Success is fleeting, especially in music. Getting noticed is just the first checkbox on the laundry list to commercial triumph. Sustaining a long level of success becomes a never ending cycle of creating, evolving, promoting, and performing – all while keeping the listener’s attention in an increasingly scattershot world. For most bands, it’s an unsustainable and brutal existence, which is why so many become yesterday’s news.
For Surfer Blood, a Florida based band who reached their commercial and critical peak in the early 2010s, success is secondary, since keeping the project afloat has been enough of a struggle. With enough drama to fill the pages of a band with a much longer career, Surfer Blood’s path has been marked by success, tragedy, and rejuvenation. For most in the indie rock world, Surfer Blood begins and ends with their debut, 2010’s Astro Coast, a wonderfully hazy slice of guitar-fuzzed indie-rock full of huge riffy melodies, and interesting rhythmic flourishes. The success of Astro Coast, which included a “Best New Music” tag from Pitchfork was enough to get the band signed to a major label (Sire/Warner Bros), and to work with famed producer Gil Norton (Foo Fighters, Pixies) on their next project.
Expectations were high, and the pressure was on. In retrospect, it might have been too much for the band to handle. A feature by Pitchfork a month before the release of their sophomore record and major-label debut, Pythons, almost solely focused on the arrest of John Paul Pitts the year prior, with the band defending themselves and describing how that incident had led to being abandoned by other groups, their friends, etc. The record itself was an afterthought; the only reference to it was the interviewer going through some lyrics whilst trying to tie them back to their legal troubles.
In spite of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the band during this time, Pythons is an under-appreciated gem. The biggest change between Pythons and Astro Coast is the stripping away of the hazy “made in a bedroom closet sound” of in favor of a cleaner and sharper production. For some, this was an unwelcome change, since much of the appeal of their debut was in its DIY, almost ragged production technique. The two albums present the band in different ways, but, for me, it’s easy to get past this change since all of the songs on Pythons are perfectly crafted pieces of summery melodic indie rock. Songs like “Demon Dance” and “Weird Shapes” throw back immediately to the heyday of bands like Weezer circa The Blue Album and the Pixies circa Doolittle, “Say Yes To Me” rushes by on the back of Thomas Fekete’s hooky guitar and Paul-Pitts vocal harmonizing, while closer “Prom Song” offers a beautifully anthemic and fittingly melancholy end to the album.
Despite the quality of the music, Pythons flopped immediately on its release, and the band distanced itself from the album shortly afterwards. In interviews following its release, the band members were openly displeased with how the songs on the record turned out, with Fekete saying that there were “about 5 times the people involved with this record, and as a result things got sort of wacky and way out of our hands.” Years later, during the album cycle for their follow-up, 1000 Palms, Paul-Pitts recalled that working with the label and the older, more experienced Norton was “a lot more pressure that I would’ve ever admitted when I was 24 years old.” Eventually, the band would be dropped by the Sire/Warner Bros label, and would go on to release a full demo version of the album the following year, showcasing the hazier production that they would have preferred.
It didn’t get easier for Surfer Blood after that, either. Fekete would be diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma, passing away shortly after the release of 1000 Palms at the age of 27. What was once a band with a bright future only five years prior was now a band struggling just to stay afloat. But, they have kept going – bringing in a couple of new members, releasing new music, and touring, but, it seems like their brief brush with success has ended, ten full years after Astro Coast.
I grappled with supporting Surfer Blood for many years, since the allegations against Paul-Pitts certainly cast a shadow over their music for me. I had the chance to see them live a few years after Pythons, and despite my love for their work up until that point, I ultimately decided not to because of his arrest. In the near decade since then, my stance has softened on the band, if only because of everything they’ve been through. My focus in recent years turning towards Fekete and how gifted a musician he truly was. Despite the band’s aversion to the record, Pythons is still my favorite release, with Astro Coast and the EP released between their first two albums, Tarot Classics, coming in a close second. These three releases are all great slices of melodically focused, beachy indie-rock, and despite the band’s checkered past, I highly recommend that you check all of them out.
The vinyl version of the record is pretty uneventful. It’s fairly standard for early 2010s releases, with a standard sleeve, black vinyl, a two sided glossy lyrics sheet, and a CD copy of the record. Isn’t it a weird feeling to hold a CD nowadays….and know that there’s no possible way you’ll ever play it?
Listen to Pythons on Spotify below, and let me know your thoughts are!