Surf City
Coast to Coast
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Since forming in 2004, Surf City (originally Kill Surf City before being shortened) has progressed at a steady clip, even if there were more than two years between the band’s self-titled EP and its first album. The Auckland, New Zealand–based band has matured from a jangly bunch of rambunctious youngsters into a four-piece capable of shifting between beguiling pop and leveling noise with ease. Released at the end of last year, Surf City’s full-length debut, Kudos, proudly wears its Kiwi heritage on its sleeve (figuratively speaking, that is), continuing in the vein of the Flying Nun bands that made a name for themselves in the late ’70s and ’80s. One can also hear ’90s references to Manchester (“Retro”) and shoegaze (“Autumn”), but yet throughout the record, the group manages to lock in on a firm identity and sound, even if the latter is (literally) a bit hazy.

Surf City is currently in the middle of a U.S. tour, but I caught up with singer and guitarist Davin Stoddard this past winter via telephone in New Zealand, where it was the middle of summer.

I’ll dispense with a dumb question first: do you surf?

Davin Stoddard: No. I have in the past, but it’s not a regular occurrence.

Was calling the band Kill Surf City originally anti-surfing at all? What was the thought behind that?

DS: There was no thought behind it. I bought the “April Skies” single (by The Jesus and Mary Chain) at the market one day, saw the name and we needed a name and thought that was pretty cool. It was as easy as that. We had been looking for a name for awhile and everyone agreed that it was a cool name.

There are so many bands with either “surf” or “beach” or “waves” in their names these days. Any concerns about being lumped in with that crowd?

DS: Of course there’s concerns, but you don’t think about it. We’ve been around for six years going on seven, and we named our band a long time ago. We’re so far away from it all, we can’t be lumped in with anything because we have nothing to do with those bands.

From my impression, it seems like the album is long in coming. Do you see it that way, and if so, is there a particular reason that it took so long to put together a full-length?

DS: We recorded a record with someone that we spent a bit of money on, and we ended up not liking it. It took about six or seven months in itself to realize that we didn’t want to do that album, and then we had to start again. Then we spent a year and a half on the actual album that we’ve got now. It might seem like a long time, but for what we’ve done, it didn’t take us that long. We just went for a period of time where we didn’t end up using what we had done. It’s been a work in progress for us so I guess we haven’t noticed it as much because we’ve been dong stuff the whole time. And we finished recording the album more than a year ago. For us, it hasn’t seemed like forever, but for others it may.

Did you scrap the actual songs themselves or was it just the recordings?

DS: It was mostly the recordings... well, I’d say half and half. Half the songs were scrapped and half re-recorded and worked upon. And not too lump ourselves in with the surfer, slacker crowd again, but we are quite slack, as in we don’t have a producer and do it at home and sometimes you end up playing Age of Empires instead of actually recording.

Did coming overseas after the EP was released affect the direction the band went? Did you feel like you were working in a bubble in New Zealand?

DS: Yeah, you get a kick out that and then you have even more of a push to keep making music. But there wasn’t an effect on the sound or anything like that.

I mean, I’ve interviewed Robert Scott before, and he expressed feeling very removed from the rest of the world and not being influenced by what’s going on elsewhere, hence the question.

DS: I think generationally speaking there’s a difference between Robert Scott and I, because I’m part of the internet generation. He grew up in a completely different era. It would have felt way more removed down in Dunedin in the ’80s than in Auckland in 2010 or 2011 almost. We do know what’s going on—we can’t plead ignorance—even if we’re not taking part in it in a real life sense.

I have no sense of what things are like in Auckland. Is there a lively music scene there?

DS: Yeah, there is. We haven’t played in awhile, but I think there’s quite a few young bands coming up and around that are good. There always seems to be an undercurrent of stuff going on.

Is it hard to get noticed outside of New Zealand? I mean, are there great bands that come and go without us over here ever finding out about them?

DS: I guess so, but a lot of it eventually does get there. I can only think of stuff that I find from New Zealand that is worthy of being overseas, like mostly Flying Nun music, and most people like yourself have probably gone through the Flying Nun catalog and listened to all those bands. Good music will eventually finds its way wherever, I suppose.

You’ve had your fair share of comparisons to the Flying Nun stuff. Is it hard not to be influenced by them?

DS: Well, it is for us because we love that music and we’ve listened to that music quite a lot. But as a New Zealander, I don’t think you have to be influenced by them to be in a band.

Getting to the new record, it seems like what’s on the record is more elaborate than what you do live. I’m thinking of songs like “Yakuza Park” that are atmospheric. Do you see those things as being separate or are you trying to incorporate other elements into the live show?

DS: Live, we like to just plug in our guitars and bass and drums and be able to play whatever songs we have. At a show, we can’t be bothered soundchecking five instruments; we just want to play. In some ways, I feel we went too far with songs like that, which is not one of my favorites. Actually, I don’t like the song at all. That’s why we move on. The next record, we’re going to treat it like just plugging in our amps as much as we can. That’s what we’ve come to like, making it as easy as possible.

What’s your approach to making songs? Is there a lot of premeditated thought or do they come out of jamming?

DS: It is quite a lot of jamming or just sitting around playing a couple chords and everyone has a play around. I suppose we listen to music and hear something cool and try to do that.

On the album, “In Times of Approach” seems particularly loose. Was that song something that came about real naturally?

DS: Well, it started off as something else much cheesier. So we tried it again and it came out in a few days.

It seems like as the record progresses, it starts off on the pop end of the spectrum and then has more drone-y stuff toward the end. Was that deliberate?

DS: Not putting the record together, but once we did the track order it was, like doing an A and B side. But I don’t know which song would be the switchover. We’ve got some vinyl somewhere, I should have a look at that!

What do you guys do when you’re not making music? Do you have to work day jobs?

DS: Yeah, I was working a day job until about two months ago, working on a building site. And the other guys do classic musician jobs, like telemarketing. We’ve got a good unemployment benefit system over here, which makes it easier to be a musician than other places. But on the other hand, you’ve got nowhere to play and you can’t actually make much money as a musician in New Zealand. Right now, we started recording a new record, so none of us have jobs. Then it’s summer now, so it’s too hot to do anything. Nobody wants to think about anything intensely when you’re hot.

How do you think the record you’re working on is going to differ from this one?

DS: I don’t know. If the last record was a Flying Nun record, then this one will be a Clash record. I have no idea.