Exclusive: Surfer Blood Talk Fresh Perspective on New Album, ‘Snowdonia’
“Don’t trust anyone over 30,” goes the counterculture saying. But since he became a tricenarian, Surfer Blood’s John Paul Pitts has begun to trust himself — and his audience — a little more.
“I feel like this is the first record where I’ve actually been willing to talk about the lyrics and songs and where they come from. Honestly, I’m a pretty reserved person and pretty gun-shy about sharing my work with people,” Pitts says over the phone. He’s reflecting on Snowdonia (out Feb. 3 on Joyful Noise), his band’s fourth full-length and first in a new era for the Florida foursome. Its eight jagged, adventurous songs embrace experimentation while bidding a reverent farewell to founding guitarist Thomas Fekete, who died in 2016 after battling cancer.
Pitts has dared to post Snowdonia’s lyrics on Surfer Blood’s website, peeling back the layers of the glass onion of his creativity. In past releases, he played his cards close to his chest, especially since his 2012 arrest on suspicion of domestic battery against his then-girlfriend. He pleaded no contest, and the charges were dropped once he completed an anger management program. The experience led to the vague 2013 album Pythons, which critics and even some fans held at arms’ length — for its possible references to the arrest and because it was seen as a sellout move when they signed to Warner Bros. Two LPs later, Pitts is baring his soul. Among the poetic descriptions of “sour éclairs” and “Instant Doppelgangers” are tender tributes to his current partner’s disabled but vivacious great uncle Eddy and to his mother.
“[W]hat can I say? 2016 was a pretty awful year. It started with my mom getting cancer, and somewhere in the middle, Thomas passed. Then we had the election,” he laments while discussing “Carrier Pigeon,” the album’s Monkees-meets-Wilco closer. But then he perks up. “My mom’s doing a lot better now. I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with her. It seems like things are really looking up for her. But it was really scary when I first heard that news.”
Like the Antarctic iceberg that graces its cover, the songs of Snowdonia go deeper than Pitts’ recent sorrows. The instrumentation and labyrinthine stanzas are bolstered by a fresh lineup of his high-school buddies Lindsey Mills (bass), Tyler Schwarz (drums) and Michael McCleary (guitar). They steer the bubbly nature of “Matter of Time,” a defining Surfer Blood tune that tackles marriage and moving on from past romances. And with Mills joining the ranks, a feminine presence has emerged— influenced by trailblazers such as Kim Deal of the Breeders and the Pixies, with whom Surfer Blood toured in 2011.
Exhibit A: Snowdonia’s rubbery lead single, “Six Flags in F or G.” “I really wanted to contrast one part that was sort of dark and sort of anxious, and kind of feels like a march, maybe a polka even,” Pitts says. “There is something that’s so rigid and … a part that’s really loose and free and American (he laughs), with the wah pedal guitar solo. I was listening to a lot of the Breeders for the second part — specifically a Breeders song called ‘Divine Hammer,’ which I may or may not have ripped off a little bit.”
When Surfer Blood came on the scene with 2010’s Astro Coast, they wore their ’90s alternative fan badges with no shame. Those mighty detuned guitars have evolved on this fourth outing into multiple-act epics, reflections on aging and tweaking of common instruments like organs through vintage speakers to birth a new whole species of indie rock. And if Pitts has learned anything over his seven years in the spotlight, it’s to let go and trust his gut. He praises former tour mate Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices for helping him ease up a bit.
“[T]hat guy puts out three records a year. I know he doesn’t overthink his songs,” Pitts marvels, even though Surfer Blood’s last long-player, 1000 Palms, came out less than two years prior to Snowdonia. “I just admire that because I tend to be a little bit of a perfectionist. I tend to overthink things. I get way too pensive about stuff that’s really not important. Writing songs, expressing yourself, playing guitar, writing melodies — they’re visceral.”
Snowdonia is Pitts shedding his skin. The remnants of Astro Coast, Pythons and 1000 Palms are still there. Fekete’s memory is still there. The major-label trials and the tribulations with former lovers are still there. But there’s a new freedom and more agility to this version of Surfer Blood.
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