When Surfer Blood frontman John Paul Pitts was told by bandmate, co-writer and general right-hand man Thomas Fekete that he’d recently been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, Pitts couldn’t process it. “We first found out in January 2015,” explains Pitts from a tour van currently navigating the open road between Austin and Houston, Texas.
“He had just gotten married that fall and on his honeymoon he began to feel really bad, so he went to the hospital and found out. At the time, we had 60 shows booked, a record coming out that May, and were finally signed to another label after getting dropped from Warner Bros. It should have been obvious he wasn’t going to be able to tour with us. I was like, ‘You’re still coming, right?’ I couldn’t wrap my head around not having him on the road with us. It was so baffling. I sort of mourned the loss of my bandmate and writing partner back then in 2015. It was really, really hard.”
Fekete’s diagnosis jolted the trajectory of Surfer Blood, the indie rock band founded by a group of like-minded musical friends in West Palm Beach, Florida, who all ricocheted from regional obscurity while Pitts was attending a state college to national acclaim in relatively short order. “At the time I just didn’t know what to do with myself besides being in a band; it’s the only thing I’ve ever been serious about,” explains Pitts, who relishes those early days. “I think I would have been happy recording songs, putting them up on MySpace, and playing house parties forever.”
At the time, Pitts and longtime drummer Tyler Schwarz were coming off of an early incarnation of the act dubbed The TV Club. When they met Fekete, the group changed their name to Surfer Blood and it was he who encouraged the band to take their act beyond the confines of southern Florida. “He knew, for certain, that this is what he wanted to do, no questions about it, and he was the sort of excelerator throughout this whole thing,” Pitts explains. “It was a lot of work and uncertainty. A lot of sleeping in the van at rest stops in Wal-Mart parking lots at first.”
The band received national acclaim in 2009 thanks to their breakout single “Swim.” Much like the essence behind their moniker, the track combined the infectious pop melodies of indie surf rock, but with darker, gruff overtones accented by the distorted reverb of Pitts’ distinctive voice. Thanks to the track, which Fekete had pushed to be their debut single, the band soon became indie darlings. “I remember a big moment for me was being on the cover of the Arts Section of The New York Times,” remembers Pitts. “I bought 10 copies for my family and extended family to prove to them I wasn’t crazy.”
The critically acclaimed release of debut album Astro Coast sealed their fate and the band was soon wooed by Warner Bros. Records. However, the transition from being an indie act to getting signed by a major label was a difficult experience, one that Pitts and company had trouble initially navigating. “We went from recording the first record in our bedrooms to being in a crazy studio that was the nicest place I’d ever been,” says Pitts. “To do that all so fast was like a whirlwind and was obviously more pressure than I needed to be putting on myself. We probably weren’t ready at the time and there was a lot of learning lessons. You aren’t born knowing how to do this.” Around this time, the band also found themselves in headlines for reasons apart from their music when Pitts was charged with domestic battery in March 2012. The charges were later dropped.
Soon after the release of sophomore album Pythons in 2013, the band lost their Warner deal and spent over a year and a half in limbo, finally landing on their feet with Indiana-based Joyful Noise Records with big plans for the future. Then, Fekete’s diagnosis.
“We always knew there was a possibility something could happen. Tom had cancer when he was 17 and fought for over a year until he went into remission. When I first met him, he was on a raw vegan diet and was glowing after beating cancer that first time. Throughout the years, he’d go see a doctor and come back and we’d ask if everything was okay and he he’d say ‘yes’ and that’s all he’d say about it.” When the cancer came back, Fekete waited to make the announcement public, and later launched a GoFundMe Page to take care of subsequent expenses.
“He’s a really proud guy and wouldn’t have done that unless he had to,” explains Pitts, who was floored by the outpouring of support by both fans of the band and colleagues in the industry. “The way everyone stepped up, came out of the woodwork, and dug deep to try to help as much as possible very much renewed my faith in people.” Benefit concerts were thrown, guitars were auctioned off, and fellow acts from Yo La Tengo to Real Estate all took part in fundraising efforts. “If I’m ever cynical about anything, I think of that and how special it was.” (Fundraising efforts were momentarily derailed in May 2015 when a chunk of money and equipment was stolen after the band’s van was broken into during a tour stop.)
Fekete was ailing during the writing process of latest album, Snowdonia, during which the magnitude of his absence dawned on Pitts. “That was the first time I didn’t have Tom by my side writing a record. I did get a little lonely not having him sort of affirming my ideas. He’s someone whose opinions I trust explicitly.” However, the process was also a cathartic one as well. “Writing is an extension of me. It’s a cathartic experience, while the recording process is just plain fun.”
Fekete died from complications related to cancer in May 2016 during the mixing period of Snowdonia, the title of which came to Pitts in a dream. “When we were making it I was reading The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This female character in the book starts off as a muse full of fun and charm. That stuck in my head and I had a dream I had my own charming, beautiful muse named Snowdonia. I woke up and starting writing lyrics because it was such a striking image and it all fell into place.”
With Snowdonia out this week, Pitts describes the band as now being in a “comfortable” place. “I know that’s a weird wood to use, but we’ve been figuring it out along the way and it feels like we have a good command of our live show and how we sound on the record, and the label is really collaborative and supportive as well. I feel like we landed on our feet and are in a really good place right now.” Of course, they’ll continue to carry on Fekete’s legacy in both sound and spirit. “He had this go-anywhere, do-anything attitude and this energy and belief that he could do anything. I’ll always be grateful he pushed me to take that leap.”