Eighteen months ago, we began a profile of South Florida indie rockers Surfer Blood by writing, “By all measures, [they] should not still be standing.” They signed with Warner Bros. Records, and were dropped mere months after the much-hyped release of 2013 sophomore album Pythons. John Paul Pitts, Thomas Fekete, Kevin Williams, and Tyler Schwarz began publicly voicing their dissatisfaction with the over-produced recording of that follow-up to Astro Coast, Surfer Blood’s 2010 breakout debut. Speculation swirled around Pitts’ 2012 arrest on charges of domestic battery, which were eventually dropped in a plea and pass agreement.
Many at the time assumed that such a low point would be the final nail in Surfer Blood’s coffin. As drummer Schwarz told us, “Shit got messy.” But the band persevered, returning to its home-recorded roots, reassuming control of day-to-day matters, and escaping the spotlight with an extended West Coast sabbatical. All of that culminated in a rousing revitalization on new album 1000 Palms, which dropped last month to near-universal acclaim for its renewed focus on the 200 grit guitars, dynamic time changes, and dreamy, fuzz-driven melodies that first made the band famous in 2009.
The release of 1000 Palms, though, came a month after news that lead guitarist Thomas Fekete, who beat cancer as a teenager, had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of sarcoma. Within months, the new malignancy had spread from his abdomen to his lungs and spine, requiring experimental surgeries that racked up stratospheric medical bills. Benefit shows and online crowdfunding efforts raised nearly $100,000 for the newly married Fekete. On May 24, the band’s van was broken into near Chicago. The thieves didn’t make off with any critical equipment, but they did swipe a handful of guitar pedals and other personal items — along with a few hundred dollars in cash donations collected for Fekete at the first few shows of the band’s headlining tour.
Which would make any mortal ask: Just how far Surfer Blood can bend before they break? “At this point, it’s pretty much ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’,” frontman Pitts tells Folio Weekly. “But we’re good. Our personal relationships are stronger than they’ve ever been. We’re not just friends — we fully understand each other, including each other’s shortcomings. That makes for better songs and better shows.”
Pitts admits that Fekete’s absence initially knocked the band for a loop before they quickly found a way to overcome yet another obstacle. “Thomas has a positive, go-anywhere, play-any-show attitude that was a big part of the reason we made it out of Florida in the first place,” Pitts says. “But thank God our friend Mikey [McLeary], who’s a great musician, stepped in with an amazing attitude and an ability to learn really fast.”
Part of that seamless transition came from the band’s immense confidence in its new material, which got the usual comparisons to Pavement and Weezer while also veering in more nuanced directions. “It was refreshing to go to back to recording in the dark, on our own time, with our own equipment — the way it was when no one in the world knew who we were,” Pitts says. “That process was obviously much less stressful than the recording of Python. As a result, I think the songs on [1000 Palms] are freer and explore more territory.”
That mature attitude is evident on deep album cuts like the exuberant “Into Catacombs” (“I was swimming against the years/But now moving forward feels better”) and the Zen-like “NW Passage” (“Build it up then burn it away/And I’ll be there to see the day”), both of which highlight survival and determination. “Wearing yourself thin and burning yourself out is not good for anyone in the long run,” Pitts says. Laughing, he adds, “Pulling stunts like signing to Warner Brothers is probably not good for you in the long run, either.”
Which is why Surfer Blood might be happier now than ever — even counting those festival-headlining, Pixies-opening days in the early 2010s. “That’s the thing with our band,” Pitts says. “When we were treated like children, we acted like children. For a while, we had a glorified babysitter working for us — that doesn’t feel good as a 28-year-old man. Now, we drive ourselves, we sell our own merch, we handle all the business … There’s a solace or satisfaction in taking care of your own stuff.”
Plus, Pitts adds, six years on, Surfer Blood is starting to see a seismic shift in its live audiences — particularly in Florida, whose crowds he describes as “really supportive and proud that you come from the same place” they do. “One great thing I’ve noticed at the last few shows is people coming up and saying, ‘Hey, I saw you here two years ago, and I bought the record and loved it.’ It feels good to be a band that has a loyal fanbase — not a gigantic one. That’s all you can really ask for.”