Surfer Blood on Writing Music Under a Major Label

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It’s an understatement to say that Surfer Blood as a band has been through a lot. After parting ways with their bassist and losing their guitarist to cancer, most bands would crumble without question, but Surfer Blood strived. Before they finished loading up the van for the rest of their Midwest tour, I got a chance to talk with frontman John Paul Pitts about their 2017 album and the growth of the band.

T- So your new album Snowdonia has been met with mostly positive reviews. Would you say that the album represents a stylistic shift for the band?

JP- I think so. It was definitely a different process. There were two new personalities and singers in the band. I was trying a lot of new things, drawing inspiration from places that we hadn’t really drawn from before. I’d say it’s a subtle stylistic shift but you know: different process, different people, different influences. That’s a recipe for going in a new direction.

T- Would you say that you have a favorite song off of the album?

JP- That’s a good question. I don’t know, I like them all for different reasons. I guess this is probably what every songwriter who does this says. They can’t really pick. I really like the last song, Carrier Pigeon. It hasn’t always been easy for me to be super vulnerable in my lyrics, or super personal, or even super direct, I guess. That song I wrote really fast so I didn’t have time to second-guess stuff and try and block everything out with reverb and metaphor and everything else. I’m very happy I was able to hold my breath and get that one written and recorded, because I think it’s, in a weird way, the masterpiece on the album. I feel like it ties everything that goes on the record together very nicely.

T- Would you say that your writing process has changed since you started as a group?

JP- Yeah, it’s been through phases. The first record was me in my apartment between classes at a state college, trying to figure out how to record these songs that I had written on my own. The second record was writing for a big label with A&R people weighing in and that was really strange. I should have looked before I leapt, I guess. And then we did 1000 Palms which was probably the most collaborative record that we did, with all 4 of us weighing in and coming up with the instrumental and the backing parts all together. This record was a lot different because Thomas and Kevin were both out of the picture for different reasons. I was living in California while the rest of my band was in Florida, so I was sort of on my own writing this one..

T- You mentioned that your second album was your first time working with a big label. What was that transition like?

JP- Night and day. You know, there are so many horror stories growing up about signing to a major label. It’s something that’s been well-documented in every behind-the-music story. But I figured, you know, when you’re 23 years-old and think you can handle anything, it seemed like a good idea and things were just gonna get bigger and better forever. And then suddenly, people are weighing in on things like “Is this radio friendly? Is this a good structure for that?” Things that I’d never felt really mattered anymore.

When you’re recording in a studio with a producer whose records you grew up listening to and everything’s really expensive, including your time, you sort of stray away from ideas that are goofier. I think you lose some of the spontaneity. I felt a lot of the time like I was writing a college admissions essay, you know? That weird pressure to prove that you’re, like, a real adult songwriter. And now, in hindsight, it’s crystal clear to me that no one ever wanted me to write a really mature, profound record. It seems so clear now, but at the time I was still trying to find my footing in a less-than-perfect situation.

T- What are some artists that you’ve been listening to recently that you wish more people knew about?

JP- There’s this guy from our hometown called Chaucer. He plays with a rotating cast of people out here. He’s a great performer- he hasn’t toured much or anything, but he’s really awesome and I’m sure once he gets out there a bit more people will definitely notice him.  There’s also this girl named Pip Blom from Holland. She writes this sort of sassy punk music with her brother. We toured with them, and they’re all, like, 20 years old. And they’re making music that sounds like blur meets Parquet Courts or something. She’s really cool and I’m positive that there’s gonna be really good things coming her way in the next couple of years.

T- Final question. Have you ever played at the U of I before, and if so, what was your experience like?

JP- We played the Pygmalion festival a few years ago. Like, six years ago. I crowdsurfed during the last song, which went really well—no one got hurt. But at one point, I was singing into the mic and the cable got loose. It was one of those cables that just kind of slides out and I didn’t know that. I don’t know what I was thinking, but when it came undone and I had this mic not connected to anything in my hand, I just threw it up in the air and just worked my way back up to the stage and did the rest of the song without vocals. And the sound guy was so bummed out afterwards. He was like, “You know those mics aren’t free,” and I was like “I know.” I obviously wasn’t taking any of this into consideration when I was being lifted up and carried around. I was like, “I’ll give you some money for a new one, I’m sorry, I was just in the moment, and it seemed like a really good idea at the time.” I’ve always felt bad because even after that he seemed really upset about it. If I see him this time, I’m going to make it a point to apologize to him.

T- Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?

JP- No, not really, just that I’m looking forward to these shows and I think we’re gonna make a lot of great memories this time.

See Surfer Blood, as well as NE-HI and The Dry Look, at the Canopy Club this October 18th at 9:00 PM. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door.

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