When it comes to Surfer Blood, a certain something must first be addressed: this is the first time the Floridians have washed up on British shores since frontman John Paul Pitts was arrested in Lake Worth on March 31st of last year, on suspicion of domestic battery. He has since been acquitted of any significant wrongdoing, and the case has been dropped although repercussions of the fallout persist which, on the week of release of their sophomore recording, Pythons, have cast some conceivably ugly shadows over their first full-length in three long years. And as such, it’s not only I, Pitts and abiding bassist Kevin Williams that are sat perspiring profusely in the sunless dungeons of London’s Sebright Arms, for aside from the rowdy barman to have opted for possibly the most inopportune moment to restock his supply of ice there’s a rather substantial, if nonliteral elephant here with us as well. “It is frustrating to see people getting too much biography mixed up in the music, and truth be known it’s been a rough year” Pitts later concedes quite inescapably in a rare moment of candid sincerity. For otherwise, he blusters through around five words a second so as to gas over any potential undoing. Williams meanwhile, hauled down here as an ostensible foil although ultimately a spindly henchman of sorts, is nigh on silent throughout as he only very intermittently punctuates what sound innately shifty stock answers for the most part.
For Pitts is heavily guarded, if understandably so, and for all the pressure inherently put upon him, it’s astonishing he cracks so infrequently throughout our twenty-odd minutes in one another’s company. The outward impression he emanates is not one of violent conduct, although his unnaturally twitchy disposition lends itself to the perception of there being truths as yet left untold in this gruesome saga encompassing everything from tribunals to Twitter feuds. And he’s palpably apprehensive as such, having only fielded a handful of interviews since the four-piece flew over: “We’ve done a couple – we like to stay busy, especially now that our record’s been out for all of twenty-four hours!” He brings himself to smirk, although even then it’s somewhat forced. And it’s when quizzed on the “damning allegations” cited during Pythons earworm Squeezing Blood that he recedes further into his shell, comfortably shielded by those stock ripostes aforesaid. Indeed, it’s all quite a lot like “squeezing the blood from a stone.”
“Well, I mean we’re a band with a history, and one thing that we’ve had ever since the beginning is a pretty strong sense of identity. And we had that before anyone had really heard of us – back before people up in New York were even writing about us!” For an inquisition unequivocally direct as the missive that is said song – during the chorus of which Pitts chimes of his desire to “wash away the ashes from today” – it’s an evasive, if anticipated answer. And it’s thus that he continues to snake his way around the interrogation: “We’d already been a band for a while, and we’d played a lot of shows – albeit to almost no one. But in some ways, it’s been a blessing in disguise us coming from Florida, ’cause we had a chance to play all these shows and grow as a band long before we were thrown into this new world which none of us were really expecting.”
It’s a world which has, needless to say, changed quite irremediably for many – Pitts of course included. And it feels suitable that summer should have finally arrived this afternoon, bringing with it a feel of new beginnings, just as the statesiders at long last slip back into the pulsating, streamlined lifestyle of London. They too have recently sought sun-dappled solace, having relocated to California for the recording of their latest: doubtless a prize opportunity to evade the watchful glare of a public only too aware of Pitts’ freshly gashed track record, the ephemeral migration brought effects of a musical, as well as a personal persuasion. “It was nice being in California, and it was different being in a proper studio. To be there with a producer was a completely new thing for us, but I think we were ready to embrace the bigger sound; to enter into a studio space with a limited amount of time.”
His words dry, his desire to revert to the primary reason for which we know of Pitts in the first place is admirable and arouses the question as to whether a supposedly bad person can create good artwork that remains culturally acceptable to those that access it so. “Well, we write music for ourselves first and foremost. That said, obviously there are other things going on right now that are comparable, and we of course listen to a lot of new music which will affect the writing no matter how much you try for it not to. We always strive not to resign ourselves to trend, but then again sometimes I think maybe we should!”
Whether or not Pitts should wish for any more limelight to be thrown over his plight is questionable at best, and there’s something apposite about our encounter taking place in this sweltering subterraneous pit of sorts for even on a scorching June afternoon Pitts is, to all intents and purposes, if not out of mind then out of sight of the general public. He likens it a “cave” and he’s not far wrong, only strengthening the sense of him having been purposefully sequestered in the depths. “I like it down here” he contends somewhat listlessly, before returning to type: “It just feels like we happened upon our sound really naturally – we never had a conversation about this record being more epic, or darker than its predecessor. We avoid those dialogues maybe because they’re uncomfortable to have, or maybe because they’re not necessarily productive…”
It’s an enduring aesthetic which has, until recently, stood them in good stead as before the band last year bled into choppier waters, there was a real dearth of criticism surrounding their recorded outpour. And just as those “damning allegations” have radically altered many a perception not only of Pitts, but also of the band as a pooled force to be reckoned with, against or what have you, they’ve so too hooked the aptly selachian, and pernicious attentions of the press. Pitts, however, keeps his distance: “We never really pay too much attention to it, and I’ve always believed we’re better off for that. I wouldn’t even allow myself to read it for years, just because I don’t want to be reacting to things – I want to be creating things.” Fine, but it’s the bloke and not the band I’m desperately attempting to get at here. And finally he caves in: “I feel terrible about everything – I really do. But I think that there’s so much more to these songs than whatever was going on at that time. That’s a separate world for me, and music belongs to a totally different pocket of my brain.”
And similar to the media witch hunt against which the band are still swimming, I wonder as to whether the growing disconnect between the band that you hear on record, and the band that you see on stages, computer screens and so on is another contemporary reality to have recently hit a little harder. The aura of eminence – or perhaps merely rather the negotiating of the pitfalls encrusting the cult of celebrity – must now be of paramount importance? “Absolutely”, Pitts reassures with a rarely authoritative air. “And especially so when people comment on the supposed darkening of the lyrical content on this latest record. But the real reason as to why that is resides in my desire to grow as a lyricist. I mean ultimately, whereas before our lyrics would basically always be something of an afterthought knocked up in an hour or two in order to finish off a song, this was the first time that I’d really dug into myself, and I guess that’s why the results may be deemed to be darker, or more emotive. But I think that’s what we were going for all along…”
Maybe a little contrarily, I reference Say Yes To Me – perhaps their brightest ditty to date. “Honestly? That song was intended to be formulaic. We’d just gotten off tour with the Pixies, and I liked how they did a lot of stuff in an odd metre with strange emphases in their rhythms. OutKast’s Hey Ya was another exemplar of that and although a huge hit single, I absolutely loved it. So I wanted to try and recreate that instead of sticking to the tried and tested formula but it’s funny, ’cause the working title for that song for a long time was Shitty Bailout before I kinda coloured it in with the lyrics and came up with a real title!”
Though as have I even above, there’s a real tendency these days to take whatever we hear, or indeed read of – whatever and wherever it may be, and whoever it may be said or scribed by – at face value, or as unequivocal gospel. It’s an unedifying modern-day wont, and it’s for this that Surfer Blood have struggled at times to keep their heads above water. With the media baying for your gore and your target audience only too willing to lap it up, you find yourself in a pretty sticky predicament. And it’s as such that, at their Rough Trade East instore the previous evening – an itself problematic scenario, in that you’re there purportedly attempting to sell some records with people continually toing and froing – there was plenty of effusive thanking going on, all of which appeared to be strikingly genuine. Another element they’ve felt compelled to reconsider of late?
“We’ve always been grateful for our fans, and we therefore attempt to make ourselves as accessible as possible. That’s obviously not feasible 100% of the time, because I mean really, when you’re out on the road, you’re fatigued or in any other kind of mood. But I think it’s really important for bands to do that. At the end of the day, they came out to see you: they got on the tube; they left work early – they did whatever. And if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to be here anyway. It works both ways – we have to thank them in the same way that they say thank you to us.”
And so it’s not born of a deep-seated need to appease, and prove to people that it is indeed the musical aspect that’s most important after all?
“Yeah, I mean there’s a side of me which is subconsciously thinking that, I’m sure. I’ve always tried to be really nice to people, but I definitely do appreciate that more now…”
Though the effect on the band at large hasn’t been quite so revolutionary in light of the revelations of these past fourteen months or so: “Honestly? We haven’t really talked about it that much because at this point, what else are we gonna do? This is who we are; this is what we’ve been doing for years, and we’re now pretty damn good at doing it. So [irrespective of] whether we sell a hundred or a million records, it’s not as if I’m gonna stop doing this – that’s not gonna happen. I think the key is to just keep at it – that’s the only way for us, really.”
Having overcome various trials and tribulations of late and with the notorious ‘difficult second album’ syndrome thus intensified somewhat, if in turn more or less successfully manoeuvred, the way now looks a little brighter. And so with some of the gloomy pall lifted and the conditions for Surfer Blood significantly improved upon, the fish may once again begin to bite…
Pythons is out now on Sire Records.