How Surfbort are championing love and acceptance on ‘Keep On Truckin”
“I’m trying to not do sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll,” vocalist Dani Miller says. “I’m trying to do friendship, sober-raging and rock ’n’ roll.”October 12, 2021
Everything about Brooklyn-based punk band Surfbort is surprising. Two of their members are in their 50s. Their vocalist, Dani Miller, was featured in a Gucci Beauty campaign and appeared in a recent Good Dye Young commercial. Before the band, Miller worked with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky.
Surfbort even owe their name to Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love” and played their first show on Miller’s 21st birthday. “Ever since the first show, which was just supposed to be a joke show, I was like, ‘I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life. This is the best thing ever,’” Miller says.
Two of the members—drummer Sean Powell and guitarist Alex Kilgore—are veterans from the punk scene in Texas. “I tapped into the Texas punk scene from the ’80s,” Miller says. “That’s how I got the members.” The band’s lineup also includes guitarist Matt Picola and bassist Nick Arnold, the latter being their roadie before becoming their newest recruit.
On top of that, Surfbort have received co-signs from Debbie Harry, the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas and Frank Iero—no small feat—but they don’t let it go to their heads. “I think being creative and being into art and music, no human’s really above each other,” Miller says. “Everyone’s just making their cool shit.” Known for their fast, raucous, high-energy punk songs, Surfbort have tackled subjects such as politics, capitalism and mental health in their music. But ultimately, Surfbort want to emphasize friendship and acceptance. “I’m trying to not do sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll,” Miller says. “I’m trying to do friendship, sober-raging and rock ’n’ roll.”
Your band have a really great message of love and acceptance and community. How does that shape your music?
That’s everything. I realized early on that being onstage, it’s not really about me fully. It’s not like, “Oh, this is my wedding, my one time to shine.” It’s about the people coming to the shows and everyone feeling good, being themselves, letting go of all the crazy shit that’s thrown at us in life. The reason I do this makeup and scream into the moon onstage is to inspire other people to feel free to do whatever they want, whatever makes them feel comfortable.
I think the journey of acceptance and loving yourself, you figure out how to do that over time—starting in middle school or whatever, when you’re 5—but I just want to speed up that process for people, especially people who are bullied or really feel not good in their own skin. A lot of people think that I wake up also feeling perfectly confident, which is like, “Oh man, I wish!” I just hack it. When I feel weird, [I] change the perspective and share that with other people, and hopefully, it makes a domino effect so everyone just feels good for the day.
I’ve also read that you wanted to make your shows, your music and your band a space for people who don’t feel like they fit in.
Totally. Artists and weirdos and creatives and just anyone. You can be in a business suit and be a total freak, [a] weirdo inside. You could be surrounded by a ton of people and feel super alone. There are so many different aspects of feeling like you don’t fit in. There are so many bullies everywhere you turn, even in adult life. I try to make the spaces we play in [spaces where] you could just be whoever you want and be comfortable and be supported.
I just want people to feel free to celebrate themselves, especially people connecting with their gender identities and transitioning to their true self. I think it’s important to feel good being yourself. It’s shitty when you can’t be a beautiful butterfly. It’s funny: I just played two shows. Our mosh pits [are] basically just boogying with your friend and dancing, bouncing around [Laughs.], and I think that’s super cool. Personally, I like that. It’s fun to have a blast but not get punched in the face.
I want to talk about this new record, Keep On Truckin’. What was the writing and recording process like?
We linked up with Linda Perry, which has been so frickin’ magical. She took our chaotic, free-spirit, punk, freak music and would take our song idea and different lyrics and just make it into a whole pop ballad. She added more magic and extended it to these really powerful songs.
It was really exciting because normally we’re just like, “OK, practice for a week. OK, record for a couple days or whatever.” This time we really went in and had intentions, and it was cool. Linda let us still be ourselves but made the songs even cooler. It’s the most fun experience ever. It’s cool to be supported for the first time in this process by someone who paved the way before me. I’ve made a lot of friends. I became friends with Debbie Harry from Blondie and Poly Styrene’s daughter, and I met Patti Smith and Donita Sparks from L7—all these people who have been there and paved the way. So I’ve always felt supported in that way.
What kinds of themes and experiences were you pulling from on this album?
The main themes are just the different struggles and things you go through with your mental health. It’s just a reaction to living in today’s world, which is all our music. “FML” is speaking on my whole experience with drugs, being addicted to drugs and alcohol and the mental health issues that come with that. I’m also bipolar and have struggled so much with anxiety.
So, there’s been so many moments of wanting not to live, but then as I get older, I’ve learned so many different ways of making my mental health better. So I can pass on the message of: stick around, hold on tight. That’s the main thing I want the album to be, like a friend and to not feel so alone when you feel super alone, and to know that feeling suicidal is natural—not a good thing—but it’s a natural thing that happens. You can make it through to the other side.
The way that you talk about mental health on the record is very plain and direct and open. Was it hard being so vulnerable with your lyrics?
Sean Powell, who is the one who brought the base of [the] “FML” lyrics to me, wrote that song. At first, I was like, “Whoa, that’s really direct.” But then I was like, “Wait, I find so much comfort in those lines.” Because someone who has been suicidal or is suicidal, they directly know that feeling. It’s not offensive or fucked up. It’s like, “Oh, my God, you feel that way, too? Oh, my God!” There’s comfort in knowing someone else feels that low, and it just normalizes that feeling a little bit almost. I’m not saying that person isn’t going through a hard time. It’s like, “Hey, you can still stick around, even if you feel suicidal. You don’t have to leave the planet.” So I think that’s a super-important message.
It’s good to have a space to talk openly about that, especially because there is such a stigma around talking about suicide and mental health.
It’s so taboo sometimes. People don’t even know how to approach it, and people going through it sometimes are the happiest-presenting people. I just want to send the message [to] get through to people in that way because it is really hard to talk about sometimes. It’s weird to talk about. So I think it’s powerful to do it through music. It’s like sending a song to someone like, “Yo, here’s a little bit of support and friendship in a cool way.”
We just made a music video with Fred Armisen for “FML,” and basically he goes around and is a magical fairy making people’s days better. It’s so freakin’ cool. I wish everyone had Fred Armisen coming around and making them feel better [Laughs.] and making the world brighter for them. Suicide’s so tricky. You never know. It could be the drop of the tiniest thing, and then someone’s brain convinces them of the darkest shit.
How did you get in touch with Fred for this?
He’s such a great musician and such a huge fan of punk music. I was at Beck’s birthday party, and it was so much fun. It was Diplo DJing this tiny thing. Me and Thundercat were dancing our asses off. Brad Pitt was there. It was the weirdest, funnest little party—my first party back from the pandemic. I was just chillin’, and Fred came up to me, and he’s like, “I love you,” basically fangirling me, and I was like, “Wait, I’m confused. I want to fangirl you because I’m obsessed with Portlandia.”
So we’re just going back and forth like, “You’re amazing!” “No, you’re amazing!” Then I was like, “Wait, you should totally be in my music video.” He was like, “I would love to.” I was like, “This rules. My world’s made.” [Laughs.] It was really crazy. We both just thought our worlds would never collide, and then they did, so we’re just best friends now.
Where did the album title come from?
It’s still a direct reaction to the current time. Let’s get through this fucked-up time together. Let’s frickin’ hold hands through this and support each other and hold each other up and however we need to be supporting. Keep on truckin’. It goes with “FML.” It goes with the whole record—let’s get through these hard times together.
This interview appeared in issue 399, available here.