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Surfer Blood gets back on track after domestic battery charges

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John Paul Pitts, middle right, with his band Surfer Blood.


When the Florida band Surfer Blood’s first album, Astro Coast, was released in 2010, they seemed like one of indie rock’s brightest new lights, earning the seal of approval from Pitchfork and signing with Warner. The band comes to Rams Head June 10, the day before they release their second album, Pythons. In an environment where tastes shift quickly and one year’s darlings become the next year’s has-beens, Surfer Blood should be worried whether their fans will stick with them once they hear Pythons’ poppier sound. Instead, the band has had to contend with a different kind of bad press, stemming from domestic battery charges filed against lead singer John Paul Pitts last year.

In March of 2012, according to police reports, Pitts was arrested for domestic battery against his then-girlfriend, after first allegedly locking himself in the bathroom and threatening to harm himself and then pinning her down and proceeding “to shove his fingers inside of her mouth.” Ultimately the charges were dropped, but a cloud continues to hang over the band. City Paper talked to Pitts by telephone.

City Paper: How is the tour going?

John Paul Pitts: It’s been good, man. We’ve been out a little more than a month, playing a lot of new songs on this tour, and it’s starting to really click.

CP: After a debut that was as critically acclaimed as yours was, were y’all concerned about a backlash for making the second one more radio-friendly?

JP: We knew we didn’t want to make the same record twice and we knew we were ready to make a bigger-sounding record. A lot of it was [that] we wrote the first one as we were recording it and sort of copied and pasted it together. This time, we wrote songs before going in. I think that really affected everything. We walked in with a lot of finished songs that we tweaked from there, trying to fit all the pieces together. We’d had enough of home recording and were ready to try something a little different for us.

CP: Does it feel different on the road? Pythons seems like it was built for bigger venues.

JP: Well, we always write hooky songs. I think Astro Coast as well, beneath all the fuzz and noise, it was a really hook-y album. We’re a pop band and we kind of always have been to one degree or another. There’s been a really good energy playing live.

CP: People don’t necessarily think of Florida as an indie-rock hotbed. Do y’all feel like a Florida band or is it now a different thing?

JP: I don’t know. Florida is really weird. There are a lot of really good people, really talented people, and I was lucky to grow up with them and play music with them. But there’s nothing to really support a real scene there, which is what makes it so cool. When there’s a good show that comes to town, people get really excited and the local bands have to put on their own shows around town. There’s not an Ottobar there. I feel a lot of camaraderie with the musicians at home and it will always feel like home. But we get a lot more love on the road, and things started picking up when we started touring. So that’s who we are.

CP: You recently had a domestic violence complaint and Pitchfork mentioned that a lot of bands wouldn’t tour with y’all. Now that you’re out on the road, what’s the reaction like?

JP: Most people don’t ask me about it if they don’t work for some sort of press outlet. It’s hard not to be self-conscious about it, not to look out from stage and think to yourself that maybe someone’s judging you or something like that. But people still come to the shows, and I still see people singing along. But I feel like all hope’s not lost. I feel awful about that, obviously, but taking it one day at a time has been working out so far.

CP: Has it been tough for you personally with the rest of the band, like “Dude, what the fuck?” I mean the fact that I’m having to ask you about this probably doesn’t make them happy. Has it put a strain on y’all?

JP: We’re still friends. Everyone is really emotional about it and at times reactionary to it. I guess I’m lucky to have friends who are so defensive of me and willing to speak up for my character. So that feels good. I mean we’re still together, so I guess we’re not going anywhere.

CP: So what would you say to people in Baltimore who like to call you an asshole or say they won’t come see the band because of you? I’m not going to support that kind of behavior.

JP: I don’t know. I think I already answered a similar question in a previous interview. That’s unfortunate, and I’d like people to know that I’m not an angry or violent person and there was no malice even in that incident. I hope they can suspend judgment long enough to listen to our band and our music.

CP: So you were ordered to get treatment for anger management. Do you feel like that kind of stuff is bullshit?

JP: At first, I felt that way, absolutely. But after going through with it, I thought it was really beneficial and really helpful and I’m glad I did it.

CP: Rock ’n’ roll has this dangerous kind of violent edge to it, and you have to get into a different place to be a frontman and go onstage in front of people. Do you think that rock ’n’ roll contributes to this aggressive sense that can just blow out the wrong way?

JP: Rock ’n’ roll is definitely visceral and can be violent at times. But I don’t feel like rock ’n’ roll has influenced my personal life at all. No.

CP: So y’all played Baltimore a couple years ago—any bands here you really like?

JP: That band Weekends is my best friend from high school, Brendan [Sullivan]. It’s always nice to see him. He was really active in that place Open Space that recently caught on fire. He has all new accommodations now, so I’m looking forward to seeing that.

CP: Did y’all play in bands together?

JP: Yeah, we played in a band in high school, but we never put out a record or anything.

CP: And y’all are going to be hanging out, crashing with them?

JP: We’ll see.

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