Surfer Blood's Jean Paul Pitts on lucid dreaming as a songwriting aid
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Surfer Blood has been riding a tidal wave of indie press ever since its breakneck, reverb-laden performances at last year's CMJ Music Marathon. But the fresh-faced West Palm Beach band also has an album of shimmering guitars, rat-a-tat percussion, and tasteful '90s rock nostalgia to back up the hype. It's enough to make you wish you could relive your aimless early 20s—but, this time, scored to the giant hooks and room-filling vocals of the recently released Astro Coast. Prior to Surfer Blood's show at DC9 on Feb. 24, The A.V. Club spoke with band ringleader Jean Paul Pitts about lucid dreaming, jabronis, and his own inevitable death.
The A.V. Club: What's the significance of David Lynch on the track "Twin Peaks?" Is there something about his films that particularly resonates with you?
Jean Paul Pitts: Well, that entire song is about a really rough weekend that I had with, I guess kind of like an ex-girlfriend of mine. But at the time it was like we didn't really know what was going on, and she was going to college in Syracuse, N.Y. And, you know, things were on the rocks. I figure it's probably the masochist in me decided to go up there and feel it out. The first night, we watched Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and I'd never seen any David Lynch before that. It was kind of funny how, like, it started kind of nice, and the rest of the film was a huge downward spiral. I thought it was a nice parallel for the entire weekend so it just makes sense for the imagery.
AVC: "Twin Peaks," "Fast Jabroni," "Swim," and "Slow Jabroni" all have lyrics about falling asleep. Was sleep a conscious theme or did it just fall out during the songwriting process?
JPP: I think that kind of fell out by accident, really. I guess it does make sense, you know; a lot of the imagery and stuff I used in a lot of the songs is kind of dream inspired, so it would make sense that sleep would be closely associated with that. Yeah, "Slow Jabroni" is probably one of the tracks on the record that I'm the most proud of. It actually is legitimately an epic song that builds from something really simple and is consistent the whole way through. There's a lot of material lyrically there and it is kind of droney, but I feel like it kind of needs a lot of runway to spread out and develop.
AVC: Do you keep a dream diary? Forgive the cheesy term.
JPP: I do sometimes. I used to do it more. I don't really do it when we're on the road or anything. I never have dreams about anything when we're on the road except waking up the next morning and doing the things we're supposed to do. It's kind of weird; about a year and a half ago I just developed the ability to dream lucidly without even putting any effort into it—so it's really nice and kind of interactive a lot of the time.
AVC: There are certain techniques you can use to lucid dream, but you're saying you just spontaneously started realizing you were dreaming?
JPP: I do it during the day too. You just ask yourself periodically, like, "Hey, is this real life right now or my imagination?" I've gotten in the habit of doing that. I don't know what kind of a question that is. So then I started doing that in my dreams and realizing, "Oh yeah, this isn't really happening. This is all in my mind right now." So trying to interact with things and people in your dreams is always kind of interesting. The song "Anchorage" is actually about a dream I had.
AVC: What was the dream?
JPP: There was this weird period in my life. I was playing with... Sleigh Bells from New York. It broke up, and I was working at a shitty restaurant on Palm Beach and kind of hating it. And one day on the way to work I had this weird epiphany that I was actually going to die and it was really kind of shocking for some reason. I don't know. I'd never really thought about it, and then that night I had this dream.
In this dream for some reason I was a journalist in Alaska and I was traveling with another journalist and we were dispatched to research escaped convicts in Alaska, because supposedly there's like really high—I think it was something I watched on Television 2 about jails in Alaska and about how a lot of escaped convicts flee to Alaska. And we ran into this guy and this old man and I guess in this dream he had been a serial killer who had escaped and he'd been accused of mutilating these young boys, just doing all kinds of terrible things to kids.
And he was begging me for some sort of affirmation or at least he was like, "Hey, you know I didn't do it. You know I'm innocent." I kept not giving him a definitive answer because I was kind of like, "I don't know. I only know a little bit about what happened. I don't know why you're doing this to me." Then a crowd formed around me in this dream and this one little chubby kid ran after the guy and started trying to attack him, and the guy was running away from the kid, and suddenly these two wolves jumped out of the woods and ate the kid. Then I woke up. It kind of tied together with the unraveling of my personal relationship with my friend around the same time.
AVC: You've said that some of the early shows didn't really go over so well. How come?
JPP: A lot of times they weren't very well promoted or the promoter wouldn't show up or they'd charge $20 to get in to a show. In Washington, D.C., for example, we played there and it was us and a band touring from Cleveland, and they were charging like $15 to get in, and it was our first tour, and there were five people there. It did take awhile for us to come into our own as a live band, and our live set's constantly changing, but we've got it down better now.
AVC: How did you decide what to add or subtract for the live versions of the songs? Tracks like "Take It Easy" sound like they might be difficult to take on the road.
JPP: The live set is a lot different from the record and people always comment on that. Some people say they like it even better live. It's been through so many incarnations and little things change—a setting on the pedal or what you play on one part, because the album's so rich and so layered that you'd need an orchestra or a slew of backing tracks to reproduce it live. I'm really scared of the idea of using backing tracks because I've seen it go terribly wrong for some bands live.
AVC: As in technical problems?
JPP: When you're playing the backing tracks and your drummer's playing to the click and you have Pro Tools set up on stage, inevitably out of 50 shows, there's going to be one or two where there's a glitch or malfunction. Plus it's just better to reproduce it live naturally instead of to rely on pre-recorded material. Obviously the vocals are going to sound different live because I don't have as much control over the settings and stuff; I can't go back and tweak it later. And I think it's a lot louder live than a lot of people expect it to be, too.
AVC: Is "Jabroni" a reference to wrestlers like The Rock and The Iron Sheik? In what sense are you using that word?
JPP: I'm actually not sure how we meant it because it's actually a reference to an old band TJ [drummer Tyler Schwarz] and I were in.
AVC: Jabroni Sandwich?
JPP: Yeah, exactly, and we really procrastinated on making titles on a lot of the songs. We would just reference them by some kind of characteristic they had, and that goes back to that period, the Jabroni Sandwich days. They were both taken from that material. So it just made sense to call them "Fast Jabroni" and "Slow Jabroni" rather than giving them more suiting titles. I kind of thought it worked for both of the songs. So, yeah, I just think it makes sense. It's kind of cool. It's kind of funny and a reference that people don't expect, but also I think there's something a lot darker about the name "Jabroni," and I think it fits the song really well.
AVC: How do you mean?
JPP: I was told a jabroni is when you lose a wrestling match on purpose. Because wrestling is staged and everything, a slow jabroni is sort of like a slow death to me, or just a slow falling out of favor or something like that. Basically, a really drawn-out period of sorrow and I think it makes sense for that song because that's pretty much what it is: just seven minutes of an acoustic guitar recorded through a microphone through a big muff and just really droney vocals.
AVC: It's kind of an inside joke, too. You guys seem to have a sense of humor about your work. I just watched your MySpace video where a girl is playing keyboard at a computer and then slams her head down.
JPP: Yeah, that's Tom's [Fekete, guitar] girlfriend, actually. I always wanted to have some sort of keyboard or synth because I just love the texture and how you can have melodic lines going through the entire set that imply chords. Guitar is sort of a chordal instrument and you can play leads on it and stuff, but if you can get a nice synth sound in there it's going to add such a different texture to the entire song. For a while we couldn't find anyone who wanted to play keyboards, so Tom was just like, "You know, lets just teach Allie the parts," and we did for a while, and that was I guess the point where she was especially frustrated with practicing the songs. Surfer Blood was kind of an inside joke at first, but I think something about the name just really suits the music, and everyone always asks "Oh are you a surf band, blah, blah, blah?" and I'm like, "Not necessarily at all." We don't have anything against surfing. I don't surf or anything. It's more sort of like that youthful attitude that we all have and embody in the music.
AVC: Yeah, it seems like a lot of reviewers take the "surf" part of Surfer Blood and run with it.
JPP: It's just an extremely literal interpretation. I don't know. I think sometimes it's just a little lazy too. But what can you do?
AVC: You're part of this younger generation of bands who probably used file-sharing sites before you went on to record your own material. Are you of two minds about people illegally downloading your songs?
JPP: It's definitely a double-edged sword. I guess the principle kind of sucks that people do that, but then again, when TJ was in middle school he used to make money on the side. He would ask people what songs, a mix-tape that they wanted, and he would download them all on Napster and burn it for them on a CD. We kind of grew up with a lot of people having that mentality that music should be free. Actually, it's not particularly shocking. I mean, it is frustrating, but it's not as frustrating as it is to people like [Metallica drummer] Lars Ulrich, who suddenly saw his record sales plummet because of it. It's kind of cool though. We were playing shows in November; we went on a 45-day U.S. tour supporting Art Brut and Japandroids and it was really cool seeing people at our shows who already knew the words to most of the songs on the record before it even came out. That's the plus of it. More people come to your shows because they've become so attached to the songs—whether they got the record legitimately or not.