortable with. Especially at the time that I was making Pythons, I've grown a thicker skin since then, but that was the first time that there were people outside of my immediate circle weighing in on songs. I think if I had to criticize my own work, what ended up happening a little bit, people at the label, your friends, just basically a bunch of people at Warner Bros and bunch of people working on the record start tinkering with songs, what's eventually going to happen is that they're going to get watered down. They're going to lose the excitement of when you record them for the first time.”

Between getting signed and then dropped by Warner Bros, his arrest in 2012, Fekete’s cancer diagnosis, and getting robbed this past summer, the thought that Surfer Blood is jinxed must have entered Pitt’s mind periodically, right? Then again, maybe not.

“When I was in school, in college, I would always blow off class and everything else to play in a band and record songs. It's the thing that's brought more fulfillment than anything else, and the fact that I get to think about it and do it every day is a gift. I'm really grateful for it. I feel like with social media and the internet, the illusion of being in a touring band as extremely glamorous is gone. It's often hard work, but at the end of the day, there's nothing else I'd rather be doing. I feel like it builds character, makes you strong, and brings you together closer as a band.”

Surfer Blood. 6 p.m. Saturday, November 7, at the Hall South Beach, 1500 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-531-1251; Admission is free.

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