Frontman and songwriter John Paul Pitts starts with his little four-track recorder at his home in West Palm Beach, where he records riffs and demo vocals before bringing the work to his bandmates — an experience he admits is “absolutely terrifying.”
The pandemic has given Pitts little else to do except to be creative and write more music. The band itself has given up on having a positive cash flow for the time being. Like most indie groups, Surfer Blood relies heavily on touring to make a living. Surfer Blood has put a significant effort into growing its online presence, but nothing makes up for being on the road.
“There's just no substitute for playing shows and festivals," Pitts explains. "Selling merch at shows and whatnot is not only good financially, but it also just keeps morale up.”
The title for the band's fifth studio album, Carefree Theatre, serves as a shout-out to the former West Palm Beach music venue of the same name where a young Pitts gained his first musical experiences.
“Since my parents wouldn’t allow me to drive down to Miami to go see all my favorite bands, that was the only stop where I got to see a lot of them,” he says. “I got to see Wilco there and the Henry Rollins band there.”
The title also sets up the imagery found across the 11 tracks. Surfer Blood’s carefree nature on the record is, in many respects, pure theater while the world comes crumbling down around all of us.
For Pitts, the theme of the project is “defiance in the face of adversity.” Although there are few breakup songs on the tracklist, he emphasizes, it’s not a breakup album.
The past couple of years have been tough for Pitts — and it’s from that hardship that he pulled inspiration from when it came time to write for the album.
"I got out of a long relationship, I moved back home, and I was trying my best to keep looking forward. It hasn't all been good news the past couple years, and I'm sure that made its way into my writing somehow," he elaborates.
Since forming in 2009, Surfer Blood has reached milestones most indie bands only dream of. The band played live on Seattle's KEXP, a rock radio station known for featuring some of the top touring acts. And in 2011, Surfer Blood opened for the Pixies, followed by an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2012.
Surfer Blood has done the major-label thing before, singing to Warner Bros. in 2012 and releasing its sophomore effort, Pythons, the following year. However, for the release of Carefree Theatre, the band finds itself back on Kanine Records.
“Our guitarist has kept a space that we can go to 24 hours a day with some decent gear in there," Pitt says of the recording of Carefree Theatre. "So it's nice to be able to take our time and do those extra overdubs and the kind of stuff that you don't really get around to when you're in the studio, and you're paying by the hour. It was nice to sort of take a step back and really take our time with it.”
Carefree Theatre smacks of nostalgia on tracks like "Summer Trope," with lyrics that can't help but elicit a nervous smile as if the world crumbles around you.
“The water's freezing in the morning/He fought the currents with the wind at his head/He swore that someone was behind him/That's when he took his final breath/Sudden death/Sudden death/It’s the only thing you can expect/Save your breath.”
Perhaps the most striking example of the grim lyrical content is "Dewar." With an early-Beatles nod, Pitts somehow manages to sing beautifully about the “military-industrial complex” and “a couple micrograms of a new enriched plutonium.”
Despite the album's darker undertones, Surfer Blood can still deliver a track like "Rose Bowl." With organs serving as a backdrop, the lyrics reminisce about the feeling of past love and the simple joys that come with it. And then there’s the song "Karen" — the title should say enough — a humorous track that shows off the quartet's more playful nature.
"You know it's sort of like proudly standing in the mouth of a hurricane with a lightning rod," Pitts says. "I think people just have a better bullshit filter then they get credit for, they can tell when you're going through the motions or just putting oohs and aahs in there just because you didn't have anything to say."