“All the pressure you never applied / Can’t be asleep at the wheel / But something had already died / And something had lost its appeal.” So sings lead songwriter John Paul Pitts on “Dessert Island”, the opening track of his band’s new record, before ending with a universal declarative: “I’m feeling the weight of the years.” It’s the kind of line that hits deep in your chest. It resonates because we feel that weight too.
After a creative revival and renewed sense of direction with their return-to-form success of 2017’s Snowdonia, Florida surf-rock band Surfer Blood are back for their fifth studio LP, Carefree Theatre. A mature and introspective record that takes the time to reflect on the moments that make us who we are, the album was named after the beloved venue of Pitts’ formative years: The Carefree Theater.
“Let’s say it’s like the closest thing that West Palm Beach could ever come to the Fillmore in San Francisco,” Pitts tells PopMatters. “A classic place with a lot of history. I saw Wilco there growing up, and that was super inspiring for me. I think it was even before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out, so they weren’t playing amphitheaters or anything like that yet. And that really spoke to me and sort of sharpened my curiosity about the world outside. It just gave me an appetite to commit to being a songwriter; to commit to getting a band together and make it work. That was in a weird way, sort of a window to the world outside, which for me only existed on records, or TV, or on the internet.”
The sound of Carefree Theatre comes together somewhere between the vivacious pop fervor of their smash darling of a debut Astro Coast and the ambitious sprawl of Snowdonia. With Carefree Theatre, Pitts reaches out to a world much larger and more desperate than ever explored by the band, with songs like “Dewar” and “Parkland (Into the Silence)” touching on notably darker subject matter. While touching on tragic events may not immediately seem like Surfer Blood’s kind of vibe, upon further inspection, it’s evident that themes of persevering through seemingly insurmountable odds as iterated in “Parkland” shares common ground with some of the band’s classic songs like “Swim” and “Take It Easy”.
“I had second thoughts about just coming out and calling it ‘Parkland’, and not giving it a title that was a little vaguer,” Pitts notes. “I follow all the politics behind all of this and everything else, but at the end of the day, I just wanted to express what was to me, the purest feeling of all. Which was being really proud of people turning their pain into some sort of action that’s going to help other people. When you’re 17 years old, and someone tells you you’re so special and brave, sometimes that’s enough for you to go away and not say anything. It’s just amazing that these kids were able to take that and take the next step of connecting the dots for everybody. Plus, they were from another high school that some of my friends went to growing up, and you feel that this could have been anyone you knew growing up, so I felt sort of an extra special connection to them.”
Long gone are those days of youthful malaise and minor interpersonal qualms. Problems experienced in the bands’ earlier releases pale compared to the magnitude encountered on Carefree Theater. Which brings us to “Dewar”, in what may be Surfer Blood’s most lyrically ambitious song recorded to date. Channeling familial ties and apocalyptic frustrations into an oddly laidback epic of self-realization, “Dewar” is a tale of bitterness, desire, and shame with stakes so high it could bring the end of humanity. To hear Pitts describe it, humanity’s constant flirtation with its apocalyptic demise proved to be ample inspiration.
“I’m proud of that song,” Pitts starts. “I watched this movie about the Manhattan Project, and my father’s an engineer — and a great father — but like a domineering and conservative Southern guy. For some reason, the guy who plays Julius Robert Oppenheimer reminded me so much of my father that I just came up with this whole thing: this character that’s sort of a combination of the character in the movie and my actual father and sort of the pitfalls of having a chip on your shoulder of being really ambitious, of creating this thing you can no longer control and how it all just gets away from you.
“Because you know it’s all about designing a weapon that can destroy all of humanity,” Pitts continues. “It’s a way for me to wrestle with ideas about ambition and masculinity that I probably learned from a young age that I don’t even recognize anymore.”
A decade removed from the critical glow of 2010’s Astro Coast, and a slew of experiments later, Carefree Theatre at times can feel like a coming-full-circle moment for John Paul Pitts. Where Astro Coast was driven by the classic youth desire to escape one’s hometown, Carefree Theatre now sees how that same geography helped shape himself into what would grow up to be Surfer Blood.
“When I was making the first record, I had only traveled a little bit, but a lot of my friends went off to college in other states, and they’d come home for Christmas break, and they’d tell me all these stories,” Pitts recalls. “I’d get so curious and jealous of people who got out to see something else. Fortunately, I got my turn to do that. All of these experiences have made me appreciate this weird place. And it is a very strange place. It’s the butt of a lot of jokes for a reason; because a lot of things about this place don’t make sense unless you’re from here. I’m always grateful for bands that make the trek down to South Florida. It’s a long way, and you are rolling the dice when you do it sometimes. You have no idea if the shows will be good or bad, what kind of place they’re going to be in. It is all over the place. A lot of towns down here don’t have a solid venue where everyone goes to play like a Bowery Ballroom type of situation.”
Attempts to shake up their formula had become Surfer Blood’s biggest hurdle for a lengthy stretch. Following the success of Astro Coast, the band signed a major label deal with Warner Brothers to release their sophomore album Pythons. It dropped in 2013 but never quite caught on like their debut. The band was dropped from Warners a year later, which lead them to release their follow-up effort 1000 Palms on independent label Joyful Noise in 2015 — to even less fanfare than Pythons.
While 1000 Palms is, for the most part, an enjoyable listen, it was missing the X-factor that made the band a songwriting force tour de force. The future of the band was looking bleak. That was, until they released Snowdonia. That record marked a distinct break and artistic turn for the band that they never quite attained on the records in-between. Their experimentations successfully cohabited with the essential rock ingredients that make a great Surfer Blood song — and Carefree Theatre takes that recipe to even further extremes.
“When I sat down to write Snowdonia, I just decided to not put any limits on myself, or worry about, ‘Oh, this song needs like a good three-minute pop [feel] on it,'” Pitts recalls. “And as a result, we had a record where the songs are seven-and-a-half minutes long with multiple movements. And I’m really proud of that. I’m always reacting to whatever the last thing I did was. And in this case, the last thing I did was an extremely meandering record that was good, but definitely all over the place and maybe a little bit more inaccessible. I decided that this one needed to be like my Alien Lanes. ‘I just wrote a bunch of seven-and-a-half minute songs — [so] what if now I wrote a bunch of two-minute songs right now? Don’t make the intro too long, keep everything concise, keep it tight…’ and [it] kind of went from there.”
As a band notorious for its highs and lows, personally and professionally, the gang has taken those lessons learned to set a course with a newfound sense of direction and purpose, guiding them towards the profound. Even in the middle of a global pandemic, they have never sounded more confident, never more assured. Carefree Theatre is the album that Surfer Blood fans expected to follow up Astro Coast; it’s more of a sophomore album than a fifth. Every experiment and detour come together to breathe life into this band with precarious history, that leaves even John Paul Pitts astounded all these years later.
“To me, it’s one of those inexplicable things in life how someone who was 22 and confused about everything and seen so little just had manifested this,” he exclaims. “I started writing music when I was 15. I learned you could record yourself soon after that and pretty much never looked back. I think our first record was me trying to throw out everything from my Adolescence and early adult years into this thing, and it all just sort of erupted, I guess. It just came without pushing it, and that’s a remarkable thing. It’s really hard to keep tabs on how it all happened. I probably should have kept a journal or something about it. Listening back, I’d probably do things differently now, but it’s hard to deny now that I was trying to pack every single idea I knew about music into one body of work. The fact that it sounds as good and has held up as well as it has is kind of a miracle.”
Photo: Dustin Milner / Courtesy of Riot Act Media