“People Can Really Rise to the Occasion in a Time of Crisis”
Interview curated by Robert D. Patrick
Ethereal guitar jangling and surfboard wax. The sun baked, saltwater ebb of Surfer Blood’s melodic ballads cascade over the band’s newest LP, 1000 Palms. Frontman John Paul Pitts emits haunting but carbonated sonnets, this time on the group’s third full-length endeavor. From playing well-respected festivals such as Coachella to earning the coveted “Best New Music” moniker from Pitchfork, Surfer Blood has been on a board-biting tear so far in their relatively young career. Cinema Spartan managed to catch up with John Paul Pitts, before Surfer Blood takes to The Irenic’s stage this Saturday, to talk about lyricism, film, and how the reemergence of vinyl has helped the venerability of bands.
ROBERT PATRICK: Many of the songs on “1000 Palms” have the duality of being both tragic and comforting. The airy beach lilt is present but so is the sadness. Where does that come from?
JOHN PAUL PITTS: I’m a sucker for sad songs. As dedicated as I am to writing catchy pop music, all of my favorite artists have something melancholy lurking beneath the surface of their music. I know it’s cliche, but to me, that’s what makes it memorable, the emotion behind a song, and I guess I’d like to be remembered.
In your opinion, what makes the perfect opening line to a song, and what is your process of creating them?
I don’t really have a process for opening lines, but I do love it when they turn out well. I guess an opening line has to be interesting enough to get your attention, and ambiguous enough that you feel compelled to hear where it’s going. I usually write lyrics in short bursts all at once, then I give them a day or two and come back to them. When they read just as well a day or two later it’s the best, when they don’t… Oh well.
What’s your take on the renaissance of vinyl, and do you think it’s helpful to musicians in a climate where physical media is seemingly less popular than ever?
Absolutely, it’s proof that music still means everything to some people. Spotify is great, and I discover new music all the time with it, but there’s nothing like owning a physical record. It sounds better, there’s no buffering or adds, and it shows a band you really care.
As a talented guitarist, Thomas Fekete has been with you since the band’s inception. Earlier this year he was diagnosed with sarcoma, a disease that subsequently spread to his spine and lungs. How has his condition altered the way you look at life? And, approaching from a different standpoint, how has the band navigated these unfamiliar waters during Thomas’ absence?
Thomas’ battle with cancer has put a lot in perspective for me, for one, how lucky I am to be (relatively) healthy. You put yourself through a lot on tour, and it affects everyone differently. I’m grateful for the opportunity to to do this with my life. Also, seeing Thom getting the help he needs from his wife, family, friends and Surfer Blood fans has shown me that people can be so gracious and generous. People can really rise to the occasion in a time of crisis.
A GoFundMe account, created with Thomas’ escalating medical expenses in mind, has raised over $85,000 in little over a month. What has been your reaction to this outpouring of support?
We’ve all been completely overwhelmed. We didn’t know what to expect, and the outpouring of love and support has exceeded our wildest expectations. Unfortunately, sarcomas are pretty uncommon and traditional cancer treatments aren’t as effective with this unique type of cancer. I know the money Thom has raised so far will go a long, long way to helping him get access to the not-so-traditional treatment he needs (that his insurance won’t cover).
We’re in an age where an aggressive online presence is practically mandatory. Do you find yourself exhausted or do you find yourself excited by people’s constant desire to hear from bands on Twitter and Facebook?
I have a bit of a mental block against social media, and have just begun to embrace it in the past year. Honestly, Thomas has a great social media presence and there was never really a need for me to be too active on the Surfer Blood Twitter/ Instagram/ etc. I guess I kind of thought “well, I’m too old. I don’t really understand any of this,” but interacting with your fans in real time is actually very cool.
Have you ever thought about scoring a film, and if so, what filmmaker would you want to work with?
I would love to score a film, I did a lot of that in high school actually. I went to an art magnet high school and took a bunch of film classes. I wasn’t the most ambitious filmmaker, but the teacher recognized I had a passion for music and put me to work scoring the other students’ film (and by scoring, I mean messing around with synths and guitar pedals). It was really fun taking someone’s abstract notion of what they were hearing and making it into something real. I’m not sure which filmmaker I’d work with, but it would be really fun to do a period piece and be super true to the music of the period. I listened to an NPR segment the other day with the guy who scored all of Boardwalk Empire and it sounded like so much fun.
What song, off of the new record, has been the most emotional for you to play live? Why that particular track?
“Point of No Return,” I wrote the lyrics about Thom’s childhood battle with cancer (Thom had cancer when he was seventeen). This was long before we heard about the sarcoma, so it feels kind of eerie singing those lyrics live.
Finally, in an interview earlier this year, you were quoted as saying your favorite place in San Diego was Jalapenos Mexican Food. Have you been officially converted to California burritos yet?
I’ve always been a fan, ever since the first time I came to San Diego in 2009. I live in LA now, and go to this place called “Tacos Via Carona,” please go there if you have the time. I eat it once a week like its a religion.