INTERVIEW: Surfer Blood's John Paul Pitts Talks Upcoming Album, Dreams, and Changes
    • TUESDAY, JANUARY 24, 2017

    • Posted by: Mandi Dudek

    I was introduced to Surfer Blood's sound on Halloween in 2013 when they performed on a yacht on the San Diego Bay. I was surrounded by Miley Cyrus costumes (it was the year of that VMA performance, yup) but all I could think about was how Surfer Blood put on an energetic and infectiously happy performance on that tiny stage of the upper deck.

    Surfer Blood's fourth studio album, Snowdonia, will be dropping on February 3rd and it's the first group of songs that were written and produced by the band's frontman, John Paul Pitts. It's also the first record without Surfer Blood's co-founder and guitarist, Thomas Feteke, who passed away last year from cancer.

    I caught up Surfer Bloods frontman John Paul Pitts while he was in Oakland, where he lives with his girlfriend while she attends UC Berkeley. When I asked about the writing process, Pitts told me the album took about a year to write and upon finishing, he went straight to South Florida where band member, Michael McCleary, has a warehouse space. They locked themselves in there to "recorded a million guitar overdubs and backing vocal tracks" and recorded it on an old-school tape recorder to give it more of a blown-out, vintage sound. Pitts then took all of that home to Oakland and mixed it himself in his apartment. I picked Pitts' brain a little about the album process, the tour and how a certain something influenced the name of the record.

    MANDI DUDEK: What was it like writing and mixing this album by yourself?

    JOHN PAUL PITTS: I haven't mixed one of our records in while and I've learned so much stuff in the last 5 years. We made the last few records with a guy named Rob Schnaf, who's in LA, who's kind of like, an old legend. I feel like it was a good time for to go for it because I really do love all the details of production so I was excited. I really love the way it all turned out, too. It's exactly the way I envisioned it in my head so I'm really happy with how it came out.

    M: That's awesome, especially since you have a few new-ish members in the band. I'm sorry to hear about Thom Feteke passing as well. How are you guys adjusting and meshing together?

    JPP: Everyone we're with right now - Mikey and Lindsey [Mills] - have given their all new this band. We've played over 300 shows together by now and this is the first time we're recording with other characters. The thing about both of them is, they're both really gifted singers who don't mind practicing fun things - just the three of us - like acoustic guitars, which is something we really never did before. They were adding so many vocal layers to all of the new songs that I was like, maybe we could just add a million backing vocals to them. They were even taking the old songs and adding vocal harmonies to them that weren't even on the record just because they're both that good. It's been good working with them and it's been a great experience. I'm happy with the way this record turned out but Thom's creative energy is like nothing else. I've never met anyone who could play guitar like that. He was very much missed during the entire process.

    M: I'm sorry, that must be really hard. Can you explain how you got the name Snowdonia?

    JPP: Well, I was writing the title track a while back and originally, I was just coming up with guitar parts and instrumental things before I came up with any words at all. I had what I wanted the melody to sound like but didn't write the song to go with it. Then I had this dream where there was this woman named Snowdonia and I woke up and wrote all the lyrics for the record. I found out later that Snowdonia is actually a national park in Wales and didn't know that until I talked to a British journalist who told me about it.

    M: Whoa, that's insane. It's crazy that your mind even randomly came up with that dream.

    JPP: I have no idea. That's completely beyond me. I don't know but it's cool. That's where I got the idea for the cover art and the song.

    M: Has that happened before where you were inspired by a dream for one of your songs?

    JPP: [A dream has] influenced one of our songs called "Anchorage" and I wrote that song in 2009 and it's off our first record, Astro Coast. It was sort of a song that I was looking to for writing this record just because I consider it one of our bests and what I like about it is its not in any package you'd expect, you know? It's not dependent on a chorus that repeats over and over again or a guitar line. There's actually very few repeating sections but it still flows really well. I just don't really hear of many other bands doing that. So it was a huge influence on songs like "Six Flags."

    M: Do you have a song on the album that you're particularly attached to?

    JPP: I think the last song "Carrier Pigeon" is probably the most personal song on the record. It's also one of the sweeter songs. I don't think anyone has really heard that one, but I hope people listen to the record all the way through as a cohesive body of music to get to that song. There is a lot of strange stuff we've never done before - like a lot of character voices that we're doing and backup vocals. It's a justification of having some serious lyrics along with really playful guitar and backing vocals.

    M: So, do you think Snowdonia is your most experimental album?

    JPP: I wouldn't say that. I think we're always experimenting with things like guitars that don't really sound like guitars and stuff like that. I think this is one of the records where we exploited a lot of the weird parts and turned them up in the mix and made them the focal parts of the songs, rather than just cool textures. So it's hard for me to say but I do think it's really sonically unique in our catalog.

    M: Ok, that makes sense! What do you think was the most challenging part about making this album?

    JPP: I'd say the actual writing process was challenging. I always had the benefit of Thomas and Kevin there with me to help me finish ideas, connect parts or rethink a song so it's an overly loud guitar-driven song. Just things like that, you know? If I second-guessed myself, I would have someone there to offer an opinion to me that was, obviously, really respected. Writing something and not having anyone to bounce ideas off of was really challenging for me. But even with Thom and Kevin, I was still shy to share lyrics with them because it's so vulnerable. There aren't many people that I trust enough to be that way with. So I think writing without that was one of the things that I had trouble with.

    M: Oh, I totally get it. Being a music journalist and sharing my pieces with the Internet is a scary thing sometimes. Because it does make you very vulnerable and shy - especially when someone has such easy access to your words.

    JPP: The thing is, you really don't want to make a mistake but there aren't really any mistakes. I just have to remember that.

    M: Exactly. Do you go anywhere - like the beach or a certain spot - to get inspired to write or do words just come to you randomly?

    JPP: I try to write in the morning and what I try to do is write as many lyrics to a song as possible and narrow them down later. Like I said, I am pretty self-conscious but I can be very good about turning that off for limited periods of time and letting that stream of consciousness flow. Then I'll figure out later which parts I want to keep and which parts I don't. That's my process and I honestly love writing in my apartment because I have a nice view where I can see the Bay Bridge from my window.

    M: That's super nice! You must be excited for the tour, too. Is there a city you're excited to visit during this tour?

    JPP: Well, we're starting out on the west coast this time. We actually start in Florida but then we'll be out here for awhile. I really love touring on the west coast, it's a lot of fun. Right after that were going to Europe.

    M: Oh, nice!

    JPP: Yeah, I'm just excited to do it all. It's been a few years since we were on a tour this extensive. I'm looking forward to playing a bunch of shows.

    M: Totally. Do you guys have anything special you do before going on stage? I interviewed a band once that lit a bunch of candles and incense to meditate then immediately went into a mosh-pit/pump-it-up huddle right after so I know there's some crazy ones out there.

    JPP: [laughs] Not so much. Sometimes we sing together before going on stage. We'll drink some coffee before we go on stage or do some breathing exercises. But nothing too crazy.

    M: Have performed any of the songs from Snowdonia live yet and if so, how are they transcribing?

    JPP: We did. We did a tour in November with Guided By Voices, which is a pretty legendary band who were all super fans of. So that one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that we will always remember. We were trying out the new songs that are on the Internet now and they seem to be going really well! "Matter Of Time" was a very immediate song and the audience responded really well to that and the other one, "Six Flags" might have to grow on some people a little bit. But it's a fun one for us to play, that's for sure.

    M: That's great! I love both of those songs and I'm really looking forward to hearing the album. One last question, which artists or bands are you super into at the moment?

    JPP: For newer music, I really like the Car Seat Headrest album that came out last year. Mitski from Brooklyn is really good. I started liking this guy recently called Tony Molina, too. He's from Oakland and he's really not that well-known but his songs are amazing.

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