Young Floridians Surfer Blood just released their second full-length, Pythons, on Warner Bros. Records (out today!). They had been touring for three years straight on their debut Astro Coast and have quickly become a road-tested unit, growing their sound and perfecting it. Punknews' staff reviewer Greg Simpson, aka greg0rb, takes a brief foray into interviewing to talk to guitarist Thomas Fekete as they drive to Salt Lake City.
Hi Thomas! Thanks so much for talking with me; it must be tough taking calls in the van. How is van life?
[Laughs] It's actually really nice this time around, 'cause we're in a Sprinter van. Which, if people don't know what that is, it's sort of like a hybrid between a 15-passenger and a bus. It's actually really comfortable. So, I dunno, I've really gotten to like this thing, y'know? I haven't minded the long drives.
How are the travels to Salt Lake City going? You guys are a long ways from home at this point. Do you like life on the road or are you more of a homebody?
I don't mind. This has been like a 14-hour drive, I think. But I really don't mind, especially this part of the world because the scenery is unreal. It never gets old to me.
Yeah, I actually saw a picture you guys posted on Instagram yesterday of John laying in the grass overlooking a beautiful landscape. I wanted to guess--was that Wyoming?
That was actually Oregon.
Cool. So do you like being a Floridian?
Yeah. I mean, I'm originally from Cincinnati, then I moved to Nashville for a while, then I moved to Florida when I was in high school. And at the time it was definitely very strange to me. But with age I've really learned to appreciate Florida. It's taught me a lot. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Florida. Y'know, I think once I moved down to Florida was when I really, really got into music; there wasn't much else to do. I basically made music my life, and I'm really thankful for that.
Definitely. How long were you in Cincinnati? I live about two hours from there.
I was there until freshman year in high school.
Yeah, I've played in Cincinnati. I'm in Bloomington, IN, so I'm straight west from there.
I love Bloomington, man. It's a great place. We played there...
I reviewed the show [for Punknews]!
It was really fun for a little town.
So, getting on to the record... I'm going to be doing a text review of that as well so I've been listening to it a bunch. So far I think Pythons is pretty awesome. You guys wrote and recorded most of Astro Coast in a dorm room. Obviously a record for Warner Bros. will work much differently. How was tracking with Gil Norton? Can you tell me about how the new songs came together and how the recording experience was?
Yes, definitely. We basically took about four months off from touring for the first time in about three years. We rented out a practice space which we turned into a makeshift studio. We just started recording demos, just recording and recording and writing and writing. It was great. We wrote about twelve songs and we were about to go record with Phil Ek in Seattle. Then two days before we left we wrote two new songs that we thought were so much better than anything we had written up to that point. So we talked to our A&R guy at the label and he was like, "if you guys want a little more time to keep writing, that's okay." So we decided to do that, and because of that, unfortunately Phil had to go to do The Walkmen record. But we ended up having a phone call with Gil--he's been a fan since like 2009--he saw one of our first London shows actually, and it just seemed like he would be very emotionally invested, y'know? He was so enthusiastic, even more so than we were. It was a no-brainer. We decided to pack our bags and go to California for a couple months. At that point we had 30-plus songs.
Wow. Can I pop in here-- you said you had written two new songs that you thought were better than anything else. I'm curious, because one of the songs I'm addicted to on Pythons is "Gravity;" was that one of them?
It was "Gravity" and "Weird Shapes."
Nice! So two of the three singles you're promoting ahead of the record release. So go on, tell me how the tracking went.
We went out to California. First we did the pre-production with Gil. Basically where we sat in a room with Gil and played the songs over and over. We decided which songs were actually going to make it onto the record because we had so many. It's all kind of a blur, it was just so hectic and everything moved so quickly. But it was really great; I never thought I'd be able to record in a studio like that; just so much history. We recorded in the room right next to where Pet Sounds was recorded.
Michael Jackson's mixing board is in one of the rooms. Michael Jackson's beat console was just chilling in this room; it was crazy, man. And the studio had this huge lounge area--that studio's insane, it's so nice. It was kind of surreal. We finished that and we left the studio about a year ago, so it's been a long long process. Then we went and ended up mixing with Rob Schnapf. That ended up taking an extra couple months. We really took our sweet time with it.
He's done some stuff with Elliott Smith, hasn't he?
Who else has he worked with?
He's worked with a ton of people we love. Yeah, like you said Elliott Smith, Guided by Voices... but he did this Saves The Day record, In Reverie...
Oh sweet! That's one of my favorites of theirs and everyone hates it.
The way the guitars sound on that record is amazing.
It's like a Beatles homage.
Yeah! So, we had actually met before [with Schnapf], and it was kind of a tossup between him and Gil, we couldn't decide who we wanted to work with, and we got to work with both of them. We went to Rob's studio for a couple weeks, and that was amazing. Kind of the opposite of what we experienced with Gil. He is very mellow, a really cool guy... we got the best of both worlds.
We were talking about guitar tones a little bit... So, you've kept your power-pop and shoegazy guitar tones intact on this record, which I love! Without us boring the non-guitarists too much, can you run me through your pedal board setup?
Yeah. I use a Carbon Copy delay. It's one of my favorite pedals. I'm constantly switching stuff out, like I just get bored really easily. I'm always swapping new gear and whatnot. That's one of the pedals I've really kind of stuck with. As well as the Boss DD-3 [digital delay-ed] I use for light delay. It's just so easy to control. It's got this really cool delay setting, where if you play a riff and you hit the delay, it'll actually loop the last three seconds of what you were playing and you can keep stacking and stacking. I use it live a lot before in-between songs and stuff; it's really pretty and atmospheric. I also use a Ghost Echo pedal which is amazing, it's an Earthquaker Devices pedal, and they're really phenomenal. We ended up using that all over the album. It's a boutique pedal company out of Portland. They're great. Then for fuzz we use the Fuzz Factory which is a fun pedal but I just stopped using it live because it's so touchy. It's different every night.
Very nice. I still personally consider myself a drummer that's faking it on guitar. I'm starting to get more into the gear though. I use a lot of the touchstones, like Electro-Harmonix stuff... I have a Big Muff, a Small Clone... mainly I just look at J Mascis' setup and copy that.
I'm definitely guilty of that as well... same with Built to Spill. We played with them and I was taking pictures of the pedal boards...[laughs]
Next thing--I've noticed that the South African influenced grooves are all but gone from the record. Replacing them are emo screams and more angular chord moments. Can you speak to the songwriting shift?
It's something that just happened naturally. It's gonna sound cliché, but we never even had a conversation about what this record was going to sound like. It basically was us getting together in a room, and we had all this energy from touring non-stop. Y'know, you can get creative on tour, but nothing compares to just sitting down in a room and writing. We hadn't done that for year, so once we got together, it just started happening. It was really exciting and it was this rush. I have a hard time even recalling writing any of the songs.
It's funny; the screaming thing kinda happened because J.P. was doing that a lot live. When we first started doing shows and we were playing not-so-great venues, the sound would be terrible and you wouldn't be able to hear his voice. And this is every vocal teacher's worst nightmare, but basically he made up for it by screaming, like really loud. Yeah, it's just something that as we grew as a band and started playing nicer places, the screams started sticking around and getting into our older songs. And obviously we draw influence from bands like The Pixies, so it's just something that happened. I don't know, I never thought that I would hear that on one of our records, but now that I have it, I'm really proud of it.
I can definitely see the Pixies thing, but it seems a lot of your main influences are early-to-mid-90s, like Smashing Pumpkins' guitar tones, Weezer-ish riffs, but were you guys into much of the early, original emo bands?
I mean, I'm a huge Rites of Spring fan. Growing up in Florida my early bands were all Orchid rip-offs. That's what we did. So that music was a huge part of my life.
Does John write all the lyrics? How is the songwriting split up?
It's a team effort, but John is the primary lyric writer. Either he brings a song in that we flesh out, or one of us brings in a riff and he locks himself in a room and comes out with something. It's always different but he is very much the songwriter.
This may sound crazy, but it sounds to me like the vocal melodies are written on guitar. Am I crazy?
No, that's definitely something that we've always done. J.P. took classical guitar lessons and he has a way of picking melodies out on the guitar. It's really cool. I've seen him come up with good melodies and sometimes it's in a couple minutes. It's so cool.
You guys had the guts to name a song "Needles and Pins" and it's not a cover of The Searchers song. Or even a cover of the Ramones' version or the Tom Petty version or the Cher version. Did anyone notice that when John was like, I got this new one called "Needles and Pins"?
Yeah, well that's something that's happened throughout music history, so we thought it was kind of funny in the same way we have a song called "Blair Witch" on our album.
It's like how The Replacements named an album Let It Be.
Exactly. And they're one of my favorite bands of all time. I really like that kind of stuff. I think it's funny.
You already talked about it a little bit, but you guys have made fans out of big veteran bands, like Pavement and Les Savvy Fav, both of whom chose you to play in All Tomorrow's Parties festivals they curated. The Pixies took you on tour because they liked you. How does it feel to have people you have looked up to dig your music?
Oh man, it's so crazy. I don't even grasp it yet; it hasn't set in even after years. That Pixies tour for example is a blur to me. It's so amazing; such an honor. But it doesn't even feel like it actually happened. I'm so grateful, I still can't believe it. When got asked to play that ATP, it was our first big festival, so for it to be an All Tomorrow Parties, just to be involved with that was crazy. It was just bizarre and incredible.
I can't even imagine. To wrap things up, is there anything else you'd like to say about the record?
It's hard for me to even talk about my own music, but I hope people give it a chance, and I hope they like it. I hope it's still "us." Despite the big fancy studio and the major label.
Well, you're probably getting close to Salt Lake so I'll let you go. Thanks so much for talking with us.
Yeah man, thank you. Have a good one.
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