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] Itâs actually really nice this time around, âcause weâre in a Sprinter van. Which, if people donât know what that is, itâs sort of like a hybrid between a 15-passenger and a bus. Itâs actually really comfortable. So, I dunno, Iâve really gotten to like this thing, yâknow? I havenât 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 donât mind. This has been like a 14-hour drive, I think. But I really donât 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, Iâm 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 Iâve really learned to appreciate Florida. Itâs taught me a lot. I wouldnât be here if it wasnât for Florida. Yâknow, I think once I moved down to Florida was when I really, really got into music; there wasnât much else to do. I basically made music my life, and Iâm 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, Iâve played in Cincinnati. Iâm in Bloomington, IN, so Iâm straight west from there.
I love Bloomington, man. Itâs 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… Iâm going to be doing a text review of that as well so Iâve 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, thatâs 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--heâs 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, yâknow? 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. Iâm curious, because one of the songs Iâm addicted to on Pythons is "Gravity;" was that one of them?
It was "Gravity" and "Weird Shapes."
Nice! So two of the three singles youâre 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. Itâs all kind of a blur, it was just so hectic and everything moved so quickly. But it was really great; I never thought Iâd 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 Jacksonâs mixing board is in one of the rooms. Michael Jacksonâs beat console was just chilling in this room; it was crazy, man. And the studio had this huge lounge area--that studioâs insane, itâs so nice. It was kind of surreal. We finished that and we left the studio about a year ago, so itâs 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.
Heâs done some stuff with Elliott Smith, hasnât he?
Who else has he worked with?
Heâs 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! Thatâs one of my favorites of theirs and everyone hates it.
The way the guitars sound on that record is amazing.
Itâs 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 couldnât decide who we wanted to work with, and we got to work with both of them. We went to Robâs 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, youâve 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. Itâs one of my favorite pedals. Iâm constantly switching stuff out, like I just get bored really easily. Iâm always swapping new gear and whatnot. Thatâs one of the pedals Iâve really kind of stuck with. As well as the Boss DD-3 [digital delay-ed] I use for light delay. Itâs just so easy to control. Itâs got this really cool delay setting, where if you play a riff and you hit the delay, itâll 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; itâs really pretty and atmospheric. I also use a Ghost Echo pedal which is amazing, itâs an Earthquaker Devices pedal, and theyâre really phenomenal. We ended up using that all over the album. Itâs a boutique pedal company out of Portland. Theyâre great. Then for fuzz we use the Fuzz Factory which is a fun pedal but I just stopped using it live because itâs so touchy. Itâs different every night.
Very nice. I still personally consider myself a drummer thatâs faking it on guitar. Iâm 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 Mascisâ setup and copy that.
Iâm 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--Iâve 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?
Itâs something that just happened naturally. Itâs gonna sound clichÃ©, 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. Yâknow, you can get creative on tour, but nothing compares to just sitting down in a room and writing. We hadnât 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.
Itâs 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 wouldnât be able to hear his voice. And this is every vocal teacherâs worst nightmare, but basically he made up for it by screaming, like really loud. Yeah, itâs 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 itâs just something that happened. I donât know, I never thought that I would hear that on one of our records, but now that I have it, Iâm 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 Pumpkinsâ guitar tones, Weezer-ish riffs, but were you guys into much of the early, original emo bands?
Does John write all the lyrics? How is the songwriting split up?
Itâs 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. Itâs 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, thatâs definitely something that weâve always done. J.P. took classical guitar lessons and he has a way of picking melodies out on the guitar. Itâs really cool. Iâve seen him come up with good melodies and sometimes itâs in a couple minutes. Itâs 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 thatâs something thatâs 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.
Itâs like how The Replacements named an album Let It Be.
Exactly. And theyâre one of my favorite bands of all time. I really like that kind of stuff. I think itâs 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, itâs so crazy. I donât even grasp it yet; it hasnât set in even after years. That Pixies tour for example is a blur to me. Itâs so amazing; such an honor. But it doesnât even feel like it actually happened. Iâm so grateful, I still canât 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 canât even imagine. To wrap things up, is there anything else youâd like to say about the record?
Itâs 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 itâs still "us." Despite the big fancy studio and the major label.
Well, youâre probably getting close to Salt Lake so Iâll let you go. Thanks so much for talking with us.
Yeah man, thank you. Have a good one.