Surfer Blood is a band of melody and dissonance, quiet and loud, with highs and lows. Recently, however, the band has experienced more lows than highs. The band’s frontman and lead vocalist, J.P. Pitts, was arrested in early 2012, after an altercation with his then-girlfriend. All charges were later dropped, but understandably, a dark cloud has tailed the group ever since. This stigma is exacerbated by the fact that the tumultuous relationship inspired much of the lyrical content on Pythons, the band’s second full-length album, released in June 2013 to mixed reviews. Later that year, Warner Bros. dropped Surfer Blood from its label, for reasons not made public.
Objectivity can be a struggle in situations like this, but prior to my interview with the group before their Jan. 9 show at Lucky Bar, I focused on getting a sense of Surfer Blood as a band in 2014, not J.P. Pitts as an individual. Still, sitting backstage with singer and bassist Kevin Williams, I wondered aloud if it would be accurate to view Pythons’ release and the subsequent tour as something of a catharsis. “Absolutely,” Pitts says, addressing the professional rather than the personal: “I felt like we took so long to even make that record. Even after we mixed everything, the label sat on it for 10 months before it was released. So when it finally came out and we were able to do our own shows again, that was a really good feeling.”
The most recent dates are focused around Portland, Oregon, where the musicians currently live as they work on new material. The past couple days leading up to the show meant a drive to Vancouver, a return to Portland, and another drive and ferry ride to make Victoria. If that sounds like a recipe for a mailed-in performance, that’s because it is, but the musicians, including lead guitarist Thomas Fekete and drummer Tyler Schwarz, all appeared more than ready to play.
The venue filled out nicely by the time the opener Psychosomatic ITCH plugged in, and the local band’s sporadic surf punk effectively warmed up the crowd. Surfer Blood came onstage with little introduction, a few words and a brief half-smile from Pitts, before launching into their characteristic fuzzed-out rock. The group was musically on-point, sharp, and jarring as they blitzed through a setlist that reached into both albums, but it was really Pythons’ tracks that shone.
The record, produced by longtime Pixies affiliate Gil Norton, was something of an education for the band in the mechanics of being signed to a major label. “It’s just weird,” Pitts says, “to have someone come in and change your songs. But because Gil was a little bit older, came from a different background, he was easier to talk to about music. All the awkwardness was gone really fast.”
Onstage, they were more assertive than awkward. Songs that may sound polished and ineffectual on record came off as louder, more urgent. The set’s high point came during “Take it Easy,” where Pitts jumped into the crowd, singing and taking pictures with fans. The enjoyment of the diehard listeners at the front of the stage was clear.
“I like Canadian crowds,” the singer told me before the show. “There’s something genuine in the enthusiasm.” You could say the same thing about the performers themselves; Swartz and Williams were a crisp and consistent rhythm section, whilst Fekete exhibited impressive virtuosity. By night’s end, the band left the stage sweaty and breathless with a howling bar in their wake.
Objectively, it was an enjoyable performance, evidence of a talented group attempting to establish the next phase of its career. It’s clear that Surfer Blood wants to move on: from their ex-label, their naive beginnings, and most of all, the lingering shadow of Pitts’ arrest. Whether they can, or even should, is debatable. Speaking on lessons learned about the music business, the singer explains that he has no regrets. “If we didn’t make mistakes, we wouldn’t be where we are now. You live and you learn . . . at the end of the day, the ups and downs and everything just make you better.” It would be disingenuous to pass off these remarks as a direct response to the events of 2012, but regardless, one can’t help but read into them. Time will tell if his philosophy holds true or not.