The 405 meets Surfer Blood
The new album from Floridians Surfer Blood is a 'major' step up from previous material; with this new confidence has come a new record deal, and they've signed to Warner in the U.S. Ahead of their London show this week, here's what frontman John Paul Pitts had to say about the band's move to the big leagues, working with renowned producer Gil Norton, and zipping across their homeland with none other than Foals in April - well as what the new record, Pythons has in common with a certain masterpiece by The Beach Boys from 1966.
How have Surfer Blood grown as a band since Astro Coast was released three years ago?
Well, the songwriting has improved a lot with this new record for a variety of reasons. We are all three years older now and a lot of that time was spent on tour, so there was no shortage of ideas to draw on. When we finally made a conscious decision to take a step back from constantly playing live in order to write this record we realized we had a huge accumulation of material.
With Astro Coast we had just started recording the first ten songs we wrote and ended up trying to fix them later; with Pythons we had a lot of songs completed when we walked into the studio. We spent months recording demos and sorting everything out, so we had the benefit of some trial-and-error experience with these songs by the time we were ready to record. It's a lot easier to be creative when you've already had a chance to experiment. So you can be confident about what you want to do and not second-guess yourself in the studio.
What was it like working with a producer for the first time?
It was a really interesting experience; in some way it was a relief, and in other ways it was a struggle. Having a different set of ears is definitely beneficial; we could spend forever going back and forth about how a song should or shouldn't sound, so we always appreciate an honest opinion and constructive criticism.
Gil [Norton] pushed all of us really hard and brought out a lot of interesting nuances that might not have come through if we recorded on our own. Tyler's [Schwarz] drumming is much less repetitive than it has been on our previous recordings - he was trying out more fills and different patterns. Gil was pushing me to arrange more backup vocal parts and record them and it really helped make the sound bigger most of the time.
Did you have any other names on your list, or did you decide that you wanted to work with Gil right away?
We had tried some pre-production with a few other people; they were all really talented, and I'm sure we would've made a great record with any of them, but with Gil there was an unbridled enthusiasm from the first phone conversation. We were all familiar with his work and were open to the idea of working with him; I sent him some MP3s and he called me back the next day with notes. I could tell there was a sincere emotional investment there and was impressed.
At the end it was a toss-up between Gil and another producer named Rob Schnapf (Saves the Day, Kevin Devine, Tokyo Police Club); we decided to track the record with Gil, and when it came time to mix the songs we were happy to hear that Rob was available. Mixing with Rob was great; where Gil would push us, Rob would listen to our ideas, however vague, and tweak the mixes until they were to our liking. He is a really funny, perceptive guy who's willing to try anything and it always comes out sounding natural, never overproduced. He's sensible like that.
You recorded Pythons in the same studio where The Beach Boys recorded their 1966 classic Pet Sounds - what was it like working somewhere that had such a colourful history?
Pet Sounds is one of my favourite records ever, so it was almost impossible not to romanticize the studio itself. I personally don't think that's a bad thing: if anything, it's inspiring to work out melodies on a piano in a room Brian Wilson recorded vocal tracks in. I think that being in a studio with a rich history like the one we recorded in puts a good pressure on a young band; we were able to use our time wisely and deliver great performances.
You released 'Demon Dance' and 'Slow Six' on vinyl for this year's Record Store Day - did you do anything to celebrate the event in April?
I was actually in London on Record Store Day visiting my girlfriend. She is a master's student at the London School of Economics, and I try to go over and visit her as often as I can. We heard that they were setting up a stage in front of Sister Ray, and that Wire were playing last, so we took the bus over and watched their set. It was great - Colin Newman was reading his setlist off of an iPad on a music stand! I really like that band. After that we browsed Sister Ray, got some dinner and went back to her place.
What was your initial reaction to signing to Warner Bros. Records? Have things changed much for the band since you signed to a major label?
We didn't know what to expect when we signed to Warner Brothers; we just knew we wanted our next record to sound bigger than Astro Coast. Our manager at the time had been putting a lot of pressure on us to sign a major label deal, and Warner Brothers seemed like the best option we had. We had a good feeling about the A&R guy who wanted to sign us and we had no money at the time. It was definitely an adjustment, we always felt like such a priority when we were on Kanine, so it was tough going from that to being another band on a giant roster.
However, we were ready to make a record like Pythons. We recorded the Tarot Classics EP towards the end of 2010/beginning of 2011 and it was a slow process. We recorded it in a friend's guest house, and while we had access to a lot of equipment, it was essentially another home recording situation like Astro Coast. After that, we knew that we weren't interested in doing that for our next release, so the Warner deal started to make a lot of sense. We've gotten to know a lot of the people who work at our label and feel a lot more comfortable navigating the waters over there.
How many songs did you record in total during the Pythons sessions? Was it just the 10 that made the cut for the album, or can we expect some B-sides somewhere down the line?
We recorded a total of twelve songs during our time in the studio, so you can expect to hear some B-sides after the record is released.
You've been touring with Foals for the guts of the past month - what's that been like?
It's been a lot of fun; we've been touring with those guys since April 25 and it's been pretty smooth sailing. We've warmed up to each other nicely, and I can say with all sincerity they are really pleasant guys to be around. They put on a great show every night, and it's really entertaining to watch - they have a lot of energy onstage.
You've also been playing some headline dates - how have your fans reacted to the new material?
The reaction to all of the Pythons songs has been great. I've had a number of fans come up to me after various shows and talk about the new material specifically. It feels so refreshing to play new songs live, we've been incorporated anywhere between four and six new songs every night, and it feels like it's really starting to come together.
Finally, tell us a little about your favourite song on the new album.
My favourite song on Pythons is probably 'Needles and Pins'. It's a song that builds on itself throughout its duration and has a nice, natural flow to it. It's driven primarily by an acoustic guitar which, by the end, is accompanied by a full band and piano. One of my favourite parts of this track is the use of affected backup vocals - I recorded a four-part vocal harmony during the choruses and ran all four of the tracks back through a Leslie rotating speaker. It gives the harmony a sense of warmth, almost like it's being sung underwater. It creates a feeling of nostalgia and melancholy that really suit the lyrics and the melody. I'm also really fond of the lyrics to this one, I think they might be some of my best.
Pythons is released today via ATO in the UK, and on Tuesday via Warner in the U.S. Surfer Blood launch the album at Electrowerks in London tonight.
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