The opening moments of Surfer Blood’s 1000 Palms sounds nothing like the work of the fresh-faced Florida boys who brought fuzz to surf pop back in 2010. “Time waits for no one” singer JP Pitts bellows over a menacing, building drum cadence. A minute in, however, the drums break, and a catchy guitar riff that Surfer Blood fans are all too familiar with appears. But the tension lingers. Not just through that song, but throughout the entire album.
Time certainly hasn’t waited for Surfer Blood. In 2010, riding the wave of surf pop and surf punk that appeared everywhere, the quartet became an “it” band. In the intervening five years, an arrest, a major-label signing and dropping, a sophomore failure and a cancer diagnosis happened. The boys are now men fighting for a music career, and there’s reason to be tense.
“It’s different from anything we’ve ever done,” Pitts says of that opening track, “Grand Inquisitor.” “It’s so over-the-top and dramatic, and we decided it had to be the first song. That song is all over the place weird.”
It is weird, and a departure from the beach-day anthems the band created with “Astro Coast.” But if there’s a time for Surfer Blood to be dramatic or weird, it’s now, because the group doesn’t have anything left to lose.
For starters, they are in the middle of a tour and one man down. A few weeks before they were going to hit the road, their guitarist — Thomas Fekete — got sidelined with cancer. He had a tumor removed from his abdomen last December and is currently home in Florida getting treatment for the disease (sarcoma), which has spread to his lungs and spine.
“He’s doing as well as he can,” Pitts says of Fekete’s condition. “It’s pretty rare and aggressive, but he’s raised a lot of money to hire a really good, dedicated doctor who is taking good care of him and making good choices.”
Pitts says Fekete is missed out on the road, especially his “really funny on-stage banter.” The band had to hire a friend of theirs from high school, Mike McCleary, who’s also “doing as well as he can.”
“He’s doing great for someone who was thrown in this head first,” Pitts says.
In addition to teaching a new guitarist songs while traversing the states, the bandmembers are back to their DIY roots. They were dropped from Warner Music, recorded their latest album in a living room, and have “completely scaled back” their operations — including the size of the venues they play and the help they have on the road. When Pythons, the band’s sophomore album, sunk, many assumed it was the end of Surfer Blood. But Pitts said they are better off on their own. Indeed, the lyrics of “Dorian,” in which the band harmonizes the phrase “We weren’t better off in paradise/All we ever got was parasites,” suggests the same.
“Having a to be a big-time pop act is really intimidating, and honestly, not something we’re great at,” Pitts says. “You make a lot of weird choices when you’re 22 years old and have $100 in your wallet and have been on the road on the six months.”
The band has taken the experience of “being through the major-label washing machine” and come out on the other side with 1000 Palms — the record the four-piece should have made years ago.
It’s full of the same catchy melodies and fist-pumping riffs that make you dream of sun and waves, but these aren’t boys chasing an eternal summer anymore. Every song is drenched in melancholy, every melody has an intricate counter-melody, and Pitt’s lyrics are filled with self-doubt in place of youthful arrogance.
“I’m a sucker for the tearjerkers,” Pitts says. “All my favorite songs are at least a little bit sad. I do consider us a pop band, and we’ve never really claimed to be anything else. But along the way, I would like people to feel something when they hear us.”
There are a lot of feelings to hear. “Feast Famine” has Pitts accepting the lack of control he has over himself, possibly harking back to his 2012 arrest for domestic battery (the charges were dropped). On the flip side, both “I Can’t Explain” and “Into Catacombs” are the most romantic songs the band has ever created, full of hope and unabashed declarations of love. There’s tons of reverb and cacophonic guitar work, but there are also elaborate melodies and vocal harmonies that instantly recall the original surf musicians, the Beach Boys.
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“It’s more of a mellow album, more emotional than what we’ve done in the past,” Pitts says. “I think it’s a good thing, and it was a good time to make a record like that.”
It’s the summer of 2015, Surfer Blood is back and here to stay.
Says Pitts: “We’re trying to make this work and make it a long-term thing.”
Surfer Blood will be bringing its new album and a donation jar for Fekete to Lost Lake Tuesday night.