Surfer Blood's John Paul Pitts talks leaving Florida, touring with the Pixies and more
Leaving Florida for California didn’t necessarily change Surfer Blood’s sound. The band had written and demoed most of their new album, Pythons, before moving west this summer.
But it’s already had an impact on how the former West Palm Beach indie rock group plans to write and record going forward.
“Being in a new place has been interesting,” singer John Paul Pitts said by phone recently, en route to a tour stop in Houston. “It’s made me kind of more willing to try things outside of what we usually do, just because you get stuck in your comfort zone and you eventually begin to second guess yourself based on what people expect you to do. Stepping away from that can be really beneficial creatively, just putting yourself in a situation where everything is new and different. I think maybe it will let you be a little bit more, and do a little bit less self-editing.”
For Surfer Blood, the time, perhaps, had come for a change of scenery. After the release of their widely praised debut album Astro Coast in 2010, the group was hailed alongside groups like Against Me! and Dashboard Confessional as one of Florida indie rock’s brightest success stories, playing huge festivals and touring with bands like the Pixies and Death Cab For Cutie.
But Pythons marked a bit of a sonic departure for the band. It's more melodic and classic-sounding than the grungy, power-poppy Astro Coast — some songs call to mind artists like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and the Smiths. And on Saturday, they’ll perform alongside Passion Pit, Two Door Cinema Club, Matt and Kim and others at the inaugural Coastline Festival at Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.
During our phone call, Pitts talked about being a music fan in Florida, touring with the Pixies and changing Surfer Blood’s sound. Here are excerpts.
Having grown up here, you probably are aware that not every band comes to Florida. Did you ever face that growing up? Did you ever take a road trip to see a band in Georgia or New Orleans or somewhere?
That totally happened to me. I remember the Silver Jews played in Atlanta one time, and my friend and I really wanted to go, and we got about halfway there before we realized it was a 21-and-over show and we had to turn around and go back. But I was lucky to see a few bands a lot. Of Montreal always came to Florida. They always came to Miami, because I think that’s where Kevin Barnes’ family is from. I saw Animal Collective once really early on in Miami. I feel like since they weren’t shows you’d go to a lot, the ones you went to see were that much more special.
Surfer Blood is held up as one of the Florida music world’s bigger success stories of the past decade. Have you sensed any sort of changing tide in how Florida music is viewed outside the state?
Yeah, and hopefully it’s been positive. I remember growing up, there were a lot of people doing cool stuff, and they just kind of had the feeling of being stuck, because it’s hard — especially when you’re young and you don’t have any money to go on tour — to get people to care. I think it is a really positive thing that a lot of bands are getting out. I see Jacuzzi Boys flyers everywhere, and Hundred Waters, that’s really good record. I guess there’s more of a sense of hope, maybe, than there was when I was younger. Or maybe people are just getting better at playing music.
Does your Floridian-ness come up in every interview you give with people outside the state? Is it as much of a talking point as it is for people in-state?
I feel like it was in the beginning. Now I feel like people have kind of moved beyond the anomaly that we’re a band from West Palm Beach. But at first, I feel like that sort of mystified people, definitely. I remember explaining the music scene in the town where I grew up at least 100 times in that first year we were touring. It is definitely something that was mysterious to people outside of the state at first.
Is there an element to your move to L.A. that has made you consider the argument of “big fish in a small pond” versus “small fish in a big pond?”
Yeah, I think it has. I guess there’s a lot going on and it seems to feel overwhelming living in a place like California, but I don’t know —it just seemed like maybe there wasn’t as much room to grow immediately in West Palm. I think that was part of the reason why I moved out there. I also just had a really good time recording and being out there, so that was a big part of it. West Palm Beach will always sort of be home to me, and I definitely have a lot of friends there.
There are parts of Pythons that are kind of mellow — I would say surprisingly so, but would you say that? Were you surprised to find yourself writing these swoonier, almost poppier songs?
I don’t know. To me, it’s a progression, and when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to tell how you’re evolving. We didn’t really have a lot of discussions about how a second record needed to sound, because I feel like so many people fall victim to that: “You should sound like this band, or that band, or something from this era or that era.” That puts you in a box before you even start writing. But I think the songwriting has grown. I think it’s gotten more mature — whether that’s a good or a bad thing when you’re in a band called Surfer Blood, who knows? (laughs)
Can you define what it was that you did on Astro Coast that you didn’t want to do on Pythons?
I definitely didn’t want to make the same record twice. I also wanted to approach it from a place where it’s a band playing live in a room. We live in the digital age, and I definitely took full advantage of that for a long time, taking my sweet time, moving parts around, changing stuff, writing a melody, writing lyrics. So this definitely put us in a different situation, where everything had to be done in a limited amount of time. That was really good, too, because it pushed us to make it be as palatable as possible — easy to produce live and natural-sounding.
Now that you’ve released the album and have been touring to support it, how is the band getting along these days?
We always get along. We have our moments where we fight and stuff, but it’s just because of proximity and the amount of time we spend together. I think the good thing about spending a lot of time with people is you begin to know when they’re at their best and when they’re at their worst, and you can sort of work around that a little bit. I think the four of us know each other better than brothers and sisters. So yeah, we’ve learned to accept each other’s faults and just work with it.
Do people still ask you about touring with the Pixies?
Yeah, that’s a pretty common one. I don’t usually like to brag, but that was an amazing experience.
What was it like being alongside a band that’s known for being fractious and having a bit of enmity toward each other?
For all intents and purposes, it seemed like they had gotten over most of that stuff that’s so well chronicled in that one documentary, I forget what it’s called. (Ed. note: loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies.) They all kind of keep to themselves, and they are all really distinct personalities, and I think that’s the cause for a lot of the conflict between them. But it’s also probably the reason they make such interesting music. And they treated us really well, honestly. Their entire crew was really respectful of us, really understanding if we were late or something, because we were trying to keep up with them in a 15-passenger van. They’re all really interesting, kind of bizarre people.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*