Trial By Fire

By all measures, Surfer Blood should not 
 still be standing. The South Florida quartet
 blew up in 2009 on the strength of its first single, “Swim,” which garnered lavish praise and coveted “buzz band” status at that year’s CMJ Music Marathon conference in New York City. And even though Astro Coast, the hard-rocking yet melodically inclined debut full-length album that followed in January 2010, was recorded in lead singer John Paul Pitts’ Boca Raton dorm room, it more than lived up to the potential of “Swim.”

Soon Pitts, guitarist Thomas Fekete, bassist Kevin Williams and drummer Tyler Schwarz were earning comparisons to alt-rock royalty like Weezer and Pavement, touring with legends like The Pixies, and even headlining major international festivals like ATP, SXSW and Primavera. Four-song EP Tarot Classics, released in late 2011 on the band’s original Kanine Records label, and sophomore follow-up Pythons, released in mid-2013 after the band struck a deal with Warner Brothers Records, both wowed critics and fans alike.

The success surrounding the albums only deepened a surprising sense that Surfer Blood was here to stay, even as other beach-themed indie rock bands were tossed off the micro-genre’s short-lived wave. (It doesn’t hurt that members of the band, particularly Schwarz and Fekete, actually surf.) But Pythons, an otherwise excellent album that mixes grungy hooks, power-pop melodies and an impressively mature sense of creativity, entered the world in the shadow of Pitts’ 2012 arrest on charges of domestic battery.

As Pitchfork writer Paul Thompson wrote in a review of Pythons, “My first response, like that of many others, was a swift and decisive, ‘Fuck you.’ ” To this day, details of the incident in question remain murky, with Pitts and the woman both abstaining from discussing it. Pitts eventually agreed to a plea arrangement that dropped all charges, and in the few interviews he’s given on the subject, he’s vociferously maintained that he’s inherently nonviolent — even claiming that he’s never hit anyone in his life.

Still, the dark cloud of Pitts’ arrest significantly affected the album’s reception. Not a single review shied away from dissecting song titles like “I Was Wrong” and lyrics like “damning allegations have come to light,” and Warner Brothers unceremoniously dropped the band in late 2013. Which is where we return to the notion that Surfer Blood should be long gone, wallowing in the footnotes of indie rock oblivion.

Yet here they are in 2014, back on Kanine Records, filming homemade videos for buoyant yet emotionally tangled tracks like “Say Yes to Me,” preparing rough demos from the recording of Pythons for an April release, even working on a new album.

“Shit got messy, and we definitely had some problems,” Schwarz says. “But I think our solidarity as a band is showing.”

Chalk part of it up to Pitts moving away from Florida to Los Angeles while the rest of the band remained in and around West Palm Beach. Schwarz says that the newfound geographic distance has actually helped: “We got new management, we’re doing group calls every week, and we’re all coming up with recorded parts of songs, then emailing them back and forth to each other. That’s something new for us — especially because we’re quite slow when it comes to writing music.”

Surfer Blood spent three weeks in January gigging around the Pacific Northwest; listening to Bruce Springsteen, Fugazi, early My Blood Valentine, Violent Femmes, T. Rex, The Clientele, The Microphones and Krautrock bands like Can; and writing new songs in their downtime. But true to their recent tilt back toward grassroots form, they plan to record the material at home in Florida in March after testing it live in tiny venues up and down the East Coast.

“We want to sonically surprise people,” Schwarz says. “The most punk, heavy-sounding song we’ve ever written is probably going to be the first song on the new record. Playing stuff like that to see what crowds like is fun. And I think they’ve been kind of shocked. Everyone that’s heard our new demos — even my mom — says it doesn’t sound like us. We’re definitely getting out of our comfort zone.”

Given the euphoric peaks and despondent valleys the band has experienced since “Swim” first left Pitts’ dorm room, turning Surfer Blood’s world upside down in 2009, a little experimentation is a good thing.

“We’ve finally found the right fit,” Schwarz says. “We’ve been together now for almost five years, so I think this is it for us. We want to make it 10 years — even 15. We want longevity. As long as a couple people keep coming to our shows.” o