J.P. Pitts was just a semester shy of a degree in secondary education from Florida Atlantic University when he decided to drop out last August and pursue a different career. But his own education has continued. He's learning what it's like to be fronting one of the most buzzed-about indie-pop bands of the moment: Surfer Blood, the West Palm Beach quartet that's riding a massive wave of hype surrounding its recently released debut album, Astro Coast.
As the singer-guitarist notes over the phone from a tour stop in Texas, his choice to ditch classrooms in favor of tour vans and clubs wasn't really much of a decision at all. "Everything else I've ever tried to be good at, I've been too distracted by making music to give it the proper time or energy," he says. As last summer turned to fall, it didn't hurt that Surfer Blood had a record label (Brooklyn's Kanine Records, once home to Grizzly Bear, Drink Up Buttercup, and Oxford Collapse), a booking agent, and some solid press clippings based on a couple of short tours on the East Coast. The band also had the 10-track Astro Coast, recorded last spring in a Florida Atlantic University dorm room, in the can. It's an album the whole band — Pitts, guitarist Thomas Fekete, bassist Brian Black, and drummer T.J. Schwarz, all in their early 20s — firmly believed in.
And why not? Self-assured, spirited, and surprisingly sophisticated, its songs exist in that sweet spot between lo-fi and polished, skillfully arranged but not overworked. "Floating Vibes" is one of several reverb-soaked tunes that worships raw, shambling Pavement- or Sebadoh-style textures while inserting sunny Beach Boys melodies and vocal harmonies. Power-chord–fueled breakout single "Swim," meanwhile, launches as a sort of Cheap Trick homage before its guitars and rhythms briefly detour into Afropop. And "Harmonix" deftly updates the shoegazer and garage-fuzz template with chiming New Wavey six-strings, like the Jesus and Mary Chain scoring an episode of Miami Vice.
The confidence that flows through Astro Coast certainly translates to the stage, where Surfer Blood's members look about five years younger than they really are. But they play like they've been doing this for a decade. It's especially impressive, considering the foursome — well, fivesome, if you figure in touring keyboardist and percussionist Marcos Marchesani — made its live debut less than a year ago. "We know the songs really well now, and when we're up onstage there's more of a sense of discipline," Pitts says. "We know how to do it; we know how to make our equipment sound the way we want it to. And there's definitely more chemistry between us now when we're playing."
All the attention coming Surfer Blood's way is nice and unexpected, Pitts allows, but he and the rest of the band are smart enough to be wary of the hype machine. "It's a little nerve-wracking, since everyone is waiting around like a pack of wolves to trash our next record. We've come up pretty fast, so there's a lot of backlash already." Still, dealing with growing fame — while touring the country to bigger and bigger crowds — seems to beat writing term papers and worrying about getting a teaching gig in this crummy job market.
"I went to college basically so my parents wouldn't yell at me," Pitts laughs. "I kinda thought it was what you're supposed to do. And then I realized that you can do whatever you want to. Who knows — with bands, everything seems to get more complicated and becomes a big clusterfuck as it grows. But hopefully I'm making the right decision."
So far, so good.