Surfer Blood has had a history riddled over the years by incidents of misfortune, but 2016 was perhaps the band’s most challenging year yet: Co-founder/guitarist Thomas Feteke succumbed to an aggressive form of cancer he’d been diagnosed with the year before. While in the midst of dealing with this — as well as, unbelievably, his own mother’s cancer diagnosis at the same time — frontman John Paul Pitts channeled his spectrum of feelings into his very first group of completely self-written and produced songs.
If that weren’t enough for the singer to tackle, he also managed to reconstruct his band with a new lineup — Lindsey Mills (bass), Tyler Schwarz (drums), and Michael McCleary (guitar) — to help bring his work to life. The collection, which became the band’s fourth full-length album, Snowdonia, was released in early February and is being heralded as Surfer Blood’s most experimental release to date.
Pitts sat down to talk with Yahoo Music about the ups and downs of taking on new roles, his feelings about his loss, and a glimpse of where his mind is at for his next endeavor.
Yahoo Music: Snowdonia was written completely while Thomas was still alive, correct? Do you feel it is misplaced as a tribute record to him, which many people seem to view it as?
John Paul Pitts: That’s not what it was intended to be when I started writing it. I wouldn’t say that’s what I set out to write when I started writing the record, no. But I see no problem dedicating to him now that he is actually gone.
There was a lot going on in your life when you began work on the album. Where was your mind exactly when you first sat down to write?
Honestly, to me, writing this record was very much starting over. I had pretty much tapped my entire creative well — and had turned all my off-the-cuff ideas into songs at that point. So I felt it was really great opportunity to start a completely new batch of songs.
I have a hard time forcing myself to sit down and write, because unloading everything you have in your life that you think you have a handle on — and maybe you don’t — is sort of an astounding and sometimes aggravating experience. But I ended up writing 20-something songs for it. I had a few notebooks filled with false starts and rewrites and everything like that, and as a result I feel the creative well is up to a level again.
What was the most challenging aspect of taking on all the writing yourself?
After our first album came out, I was so scared of writing more songs. And all my favorite bands — Guided by Voices, Modest Mouse — the thing about them was they were fearless and they just put out whatever. There’s some weird, pretty inaccessible head-scratchers on those albums! I loved those. From maybe a pure songwriter’s standpoint they’re not the strongest songs, but.
I know this was something Tom was always pushing me to do. He thought the way to go was to always be writing, always be putting out stuff, not worrying about the inside baseball aspect of what’s going on with it. Just constantly being creative. He really was the one who always pushed me to finish songs, move on, and not over-think things, because I’m so guilty of that. I will do five different mixes of a song and they all sound pretty much the same to everyone else but me.
I think this record was a great accomplishment for me since I was able to push through, and save the editing for later, and save the rewrites for later and just try to be creative. Just write everything that I wanted to write.
Overcoming that urge must be more difficult than it sounds.
It’s hard to be that voice in your head. Usually Tom was the guy who was basically forcing me to do that — saying, “You’re done with this.” I feel I’ve gotten into a good routine with writing, where I’m constantly doing it and coming up with ideas, and not always writing for the next record — I’m just writing period. For me it’s a big step because it took me years to get there. I’m happy about that.
Do you have any idea what Tom would have thought of this album? Did he get to hear any of it?
You know, I would love to know, and I never got an opportunity. I sent him the demos for it, about two months before he passed, and I don’t think he ever got the chance to listen to them. But I hope he’d be impressed. Honestly, I always tried to impress him. He had such good taste in music. He was younger than me, but I did look up to him — because I would know about a third of the cool bands that I know about, because Tom introduced me to new records. So I really hope he would like it.
What was the most challenging aspect of starting again with a virtually new band lineup?
They’re great and have wonderful attitudes. They’ve worked so hard, and thrown themselves into this as if it were their own songs. The hardest part was originally finding a rhythm, trying to find out what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses were and sort of play to that. The first few tours we did were definitely a mess and we were really disorganized. We were always late. But now we have that under control.
You tackle quite a few heavy issues on this set. In addition to writing about your mother’s illness, you also work through your political differences with her. Did the divisive mood of last year’s election period color this album overall?
Yes. A little bit. I think I was definitely in a much more generally angst-y mood last year than I have been recently. With everyone else, I thought the election was going to be a walk in the park and we were going to be done with this terrible chapter in our history — and instead, it’s just beginning. I feel like my mom and me was a great example of how on an individual level people can work out their differences and find common ground, and can realize they want the same things. They just have completely different ideas of how to get there. I’m still mad about it, but I don’t like to run my mouth too much about it on the Internet, because there are plenty of people who are funnier than me at it (laughs). I really want to do everything I can to help people who are pushed around, and stand up for the rights of others. Because if there ever was a fight we were picking, this is it, you know?
So these are thoughts you have as you are working on your next album?
I definitely do now. Hopefully, I think a lot of other people, too. I think everything is going to be OK.
Many critics are saying this is your most experimental album. Do you agree?
I think it has some more experimental moments, for sure, especially with songwriting — imaginative structures, lyrics, interesting flows that are kind of unpredictable. That is what I was going for. I won’t lie — the verse/chorus pop song comes to me somewhat naturally, I’ve done it so many times that I know how to do that. And sometimes it just feels easy to finish something like that. So I was consciously avoiding that. But as far as recording goes, it’s actually kind of the purest recording we’ve done to date. There’s not a crazy amount of guitar overdub. There’s a lot of backing vocals, but that’s just because Mike and Lindsey are such good singers that I felt it would be a crime not to have as much of that as possible. It’s really not a lot of tracks, not a lot of overdubs, not a lot of nontraditional instruments.