Surfer Blood’s debut album, Astro Coast, struck gold.
Critics praised the 2010 album, and the new indie-rock group was on many music journalists’ lists of breakout bands of the year. This all led to some high-profile gigs for Surfer Blood.
Mark your calendars: Surfer Blood will be appearing at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace on Friday, Jan. 15.
Despite the success—which has continued through two more albums, most recently 1000 Palms—not everything has been easy, frontman John Paul Pitts said during a recent phone interview.
“Our guitarist (Thomas Fekete) was diagnosed with cancer in December of last year and had to take some time off. We thought it was only going to be six months, but it’s an aggressive form of cancer,” said Pitts. “Kevin Williams, our bassist, left in October. He decided he had toured enough. He moved to Austin, and he wanted to get off the road after five years. We’re still close with him, but I definitely understand his situation.”
The band members aren’t exactly rich, either.
“It is hard, even for a band like Surfer Blood who has some notoriety and is well-known,” Pitts said. “We still struggle to pay our rent, and it can be tough relying on music for a living. I love what I do, and that’s more important to me.”
Astro Coast is still Surfer Blood’s biggest critical success. Striking gold on the first album is rare in the music business, and Pitts said the response was surprising.
“I really didn’t know what to expect. I had gone back and forth a million times on that first record,” he said. “Was it too pop or too weird? I didn’t know how people would react to it, but people around the world seemed to love it. That was surprising for me, and I was obviously really happy about it.”
Pitts described being selected by Pavement to play the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2010 as a surreal experience. He said that it was also amazing to tour with another one of the band’s big influences—The Pixies.
“That was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “Not only did they treat us very well, and (we) got a soundcheck every night; we were on tour with them for two weeks, and I never stopped watching their set. I watched it from beginning to end every night and never got sick of it. The Pixies were the first CD I ever bought at the mall, I think. It was a huge deal for me.”
Surfer Blood recorded its second album, Pythons, after being signed to Sire/Warner Bros. records, and worked with Pixies producer Gil Norton.
“It was our first time working with a producer, and we really didn’t know what to expect,” Pitts said. “Before that, we had only done home recording. Recording in a studio with a producer, we felt a lot of pressure—probably more than we were ready for. Gil is an awesome person to hang out with, and he speaks music like a language, understands songs, and is very opinionated. We definitely butted heads with him in the studio a fair amount of times. But at the end of the day, he turned our second record into a really glossy pop record. I feel like we never have to ask ourselves if we thought we could make that record, because we already have.”
Surfer Blood’s time with Warner Bros. Records was short-lived; the band was dropped after just one year.
“I will be forever grateful that Warner Bros. was able to put us in a studio with someone like Gil, and we were able to record in the room next door to where the Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds,” Pitts said. “That was truly a magical experience that I’ll never forget, and I’m glad we got to do that.
“The guy who brought us in left the company six months after we were there, and there were people in the company who understood what we were going for and liked it, and others who didn’t understand it at all. There were so many people working there that it became frustrating for us trying to figure out who to talk to.
“When we heard that we were going to be dropped from the label, we weren’t too particularly surprised or upset by it. I had heard stories that they were one of the more honest and transparent labels, and I will say that there are people who are there who are awesome. … But I’ve learned if you sign a contract that’s longer than 20 pages, it’s probably too much.”
For Surfer Blood’s third album, the band went back to its roots, and Pitts said the members found the routine that best works for them when it comes to recording.
“It was all self-produced. After recording one record in a bedroom and recording another one in a Hollywood studio, I think we’ve learned a lot about what we needed production-wise, and what we didn’t need,” he said about 1000 Palms. “We were in a good place to self-produce, and we’re all home-recording enthusiasts to begin with, so the challenge of making a record is fun for us, and I think we’re pretty good at it.”
Guitarist Thomas Fekete continues to battle cancer, which has spread to his lungs and spine; a GoFundMe campaign has been launched on his behalf to help him to keep up with his medical bills. When I asked Pitts whether Fekete will ever be in the band again, Pitts said he did not know.
“It’s too hard to say right now,” he said. “Right now, he’s out of the hospital. He’s able to eat food and keep it down, and do all that normal-person stuff, but by no means is he ready to leave home for a month and be on tour.”
Surfer Blood will perform with Cayucas at 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 15, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit www.pappyandharriets.com.