Content warning: suicide.
Surfbort is cool. The punk band – born in Brooklyn, now residing in LA — is so damn cool, they released their new album, Keep On Truckin’, on a Monday instead of the usual Friday, ensuring everyone’s week fpwould start on a good note. Now, that might not be the first impression you get since the album opens with singer Dani Miller sweetly opining about ending it all. “FML / I wanna kill myself / I didn’t get / the things I wanted,” she croons on “FML,” before the band – guitarists Matt Picola and Alex Kilgore, bassist Nick Arnold, and drummer Sean Powell – kick in with a blistering explosion of sound. It matches the song’s message of just how frustrating the simple act of being alive could be.
“I think because things get so dark and weird, like we kind of hit like nihilism almost like, ‘Ah, everything seems meaningless,'” says Dani as the band discusses their new album with HollywoodLife. “But then it’s like, ‘wait.’ It’s just all these different levels. It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re in this together still, let’s freaking dance and party and be there for each other.'” It was Sean who brought the words to “FML” to the group during the height of the pandemic, an apparent reaction to the dumpster fire that was 2020.
“Sean made us keep writing in the house,” says Matt. “We’re writing in the house, like during the bleakest of like time, during riots, during an emerging pandemic, and we were writing and recording in the house.”
“I think that’s just like such a classic feeling that we wanted to convey,” adds Dani. “It’s natural to feel suicidal. And we want to let you know you shouldn’t feel alone in that feeling. It’s possible to make it through that feeling. And actually, the beginning of the song is a voice recording that my mom’s saved since I was 15 of me getting arrested and puking on the cops, at the beginning of my alcohol and drug addiction.”
“And it’s all just so connected,” she says, “addiction leads your mental health being so gnarly and in such depressive, dark states. Then just adding the vibes of apocalypse on top of all of that, I think it’s just all so connected. So certain things didn’t come directly from COVID, but I think it’s the perfect time for this to come out because there are so many more people dying from not even just drugs but feeling suicidal.”
There probably isn’t a single word in the English language that describes this feeling that Surfbort captures on Keep On Truckin’. It’s like smiling with a fat lip or winking with a black eye or laughing with a set of bruised ribs. The spirit of perseverance, finding some semblance of happiness after taking a mental/spiritual/literal beating. This theme throughout Keep On Truckin’: from the album’s title to “Life’s A Joke” (“Nothing’s going my way today, but it’s okay”) to the closer, “Cheap Glue,” a mid-tempo song that sees Dani vow to do “anything to help you find a solution” to a friend’s broken heart.
Perhaps the highpoint of Keep On Truckin’s punk rock camaraderie is “Open Your Eyes.” Written by Matt, it begins with the sentiment of a motivational poster, reassuring the listener that “things will be good someday / can’t wait for the holiday / happiness is on its way / all right.” Yet, right as things threaten to get too saccharine, the song delivers perhaps one of the best lines in the album: “We hate it here, but here we are.”
In eight words, Surfbort refutes toxic positivity while also eschewing nihilism. They allow the listener to acknowledge that sometimes, life is shit, but that doesn’t mean you can quit. With “Open Your Eyes,” Matt says he reacted to Alex and Dani and Sean’s positivity with the song. “I brought ‘Open Your Eyes,’ and that was like almost sarcastic tongue-in-cheek, that it sounds positive. And then it’s about like a corpse opening its eyes or someone who got beat up in the gutter, opening its eyes. And then, they make it more positive than other bands would be afraid to even be. I would be afraid to even be as positive as a lot of the sort of Surfbort songs that I’ve liked so much, and I’m learning how to be more sincere and less guarded and sarcastic.”
“I added the part where it’s like, ‘you don’t feel the same way as you did yesterday,'” says Dani. “And it’s just like, if you’re depressed or sad or hateful, you don’t have to feel that way every day. You don’t feel that same way. Or like, even to someone who was racist, it’s like, ‘you don’t have to feel that way, dude.’ Wake the f-ck up. And then like the course is like, it does feel like almost like, is this a joke? ‘Can’t wait for the holiday.’ No – I can’t wait for the holiday. There’s going to be better times.”
So, Surfbort is cool. But, how cool? Surfbort is so cool, Linda Perry produced their album. You might remember Linda from 4 Non Blondes‘ “What’s Going On,” but since then, she has gone on to a legendary songwriting and production career. Christina Aguilera (“Beautiful”), Pink (“Get The Party Started”) Adele (“Can’t Let Go”) and Gwen Stefani (“What You Waiting For?”) have all worked with Linda, and in 2015, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“Linking with Linda for the album was a dream come true because we’re used to like recording all the songs in a day or two,” says Dani. “That was a month,” adds Alex, “not the whole recording, but we had practice, which was great. It was such a cool process. It was a luxury. She blocked off three weeks, and we’ve never had anything — we’ve had like, three days was the most, like the last record. I think we had three days of tracking, which is just like grind, grind, grind.” Instead, the band took its time, dedicating a week for guitar, a week for drums, a week for bass, and a couple of weeks for vocals.
Linda also had a hand in some pre-production work. Take “FML,” for example. Dani says that when the band brought the song to Linda, it was “just bare-bones, a fast punk song for a minute.” These are the kind of songs that make up Surfbort’s discography. Their 2018 album, Friendship Music, is roughly the same length as Keep On Truckin’ (approximately 31 minutes, give or take.) While Truckin’ has a dozen tracks, Friendship has seventeen, the longest being “Selfie” at 2:26. With “FML” – which is 2:49, FYI – Linda “extended it into more of a romantic ballad,” says Dani, “but kept the spirit in there of like freak-a-zoid punk style. So it was like a cool combination and development that she added.”
Truckin’ contains Surfbort’s longest song, “Hollywood Trashpile,” at 3:42. Though, remarking about a sub-four-minute song’s length invokes Mike Watt’s reaction to the Minutemen’s “The Anchor” in We Jam Econo. (“2:30? It’s our opus.”) Surfbort’s opus captures the delirium (“I’m the main character”) and disillusionment (“My fantasy of you is stronger in the daytime”) with the City of Angels.
“When that first came in from the practice space,” says Nick, “it was kind of a brief, barn-burning song that just took off and didn’t have a lot of ebb and flow, but when Linda heard it, she thought of it in a different context. It’s like a more lush, slower thing like Dani was carrying the verse and then exploded in the chorus. So to have someone outside our bubble kind of observe what we have come up with [was cool].”
“She had beat us down and made us be quiet and create more space for them to do whatever she wanted,” says Matt, with a smile. “She’d be like, ‘you all need to like shut up during this part.'” With Linda’s direction, the band allowed itself to have more space and take more time, which was an unintentional godsend. Dani admitted that she felt like she might have to start a new project outside of Surfbort – one where she could “to be more vulnerable and like singer-songwriter and scream my diary entries,” she says, “but Surfbort’s my life.” Linda’s guidance showed that Surfbort could contain multitudes and contradictions and no limits.
“I can just still be myself,” she says. “And I think the dualism of that is sick. It’s like, okay, you can be glam, pop, crying, vulnerable, but also be like still freak, hard, punk, screaming on the streets. You don’t have to be perfectly polished.”
“I was so grateful that got unleashed, personally,” says Alex. “Because I grew up in the punk rock scene, and I jettisoned that of it in the late eighties. I was like, ‘This is done. It’s cookie-cutter.’ But then, when I started playing with this band, it was just so fun to play stuff like that, but in not an angry way. It was in like a love, celebration, ‘blast the roof off’ kind-of-sparkle dust way. But, also — just to be able to slow things down a little bit and make things more melodic. And it’s cool.”
“I was really grateful that someone with her background and experience related and saw someone like us as someone she could connect to because her story is not typical at all. She fought early on to break out of what people were telling her to do,” says Nick. “But time and time again, she kind of showed that she had great instincts. And so for her to approach us and say, ‘I relate to what you do’ is endearing.”
So, Surfbort is cool. They have Linda Perry’s stamp of approval. They were part of Gucci’s debut beauty collection, which celebrated Dani’s trademark teeth (and saw her mouth plastered on the side of buildings in Los Angeles.) So, they’re cool, but how cool, really? They’re so cool, they have Fred Armisen in their video to “FML,” portraying a problem-solving magician who ultimately takes over the band and rocks Dani’s trademark eye-makeup and multi-color hair.
They also teamed with social media impresario Sean Barrett (“I connected with him on TikTok,” says Dani, “We both in LA and I was like, ‘dude, let’s make stuff'”) for the first cut from Keep On Truckin’, “White Claw Enema Bong.” Oh, Surfbort is showing growth and positivity on their new album, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for taking down the billionaire space race (“Dicks In Space”), GMOs and junk food (“Killed By Food”), and being a drunk idiot (“White Claw Enema Bong”). Surfbort is even cool enough to poke fun at their increasing fame and success in the video for “Big Star,” holding a mock press conference as Surfbort-mania takes over the world.
Would that be so bad, though? Keep On Truckin’ is one of the most enjoyable albums of the year. It’s not just a great punk album, it’s a great album — period — and its appearance on any “Best Of” lists at the end of the year shouldn’t surprise anyone. The album has attitude. It has sex appeal. It has heart. It has sleaze and glamour and joy and pain. It shows Surfbort believing in itself, believing in its talent and strengths. The band expands its sonic wings to reach unthinkable heights. Keep On Truckin’ celebrates the beauty of a neon green smiley face spray-painted on the concrete. It’s punk. It’s cool.
“We’re also recovering and like learning from the crazy past and just that message of like, ‘you can be a good person, even when you have crazy traumas, or you’ve been through the craziest shit or struggle with addiction,'” says Dani. “Like in the end, there’re better days. You can make it through to the better days. You can keep on trucking to really magical times.”
“That’s a very common theme throughout,” she continues, before bringing up a line in the penultimate track, “Never Nude”: “If you don’t have a lover, it’s okay. Everything’s shit, please don’t quit today.” Dani smiles. “I feel like society is like, ‘you need to have like a perfect spouse, and then your life will be good. That’s just trying to find the love of someone else, and that just doesn’t always work. It’s not realistic. And I just wanted to like send that message to people that you can be alone and be okay — and have a good time.” And if you don’t want to be alone? Surfbort will welcome you to their party, whether you’re queer, straight, male, female, trans, or whatever. They’re cool like that.