Q&A: Surfer Blood On Their Sophomore Album And The Charges That Nearly Derailed Their Career
Last month Surfer Blood released Pythons, their sophomore album and first proper major label release. What might have been a fairly triumphant moment for the band was instead completely fraught, an accomplishment overshadowed by the fact that the band’s frontman, John Paul Pitts, was arrested for domestic battery in 2012. Despite the fact that the case was eventually dropped and no charges were ultimately filed, Pitts found himself already convicted in the court of public opinion. Whether it was deserved or not, the fact that the band mostly kept quiet about the charges in the weeks after the event made it easy for music journalists (and a seemingly unstoppable army of internet commenters) to paint the 26 year-old musician as indie-rock’s answer to Chris Brown — a reputation that threatened to overwhelm the band’s continued existence and cast a long shadow over whatever they might do next.
Leading up to Pythons’ release, Surfer Blood did a variety of interviews — including this one — in which they ostensibly talked about the making of the new record but mostly spent time explaining and apologizing for Pitts’ arrest. In the wake of the band’s public mea culpa, I held off running this interview because I wasn’t sure how much it actually added to the conversation (and since nearly identical interviews ran on other websites almost immediately after I spoke to the band). At some point I started to wonder if my own ambivalence about running the interview was also somehow based in judgment, which, as a journalist, was something I was loathe to admit. Now that a few weeks have passed and the band continues to tour in support of Pythons (which, to their credit, is a totally affable follow up to 2010’s Astro Coast), it seems only fair to run the interview and let people make up their own minds about exactly how they’d like to judge the band.
STEREOGUM: So this record was made in LA mostly?
JOHN PAUL PITTS: Yeah, it was recorded and mixed in Los Angeles.
STEREOGUM: And how was that experience?
PITTS: Uh, it was really fantastic. For Astro Coast and Tarot Classics we did all the recording ourselves, which is, you know, while it’s fun it can also get really stressful because you get caught up in all of the minutia of recording.
PITTS: This experience was great because it really focused us on the songwriting, the arrangements, the performances, you know? We didn’t get bogged down by any of the technical stuff. We also recorded in a really nice studio with really amazing equipment, so everything sounded really good. I thought it was a really fun experience.
THOMAS FEKETE: Yeah, we definitely stepped out of our comfort zone big time on this album because, well, Gil Norton produced it and you know Gil is this kind of super-producer. It was definitely different from anything that we had ever experienced before. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever experienced anything remotely close to it. It ended up being very positive for sure, but it was just a big change.
PITTS: I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect going into the whole thing.
STEREOGUM: How did you get connected with Gil? I know you guys played some shows with the Pixies, did that have anything to do with it?
PITTS: No, actually. We took a London trip in 2009 — maybe a month before our first album came out — and Gil actually came to a couple of our shows. At the time I guess he was just a fan. He really does love music and it’s something that we really liked about him. When we first started talking to all these producers we could tell that Gil really liked our songs and he was very familiar with our back catalogue. He had seen us multiple times. He had never aggressively sought us out or anything, it was all just a timing thing I guess. We were starting to work with some other producers back in 2011 and we thought out record was ready, which it wasn’t. And you know, while all of them were amazing — both personally and professionally — it just didn’t seem like they were very emotionally invested in the project … I don’t really know how to describe it. It just kind of seemed like they were just kind of doing what they always do, which definitely sort of freaked us out, for a number of reasons. I mean, you know, the dynamic of band, it’s such a unique thing. We’re these longtime friends, you know? No one’s hired out or anything, we split everything evenly — songwriting credits, everything — and it’s very much like a democracy. While that’s a very positive thing and it can be very healthy, it can also be super touchy and it really does take years to kind of wrap your head around the dynamic. It took years to wrap my head around these three other creative personalities that are, you know, consistently around me ten months out of the year, and when you finally do that — which I feel like is something that happened recently with this album — it’s a really beautiful thing. So yeah adding new people to the mix is complicated … and recording a record, it’s scary. You know, if it’s not perfect, I think it’s going to be a disaster, it’s inevitable. So we were definitely picky. We had started to do pre-production with two other producers, but it just didn’t seem right … and something just clicked with Gil. It made sense to us.
FEKETE: Yeah it was kinda like … it felt like we added a really talented, good old friend to our band for a couple months. It was exciting. It was cool. I think there are a number of reasons why Gil was the right choice, too. You know I think a lot of it had to do with maybe because he is so direct. He’s been working on records for twenty years, he’s from another country, and he’s significantly older than us, and for some reason it just made it so much easier to air out any of our grievances about the songs or about the ideas or anything like that. He is also not afraid to offer his opinion; I think the fact that because we come from such different places made it a lot easier to discuss everything openly with each other. You know?
PITTS: Yeah, and you know we got really lucky actually because it came down to two producers for us and that was Gil Norton and Rob Schnapf. Gil really drilled us, he really helped us excel as musicians. It was hard work, you know, and he is opinionated for sure, and we definitely needed that, and then we actually were lucky enough to mix the record with Rob. Rob is like, I don’t know, he’s like the opposite of Gil. He was really receptive of what we wanted, and he just really took a step back and let us breathe. It was kinda like the best of both worlds. Gil’s kind this, uh, kinda this intense personality type, and then Rob is this totally mellow guy. We respect them both immensely. So, the whole thing was really special. It all came down to timing, really, and I think it was worth the wait.
STEREOGUM: Were you guys sort of caught off guard by the success of Astro Coast?
PITTS: I definitely think so. You know, when I decided to drop out of college and quit my job and we all made that same decision … we really had no idea what was going to happen, you know? We actually had a record, which was amazing, you know, because lots of new bands can’t really say that. And you know what happened after that, it was just a pretty well received thing, and all of a sudden we had fans who are singing words to our songs. A lot of stuff changed really fast for us and it was exciting.
FEKETE: It was definitely a whirlwind, for sure. A whirlwind of emotions. I remember playing these shows early on — like these big shows — and I was like “Okay, well this part of being in a band makes sense to me right now, like this is the one thing making sense to me, and this is what’s kinda keeping me going.” Whereas the other side of it — like the business and the labels — I mean, we were just totally clueless. None of us had parents who were working in the music industry or anything, we really had no idea what was going on so we basically kinda handed our careers over to people that we trusted. In some ways that worked out and in some ways it went terribly wrong. For the first year of our record being out it was just sort of … we were touring so much that we didn’t have time to step back and take in what was going on. I feel like once our record cycle ended — after playing 300-some odd shows — it was just sorta like, that’s when everything really set in. That’s when we all kinda realized this is definitely what we want to do with our lives, that we wanted to make this into a career, that this isn’t just like a fun thing that we’re expecting to last a few years and go away, you know? We really want longevity as a band, but it was definitely very confusing at first. I will say that, it was very confusing. We didn’t really have anyone we could trust to give us credible advice. Everyone that was approaching us was so new that it made us come off as really reserved about a lot of things because we couldn’t make heads or tails of any of the advice anyone was giving to us. That, combined with touring all the time, it was really exciting and also really puzzling.
STEREOGUM: When that touring cycle finally ended, what happens? Does everybody just go home for a while, or do you take time away from each other? What did you do?
PITTS: I don’t even know exactly when the touring cycle ended because we weren’t going on really extended tours, we were still doing a lot of these fly in and fly out shows and we were still very busy. Finally there were a couple months were things were very quiet and it felt very strange. We really needed those few months to reflect on everything that had gone on. But when we got together to write it was so easy. It was amazing. Like, I can’t even really recall writing some of the songs on the record. I remember coming up with these little parts in them, but I can’t even recall how they all came together. I think we just had this like this rush going, it was just happening so quickly and naturally that we weren’t even thinking about it, which was great. I definitely tend to over think these kinds of things most of the time. For this record we had all this energy just kinda pent up inside of us and it all just came out at once … and I don’t know how it all really worked out, to be honest.
STEREOGUM: How does songwriting usually work in the band?
PITTS: In my apartment. I always have a drum machine and an acoustic guitar, and that’s how I get everything started, the ideas. When I’m writing I’ll write for two months at a time every day for like ten hours a day. It’s kinda like that, you know? Just being really indulgent and sort of doing everything at once. And I’ll take these ideas and take these little chord progressions and melodies to everybody else in the band. And we also practice a bit on the road. Generally we get together every day at noon and we start running through stuff. I think by the time we were done we had written 24-25 songs for this record, some better than others and some that needed more work than others. It definitely became very clear writing this record that we have really started to understand each other musically. I don’t even know how to explain it; I mean, for example, the song “Demon Dance” on the record — which is one of the singles and one of our favorite songs — if I remember correctly, that entire song came together in like twenty minutes. That was a pretty amazing moment for us because it was kinda like it was finally becoming easy for us. It’s a really good feeling, you know?
STEREOGUM: Obviously there’s been a lot of interest in the new record based on how much people really loved the last one. Still, that being said, there’s no way to move forward without talking about JP’s arrest. It’s mentioned in every article about the band and continues to be a much commented upon aspect to your story. I appreciate the fact that you are willing to talk about it — there’s kind of no way that you can’t talk about it at this point — but how do you feel about the fact that it continues to loom over the band? How are you dealing with it?
PITTS: I’m definitely a better person after all of this. I feel healthier and more comfortable in my own skin, but it’s also just you know, it’s terrible. I understand that there’s a lot of speculation that goes on about it. I haven’t really said a whole lot about it up until this point out of respect for the situation and everybody involved and how delicate it is. You know, I’m still wounded. It’s still hard for me to think about it and talk about it even with my closest friends, so you know, the idea of talking about it publicly … it’s just you know, it’s just something I wasn’t prepared for until now. I think it’s been both exaggerated and oversimplified so far. To clear a few things up, the police report that appeared in that Pitchfork article last August is one person’s account of the story. There are a few things that were factually incorrect: one, I’m not twenty-eight years old, I’m twenty-six, and I was born in October, and I don’t know why that has bugged me so much. Also, I was actually never convicted of any crime. I was never guilty of any crime. These are things that I think that have sort of gotten distorted along the way. And I would like to say that that is hard.
FEKETE: Yeah, I mean, you were saying that you were never actually convicted – it’s not even on your record, right? I mean it’s been –
PITTS: Well yeah, it’s been, I didn’t really … the charges never stood. The court recommended that I took some anger management classes, which I was happy to do. I’m really glad I did, I feel emotionally in a much better place because of all that.
STEREOGUM: That’s good. If nothing else, I would hope something was learned in all this.
PITTS: Yeah, I’ve learned a lot of lessons about life and about myself from the whole thing.
FEKETE: And I mean, as far as the band is concerned, if I really thought JP was a dangerous person, I would not play in a band with him. And more importantly, JP, if he was dangerous, I wouldn’t be his friend, you know, and neither would anybody else in the band. And, it’s difficult for any of us to talk about because, I mean, it’s his own personal business so … I won’t even, I’ll leave it to JP, I won’t even get into it much more.
PITTS: I’m not a violent guy, I’ve never been in a fight my entire life, um, so to hear people … to hear accusations, to hear people attacking me is really hurtful, and it’s really hard. I’m currently in a really healthy, happy relationship with a girl who I love. Still, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my entire life.
FEKETE: Yeah, and I mean, it must be … I can’t imagine … these are two people that cared about each other very deeply, you know? I mean it just happened to be that it just wasn’t a … at least to me, it didn’t seem like a very healthy relationship. How do you talk about that publicly? And more importantly, why? We did an interview with a magazine, a British magazine, and they were just prodding JP for details — they wanted details of exactly what went down that night and it’s just like, people wanna hear this? I don’t know. I mean obviously it’s very important to address — it is a real thing that happened. It happened. But things are possibly misconstrued, and I would say that there are always two sides to every story and I would just compare the two police reports — JP’s statement and her statement. I think that’s very telling as it is, so … that’s my two cents.
PITTS: Well yeah, it’s definitely been distorted along the way.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, obviously it’s a hard thing and people have very visceral, strong reactions to it … but they should. I understand where that comes from because I kind of had the same reaction. Fair or not, my immediate reaction is/was kind of just … fuck those guys and fuck that band. That being said, I don’t know you. I don’t know your personal life. I don’t know what happened that night and, arguably, it’s none of my business. Still, I see people writing things in the comments section of the site saying things like “How can you continue to write about this band?” as if what happens in your personal life should affect whether or not we talk about you as a band. So, obviously it’s important. This happened. It’s a story that’s out there, and I think it’s only fair that you be able to address it and say what you want to say about it. People can make up their own minds about how they feel about you after that.
PITTS: Yeah, I’m glad, I’m actually really grateful because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about me, and to pass judgment on the band based on one article that appeared several months ago. Yeah, I think that’s what I would like to say, is that there’s actually no conviction or anything like that. That’s important. It was a really delicate situation between two people who cared about each other and were going through a really bad break-up, and I will suffer from trust issues and all kinds of negative emotions for years because of it. I’m just beginning to start feeling like a human being again.
FEKETE: At the same time we do understand. We’re not bashing Pitchfork because they posted that original article. It is news. I understand that. But immediately it was like, they wanted a statement, like right away they wanted a statement from JP but it’s like, we didn’t want to perpetuate this gossip machine because that’s so far removed from who we are as people and what we wanna be doing as a band. So, you know, I do understand, I totally understand why they posted it, but there was silence for a while because, you know, these kinds of things take time, and I’m sure JP had a lot to work through personally before he wanted to go public.
PITTS: I turned off my phone and my computer for a week after that story. I didn’t leave the house or anything, so I was not in a position to offer anyone a statement about it. I was just finally dealing with the ramifications of what took place … which was hard enough before other people started finishing my sentences for me.
STEREOGUM: Well, I’m sure it’s hard to know what is the best way to proceed in a situation like this. Most people will never know what it’s like to have to defend their personal life in public, so I’m sympathetic in that respect. As I told your publicist, I was interested in talking to you because I enjoy your music, but I wouldn’t want to do this without addressing the charges as well. Regardless of what happened or who was at fault, it’s not the kind of thing that can be brushed under the rug. One hopes that all parties can get on with their lives now … and you can focus on the business of making music.
PITTS: We appreciate that, so thank you.
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of this year be like for you?
PITTS: Lots of touring, which is really exciting for us. We haven’t been touring like this for nearly two years, so it feels really good to play shows again and to get back in the swing of everything again. And all of us are in this new headspace that we’ve never been in before. I mean, as far as relationships among band mates go, this is the healthiest that we’ve ever been, and the most excited that we’ve ever been. Having a record that we’re really really proud of, you know, that really just makes all of the touring and the long hours, it makes it so worth it.
STEREOGUM: That’s great. That’s how it should be, right?
PITTS: Yeah, if there’s one thing that going through a really awful situation teaches you, it allows you to sort of take an inventory of the people in your life and the things that you do, and try and really look at what’s important. I’m happy to say that everyone in our band, everyone who works for us … I’m just really happy with all that, I feel like all the relationships in my personal and professional life are really great as a result of me being forced to stop and taking a second look at everything.
Pythons is out now on Sire Records.