Talkhouse Contributing Writer Mish Way is the frontwoman of the band White Lung. Her freelance work can be found in The Guardian, Dazed & Confused, Salon and VICE, amongst others. She prefers writing about sex over music. You can follow her on Twitter here.
The elephant in the room: Surfer Blood leader John Paul Pitts’ 2012 domestic battery charges.
It’s hard to discuss Surfer Blood without that elephant coming up in conversation. The story goes that in March 2012 the then-26-year-old Pitts and his then-girlfriend had a big fight. She wanted to leave. He locked himself in the bathroom and threatened self-harm. Later, he held her down and jammed his fingers into her mouth. She bit him on the chest. The police were called. No one needed medical attention. The event became very publicized news. Pitts plead not guilty to domestic battery charges and later reached a plea agreement. Time passed. Eventually, the charges were dismissed.
“From this point forward, Surfer Blood will be whispered about as ‘that band with the wife beater,’” wrote the child (I can only assume) who runs the infamous blog Hipster Runoff.
And I agree. That’s really too bad, Pitts. It must be pretty hard to walk in the limelight with the stigma of an albeit dismissed domestic battery charge trailing behind you, but for me to review your band’s new record Pythons and ignore this event completely would be just as ridiculous as fixating on it entirely. (See this Pitchfork interview with Surfer Blood.) I’m not going to fixate, but we do live in a TMZ-infected world, where even the most pretentious music journalism feels that much more satisfying when it leaks traces of the artist’s personal life. We want to know our idols. We want to know our stars. Whatever. We’re curious. And when someone (even a relatively minor indie star like Pitts) allegedly does something morally contentious, we outsiders judge heavily.
Sure, Pitts’ house wasn’t laced with weapons and cocaine like other rock stars who have been accused of domestic battery — what’s up, Nick Oliveri? — but there is a very specific and haunting social ignominy that comes with the charge of domestic battery.
Perhaps that’s why Surfer Blood’s second album Pythons is sonically uplifting? Lyrically, the ten songs conjure up images more suited for a cheesy metal record, but the chords are bright, giving the production a Modest-Mouse-meets-Pixies kind of feel. (After all, Pythons was molded by legendary Pixies producer Gil Norton). Pythons is dreamy, surfy and very mainstream pop. Opening the record with “Demon Dance,” Pitts summons Rivers Cuomo à la “Buddy Holly,” the chorus even having a seesaw melody similar to the one from Weezer’s 1994 hit. “Some secrets you should never tell/They’ll feed you to the house of hell,” Pitts sings. “Say Yes to Me” and “Gravity” are rich meat-falling-off-the-bone pop songs that you want to sink your teeth into. “Needles and Pins” sounds like it should be playing in the background of a happy wedding scene in a Hollywood movie, while tracks like “Blair Witch” and “Slow Six” are no-sugar-added, supplementing the sweetness with fuzzed-out distortion.
But it’s hard to separate the sound of the music from the elephant in the room. You naturally want to read into Pitts’ poems: “Covert operations are under way/We can feel the blowback from yesterday,” he sings over the catchy Big-Star-meets-Pixies guitar pop of “Squeezing Blood.” “Dawning allegations have come to light/Stapled to the background/black and white.” On first listen, Pythons is catchy and pleasing, but it just doesn’t do much. It’s like, if I were having friends over and my neighbor told me to “keep the noise down,” I’d put on Surfer Blood at a low volume and the conversation would carry on. This is probably one of the most offensive things you can say to a musician: that their work has little to no effect on you — that it just… exists. However, on second, third, fourth listen, Pythons unfurls. Its surface becomes infectious and clever, yet lyrically, underneath the feel-good chord progressions and bubblegum-breezy hums, it feels dark and fucked up.
The incident with his now ex-girlfriend probably has a lot to do with that darkness, but there’s probably another, more fundamental source of it. As a songwriter, especially a lyricist, music is often the one place where you can flesh out daily problems in your life that you do not know how to confront with emotional maturity. And in that Pitchfork interview, Pitts acknowledged something of an alcohol problem. The drinking probably affected his relationships to both his ex, his friends and himself. Being altered always contributes to the darkness in one’s work.
But maybe the music only feels dark because we know Pitts’ story. Either way, the controversy actually kind of helps Surfer Blood’s music — whether the listener is morally disgusted by Pitts’ arrest or not, it creates a curiosity to look beyond the baby-faced Florida pop songwriter and really deconstruct his seemingly run-of-the-mill lyrics for some twisted rage hiding underneath. And maybe that’s totally sick, but sometimes even the politest of us can’t help staring at the elephant in the room.