Surfer Blood

The members of Surfer Blood (from left, Mike McCleary, John Paul Pitts, Tyler Schwarz and Lindsey Mills) all went to the same high school in West Palm Beach, Fla. The band performs Oct. 21 at the Cavalier Theater.

Contributed photo

Surfer Blood made a big splash with its 2009 debut album, “Astro Coast,” but that album almost didn’t come out. The perfectionist in singer/guitarist John Paul Pitts made him want to keep testing the water before diving in.

But with encouragement from bandmate, sounding board and chief instigator Thomas Fekete, the album was let loose. “I guess somewhere it all clicked: You have to let this go, you have to let people hear this,” Pitts said, and the reception was overwhelming. “It all happened so fast.”

“Astro Coast,” which garnered major attention for the debut single “Swim” and for “Floating Vibes,” was largely a home recording project, with just two days in a studio to record the drums. Pitts loved that process of building songs layer by layer, and he could be content today to just be holed up writing and recording in his bedroom.

He couldn’t be totally happy, though, as it was his dream from a young age to play in a touring band. “I just wanted to travel and see the rest of the country and the world so badly,” said Pitts, who brings his band to La Crosse for the first time for an Oct. 21 show at the Cavalier Theater.

Growing up in South Florida, Pitts took up guitar in his mid-teens when his best friend got a guitar for Christmas and Pitts ended up playing it more than his friend. At first, he was into punk rock (Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Fugazi were favorites), and then a friend introduced him to Dinosaur Jr.

Surfer Blood’s sound really doesn’t have much to do with surfers or blood, with Pitts sweetly crooned melodies floating over rockin’ beats and overdriven guitars. Pitts likes surf music fine, he said, “but I was not trying to channel that when I started this band. Instead, it was what if the Beach Boys had discovered loud amps and overdrive pedals. … I just wanted to write really pretty songs, I guess.”

Tragedy struck the band when guitarist Fekete had to leave the band in 2015 after a rare form of cancer he’d battled in high school returned, claiming his life in May 2016. Losing Fekete was a big blow for Pitts, as he was a major factor in expanding the band outside Florida and Pitts gaining confidence as a songwriter.

“I have a clear enough vision, and I know what I want enough to sit down and record a song, but I really don’t know if I could have gotten there without Thomas believing in me first,” Pitts said.

The songs on this year’s “Snowdonia,” Surfer Blood’s fourth album and first without Fekete, feature a new musical complexity and maturity without sacrificing the band’s simple, sweet and quirky side. “I am a total goofball when you get to know me,” Pitts said. “When that comes across in our songs, I’m happy about it.”

In addition to Pitts, the band features longtime friend and bandmate Tyler Schwarz on drums and two other musicians from their hometown of West Palm Beach, bassist Lindsey Mills and guitarist Mike McCleary, both of whom provide backing vocals.

People going to the Cavalier show can expect Surfer Blood to have some fun with their songs. “I’ve never been too much of a purist about making the live shows sound just like the record,” Pitts said. “We tend to get pretty jammy live.”

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Randy Erickson, formerly the editor of the Onalaska Holmen Courier-Life and Coulee News, covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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