Sitting on the deck of Bristol’s Thekla – a grand converted boat and one of Bristol’s most famous venues – is Surfer Blood’s John Paul Pitts, talking with me before tonight’s show. As the rest of the band scour Bristol’s takeaway options and drink Red Stripe, I’m offered a warm welcome from JP as church bells ring away in the background. It’s a tranquil evening on board the Thekla and John is relaxed and positive as Surfer Blood’s tour in support of their recent release 1000 Palms sails on. It hasn’t been an easy journey for the band with professional and private disputes almost swallowing the Florida outfit, but the band’s new record signals an intake of fresh air and a huge step forward for Surfer Blood. 1000 Palms is an album warm with character and confidence with the 11 tracks buoyant with melody, conviction and, for the first time since their debut Astro Coast, clarity.
“It feels really good to make it to album number 3, in all honesty,” JP tells me as we start our conversation. “We’re at a point now where we have actual fans who are excited to listen to it. We’ve generally gotten a lot better as a band.” Mostly recorded at drummer Tyler Schwarz’ parent’s house, the band were afforded time and space to create the record they wanted, without a major label breathing down their neck. “I think after writing Pythons wherein we worked to format and focussed on choruses we wanted to write something more natural,” explains JP. “We got together in Portland for a week at a friend’s house and jammed every day. We said ‘we’re going to write 10 songs this week and then we’re going to record them’ and we weren’t thinking whether or not there was a single for radio or anything.” This more natural approach is evident in the sound of the album – the band’s best yet – with the band’s tumultuous times unpicked through agit, taut riffing, (‘Grand Inquisitor’) concise up-tempo pop (‘Island’, ‘Covered Wagons’) and acoustic strumming (‘NW Passage’, which JP calls “a real tearjerker”). “We’re in a good place and a place where we’re constantly writing and having new ideas,” he tells me. “It took us a long time to get to that rhythm but we’ve made it there. We’re in a great stride.” This latest album is the sound of a band growing into themselves, taking stock and finding the strength to look ahead – and on the evidence of 1000 Palms, the view’s pretty good.
When I heard ‘Grand Inquisitor’, the track that opens 1000 Palms, I was struck by the sense of something new from Surfer Blood; the song’s melody floats above a nagging lead and a choppy rhythm guitar line as the drums roll beneath, locking the song into place, followed by an ebullient second half that coasts the song out. ‘Grand Inquisitor’ is bound to turn a few heads as it represents a departure for Surfer Blood, and that’s exactly what JP hopes for. “We live at a time where there’s so much music being presented to us all the time and I wanted to give people a signpost that this album was different. It got a lot of different reactions but it was great to have people listen to it and just react in general. It’s harder and harder to get people to sit and listen to something the whole way through and we hope that ‘Grand Inquisitor’ will be a song people listen to and revisit.”
“‘Grand Inquisitor’ not only serves as an attention-grabbing album opener, but served as a source of confidence for the band and the direction of 1000 Palms as the song “was a huge first step – ‘Grand Inquisitor’ was an idea that I’d had in my head for a long time but seemed so impractical and implausible as the timing is so weird. I never thought I’d be able to write a good melody to it or teach it to my bandmates in a way they’d understand so when we played that successfully for the first time and it was a lot easier than I thought it would be, I felt really proud. Anyone who said we were just a shitty pop band will be very surprised when they hear that song.”
“There’s a certain satisfaction in knowing you can live through difficulty and keep going.”
This air of confidence is mirrored by the band’s live performance later that evening, with a strong Sunday evening crowd in attendance, cheering raucously and drinking like they don’t have work the next day. Surfer Blood are now a well-drilled, exciting live outfit and material from 1000 Palms is brought to electric life by the band – ‘Island’ fizzes along effortlessly and ‘Covered Wagons’ seems to physically warm the room with its lilting melodic bent sitting comfortably alongside the rest of the band’s catalogue. “Playing live is a chance to connect with the people who are listening to your music on the other side of the world, which is amazing, and why we’ve made a real effort to work in our live show,” JP tells me after the band’s soundcheck. “We didn’t start off as being a great live band. Like a lot of bands that are inexperienced and just started touring, we just turned our amps up to full and didn’t listen to each other. Now when we have a quiet part we’re more comfortable… playing live is no longer a case of giving the audience all volume, all of the time. We’re not a one-dynamic group anymore.” It’s one of the band’s quieter moments, the contemplative lift of ‘I Can’t Explain’, which ends the first part of the band’s set and sounds especially beautiful as the stage lights dim appropriately. This is not, it seems, a moment the band would have allowed themselves on previous tours, but the freedom that leaving a major label and recording an album on their own terms has imbued them with a sense of self and a revitalised presence.
Seeing the band perform after the hardships they’ve faced over the past few years – major label disputes, the illness of founding member Thomas Fekete (“Tom’s the best we’ve seen him in a while, he’s a real lifer and he’s going to be doing some home recordings soon which will no doubt be amazing”) – is a source of uplift, but how have they found it within themselves to keep going? “As much as dealing with hardships and being on the road and being homesick can be difficult, working on songs and tweaking parts and recording them and listening to them back is rewarding and the best feeling in the world. I’m so happy and grateful that I get to do that and focus my energy on that. There’s something amazing about hearing music you’ve created,” he beams. “All the stuff that’s happened to us in the past few years has been difficult and there’s been times where I’ve thought about giving up but I really don’t think now’s a good time – especially as we’re just getting good. 1000 Palms feels triumphant and there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing you can live through difficulty and keep going.”
As the church bells slow to a halt and our interview concludes, John Paul Potts looks out towards the harbourside and tells me that the band have “learned that success isn’t everything. I’ve grown up about ten years in the last five – whenever my parents see me they’re like ‘oh, you’re actually on top of your shit for the first time in your life’. It’s a good feeling to have made it here.” Not every band is given another chance – or even the luxury to make it to a third album – but Surfer Blood are clearly relishing this opportunity to create and maintain momentum. Let’s hope they can keep swimming.
Words by Joseph Fuller