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2016 was a tough year for many of us. With the currently divisive state of society, how could it not be? For multitudes, struggle, as well as its counterpart resilience, were a big part of the year, too. For John Paul Pitts, the year included not only the loss of his bandmate, Thomas Fekete, but also his mother’s cancer diagnosis. Amid all this, his band, Surfer Blood, was planning to release a new album—laden not only with the endlessly catchy ballads they’re known for, but heavier material that allows us to connect with his personal experiences as if we’ve learned them as our own.
Since the band’s debut album, Astro Coast, Surfer Blood have been honing their production. For Snowdonia, the band’s latest, Pitts continued the trend from their first record and wrote and mixed the work entirely by himself. What remained was a sense of autonomy amid collaboration, where solitude reigned supreme. He used the skills he had gained over the years, and was able to create a multifaceted album that explores the depths of human emotion.▼ Article continues below ▼
Though the album has been crafted by Pitts once more, there’s a whole lot that’s different, too. Bassist Lindsey Mills provides guitar backings as well as strong vocals, and they experiment with an instrument that’s not-so-commonly played: “One of the cool things we discovered is one of those rotating cabinets, it’s called a Leslie cabinet – it’s used on an organ, and we were able to rig it up so you can play it through a guitar. It’s so cool because you can’t really tell if it’s a guitar or organ, because it sounds like a guitar, but it has a really warm quality of an organ.”
The album was polished and ready to go in May of 2016—however, this time period also coincided with one of great loss. One of Surfer Blood’s original bandmates, Thomas Fekete, lost his battle with cancer that same month. Pitts struggled with the dual loss of his dear friend as well as his musical counterpart.
“I think January 2, 2015, we got wind that Thomas was really sick and going on tour was just not an option for him. That was the first time we had known anyone who that happened to who wasn’t our grandparents or something. That was really crazy, and it was pretty obvious that he wasn’t going to be around to help us write songs anymore, that everything else in his life was now second to his fight. That was really hard on me. That took a lot of getting used to and was a huge adjustment. I considered walking away from the band. That was separate from when he actually passed in May and I just knew that I wasn’t ever going to see him again. That took a long time to process and that was a much different feeling: losing your bandmate and your writing partner, someone who introduced you to all the music and has come to influence you. Just realizing the seriousness of what he was going through, how scared and lonely he must have felt, influenced me a lot while I was writing songs, for sure,” Pitts notes with an air of sorrow.
In a way, Fekete helped Pitts realize he was a true musician. Pitts was in college, without a major, when Fekete urged him to go on tour and take these big risks that musicians do. And Pitts was ever so grateful when it paid off. “I think that if he had not pushed me or encouraged me to just put it all on the line for what I truly loved, then what was I doing? I didn’t have a major, I didn’t want to be there. But saying goodbye to all that and going on tour with a band seemed like something that happened to other people. Tom encouraged me to believe in myself more than I ever would have on my own.”
Along with having an intensely emotional year, Surfer Blood found themselves stretching their limits creatively while recording the new album. Though Pitts wants the tracks to sound “pretty and clever,” he also admits that this collection of songs is more personal than he had initially let on. And after his explanation, how could they not be? “I feel like most writers, even when they’re writing about other people, are writing about themselves or people they know. And that’s true for me; that’s always been true for me. A lot of this record is like an ode to getting older, because it is crazy how the years go by and you wake up one day and you’re 30, and you still feel connected to the person you were when you were 23 and started this band. But at the same time, so much has changed in your life. I guess this record sort of helps me sort that all out and take a look at it.”
With Snowdonia emerges a new sense of soul-searching for both Pitts and the rest of the bandmates in Surfer Blood. As for the future, Pitts wants to keep soaking up music like a sponge, and growing and learning from these listening sessions. In this, Pitts hopes to keep evolving Surfer Blood, too. “The one thing that stays constant is you’re always trying to make all your favorite records at once. And I guess the thing that really changes is you and the things you hear that you think are interesting, and maybe worth exploring. That’s constantly evolving.”
Surfer Blood is consistently asked for advice from teens coming to their shows. And they’re the perfect people to give that advice. When the band’s songs got someone through a tough time, Pitts recalls his own adolescence, when those groups for him were Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. Today, he’s hoping to pay it forward. For a band who homes in on the art of creating pretty and clever ballads, Surfer Blood sure knows how to find strength amid struggle, and pass it on to others who are enduring tumultuous times, too.
Standout Track: “Matter of Time”
Follow on Twitter @surferblood
Photos by Zak Bennett