That’s Our Default Setting: An Interview with Surfer Blood
Florida rock quartet Surfer Blood have experienced known bumps in the roads throughout their five year existence, but, much like anyone as they age, they’ve come out stronger for it. Their upcoming record, Snowdonia, releases on February 3 and includes singles like “Matter Of Time” and “Six Flags In F or G.” Following the passing of guitarist Thomas Fekete, guitarist and lead vocalist John Paul Pitts and his bandmates were stuck in a position with a lengthy tour just months ahead with an empty spot, though more importantly a lost friend, so they scrambled to tie the knots together, later adding Mike McCleary to fill in. In advance of their show tonight at White Oak Music Hall, Free Press Houston spoke to Pitts about the band, the album, and a few of their misfortunes.
Free Press Houston: Congratulations on your new record, Snowdonia. Before the release date of an album, do you expect a certain response, or is it just a matter of what the public thinks about it post-release?
John Paul Pitts: This is our fourth album. We’re always sort of nervous, because you don’t know the reaction that people are going to have. I think this is a really solid record, something we set out for it to be. It’s exactly what I imagined in my head, so I’m really satisfied. Hopefully people will see where we’re coming from. There are also catchy songs, so I think there’s a lot of good stuff on it.
FPH: Going back to the formation of the group, is it fair to say that an electronic festival was the birthplace of Surfer Blood? Can you elaborate on that?
Pitts: I don’t know if that’s completely fair, but it’s part of the reason we all got together, yeah. I assume you’re talking about the fact that we met at an Ultra Music Festival after party, which is a true story. I did not make that up. We had played a show at this bar in Miami earlier that night — we basically played to a few people who came out to the show. Afterwards, we were at the bar hanging out and our friend called us from down the street at this crazy after party. We weren’t busy, so we were like, “Okay, we’ll go to that. Why not?” That was the first night Thomas and I hung out. I had seen him play with his various bands throughout the years, but we’ve never actually met. We met that night, exchanged numbers, and we went to practice together the next day. A month later we were booking shows all along the east coast. That was really fact. It was, in part, half EDM to thank for.
FPH: Did you attend the festival as well?
Pitts: Oh, the Ultra? No, we were just going to the party because we were 23 and it was free, you know? I don’t remember anything about it, I’ve never been to Ultra, still after all of these years. I wanted to go the year Kraftwerk played, though. I honestly don’t listen to a lot of that music, but it seems like a lot of fun.
FPH: How do bands like Kraftwerk and Chromeo pull it off, playing largely-DJ festivals, even though they’re more like bands? If offered, would you play one of those festivals?
Pitts: Oh, yeah! I’d be happy to play. I think people would be very confused as to why a four-piece rock band was playing, though. For bands like New Order and Chromeo, it fits. But yeah, I’d be happy to. There’s a lot of young people who are open-minded, who listen to that as well as other stuff, so I don’t doubt that there’d be some people who’ve never heard of us that would catch our set. But the offer hasn’t come yet, so we’ll see [laughs].
FPH: For anyone unaware, this is your first record following the death of Thomas Fekete, your guitarist and founding member of the band. Were any of the songs recorded while Thomas was still in the group, or is this entirely following his passing?
Pitts: Well, most of this was written during the period when Thomas was sick. He left the band in January of 2015, and that’s when we heard the news that they found cancer cells. After that we had about 50 shows already booked, and we were leaving in a month-and-a-half to do these. We got our friend Mikey to step in. We were really scrambling to play those shows. After the tour I went back home to California, where I had been living for years now. It was during that period where we had a few months at home, so everything started to slow down and get quiet, so we started to write a lot of songs that ended up on this record.
FPH: To clarify, you said your tour consisted of 50 stops? That seems like a very lengthy run.
Pitts: Yeah. Our last record — we had already recorded it, got a release date, and had the tour booked when we found out about Thomas. But yeah, we played around 40 to 50 shows booked in 2015.
FPH: On this tour, you’re playing another lengthy set of dates. Have you always preferred to visit as many venues as you could, or have you started to enjoy it more once the band has progressed?
Pitts: I don’t really have a preference. At this point, we’ve done every kind of tour imaginable — you know, we’ve been around for five years. I’ve never really thought about that, actually. I guess I like to do shorter ones, but we don’t always have that luxury.
FPH: Has Snowdonia come with switching up your tour gear? What’s on your board right now?
Pitts: Well, I’m not big on switching up gear. Michael, the other guitarist, is always getting new pedals and adding or taking them away. He owns a ton of guitars and a ton of amplifiers, it’s like, you never know what he is going to have when we load in. When I find a guitar or pedal I like, I usually stick with it for a long time. I never sell gear, I always hold onto it. I get so attached to it.
I use one of those Mad Professor Sweet Honey overdrives, it plays great with pretty much any amp. I’ve always used those EHX Memory Boy’s — I’ve had so many of those, because they do break sometimes, but they have that modulation knob that you can do so much with. Other than that, just a clean boost, and sometimes I’ll add a chorus in there. I get really confused trying to assemble a whole pedalboard, because I’m playing and singing.
FPH: You have performed live using a Harmony Bobkat, a vintage Japanese guitar. What drew you to those, being as Harmony’s in general were built pretty poorly?
Pitts: Well, the Bobkat, which, unfortunately, was stolen — I actually loved that guitar. Not because it was easy to play — it was very difficult to play — there was not dots on the fretboard, so you always had to guess where you were landing, which is difficult to do while you’re singing and playing guitar. But those gold-foil pickups were absolutely incredible, they’re so crunchy and unique sounding. Actually, Michael has a Telecaster, and he dropped in a goil-foil middle pickup, so he has the best of both worlds.
FPH: When exactly did the break-in happen? Were you able to recover any of the gear?
Pitts: Oh, well we had a break-in back in 2015 in Chicago. But that wasn’t the first time that has happened to us, which is unfortunate. It’s sort of a fact of life when you’re on tour. Back in 2013, I had a few guitars stolen, they were really nice. They were guitars I really loved, so that was the last time I brought guitars I really love out on tour. But you know, it’s just an unfortunate fact of life, that there is petty crime. You have to constantly watch your stuff. We’ve had stuff stolen from our dressing rooms, too. Being on tour just means constantly watching over your things. You know, it’s sad but true.
I’ve never gotten anything back that was stolen, despite my best efforts. Usually, once it’s gone, it’s gone. And there’s no hope in finding it, even with the benefit of the internet and being able to send stuff.
FPH: What are we expected to see at your show in Houston?
Pitts: I think of us as guitar-driven, melodic-based — just, you know — heavily effected pop music. Like, I get asked this question a lot. Early on, I would tell people “If the Beach Boys had overdrive pedals.” That’s what Surfer Blood is going for. I think that’s still true today. Even though a lot of influences have crept in through the years, it’s what we go for, that’s out default setting.
The last time we played Houston, I ended up crowd surfing and knocking out one of the stage lights with the headstock of my guitar. It usually, depending on the night, gets pretty wild. We’re going to be playing a bunch of new stuff. Oh, and we sell our own merch. We’re a very friendly band, and there should be a lot of great energy.
Surfer Blood will perform alongside Young Mammals on Monday, January 30 at White Oak Music Hall (2915 N. Main). Doors are at 7 pm with $15 tickets.