Full disclosure: I set out to write this piece with a Surfbort-sized chip on my shoulder. And by Surfbort, I mean the heavily-hyped and costume-y spectacle of a “punk” band that originated in Brooklyn in 2014—not the term for sex in a bathtub popularized by Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love” (the originator of their name). Since their humble start in the NYC underground, the band has morphed into a multi-tentacled monster that has played Coachella, toured internationally, appeared in a 2019 Gucci campaign, and recorded albums alongside iconic musicians like Julian Casablancas and Linda Perry. Hell, Blondie loves them. And yet, as Surfbort reaches higher and higher echelons of cultural relevance, the band ultimately feels more like a circus of thrift store regulars trying a little too hard to be weird than anything resembling punk.
When Surfbort first appeared, I didn’t like them. Well, I thought nothing of them: just another scuzzy quartet of Bushwickians that would eventually fade into the ether, a buzz band with limited zizz. But that’s not what happened. They just got bigger. (Or perhaps my irritation was more of an annoyance born of their marketing, my own egotistical tendency to eschew the popular?) In the near-decade since they crawled out of the cool North Brooklyn haunt Baby's All Right and called it a DIY venue, questions loomed: Do people like this band because they think they’re supposed to? Can you still be punk when you’re posting videos of yourself unboxing gifts from Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele on Instagram? When they wrote “White Claw Enema Bong Hit,” what exactly were they trying to say, and more importantly, why did I find it so irritating? Would I find that as with most things—beauty, musical quality, perceived “punkness”—Surfbort was in the eye of the beholder?
My opinion on Surfbort isn’t necessarily unpopular, but no one I asked would agree with me except anonymously. One tattooed, mustachioed Brooklyn scenester said, “They write boring riffs [and] unsurprising lyrics, because they’re more in it for the looks than anything. They take money from major fashion, and are featured in a Gucci ad. Absolute posers and I’m not ashamed to use that word.”
Another said, “Their fame seems fake. They come back to New York for hometown shows and have been playing the same venues, never getting bigger while somehow playing it that way.”
One friend put it this way: “They rely on performance and theatrics. Anyone I’ve spoken with that has seen them live or expressed interest did not actually listen to their music…Young people don’t know about the Fabulous Stains or X-Ray Spex, and honestly, if they did, they probably wouldn’t care. It’s just about trends versus style. Some people have style and others need to be told what to wear and what to listen to—really, it comes down to a lack of self-identity.”
That reads more like an easy indictment of Surfbort fans than the band itself, and it’s worth noting that when I asked frontwoman Dani Miller over WhatsApp what artists influenced the live performance, clearly the most crucial element to Surfbort’s clout, she listed “X-Ray Spex… Patti Smith, when I read one of her books. She said [at] her first performance., she screamed her poetry, and it was like, ‘Oh, I can do that.” So is it her fault if the fans don’t get the reference? Does it even matter? And is that why I feel so critical towards the band?
Surfbort’s fanbase does seem to lean young and in some ways, uninformed. Sachairi Nixon, a 21-year-old from Dundee, Scotland, told me: “I honestly love everything about Surfbort. They’re my favorite! They really embody punk to me—just doing your own thing and having fun and writing songs about what’s important to you. I think the band is pretty unique sound-wise too, and I also think they have the best energy live, it’s so intense and amazing!”
An appreciation for youthful enthusiasm aside—we were all so young once—I find nothing unique about the band’s sound. A few listens to the 2021 record Keep on Truckin’ revealed a lyrically unsophisticated, derivative collection of songs. The structures and riffs are predictable, the lyrics seek to shock and amuse, an audial eye roll. Opening track “FML” has Miller declaring just that—“FML I wanna kill myself,” which feels less like lyricism and more like a text you’d send your friend about your hangover. As far as the music is concerned, their riffs are ripped and reproduced straight from the Black Lips we left behind in the early 2010s. (That band and their scene sucked, and that says nothing of the accusations of misconduct against BL's guitarist Cole Alexander, who allegedly sent sexually inappropriate text messages to a minor.) BUT—and this is a big but—each track is delivered like the band really believes in it, bless ‘em. While Surfbort’s tracks are derivative, I wouldn’t say they are inauthentic; an example is found on the track “Dicks in Space”: “I don’t wanna be a billionaire…I don’t wanna be just anyone but me.”
I could feel my dislike turn into conflicted apathy. On one hand, this band was unoriginal, to be sure, but on the other, not…always terrible? My friend Daniel White, 29, of Baltimore, agreed: “Feels like pretty standard crusty-white-people-with-tattoos stuff. Very much giving ‘I don’t dream of labor’ in Bushwick. But that said, it’s not bad. It’s even good at times.”
Another anonymous NYC skaterboi-cum-concertgoer who had seen Surfbort live felt similarly conflicted, saying, “I saw them open for the Garden Twins in 2016 and was certifiably appalled. Just zero effort nonsense. But, the last time I saw them in 2021, they were groovin’. Their recordings have improved immensely, too. I’m torn. I used to think they were god-awful, but now I think they’re okay. I still can’t really withstand their recorded material, but I can see the value in their performances.”
Consistently, live performance seems to be what people rely on to determine quality, and that reliance gives them an air of all style, no substance. Even the most fervent of fans imply a preference for the live show. Kiara N., 28, of London, said: “Seeing Surfbort live is awesome. They do sound great on record but their shows are a whole new crazy experience. [Singer] Dani Miller’s energy is incredible and I love how engaging and cheerful she is. I couldn’t help but run into the pit when they played Wide Awake fest even though I had a broken finger!”
All the youthful gushing didn’t really convince me, but neither did the finger-pointing hate. I needed an opinion I could trust, one I could sink my teeth into, so I turned to NYC documentarian and proud Surfbort fan A.F. Cortes, who ultimately offered the most nuanced perspective of all on the whole phenomenon. Cutting his teeth in the Colombian punk scene of the ’80s and ’90s, when he was not yet an English speaker, Cortes said his “connection with music [was] a visceral one… Whenever we got music, I never understood the lyrics… Nowadays, I still have that visceral reaction to the music and that is my connection to Surfbort. They’re very fun—if you’re there, you cannot ignore the band that is in front of you.”
He noted his initial attraction to the band, and why he included them in his documentary Brooklyn is Burning, was because they drew crowds of all different scenes and breeds. They were “uniting a lot of people at their shows, and that to me was something fascinating,” he says. The moshing at the shows “isn’t that Slayer kind of moshing, that we are humans out to kill each other. It’s more like a friendship.”
Given Cortes’ connections to DIY, I asked what he thought of the Gucci stuff, such an evident point of contention with local artists and fans, to which he opened my eyes. “If someone is paying someone to do what they do for a living, I’m really happy that Surfbort is getting paid for being Surfbort.”
In the end, accusations of poser-dom feel antiquated in late-stage capitalism, an Orwellian existence where artists are “content-creators.” Is everyone just jealous? Wouldn’t we much rather get paid for being in a Gucci ad than whoring ourselves out to the algorithm while we work a series of banal jobs? I think we all know the answer, and it fills us (me) with contempt.
In the end, accusations of poser-dom feel antiquated in late-stage capitalism, an Orwellian existence where artists are “content-creators.”
Ultimately, Surfbort owns their narrative because no one will criticize them on the record, so I’ll give them the final word. Dani Miller told CREEM that they aren’t a punk band and never claimed to be, although everyone from Rolling Stone to the Guardian labels them as such. “We have a new genre that we’re now in called cringe rock,” she explains. “Cringe rock is being free. Cringe is free, just basically showing up however you want, just being yourself, you don’t have to be fully punk to be at the show. You can be whatever you want.”
Self-identifying as cringe shines with self-awareness, all the brighter when drummer Sean Powell defines cringe rock as “anything that disturbs your eyeballs and ear holes.”
Guitarist Alex Kilgore refers to the label “punk” as a “straightjacket,” and they all agree it’s too limiting for what they want for their crowd, which they say encompasses all ages, from under 10 to over 60, including “people who wear golf clothes and listen to the Beatles.”
Kilgore and Powell are both older, having come of age in the ’80s punk scene in Texas; they both feel like they’ve never fit into the roles deemed necessary for punk participation. “I watched the hardcore scene develop and I felt like it kind of made everything more, like, there’s like a uniform,” Kilgore says. “There were rules and it got boring. You’d go to shows and the band was hard. The people were hard in the pit, and like, you go to our shows, and the music might sound tough, but it’s like everyone’s having a celebration.”
“Cringe rock is being free... You can be whatever you want.”
As far as Gucci goes, Miller says she asked Gucci why they wanted to work with Surfbort when it all started, and “they just said like, they wanted to keep the energy of like, bands in the ’80s who don’t give a fuck and want to rage and I was like, ‘Cool, well, we can do that.’”
And finally, the detractors. What does Surfbort say to them? Powell says he owns a t-shirt that reads “Love your haters.” And Miller says, “Get well soon. I don’t know. Haters just need more love. Something in their life is lacking love. Short term it might feel good to hate, but in the long run, it feels way better to just accept other people.”
While you won’t catch me in the pit at a Surfbort gig this side of eternity, I did walk a mile in a pair of their Gucci loafers and am humbled by what I saw. So if the opposite of love is indifference, then when people hate Surfbort, at least they feel something.
Correction: A previous version of this article described the allegations against Black Lips as "credible accusations of sexual assault against the group." The language has been changed to more accurately describe the LA Times reporting: "the accusations of misconduct against BL's guitarist Cole Alexander, who allegedly sent sexually inappropriate text messages to a minor."