Bittersweet ride

Surfer Blood frontman reflects on band’s ups and downs

Surfer Blood (from left): guitarist Michael McCleary, drummer Tyler Schwarz, bassist Lindsey Mills, vocalist/guitarist John Paul Pitts.

Surfer Blood (from left): guitarist Michael McCleary, drummer Tyler Schwarz, bassist Lindsey Mills, vocalist/guitarist John Paul Pitts.

Photo by Victoria Sanders

Surfer Blood performs Monday, Jan. 22, 8:30 p.m., at Duffy’s Tavern. Terry Malts and Bad Mana open.
Cost: $8
Duffy’s Tavern 339 Main St.

As a high school junior, John Paul Pitts used to stand around in the parking lot of his south Florida school and smoke cigarettes. He thought he was pretty cool, so he was surprised when a freshman girl—Lindsey Mills—walked up and asked if his band could play at her birthday party.

Pitts recalls saying “yes” because it was disarming to be so boldly approached by a ninth-grader.

“You know, two years is a big age gap in high school,” Pitts said. “But she’s always been like that; she’s never been afraid to ask.”

The two became friends and Mills ended up joining Pitts’ band years later. But in the meantime, his indie-pop band Surfer Blood released its debut single, “Swim,” in 2009 and an album, Astro Coast, the following year. The group got caught up in an intense wave of buzz, suddenly thrown onto stages at major music festivals and cast by critics as indie tastemakers. It was a lot to handle for the band’s young members who, by Pitts’ recollection, hadn’t mastered anything more subtle than bashing away at guitars with their amps turned up to 11.

It’s possible that Pitts—who spoke to the CN&R ahead of Surfer Blood’s show at Duffy’s Tavern on Jan. 22—was underselling how good the band has been from the beginning. It’s always cleverly used the pop format to explore interesting territory, and Pitts, in particular, has a track record of producing curious two-part songs that end nowhere near where they started. For example, “Anchorage,” a 6 1/2-minute epic on Astro Coast, is split almost directly in half, with a head-nodding guitar riff kicking in around the 3-minute mark and looping through to the end. It’s been a winning formula throughout the band’s history.

Surfer Blood experienced a dizzying rise, but the hype slowly leveled off—and then things got rocky. In 2015, just prior to the release of the band’s third album, 1,000 Palms, guitarist and founding member Thomas Fekete quit after being diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that had spread to his lungs and spine.

“I was feeling pretty dejected, honestly,” Pitts said. “Tom was still alive and fighting, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to come back anytime soon. It occurred to me to get a full-time job and do the band as a weekend warrior kind of thing. Maybe I would have done that, but Tom got sick at this time when we’d booked 60 or 70 shows all over the country. It felt like the pieces were scattered everywhere and I had to run around picking them up.”

With little choice but to keep going, the band picked up guitarist Mike McCleary—whom they knew from gigging around south Florida—and he learned about 35 songs in a week to play on the tour. Another blow came later, however, when longtime bassist Kevin Williams told Pitts he was done with the band, too. Pitts immediately thought of recruiting an old high school friend to play bass, but Fekete had been one step ahead of him.

“Lindsey [Mills] was also really good friends with Tom, who was really sick but must have played matchmaker,” Pitts said. And Mills wasn’t shy about it: “She called me a few days later and straight-up asked to be in the band.”

As the group’s bassist, Mills’ backup vocals lend rich, warm undertones to songs on the new album, Snowdonia, released in February 2017. She and McCleary are both light-hearted people, Pitts said, and they helped steer him away from writing what could have been a somber record, as the first following Fekete’s death in 2016. Still, there are emotionally heavy moments throughout Snowdonia.

“Bittersweet is always what I’ve always kind of gone for in my songwriting,” Pitts said, “and this is no exception.”