Tag Archives: Surfer Blood

The Year. 5. My lover’s a carnivore, her body’s in ivy casing.

5. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast [US]

Surfer Blood make fun, catchy, slackery guitar pop. They’re a musical version of one of those convenient evolutionary missing links, sitting as they do barely within the confines of 2008-9’s lots-of-reverb-and-sunglasses-indoors lo-fi style and also, more firmly, within that moment in 90s alt music, maybe crystallised mostly in recollection, when boom-buoyed suburban parents started buying their kids expensive equipment for their garage bands, leading to big guitar sounds, huge choruses made of gen. x world view and Weezer dominating MTV.

For a while, music as big-sounding as Surfer Blood would have been too self-confident, too marketable. But that style of ‘alternative’ fell out with nu-metal. It’s now the 10s, so the 90s are officially retro and fair game to be doused in reverb and refitted to purpose. You can start your album with a couple of power chords, sing your songs straight and basic to the ideal female ‘you’ and do guitar solos where you stamp on a pedal and step forward to the front of the stage (so long as they’re simple).

Surfer Blood are a school textbook quality example of what I once said of Squarehead – they’re a band for whom every song sounds like a shot at the best guitar pop they can possibly do. So it’s less about the peaks and troughs of the journey, though there are slower, more ‘atmospheric’ songs, and more about how close to perfection each individual song gets. Swim, the song everyone will have heard if they’ve heard any, is the best effort in those terms. If the storyboard of a song goes ‘hook -> second hook -> bossa part -> third hook -> rock out -> first hook -> second hook’ you’re in pretty good stead in terms of keeping listener attention, and with a riff like something off Ultimate Guitar God Collection, Swim’s about as close to an unadulterated head bang as you’re going to get without studio compression fizzing your ear off.

There are no weird chords, or turns that don’t sound they’re exactly what should have happened to the previous part at that specific time. It could be any of the songs that’s left in your head later in the day, or most importantly, in the morning when you wake up before you can figure out what it actually is. The only drawbacks are stupid, throwaway things like that line about “TWIN PEAKS AND DAVID LYNCH, SAT ON YOUR COUCH IN SYRACUSE”, as if there was absolutely nothing else but namedropping the cred-loaded guy who directed the show you were watching that you could throw in to fill the metre.

As for the 2008-9 reverb-soaked lo-fi bit? Well, you can hear that in the reverb. And the lo-fi. Home-recorded, like obvious but slightly cleaner-cut precursors Vampire Weekend’s debut. In fact, Contra opening at number one in America seems like it might have had a lot to do with Surfer Blood’s deal with the nefarious Warner in the wake of Astro Coast. But so might the fact that more than half of these songs could’ve been lead singles. That’s not hyperbole. Floating Vibes, Swim, Take It Easy, Twin Peaks, Fast Jabroni and Catholic Pagans. Investigate. Even if the major label devils somehow destroy the incredible melodic sense and song-building ability, there’ll always be this one, out of the blue and as good as you could imagine it.

A fun Pitchfork.tv session in an actual garage, and the closest I got to an interview.

Surfer Blood – Catholic Pagans

All I know is that you’re perfect right now.

Coney Island’s great for a lot of reasons. It hosts the world famous Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, for example, the site of Takeru Kobayashi’s doubling of the original event record in 2001 and his ignominious fall to Joey Chestnutt is 2007 which ultimately led to his non-participation and bizarre Free Kobi campaign on this year’s July 4th event.

There’s other stuff, too. Candy apples. The “subway crowd”, according to a New Yorker who recommended keeping away. And once a year, for free, the Siren festival, put on by the Village Voice. To give a general idea of how great Siren is historically, here’s some examples of bands who’ve played since 2001.

2001: Guided By Voices, Quasi, Superchunk
2002: Sleater-Kinney, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars
2003: !!!, Modest Mouse, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
2004: The Fiery Furnaces, Blonde Redhead, Mission of Burma
2005: Q and Not U, Spoon, Saul Williams
2006: Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, Scissor Sisters, Art Brut
2007: MIA, Dr. Dog, Black Lips
2008: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Islands, Times New Viking, Broken Social Scene, Beach House, Jaguar Love, Annuals (FOR FREE! Fuck sake.)
2009: Built To Spill, Micachu and the Shapes, Future of the Left.

This year was the tenth anniversary and it was pretty great too.

The first band I got to, having had to rouse a household full of hungover delinquents with nothing but bare willpower and a promise that they’d probably like some of the bands, was Surfer Blood.

Surfer Blood are a band I like an awful lot, but live sound got the better of them, and with unwieldily booming subwoofers hiding the guitar melodies and killing the groove, they were only okay, and probably would have been worse than okay for someone without the melodies burnt into their head already.

Ponytail, or the second half of Ponytail’s set, was next. Ponytail are a preposterous and excellent band, and having never seen them live despite being in Dublin at the time of their visit, I was excited to see what they were going to be like.

They were sparser than I expected, and more punk. Whilst on record it comes off as slightly more composed, in a live setting the irrepressible Molly Siegel seems to be pretty much exclusively a really excitable cheerleader for the band’s naive, complex music. It works pretty well, and a moshpit forms. Molly says things like “golly”. Cos she’s Molly.

Show of the day came from the Pains of Being Pure At Heart, up next. I know they’re divisive, but as the all-knowing life judge and stone-tablet opinion hander-downer, that’s ridiculous. They’re great. Their debut album could not be more full of great indie pop songs, and all it takes is not screwing it up to transform that into a live show.

They didn’t screw it up. They played the hits, and plenty of new songs, and seemed genuinely delighted to be playing Siren. Their enthusiasm was contagious, really, and even if a Pains crowd is never going to do more than dance lightly, it was an enjoyable light dance. Highlight, for me, was Come Saturday, but then that’s always been my favourite song of theirs.

The God of Musicians More Respected Than Good will have to forgive me for this one: instead of going to Ted Leo, I brown-bagged it for a while in the carnival, watching an Italian ice-maker make Italian ices grumpily and generally surveying the point at which the hipster Siren crowd meshed with the “subway crowd” (I’m presuming they don’t have subways in Williamsburg. Right? Am I completely right on that point?)

So this sets up Holy Fuck, with the sun going down and the risk of living a week the colour of a cherry slushie just for the sake of seeing a few indie rock bands waning. Safe hands.

If you’ve never seen or encountered Holy Fuck before, you’re missing out. Listening to them on record is something, but not enough. Much like HEALTH but a bit more amenable to normal people (rather than ridiculous people) dancing, they fashion their conceivably programmable beats from real instruments, some conventional, some silly. The drummer is the driving force, taking whole songs up and down with him as he sees fit. Then there’s a bassist and two sets of keyboard/sample self-facilitating media nodes, one of which features a 20 euro Casio keyboard I still have a home, the default beat from which actually forms the basis for a Holy Fuck song.

On Coney Island at dusk beside the beach and boardwalk surrounded by people looking happy, a rollercoaster and a carnival in the summer, pretty much everything was great, but Lovely Allen, with its swells and forget-your-troubles-esque euphoric moments, was always going to be the high point of the day.

As they finished, I got another beer (in another brown bag) and headed towards the beach, passing a man in a Fermanagh GAA jersey who turned out to be from Queens and was found immediately out of his depth after he walked foolishly into the trap of asking my GAA fundamentalist (and Nordy) companion if he’d watched the World Cup.

He hadn’t. We continued on our path to night beach drinking.

++

Lucid afternoon dream! Cosmopolitan scene!

The return of the inimitable no-fi image capture technology of my Nokia N70 telephone, featuring L to R: Hadji Bakara Guy, JP Pitts

Surfer Blood are the kind of band you end up arguing for in those age-old, only semi-legitimate terms: “They just have great songs.” The accusation you’re fighting is never that their songs aren’t great – it’s that they sound too straight-up rock, that the reverb thing is derivative, that there’s nothing exciting about them. But, counter to the process of over-thinking music though it is, with Astro Coast, you kind of just had to throw it on twice and let the hooks get you. They had me at a video of Swim from some gig last year.

They’re apparently someone’s idea of big enough to play the main venue in the Academy as well, even though upstairs wasn’t open and attendance on the ground was on the “smattering of people” end of “decent crowd”. In fact, just let me log that this gig in Crawdaddy would have had that much more atmosphere. But still, MCD booked Surfer Blood, presumably found it cheaper to put them on in their oversized barn than somewhere else, and set them up with an appalling support band, so that’s what had to be dealt with.

Planet Parade are, before we proceed, possibly the most inoffensive band in the world. They’re inch-perfect with their live performance, and 1.5 of their songs have hooks, but having done a bit of listening to them for the Trinity Ball Guide, I can’t help but denounce them totally, forever. Once their bassist stopped rocking out in the quintessential bassist manner hammily mocked by Paul Rudd in that Paul Rudd film, Surfer Blood came on.

These are young dudes, is the first thing. It’s strange, having been the obvious kid at gigs for ages, coming to the age where I’m seeing internationally hyped bands who look like we could have sat the Leaving Cert together. But so what.

The frontman, JP Pitts, comes across a touch rockstar in his affectations to the extent that you could legitimately call him a frontman, and you get the impression from the fact that he sings and does all the good melody lead parts on guitar as well that he is probably the artisan behind Surfer Blood. Also visually interesting onstage is Hadji Bakara Guy, who is a swarthy guy with an afro and facial hair whose primary job seems to be enjoying the music and playing occasional synth.

They pretty much just release, do it like they would in a garage, with the affected rocking out included. A week and a half off from touring left their drumming missing the occasional cue, charmingly, and the vocals, mostly ebullient sloganeering shouts, wavered from time to time, but it’s flaws like these that make the couple of beastly classic rock riffs they bust out so interesting.

It started at medium pace, but a pretty much straight up cover of Sweater Song by Weezer in third place on the setlist dragged the drunks to front centre and gave everyone else a peg to hang Surfer Blood off, given that it’s their first time ever in Ireland. College dudes who like Weezer. If having them on the same P4K playlist as posture-driven music caused any confusion, seeing them live allays that pretty much straight away.

It’s the first wave of 90s homage. They did another straight up, obvious 90s cover in their encore, Nirvana’s About A Girl. We’re only just about ten minutes into it being okay to do solemn homage to Beavis and Butthead, so it’s tentatively Surfer Blood are to be embraced.

But listen. It is about the balls-out slacker rock, what Vampire Weekend would have been doing if they were getting stoned and watching old episodes of 120 Minutes instead of attending Afro-Carribean Soc meetings. Twin Peaks, complete with the actual line “Twin Peaks and David Lynch met on your couch in Syracuse”, is undeniable, as catchy as any jock rock riff with 800 times the personality.

And Swim is Swim, despite the Nardwuar-discovered Eno rip-off inherent. In a parallel universe where the future’s paradigm is the same as the past’s, Swim would be Disc 1 Track 1 on Indie Rocks!: Rocking Hits of The Movement-less Internet Indie Generation. The drummer fucked his cue once and “got told” according to one of the band later, but it doesn’t matter.

Complaints? Well, it should have been louder. Maximum tolerable volume is desirable for this. Also, I would like to again complain about Planet Parade. And before the Weezer cover won over the folded arms in the crowd, they seemed a bit snarky. But they won through in the end. If this was in a full small room instead of a half-full big room, it might have kicked off properly, but for now it was just a solid rock show.

Addenda? I bought a t-shirt that’s the Unknown Pleasures cover art with Surfer Blood – Astro Coast written on it. Also have the Unknown Pleasures t-shirt. Now have two of the same t-shirt, but I look forward to potential conversations opening with “why does your t-shirt have the Joy Division album art but another band’s name?”

+