Surfer Blood: J.P. Pitts (second from left). Photo by Ian Witlen.
“In Palm Beach County, there are more rehab centers per capita than anywhere else in the country,” says J.P. Pitts, founder and frontman for white-hot indie kids Surfer Blood. This is one of many phone interviews he's got scheduled today, the band's day off, as they check into their hotel in Austin, Texas.
Tomorrow, the hard-working group of early-20-somethings from South Florida will make their South by Southwest debut. But right now, Pitts is explaining the inspiration for the title of one of the tracks on Astro Coast, their first full-length on the Kanine imprint. As it turns out, the song “Catholic Pagans” sheds some dubious light on a dirty little secret in the Sunshine State.
“What's really crazy is there's a big problem in West Palm Beach with a lot of teens getting in trouble with oxycodone,” Pitts explains. “Like, beating up old people and stealing their prescriptions—because, you know, it's South Florida, and we have a huge population of old people, too.”
“It's supposed to be paradise,” he chuckles. “But you've got all these teens and seniors addicted to drugs and in this strange cycle together. So that's a pretty weird contradiction, I'd say.”
The claim about Palm Beach County's per-capita-rehab title notwithstanding (attempts to fact-check the stat were unsuccessful), things have been getting weird for Pitts and Co. lately. The whirlwind of attention slathered on the band by a wide spectrum of tastemakers (Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, even JustinTimberlake.com) has been fierce since they broke through at last fall's CMJ music festival.
Playing 13 gigs over the course of the festival, Surfer Blood sustained the kind of intensity and energy that can only come from the confidence of youth (band members range in age from 20 to 25) and having a kick-ass set of unassailable, tuneful noise-rock.
On the eve of their debut at the industry's other hugely influential music festival, South by Southwest, Pitts is using his rare down-time to marvel at Surfer Blood's latest problem of abundance: popular misconceptions about his band.
“Of course, there's the name,” says Pitts, “which people already ask about way too much,” quickly adding the well-reported source of its irony: none of them surf, though drummer T.J. Schwarz apparently dressed like one in high school, and Pitts liked the inside-joke potential.
Band name aside, it's the not-quite-retro, not-quite-neo sounds on Astro Coast that have so many critics fawning and bloggers agog.
Along with guitarist Thomas Fekete, bassist Brian Black, drummer Tyler “T.J.” Schwarz and percussionist Marcos Marchesani, Pitts has honed Surfer Blood into an irreverent mix of brutally catchy indie rock, new-wave art-pop and super-fuzzed-out Pixies worship. It's equal parts Robert Smith and Johnny Marr—if they'd been born on the American underground circuit of the late 1980s. There's the high harmony whimsy of “Harmonix” right next to the dark and careening difficulty of “Catholic Pagans.”
And running thick and deep through it all is an encompassing love of distortion. Which is ironic, says Pitts, because the latest online rumor about Surfer Blood distorts the very source of their distortion.
“Someone just completely made up a story that our album was recorded by somebody else,” Pitts claims. “Like, it was actually written and recorded by some big-name, hot-shit artist or producer in a nice studio and then run through a bunch of distortion and effects to make it sound all lo-fi and cheap—which isn't true, of course. I mean, we can't help that our album was recorded with pretty limited resources. But it's not our intent to sound totally lo-fi or distorted on purpose or because it's retro…. It's just how it came out.”
Pitts says there are no shortcuts to success in the digital-music era anyway.
“The way things are now,” he says, “no one's going to discover you and overnight you're this big, rich rock star. I mean, when was the last time that happened, when A&R guys were running around doing huge amounts of cocaine, signing bands left and right? Like the '90s?
“Everybody knows those days are over.”
Surfer Blood plays with Turbo Fruits and Lanterns on Friday, March 26, at Bar Pink. www.myspace.com/surferblood.