The music video for “Grand Inquisitor,” the first track on Surfer Blood’s album 1000 Palms, is a bizarre, crudely computer-animated rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of a gifted lutist who is suddenly discovered by a record label executive. The lutist, overwhelmed by the pressures of his newfound rockstar lifestyle, eventually returns to busking, left penniless and with a comically small (if dedicated) audience.
In many ways, the video serves as a funhouse-mirror reflection of Surfer Blood’s tumultuous six-year career, which has seen the surf-rock band confront a steady stream of misfortune following their acclaimed 2010 debut album, Astro Coast. In particular, the “Grand Inquisitor” video explores the band’s failed deal with Warner Brothers Records, who dropped them after their follow-up record, 2013’s Pythons, was less than successful.
“I think [the video] does sum it up pretty much in the most lighthearted way possible, the strange journey that we’ve had,” says John Paul Pitts, who founded the band along with his high school friend, drummer Tyler Schwarz. “I always try to explain to people, when they give us 20/20 hindsight about things that we should have done differently, that we all came from Florida where we didn’t know anyone who’d been in a band, who had to think about these things. We never got much advice. We were pretty much four idiots, young 22-year-old idiots who didn’t know anything much beyond our local music scene, our experience with restaurant jobs and community college. Figuring it out was a very long learning process for us.”
1000 Palms, released in May, is an effort to assert the band’s newfound sense of maturity. It’s sprawling, ambitious, and decidedly distant from the angst that often threatened to consume Pythons. Part of that, Pitts, says, comes from the end of the band’s Warner Brothers deal. “We didn’t have any of the pressures that we’d had working on Pythons,” he says. “Being on a major label and having people talk about making an album that has songs for radio and just dealing with that whole landscape was a lot more pressure than I expected it to be. That all went away in a second at the beginning of 2014. We were left on our own for the first time in years, and I think it was a great opportunity for us not to follow the traditional path. We went wherever we wanted to go, and I think that resulted in a record that in parts might seem all over the place.”
“But I think that’s kind of what we needed at that time,” he adds.
In that way, “Grand Inquisitor” almost works as a new mission statement for Surfer Blood. The song itself, a shifting prog-pop epic, is nothing if not a sign of the band’s pursuit of creative restlessness. “It’s a song we never thought would work, which is probably why it was a great song to start with for this record,” Pitts says. “I think it’s an example of us trying to push our horizons and what we think we’re capable of. It was a lot of fun to write. There’s a good contrast of light and dark in that song that hopefully continues throughout the whole record.”
But even if 1000 Palms succeeds as a reclamation of Surfer Blood’s identity, 2015 didn’t come without its own share of hardships for the band. In April, longtime guitarist Thomas Fekete announced that he had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, the treatment for which would necessitate him leaving the band. The band continued touring with Pitts’ high school friend Mike McCleary on guitar, with the band collecting donations for Fekete’s treatment at each tour stop.
“It’s definitely strange, not having Tom around,” Pitts says. “We’ve been doing that for about a year, and it’s a really hard adjustment because Tom is such a big personality. He was such an important part of everything we did. But Mike and Lindsay [Mills, who replaced bassist Kevin Williams, who departed the band in October] are both awesome musicians and have risen to the occasion and are fully aware of the challenges. There’s been a lot of learning. I’m not going to say it’s exactly the same as it was when Tom and Kevin were in the band and everyone was healthy and young, but we’re definitely at a good place internally and musically right now.”
Pitts is already at work on the next Surfer Blood record, for which he says he’s already recorded around 10 demos. “I have a bunch more [songs written],” he says. “I can’t really say what the record’s sound is yet because that’s likely to change, but so far the songs all— You know the Cream record Disraeli Gears? They kind of have that thing going for them. Not like ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ but all the other really creepy ones on that record. That’s just a very vague notion of what I think these songs should be. We’ll see what happens in the next couple of months.”
Pitts says that what keeps him (and Surfer Blood) going is “the thought that there’s always more songs to be written and more shows to play.”
“We’ve never had any illusions that this is going to be perfect, smooth and glamorous or anything like that,” he says. “Being in a band and being D.I.Y. and controlling every aspect of what you do requires a crazy amount of vigilance and attention to detail, and it’s hard to stay on top of it all the time. At the end of the day, it’s a great thing having control over what you do. Even when you make the mistakes, at least you can own the mistakes instead of blaming other people for them.”
“I feel like we’ve grown up more in the past three years than we had in our whole lives before that,” he says. “It has been a lot of stuff piled on, but at the end of the day, there’s pretty much nothing I’d rather be doing.”
Surfer Blood will perform at Saturn on Friday, Jan. 1. Dommel Mosel and Cosmonaut on Vacation will open. Doors will open at 8 p.m.; the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.