Analogue Music | Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood

By Matt Conner

John Paul Pitts describes 'Carefree Theater' as a "back to basics" release.

For Surfer Blood, the grand experimentation of Snowdonia is now in the rearview mirror. Ten years after their acclaimed debut Astro Coast, Pitts and company were ready to return to a simpler approach, to keep the melodies short and sweet and follow the creative instincts without overthinking things too much. The aforementioned musical theme wasn't just true for Carefree Theater; Pitts, as an artist, needed a return to center as well.

We recently sat down with Pitts to hear more about the band's journey over the last 10 years and the lessons learned along the way. It's been a joyous and painful decade but the band's come out more assured of their approach and Carefree Theater should remind everyone of just how good Surfer Blood is at crafting such easy rock melodies.

Analogue: The ten year anniversary of Astro Coast was earlier this year which seems like a cool moment. It also sounds like quite the journey since then. How much have you thought about hitting the decade mark?

John Paul Pitts: I'm a pretty nostalgic person to begin with, so the 10-year mark is a milestone. That's a long time, you know? There have obviously been some hiccups along the way. We lost a band member tragically and all. I tend to reminisce, but yeah, I've been doing that more than I typically tend to do and my baseline level for reminiscing is pretty high. [Laughs]

Analogue: Even from the outside, it's easy to see the some exhilarating joys and some deeper sorrows. Are you surprised you have the drive or energy to want to do all of this 10 years later or is that not at all surprising?

John Paul: Honestly it's not surprising at all. I know from an outsider's perspective it seems like, 'Why would you keep throwing yourself into this washing machine again and again?' but I don't really know what else I would do. [Laughs] I started relying on a creative outlet really early on in life, and now it's such a part of who I am that it's something I'm going to do regardless of any extenuating circumstances. So this is me. This is what I do. I process my feelings and put them into songs and share them with anyone who will listen to them. That's the long and short of it and I happen to love touring and people and meeting fans and all that kind of stuff, too, so it's a perfect storm I can't quit.

Cover Surfer Blood Carefree Theatre
Cover Surfer Blood Carefree Theatre

Analogue: When it comes to Carefree Theater, how organic is the collection of the material here?

John Paul: Well, When you're making a record, you focus your energy or you're trying to find this central sort of focus. In general, I'm constantly writing music, so it just seems like this aimless thing, but when you start focusing that energy and pull it all together and find that central idea that becomes a record, it's exciting and stressful at the same time. But that's how things generally come together.

I definitely knew what I didn't want to do when I started writing this record. On Snowdonia, the record we did before, I took everything in a really left field direction. Things were very technical. The songs were very long and very abstract. While I was able to tap into that part of my creativity, I realized playing them live that, 'Oh, this is probably not what I want to do forever.' So for this one, I wanted this record to be our Alien Lanes, with these short, tight songs. Just a little bit more direct than what I'd been doing before, if that makes sense. The single is 2:45, which is something I would have scoffed at a few years ago, the idea having a single that's less than three minutes, but I think it works.

Analogue: Are you a big Guided By Voices fan, by the way?

John Paul: Yeah, one of my biggest influences. I was a big fan of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes in high school. I was very lucky to have a friend who rode the bus with me who was a little older and he had really mature tastes. He was into Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. I was 14-years-old when he introduced me to all this music. It felt like everyone in Florida was in a metal band or a "hardcore" band at the time and he was like, 'Skip all of this. It doesn't even need to be a chapter in your life.'

I heard You're Living All Over Me by Dinosaur Jr. and Bee Thousand and I thought, 'This is the kind of music I want to write because it allows you the space to be sensitive and melodic in ways that I was kind of embarrassed of, that was my natural instinct to write these sweet, pretty songs. In high school, it seemed like a tough thing to admit, but GBV and Dinosaur Jr. walked me through that journey in a cool way.

"You couldn't look up "how to mix rock music" like you can now, so I was just asking anybody who was around, 'Does this sound normal?' That was how the entire process worked."

Analogue: How old were you when you first started in all of this? 21?

John Paul: Yeah, I think I was 22 when I was making Astro Coast in my college apartment. Those are fantastic memories. I remember Tyler [Schwarz] would come over and give me moral support as I was trying to mix these songs. I did not know what I was doing. It was kind of the beta internet era. You couldn't look up "how to mix rock music" like you can now, so I was just asking anybody who was around, 'Does this sound normal?' That was how the entire process worked. [Laughs]

Analogue: How hard do you work now to maintain the same sort of innocence that you had in those early days? I talk to so many artists and many of them reference this yearning to protect that part of themselves that you're recalling.

John Paul: You're right. There is a preoccupation with maintaining that innocence or naivete when you think about it. In a lot of ways, the more you learn, the more burdensome it is. The more microphones you put on the drum set, the more choices you have to make about which ones not to use, you know? It's so easy to become jaded in this world of music and I completely understand why you exalt this sense of innocence.

On a scale of 1-10, I'd say I'm a solid six or seven. The first thing you learn is that you don't know anything, no matter how much you learn. The more you learn, the more willing you are to recognize that you're still that same guy feeling your way around in the dark in his weird apartment. It doesn't make sense to me but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

Analogue: Do you still feel the same when you find the muse?

John Paul: It's both the worst and the best feeling in the world. The worst feeling in the world is staring at a blank legal pad with a guitar next to you and you realize you've got nothing. [Laughs] The best feeling is when everything connects, when you write that one part that makes a song completely come together. You're playing it back listening to it and you're like, 'Yeah, that's completely what I was trying to do and somehow it came together.' There's nothing better than taking an idea and making it into a song and then making that song better and then recording it and then playing it live and you're proud of it. It's just a good feeling when everything falls into place and you've brought something new into the world.

Analogue: You referenced the experimental nature of your last album. Was that vital for your own growth as an artist?

John Paul: What I was hearing was that people considered Surfer Blood as a pop punk band or something and I'm like, 'Wait, that's never been my idea of what a band is supposed to be.' Honestly, some people write within the same formula their entire careers and that works for them. I'm too easily distracted and get bored too easily to do that, so it was definitely something I needed to do for myself at a time. I'm a very selfish musician. Everything I do is good for me, you know? [Laughs] I scratched that itch. But on this record, this felt like a back-to-basics sort of time and place.

Analogue: You said you heard something that Surfer Blood wasn't meant to be. So what would you say is the positive side of that? What was Surfer Blood meant to be?

John Paul: [Pause] Sorry, this will take me a second to think of.

Analogue: No worries and if there's not an answer, that's fine. We often know what we don't want to be and that's as much of a definition as anything else.

John Paul: I wanted to do something a lot like Sonic Youth, where you take these disparate elements and put them together in a way... someone described me early on as "what if Pavement was fronted by Brian Wilson and he was allowed to record as many harmonies as he wanted." I was like, 'Yeah, you pretty much nailed it. That was the vision.' [Laughs] It's crazy that somebody else had to tell me what I wanted, but sometimes life works out like that. It was supposed to be lots of very, very melodic vocals over really nasty guitars. That was the idea. Sometimes you'll miss the mark, but that's the throughline in everything we've done.

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