Surfer Blood frontman John Paul Pitts was on a mission to “write as many short pop songs as possible” on Carefree Theatre, their latest album, which clocks in at 35 minutes with eleven catchy tracks.
The album’s namesake is located in West Palm Beach, Florida, where Pitts spent his childhood. Due to financial issues, it became abandoned, demolished, and, eventually, replaced. The album doesn’t only embody the nostalgia he still feels for it, but it reckons with the idea of coming full circle. The group returned to South Florida to record Carefree Theatre, which is out now on Kanine Records.
In light of the release, Pitts broke down each song on the record for us. Read the stories that make up Carefree Theatre as you listen along, and watch the exclusive music video for “Parkland (Into the Silence)” below.
1. “Desert Island”
On the way home from a West Coast tour in 2018, Mikey and I stopped in LA for a weekend to see friends and celebrate his birthday. The last day we were there, our friend Greg Hansen took us by the studio he was working at to show us around. It was off of Mulholland Drive in a guest house that had once belonged to Mick Fleetwood. The room was a time capsule from the seventies, complete with wood paneling, shag rugs, and Mexican tile floors. How Greg became the custodian of this space is still a mystery, but it was full of amplifiers and microphones and completely ready for tracking.
After a few hours it was starting to get late. We’d managed to finish a couple of demos, and we decided it was probably a good stopping point. Greg started shutting down the equipment while Mikey was on the couch playing a riff I’d never heard before. I immediately had ideas for melodies and harmonies to go with it, so I asked if we had time to try one more song. Mikey plugged into an overdriven amp, and I got behind the drum set and recorded the demo in one take.
If we had more time, we may have written a bridge or something, but in hindsight I’m glad we didn’t. It’s better the way it is. Short, driving, and direct.
Inspired by the Wipers’ “Telepathic Love,” “Karen” is a new take on an idea I’ve been playing with, on and off, for years. It was originally supposed to be the companion song to “Fast Jabroni,” (track seven on Astro Coast) but I never finished it, and ended up shelving it for over a decade. After moving back home to Florida and reevaluating my entire life, I decided it was time to revisit old material.
The lead vocals are intentionally sparse, repetitive, and vague. I thought it would be a nice juxtaposition to the terse and urgent guitar parts that are so close to sounding harsh. It also gave me the opportunity to play around with the idea of call and response. Mikey and Lindsey’s backup vocals have added so much to the live shows, I wanted to leave plenty of room for all of the “oohs” and “aahs” to fill out the space.
To me, “Karen” represents the call of music. My passion and favorite distraction. It sings to me in the shower and plays on repeat every night when I close my eyes. I love it so much, I decided to bring her to life in a song. I’d say more, but the mystery is half the fun when digging through a lyric sheet.
3. “Carefree Theatre”
I love playing drums. Even though I don’t currently own a kit, I take every opportunity I can to play (usually before our soundchecks, or after everyone else has left the practice space). I came up with this intro and thought it sounded like the Talking Heads. A simple pop beat with one or two tweaks that make it sound slightly off. I started to flesh out the parts and came up with the chord progression. I was listening to a lot of the Women self-titled record, and thought I would add an acoustic guitar to double the chords. I made sure to blow it out as much as possible by recording it through an overdrive pedal.
The verses were edgy in a good way, but it started to get taxing after a few minutes. I knew I wanted the chorus to be full and lush to contrast the staccato verses. What I didn’t know is that I would end up writing the biggest chorus on the entire record. The melody came immediately, and when I showed it to the band, Lindsey came up with that harmony that ties the whole song together.
The lyrics are about empathy and forgiveness. Even people who you’ve written off for years can surprise you. I won’t say who the song is about since she’s a public figure, but it’s someone who left a bad taste in my mouth for years. In the chaos of the past half-decade, she was thrown into a whirlpool of shit by virtue of having enough of a spine to not succumb to the cult mentality that’s infected so many of her peers. I found myself feeling her pain. We all need a little more mercy in our lives.
4. “Parkland (Into the Silence)”
On February 14, 2018 I was running on the treadmill at the gym with cable news running in the background. I had just moved back to Florida and was desperately looking for a reason to feel good about it.
That was when I saw on the news that there had been a shooting at a high school forty minutes south of my hometown. My heart ached for the victims and their families, but like so many Americans, I’ve become resigned to this particular kind of tragedy. I’m not proud of my cynicism, but it’s a callousness you develop when you live in a country where this is a weekly event.
In the days and weeks that followed, I watched the events closely. These high school kids were tearing up routine talking points we’ve heard a thousand times, refusing to be helpless, refusing to succumb to despair. In those moments I was so proud to be from this place. Even though we haven’t seen any meaningful legislation, these students were able to move the conversation into new territory. I never thought I’d see people wake up to the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S., but it feels like it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and so much of that awareness is due to the resilience and optimism of these young Floridians. This song is a testament to their courage. They are truly inspiring and living proof that anything can be overcome.
5. “In the Tempest’s Eye”
I’ve always considered “Anchorage” (track nine on Astro Coast) to be Surfer Blood’s opus. It’s a long and moody one, but I like how it’s structured in movements rather than a narrow verse, chorus, bridge format. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing pop songs, and I’m very proud of how concise and focused the material on Carefree Theatre came out, but when I started writing this one, I wanted to give myself some more freedom.
It came together pretty quickly. I went to Mikey’s rehearsal spot alone one night and locked myself inside. I spent most of the night working on what would become the demo, setting up and recording each instrument frantically. I was listening to lots of Brian Eno and the Swirlies at the time, and was really focused on sonic texture. I basically spread out every single pedal I had and started experimenting. What came together was a lush soundscape with more layers than any of the other songs I was working on.
There is a second movement that, in my opinion, is more compelling than the first. There’s no question that this song wouldn’t be the same without its coda, putting it in the same category as past Surfer Blood songs like “Anchorage” and “Six Flags in F or G”—two of my favorites.
6. “In My Mind”
Here’s another song that we came up with in Mick Fleetwood’s guest house in LA. I had the idea pretty fleshed out already, and started with the rhythm guitars while Mikey put down the drum track. I love songs in triple meter and had this idea boiled down to it’s essence, leaving plenty of room for overdubs and lead guitars.
I was particularly inspired by the Clientele song “Rain” off of Suburban Light, my favorite record ever. Suburban Light is absolutely drenched with otherworldly spring reverb. The guitar parts are deceptive and difficult, and the lyrics are poetry set to music. While all of the parts are excellent on their own, there’s something more to this record that’s hard to describe. Somehow it never fails to make me nostalgic and haunt me for hours afterward. I could spend a year imitating the different parts but never be able to capture that elusive yet unmistakable mood.
Like many of the songs on Carefree Theatre, this song was written immediately after a breakup, and is my way of trying to figure out what to do with all of the empty space in my life. It took me a while to process everything, and in hindsight I can see myself coming to terms with my new reality in the lyrics. I wouldn’t characterize Carefree Theatre as a breakup album, but there are more than a few breakup songs.
A lot of the songs on this record are breakup songs, but this one is the ultimate. There’s nothing that can prepare you for that feeling of betrayal when you hear that terrible news from your partner. Closing a chapter in your life is always painful, and it never happens as quickly as you wish it would. This song was my blank canvas, my chance to put everything into perspective.
I’ve always been inspired by Jay Reatard’s Blood Visions. We were lucky enough to play with him in 2009 before his untimely passing. There is always so much pain in his songs, from the lyrics to the melodies to the production. He always put everything on the line, especially on that record. I’ve been trying to imitate his style for years, but have never gotten there. This song came out somewhere between “My Shadow” and “This Charming Man”—the heartache that pushed me to write this song might be just beneath the surface, but it was with me every moment at the time.
Jim Wuest, our friend and organist, came in towards the end of the process to record some parts. As it turns out, a four-chord pop song is pretty easy for a world class organist. He played on a Hammond B3 through the leslie cabinet. It was so beautiful and timeless that I turned it up super loud in the mix (I usually bury the keyboard parts on our recordings). It gave the whole song a church-like feel, like an altar to wallowing in your own misery. Between the organ and Mikey’s super-technical lead guitar, this song ended up every bit as powerful as I had hoped it would be. I think it’s going to be a great addition to the set when we start touring again in 2021 (fingers crossed).
8. “Summer Trope”
The song “Summer Trope” is based on a demo I recorded in Oakland, CA during the winter of 2017. I was living in a tiny apartment with paper-thin walls and couldn’t record amps or drums the way I usually like to. Instead I was working on an iPad with headphones and singing into the internal microphone at the kitchen table. With any luck, these demos will never see the light of day. They’re honestly pretty whacky, but this one always stood out to me as a keeper.
I realized that I’d never made use of modulation effects like chorus and flanger. I had always associated them with nu-metal and cheesy prog bands until I heard the music of Cate Le Bon and Chris Cohen. They made me see that these effects could be tastefully harnessed in the right context. I built the song around a simple drum loop and forced myself to use an effects palette that would’ve normally made me very uncomfortable. I ended up with an eerie verse and a dramatic chorus that became the backbone of the song.
The lyrics are narrative, something else that doesn’t come naturally to me. It tells the story of a prisoner who breaks out of Alcatraz, only to be swallowed by a great white shark in the San Francisco Bay. Not the happiest of endings, but you have to admit, it’s very Surfer Blood.
I came up with the idea in a cab driving across the Bay Bridge. The driver mentioned something about how the city was trying to play down the presence of sharks in the bay. It’s hard not to be inspired by that view. Either way, I’m glad I tried stepping outside of my artistic comfort zone. “Summer Trope” sits nicely with the rest of the track listing, even though it takes a different path.
9. “Uneasy Rider”
Yo La Tengo is one of the most consistent and prolific bands of the past thirty years. I’ve been following them since high school and have always seen them as a guiding light. One of the things I love most, aside from the incredible songwriting, is the way Ira and Georgia sing together: male and female vocals up-front singing unison leads.
Lindsey joined the band in 2015 and immediately began filling out our sound with her harmonies and backing vocals. While she’s featured all throughout Snowdonia, I realized that we’d never attempted a double lead. So when I sat down to write this song I was focused on an arrangement that would work for both of us.
I recorded the original demo for drum machine and synthesizer. It was pretty over-the-top and campy, but I was determined to make use of synths on one of these songs. Unfortunately the more synth tracks I added the stranger everything sounded. I ended up muting them all, with the exception of the keyboard bass, and recording guitar parts instead. Sometimes it’s better to play to your strengths.
Anthony and Zach Dewar are identical twins from our hometown. Since a time before anyone can remember, they’ve been writing strange and beautiful songs. Thomas had been their good friend in high school and introduced them to me. I was immediately fascinated. In the fall of 2010 we decided to take them out on a Surfer Blood tour, and they showed up with a five-person backing band crammed in the backseat of their SUV (the band included a glockenspiel/theremin player).
They look and sound so much alike that I had a hard time telling them apart for weeks, when they harmonize together it sounds like a perfect overdub. I had the pleasure of watching them every night for a month. Their songs are epic, tell a story, and usually end up where you least expect them. When I started writing this seven-minute rock opera a decade later, I knew exactly who to channel.
Lyrically, this song is an ode to my father—a loving parent, a brilliant engineer, and a lifelong misanthrope. In 2017, I watched a movie about the Manhattan project and was struck by how much the actor playing Robert Oppenheimer reminded me of him. Unconsciously, I started creating this character who was a hybrid of both men, and the next day when I picked up my guitar the lyrics wouldn’t stop coming. I guess this song is my way of wrestling with ambition, disappointment, masculinity, etc., but the end guitar solo is my favorite.
11. “Rose Bowl”
A departure from the rest of the record, “Rose Bowl” started with a finger-picked progression on a classical guitar. I write with my nylon a lot, but it rarely becomes the backbone of an entire song. This time it felt right. It was simple and disarming like a lullaby. I recorded the two guitar parts and played them on loop while I came up with lyrics. At first I didn’t want to add drums or bass, I wanted to keep it just the two guitars and two vocal tracks, like an Elliott Smith song. It was so different from all of the other material that I figured we’d put it out as a B-side later.
I usually get nervous when I share new songs with the band, but that’s when they begin to really come to life. Sure enough, the rest of the instrumentation and Mikey and Lindsey’s backup parts took the song to a whole new level, not to mention the crazy guitar outro we recorded on a whim. By the time we were done we knew it had to go on the record.
The lyrics came easy. I wrote them in January 2018, during my last few weeks in California. My then-girlfriend and I had just spent the holidays with her family, and had gone to a tailgate party at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Football isn’t my thing. I had no allegiance to either team and could care less about the outcome, but I’ll always cherish that experience: the barbecues in the back of pickup trucks, the drunk fans consoling each other, and the beautiful Pasadena weather.
Our relationship came to an end a few weeks later, closing an extended chapter in my life. It makes this song especially bittersweet for me, but it’s a reminder not to look back with regret or acrimony. Even if everything comes to an end, those moments were real.