Some bands aspire to greatness; others have greatness thrust upon them. The jury is still out on Surfer Blood, whose debut, Astro Coast, has garnered amazingly positive reviews, one in particular from a source that normally takes pride in skewering young bands from Florida. Although being compared to the Beach Boys and Weezer and hearing again and again that your band has “large venue potential” could be poisonous early in a band’s career, the members of Surfer Blood seem to be taking everything in before beginning to believe the hype. A conversation with Surfer Blood’s kinetic guitarist, singer, and album engineer John Paul Pitts indicates that he doesn’t want to become Brian Wilson or Rivers Cuomo; he just wants a loyal base of hippies to stink up any venue where he plays.
For our less hip readers, give a small introduction to Surfer Blood.
Surfer Blood is like Andrew W.K. meets the early Cure. It’s a rock band that’s a lot better live. It’s fun, loud music except for the dark parts, which are really sad.
How did you come to name your band Surfer Blood?
It’s not really directed to anything in the band. None of us are surfers. I was going on a road trip, and one of my friends had this huge surfing bag with him. Of course we made fun of him. We started telling him that he was a surfer, that he was a “surfer bro,” and eventually that was modified into “surfer blood.” As soon as the phrase was uttered, we knew we would have to use it. We didn’t know if we were going to use it in a song or what, but when we needed to name to band, it was there.
How did you land your record deal?
It’s a wonderful story, really. I have a friend Jacob in a band called the Drums. He moved to New York, and we lost touch for a while. Then he calls me one day and tells me that we should come to New York and that we have meet these people, Lio and Kay, from Kanine Records. We booked a little tour up to New York, playing a bunch of small places. On the last night, Lio shows up at our show. He’s already been to see three other bands and he’s drunk as a skunk. We’re not sure if anything’s going to happen, but he calls the next day and invites us out to dinner. He says that he thinks we could do something and is willing to sign us. It was one of those times when knowing the right person paid off, but not in the usual way.
Now that you’re a little removed from the process, how do you feel about Astro Coast?
I don’t even listen to it anymore, because every time I hear it there’s something that I want to change. People have told me that a record is never really done; there’s a point where you’re just willing to release it. That’s kind of how I feel about it. I’m proud of it, but I’m such a perfectionist that I’m never going to be totally happy. I think it does represent a cohesive body of work and that there is an arc to the songs that very few people have noticed. Those are both things that make me very happy. It’s also really great to be able to hold a record in your hands and think that this is something that you’ve created.
How old were the songs that you decided to record?
The songs developed at their own pace. We didn’t go in to the studio and write a whole album. The oldest song on the album is “Slow Jabroni,” which is from 1996. That was one of the first real songs that Tom [Fekete, guitarist] and I wrote when we started playing together. It has been with the band for a long time and is an essential piece of our repertoire. When we went in to record, there were a lot of songs we could have put on the album, but it’s good to have that song that goes back to the beginning.
Had the band spent extensive time in the studio?
I’d never had an experience with a real studio. I was in a band when I was a kid, and the uncle of one of the members took us into a studio with the idea that he was going to make us huge in Germany, but that lasted about a day and then he disappeared. After that, jump straight to Surfer Blood. It was really awesome to be able to record an album, but I wouldn’t say it was the full studio experience. No offense to the guy from the studio, but he really didn’t understand what we were trying to do, and we didn’t like him very much. It was so expensive to book time that we knocked everything out in two days. I took all the files home with me and spent the next six months putting the record together in my bedroom.
Were there any meltdowns? Did the band break up at any point during the process?
We never broke up during the recording process. We actually came together and really formed the band, which was awesome. The hardest part was having the songs recorded and then me working obsessively with them. People would come by and listen and say, “You’re an idiot. This is finished.” There was some stress at those points, and eventually I just had to be done with it so we could move on.
Did you find out anything about the band from the lengthy process?
I found out what works for our band, which is relying heavily on guitar and effects. I also learned that we will never be able to exactly re-create the sound of the record live. It’s always going to be a lot rawer sounding, but that’s the nature of the beast. We’re always going to be doing different things with our guitars and taking songs into new places. That’s the real reason to come out and see the band live. If you’re not into that, just stay home and listen to the album. It’s much cheaper.
Are you concerned with receiving so much positive press early in your career?
I think the press has been great, and it’s been crazy to see the effect that it’s had on the band. We weren’t exactly ready for the response, and now the challenge is to keep up with it. We can’t just rest on our haunches because we have a few good reviews written about us. I don’t think that will happen, though; this band has lots of good albums left in us.
What are you going to do when Pitchfork turns on you, and gives you a 2.3?
Everybody always mentions Pitchfork when they talk about mean reviews. That actually happened to friends of ours, a band called the Black Kids. If that happened we would just shrug it off. What else can you do really? There are still some people that actually listen to new music rather than just reading reviews. Those people might buy the album and really like it. We’re really trying to build a loyal fan base that will grow with the band and follow us regardless of the reviews. Phish never has to worry about reviews. They have fans that are into the band no matter what.
So you’re saying that you want a bunch of smelly hippies at every Surfer Blood show?
That’s exactly what I’m saying. I want a bunch a bunch of hippies to follow us obsessively — the smellier the better. We want to be the center of a pseudo-cult. That’s really our ultimate goal.