‘Making a Setlist’ is our new series where we talk about the mechanics of live music with our favorite artists.
We tracked down John Paul Pitts for the initial installment, vocalist and founding member of the Florida-based indie-alternative band Surfer Blood. The sunshiny group is back on tour promoting their fourth studio record, Snowdonia, which was released February 3. It’s a fun, bright record that manages to recapture the simplicity of their early work without compromising artistic growth.
After a soundcheck in St. Louis, Pitts jumped on the phone with Behind the Setlist to discuss performing Snowdonia, the impact his new bandmates have made on the live show, selecting songs for a setlist and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You just played a couple shows with the Shins, right?
Yeah, it was awesome, man. Whenever we play shows with them, we always watch the whole set. I grew up listening to the Shins. They’re such a great band. We’re very, very stoked to be playing shows with those guys. If I could go back to my 16-year-old self and tell myself I’d be doing this, I’d be really stoked. It’s one of those life affirming things.
How has the rest of the tour been going? Are audiences responding to the new material?
It’s been going really good. We have a pretty simple stage setup these days. We have Mike McCleary now, and Lindsey Mills is doing backup vocals. It’s just the four of us onstage, but it’s a very full sound.
On the last record [2015’s 1000 Palms], we were writing these pretty crazy parts. Lots of technical stuff. Maybe we were showing off, I don’t know. We had progressed as musicians since 2009, the first Surfer Blood shows. But when we were playing 1000 Palms live, I was like, “Wow, on the next record I’m going to make sure I include some three-chord songs in there.”
There’s something pure about writing simple, powerful, direct songs. I feel like that’s a lot of what Snowdonia is. Simple and pure. The new songs have been really fun to play.
On that note, with four albums and an EP to choose from, how do you balance fan service and band service when selecting songs for a setlist?
We just try to strike a balance between the two. We do know people want to hear songs from our first record and the songs from Pythons that were on the radio. We put those in. Every night I try to do something from every release.
It can be heartbreaking with each new record because you have to cut songs you’ve been playing for years to make room for the new stuff. We play for an hour and 20 minutes now. It’s great to have such a big catalogue, but I sometimes feel like a basketball coach. I can only have five players on the court and I want to play them all.
Is Surfer Blood a “live band” or a band that just plays live?
I think we started off as a band that just plays live. We’d write songs and then go play them, but we’ve evolved. We’ve spent the last seven years on the road without taking many breaks. You learn to read a room, for instance. [I’ve learned that] songs can be played different live. I don’t think the live show needs to be a 100 percent recreation of the studio album. Some songs have a really good energy if you play them faster. Or if you just want to pick part of a song and jam on it, I’m totally cool.
Live music is a different thing than the studio. A recording will always be the same. It’s static art. But a live performance is constantly changing. You go see a band once and then see them again two years later. Chances are they’re playing those songs differently. It can be a whole different world. Live music evolves and it’s important to embrace that.
It sounds like you leave a fair amount of room for fluidity and improvisation.
We have sections in some of our songs where we can improvise for 30 seconds or five minutes. A riff will eventually signal that we’re in the last four bars, and then we’ll switch the part or end the song. It’s not something we really discuss all that much. It’s just naturally occurred after a bunch of trial and error.
After so many shows, I’m not that scared of making mistakes. When you’re trying something new, sometimes it doesn’t go perfect. You can stop and start over. We’re not playing to a click, or a backing track or anything. Sometimes that can be fun to see a band mess up.
You’ve got to have a concert horror story. Any show you wish you could forget?
I almost never break strings but there was one show where I broke a string on my guitar, then broke a string on the spare guitar. So I run off stage in a panic to try and find the opening band. I go backstage—this was all during our set—and find the band and asked for their guitar. “Hey, I need your guitar.” They were happy to do it, but onstage was like five minutes of dead air. It was just one of those nights.
Is that what’s most annoying, then, breaking a string?
Well, technical issues when something isn’t working. When the monitor is feeding back the entire set and you’re out and in front of everyone. That will suck the energy right out of the show. People are still listening, but you can sense you’ve lost them a little bit. Thank goodness for soundchecks, I guess [laughs].
What’s your favorite song to play right now?
“Instant Doppelgangers” off our new record. It was inspired by Cream, one of my dad’s favorite bands. I discovered their weird, really druggy, psychedelic stuff. It was interesting and diffident. Spooky harmonies. “Doppelgangers” was one of those songs where I tried to replicate that.
It’s long and has this really jammy outro. Lots of guitar, call and response stuff. Lindsey [Mills] and I sing harmony almost the entire time. Backing vocals for us is relatively new, so being able to get through a song like that and execute it well is something I’m proud of. It’s classic Surfer Blood, but with a new twist. A good way to showcase the new direction of the band.
Does that song also give you the most trouble?
It was at first. Even before it was recorded, we were like, “God, how will we ever pull this off live?” But now it flows. Now it feels good. We all make the changes at the right time. That muscle memory has kicked in. And that’s a good feeling, you know?
Absolutely. Let’s switch gears for a little bit and talk about the road. Give me three lessons you’ve learned to survive a tour.
One, always wear your pajamas. That is, up until you get to the venue. I mean, why not be comfortable? Two, never go through a fast-food window with your band. No one’s going to have exact change. Just go inside and order separately. And three, stay hydrated.
What’s the strangest venue you’ve ever played?
We’ve played some weird shows. We’d play anywhere that’d have us when we were getting started. One of the strangest places was actually here in St. Louis. It was in a restaurant. People were eating dinner. It was six at night. They just wanted to eat their dinner and have conversations with their families, and we’re like, “We’re going to play our loud songs for the next 45 minutes” [laughs]. It was just one of those things. You do it and get through it and you laugh.
And then you go play with the Shins. That’s not a bad career path.
UPCOMING TOUR DATES
- Mon 6/5 Larimer Lounge – Denver, CO* http://ticketf.ly/2orvNeb
- Wed 6/7 The Bartlett – Spokane, WA* http://ticketf.ly/2ovPAbA
- Thu 6/8 Broken City – Calgary, AB, Canada* http://bit.ly/2pM5wIy
- Sat 6/10 Amigos Cantina – Saskatoon, SK, Canada* http://bit.ly/2oZZ7K2
- Mon 6/12 The Pyramid Cabaret – Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada* http://bit.ly/2pyk7tk
- Tue 6/13 The Aquarium – Fargo, ND* http://bit.ly/2ocJ8v7
- Wed 6/14 First Avenue & 7th St Entry – Minneapolis, MN* http://bit.ly/2pNeQz1
- Thu 6/15 Vaudeville Mews – Des Moines, IA* http://bit.ly/2oS4aNW
- Fri 6/16 Cactus Club – Milwaukee, WI* http://bit.ly/2ocJCRX
- Sat 6/17 Lincoln Hall + Schubas – Chicago, IL* http://bit.ly/2pMuE1R
- Sun 6/18 HI-FI Indy – Indianapolis, IN* http://ticketf.ly/2p0K30z
- Tue 6/20 Now That’s Class – Cleveland, OH* http://bit.ly/2pmuEsA
- Wed 6/21 El Club – Detroit, MI* http://bit.ly/2pmyCBk
- Thu 6/22 MOTR – Cincinnati, OH* http://bit.ly/2p04wRd
- Fri 6/23 Exit/In – Nashville, TN* http://bit.ly/2pMaeGt
- Sat 6/24 Saturn Birmingham – Birmingham, AL* http://bit.ly/2oZZvrJ
- Sun 6/25 Park Tavern in Piedmont Park – Atlanta, GA* http://bit.ly/2ouBhF9
* with Winter