Surfbort want to move you
Surfbort’s Dani Miller is the epitome of calm. When we meet in her hotel room in Brighton, a long way from her home in New York, she’s serene, almost dazed. Outside seagulls are pecking at discarded chip trays, a rare burst of south coast sun dappling the lines of people moving from venue to venue at The Great Escape.
The band have touched down at the seaside for the festival, Europe’s key showcase event for new music, the place where reputations are made. Right now, though, Dani is in the mood to reflect. “I’ve been learning a lot about the world,” she shrugs, her hand pulling her hair into unruly shapes. “I’ve just grown so much with the band and fully become myself, what I’ve always wanted to be. And not hold anything back.”
Miller and the band certainly do have conviction. Surfbort’s punk-edged 2018 debut album Friendship Music is a machine gun volley of two-minute shards of sound that pummel you into a giddy mess while flicking two fingers to authority. But it wasn’t always like this. The band was formed as a joke, almost by accident.
© Wanda Martin
Coat: Adam Jones
Boots: Discount Universe
Idly chatting to a friend one day about four years ago, Miller heard there was a spot available on a bill for someone’s birthday party, so she booked it for her band. The only issue was she didn’t have a band. So she formed one on the spot, phoning up a ragtag crew of veterans from New York’s underground punk scene, before picking a name that references both a Beyoncé lyric (Drunk in Love) and a bath-based sex position.
She laughs at the memory of it all, then shrugs. “It started as a joke because you don’t really know what you’re capable of doing,” she insists. “But it stopped being a joke after the first show. That was the joke, making something out of nothing. And then I realised I can do anything I want.” Miller laughs, shakes her head, then picks her words carefully: “This is me standing up on a table and shouting to the people in power: ‘we’re not OK with this’.”
Arriving at a point where she desperately needed to communicate, Surfbort was the ramrod that bulldozed the barriers around her. As a teen, Miller experimented with hard drugs. Looking back now, she sees her drug use as a means of manifesting some of the negative emotions she couldn’t quite express. She didn’t know it then, but it was an act of psychic revolt against the darker, authoritarian forces swirling around her.
© Wanda Martin
Top: Art School
"I feel beautiful and sexy just dressing the way I want and not fitting into a perfect box."
“Look,” she sighs, then pauses for what seems like forever. “You feel very alone sometimes. The news, the media and with these horrible people in charge of our government… the system is fucked up. Everyone knows. All that, those pressures, is what drives people insane, gets you into hardcore drugs, and makes you feel helpless.”
She may have come through the other side, but Miller isn’t about to lose her empathy for those who feel similarly lost. “I’m not fully against drugs, or [saying] you have to be happy all the time. Depression is real. I want to help people come out of the very desperate times because I’ve totally been there.”
Playing shows whenever they could, Surfbort found a connection, an unlikely alliance of punks and outsiders at DIY all-age shows across New York. They racked up shows at venues like Brooklyn’s Sunnyvale or South Street Seaport or Brooklyn Steel, where they first linked with kindred spirits The Growlers. In short, venues that welcome crowds from all corners of society. “Growing up is fucking hard,” Miller grimaces. “I remember being little and not having a place at school due to bullies and being a freak, but finding someone outside of school, or a show or venue to go to is super important to figure yourself out and feel welcome.”
Show by show Surfbort found their audience and sound. Punk-aligned noise channelled through barbed pop songs, it’s a guitar squall, a hardcore drum blitz, all powered by Miller’s lyrics. Her words are scorching. Dope escapes the nightmare world of addiction where “bodies bleed”, ACAB is a cry of disgust at a brutal, authoritarian police force (“They lock us up/ They have no right”), while Sunshine blazes a paranoid warning that “the government is gonna make you pay.”
“[The music] is a reaction to the world,” she explains. “Letting other people know they’re not alone inside all this crazy shit that’s happening. We’re here, dancing next to you, fighting for you, and against the evil people with you.”
People are catching on. Their following includes Julian Casablancas, who saw one of their shows after a friend played him their noise rock squall. Inviting Miller out to dinner, they spent the evening drinking wine, sharing passions and hates, before The Strokes frontman left with the promise to release Surfbort’s debut album Friendship Music on his Cult Records imprint. “We met up and fell in love automatically,” she smiles. “It’s such a crazy relief, because he just let Surfbort be Surfbort.”
A copy of the album found its way to Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele. After hearing it, Michele made the band – and Dani in particular – the centre of the iconic brand’s pre-fall 2019 campaign, with a spectacular shoot in Sicily’s Selinunte Archaeological Park, dominated by the lavish classical beauty of the Temple of Hera.
© Wanda Martin
“I feel beautiful and sexy just dressing the way I want and not fitting into a perfect box,” she says. “And it’s the same with Surfbort. We have pretty music, but in our own way. It’s choppy and fucked up but it’s still beautiful.”
Surfbort are already looking at their next step, getting back in the studio to work on new ideas, new songs. “We’re always evolving and growing, I’m always trying to learn,” she says. All this creativity stems from the band’s egalitarian dynamic, something that has allowed Miller’s own artistic confidence to blossom. “Everyone is so respectful to each other,” she smiles. “They’ve lived such a gnarly life that the sound they create is so solid, and just… real.”
Dani Miller remains the dynamic presence at the centre of it all. A few hours ago Surfbort were still on the road. In a few hours’ time Surfbort will demolish yet another venue, with their chaotic, sweat-drenched live show. Onstage she’s electric, a writhing mesh of screaming vocals and mangled limbs, hurling herself into the pit, tearing down those inhibitions with broken nails and a heart that cares.
Letting out feelings is key to what Surfbort do – it’s something she knew, explicitly, right from that very first show. “This is way bigger than myself,” she says. “It’s about creating spaces that everyone in the community can be involved in, have fun, and also be themselves. It’s empathy for other humans, lifting people up.”
She picks at her long, sharpened nails one more time, then says: “The more love we give each other, even in the pit, the better off shit is.”
Photography: Wanda Martin
Styling: Lucy Isobel Bonner
Surfbort appear at Le Guess Who?, Utrecht, on 7 November.