EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Switchfoot Making Big Splash with Surf and Turf Outing

– Interview by On Tour Monthly

404 Switchfoot

“Switchfoot Making Big Splash with Surf and Turf Outing”

The famous Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote, ‘the best laid plans o’ mice and me often go awry. And leave us nothing but grief and pain, for promised joy.’ The bottom line – no matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it.

When brothers Jon and Tim Foreman, along with friend Chad Butler, were signed to indie label Re:Think, after a few shows together, a perfect plan was already in the words. The label’s founder, Charlie Peacock, was a legendary figure in the Christian music industry. As a music producer, songwriter and artist, he had left large footprints in the contemporary Christian music scene. However, the music industry veteran started Re:Think with the intention of marketing artists (like Switchfoot) outside of the usual CCM framework. He felt he could produce bands for the mainstream market where they would have broader appeal. The Foreman’s and Butler bought into Peacock’s vision. With the game plan in place, work began on the band’s 1996 debut, The Legend of Chin. Before the album was released, however, Re:think was bought out by Christian music giant, Sparrow Records. Peacock’s original intentions of selling Switchfoot to a broad-based audience fell on deaf ears. Instead, the group was marketed exclusively to Christian radio and retail outlets for the duration of their contract. It was a time, says Jon Foreman, where ‘half of who we were was lost.’

Three albums and a Grammy nomination later, Switchfoot was free of the shackles that had bound them to one particular genre of music. Instead of soliciting offers, they went ahead and recorded their next record with no deal in place. During this period of freedom, an unexpected development occurred. Several Switchfoot songs were going to be included in a movie starring singer and actress Mandy Moore, A Walk to Remember. During the movie, Moore sang “Only Hope” during a scene. In addition to this song, the movie also showcased Switchfoot tunes “You”, “Learning to Breathe”, and “Dare You to Move.” The film, along with a complete album, made Switchfoot a hot property. Offers started pouring in. Eventually, Sony Music landed the group. They weren’t disappointed. Switchfoot’s first album for the label, The Beautiful Letdown, was a triple platinum success. Subsequent recording projects solidified the group’s standing in the marketplace, including the addition of keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas and second guitarist Drew Shirley. Though the marriage to Sony would end in an acrimonious divorce, Switchfoot’s next partner, Atlantic Records, has maintained a healthy relationship with the group.

As they enter their 17th year as a band, Switchfoot has achieved a level of success the Foreman brothers and high-school friend Chad Butler never anticipated. Their charitable work has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid homeless kids in their community through their own Bro-Am Foundation, and earned themselves a global fan base.

Today, the five-man group enjoys the best of both worlds. The secular (Christian) and non-secular (Mainstream) worlds have opened up their arms to embrace them. The latest effort by the San Diego-based band, Vice Verses, has been certified gold. The band is currently on a unique fall tour where their film serves as the opening act followed by a Q&A session then an intimate, stripped down show by the band. Their film will be released in time for the holidays, with the soundtrack making its splash in January 2014.

ON TOUR MONTHLY: On this fall tour, the band is previewing its Fading West film literally as your opening act. That’s unprecedented to say the least.

Tim Foreman – Yes, and afterwards we’re going to do a Q&A session with the crowd. The idea behind the film was to surf and see what musical ideas came out of it. We traveled to Jeffreys Bay and Crayfish Factory in South Africa, Bronte Beach in Australia, Raglan in New Zealand and Uluwatu in Bali. We had a film crew chronicle the physical and emotional adventures we undertook in looking for the inspiration behind our upcoming new album.


OTM: The documentary appears to be part travelogue, part surf film and a candid behind-the-scenes look at Switchfoot. You talk about the various songs that make op the new recording, which just so happens to be the film’s soundtrack. It’s unique to say the least.

This record was totally inspired by the sea, which my brother has said was the perfect metaphor for experiencing comfort and danger at the very same time. You can be comfortable out in the ocean, but at the same time, it’s the unknown from the waves you’re riding, and what lurks beneath the water itself, that’s unpredictable. There was a moment, for instance, where we paddled out into the water on our boards off the coast of South Africa and it literally felt like we were back home in San Diego. Those types of feelings would hit you all at once – trying to find peace in dangerous places. We’re hoping our record, and the film, conveys those emotions to people who see the film.


OTM: There is a particularly poignant scene in in Fading West where you all are paddling out into the ocean off the coast of Bali with your buddy, surf champ Rob Machado. Your brother seemed to have a major epiphany while he was in the water.

It was a moment where Jon finally realized why we were doing this. The vision for our new record became clear to him then. As he sitting on his board in the Indian Ocean, it dawned on him that the very waves we were going to ride could eventually make their way to the shores of our home in San Diego thousands of miles away. The rhythm and pulse was really grounding and inspiring on so many levels. It made him grasp the dichotomy between the pull of the road and the pull toward getting back home. It was like we had to leave home to find home. For a long time, home had meant a place of failure to use because it meant we didn’t have any place to play. When you drop out of college in your early ’20s, all your friends are getting jobs and you’re the one who lives with his parents, trust me, you want to be out of the house and on the road. Only recently has home become a place where we could feel comfortable and content.


OTM: It’s one thing for a country band to find crossover success on the pop or adult contemporary charts. It’s viewed as a whole new extreme when the music of a Christian rock band finds success on the mainstream side of things.

There is no doubt that the term ‘Christian music’ elicits all sorts of emotional responses from people. It’s a tricky thing when you have art and commerce on one hand, and then you throw faith in there. It gums up the works. My favorite artists have always been the ones that created very spiritual music, whether it was Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan or Bob Marley. You have these songs that are coming from a deep, intense place of beliefs and meaning, and for us, that’s always our goal when we write a song. Dolly Parton once said “If you’re not crying, then why are you singing it?” The point is this. We care a great deal about the songs we write and the stories behind them. It’s what keeps us motivated.

OTM: After some 30 years of interviewing bands and observing the music industry, very few things actually surprise me. Your band absolutely did. When Switchfoot successfully crossed that very wide chasm that separates the Christian and mainstream worlds with the Beautiful Letdown album, I was absolutely amazed. I was even more impressed that you never looked back after that.

We have never put the Christian tag on our music because that’s a faith, not a genre. We have always made music to appeal to everyone. This band never saw the direction we were heading any different from when we first started out. We have always written songs that were very honest about our faith, our doubts, what we understand and don’t understand in life. Unless you can claim you have it all figured out, music is the perfect place to ask those questions where you can try and figure out why we are here on this planet. That is why we started making music and continue to do so today.


OTM: You don’t view your 2003 album, The Beautiful Letdown, as anything but a natural progression for the band instead of a breakout from the confined genre you previously had been engulfed in?

The Beautiful Letdown just happened to be an album that caught the attention of the masses. We were the same band before, and after, the record was released. Our goal in writing music has always been the same – create songs that count for something and move us. For some reason, many people viewed the success of that record as a departure, or a shift, from where we started. It’s not true. We were the same people, with the same goals, only this time more people tuned in to the music than ever before. It was the right music, released at the right time, and fortunately a lot of people really liked it.


OTM: When two noted faith-based bands, Creed and Evanescence, first hit the scene they went out of their way to disavow any ties to Christian music because they didn’t want that stigma attached to there name. In fact, after the Beautiful Letdown, Switchfoot seemed to distance their selves from the genre as well, especially staying out Christian music festivals for a few years. What was the thinking in the band at the time of the Beautiful Letdown release when it came to make some crucial decisions regarding the marketing of the band, and tour plans?

Well, I’m not going to get into a debate with you on this one because I think your facts are a bit mistaken. We did take one year off of doing the Christian festival circuit, but it wasn’t for strategic reasons. We have a fan base in that crowd, as we do the other. We play for people who share our faith, or share others. I don’t think we see our trajectory in this business the way you do.


OTM: I’m not in any way disparaging your accomplishments. The way I see it, Switchfoot’s mainstream success gave a lot of Christian rock bands hope that they too could crossover. Jon Cooper of Skillet, another successful Christian rock crossover, told me after Sony signed Switchfoot in 2002, and had great success, suddenly the idea of Christian rock artist’s crossing over to the mainstream world didn’t seem so strange after all. That’s a tremendous compliment he paid to your band.

I truly appreciate the kind words, but here’s the thing. We never grew up in the culture of Christian music. It’s not something we were educated in, nor did we grow up surrounded by it as individuals. That scene just wasn’t a part of who we were. Now that comment is in no way a slight to the culture by any means. The three of us have always just done our own thing the way we see fit. We always wrote songs for ourselves from an honest perspective of trying to figure out life at two or three in the morning. Music is the vehicle we use to understand what the world is about.

OTM: The lyrics your brother writes, or co-writes with you, are just words without the music. For years the burden of writing the music fell on you three. Then you bring Jerome Fontimallas into the picture, and suddenly it seems like new life has been pumped into the band. Why Jerome, and was his presence needed at the time?

Initially, I think our decision was to try to duplicate everything we did in the studio live. When we’d leave the comforts of a studio, we felt there were limitations to what we could do on stage as a three-piece. We have always been very adamant about not using any sort of backing tracks to augment our live performance. I know a lot of bands do it, but we’re sort of militant about not bringing that element into our band. Some groups do it and the process works for them. For us, live music should be live, and we like the freedom and the recklessness that sensation provides. Maybe our songs won’t sound exactly like they should on the record, or maybe it will sound better or slightly different. For us, that’s fine because music should be organic and able to breathe without being confined or limited. Every night you perform on stage, your music should be an explosion of sound that’s different from the previous night. That was our motivation for becoming a four, and eventually five-piece band. Between the five of us, there’s nothing we can’t do live.


OTM: Switchfoot came to prominence the past ten years with a generation of kids thinking everything is free on the Internet, from movies to music. How do you deal with this type of thinking?

There are two sides of my brain that battle each other when it comes to figuring out piracy and how to make a living making music. There is one part, the artist side of me, that doesn’t really care. I enjoy what I am doing and I’m glad my music is getting out there. Then there is the other side of me that says “Well, eventually someone is going to have to answer that question and figure it out.” I seriously don’t know where the answer to piracy begins or ends. There are a lot of artists in the music business trying to earn a living with their art. If people appreciate the work, they should buy it, not figure out some way to get it for free. That’s the noble thing to do. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. Don’t get me wrong. What’s happening on the Internet is a dangerous thing. Whether we are talking about this today or ten years from now, something has to be done. Personally, I don’t think the end is near for the way music is distributed today.


OTM: You don’t sound too concerned?

Obviously this is a transitional period for the music business. I’m excited that music is in the power of the people instead of the music director at the radio station. Today, a 14-year old can push the button on his computer and listen to anything he wants. I like the power being in the listener’s hand. I’m also thankful today that I can still play music and pay the rent while I’m doing it.


OTM: Your contract with the Christian label Re:think was fulfilled with the release of the very successful Learning To Breathe recording. However, it was the band’s appearance on the soundtrack for A Walk to Remember that appears to have been THE pivotal moment in Switchfoot’s career. Am I reading that part of your past correctly?

Absolutely! To this day, it still blows me away how many people have seen the movie and discovered Switchfoot music because of it.


OTM: “Dare You to Move” seems to hold a special meaning for this band. It made its first appearance on Learning to Breathe. It then surfaced again on the movie soundtrack of A Walk to Remember. You revisited the tune once again for your breakthrough recording The Beautiful Letdown. What’s the deal with this song?

We were totally over the moon on that song to be honest with you. As you noted, it was originally recorded on our last Re:think album, Learning to Breathe. All of us thought it was the greatest song Switchfoot had ever written. Honestly, we recorded the song on two more album projects because we thought people had missed out on hearing it. When we cut our deal with Sony, we knew a lot of people would be hearing this record from a different place than where it was originally released. When it came time to put songs on our mainstream debut, we looked at “Dare You to Move” and thought, “You know, a lot of people haven’t heard this song. Let’s record it.” All these years later that tune still means just as much to us, maybe even more, than it did when we first wrote it.


OTM: That’s a powerful statement to make about one particular song from your past.

Well, the song has special meaning to Chad, my brother and I. It revolves around redemption and second chances. Jon wrote the lyrics. He described it as a boxer who has been knocked out on his back. Where does that person go from there? That’s where the song begins. People are going to get knocked down throughout their lives. The thing is what happens once you’ve pulled yourself together and gotten back up. That’s where your life begins.


OTM: Your brother Jon is a prolific songwriter? Do you ever worry he’s going to give away a great song to another artist, or record it for a solo disc?

You can’t be a protectionist with songs. It’s a very slippery slope once you attempt to climb it. Here’s the thing. We are like kids in a toy store. Our work is something we all love to do. The moment you start to put boxes on songs and say ‘that’s a Switchfoot song, that one is not,’ the music becomes twisted and is no longer innocent and pure. Jon writes a ton of songs. He writes some great ones, and then there are the ones we will never hear. There are plenty of them to go around, so let’s enjoy the one’s he brings to the studio for us to work on as a band.


OTM: How did you end up on Sony?

At the time, we had already independently made The Beautiful Letdown record. We’d gone into the studio and recorded all 11 tracks in just seventeen days. The next thing we know there’s interest in Switchfoot from like four major labels. Sony was the lead horse in the race.


OTM: Do you ever miss the days when you recorded an album in 17 days?

Well, we had spent a considerable amount of time writing and demoing those songs before we went into the studio to record them. We knew exactly what we wanted to do with those tunes before we ever walked into the studio.


OTM: Your brother has cited personnel turnover at Sony as the major reason the band decided to leave the label after recording Oh Gravity. Why did you decide to align yourself with another record company when you already had a bad taste in your mouth from the last experience?

That’s a great question. At the time, Switchfoot was in a unique position. We ended our relationship with Sony because it wasn’t the label we signed with anymore. Everyone we knew was gone. This band fully intended on releasing our next album on our own independent label. When we finished the album, Atlantic Records got a hold of us. We cut the kind of deal that made us comfortable signing with them. Our record received the distribution and full support of the label.


OTM: Your band became a part of the 360 crowd that seems to be gaining some traction in the music business these days. Can you tell me your thinking behind going that route with Atlantic?

Well, it is a pretty complex deal I don’t want to bore you with but in a nutshell, here it is. Record labels are trying to find new ways to do what they do. People aren’t buying records any more, they’re downloading. So, record companies are trying to figure out what the 21st Century version of their label is going to look like. The 360 concept appealed to us, because it still allowed us the freedom we sought to make the kind of music that appealed to us.


OTM: Your last album, Vice Verses, took a great deal of time to write. Was it more difficult deciding what you wanted to put on this record as opposed to others?

You’re right! This wasn’t exactly the easiest record to make. However, it was our most focused and direct effort in the studio to date. When we made Hello Hurricane, we really needed the two and a half years it took to record 80 songs to explore what kind of album we wanted to make as a band. With this one, we were focused immediately on the type of record we were going to make. We went straight into the studio knowing exactly what the goal was for the music. We ended up making the record we wanted to make.


OTM: I’ve heard the phrase, “We made the kind of record we wanted to make” so many times, I’m curious, just what exactly does that statement really mean? Why couldn’t you have released this album five years ago?

The band was writing from a place of strength with that record. We had a strong sense of identity, knew who we were as a band, and set specific goals for this record. One of them was for the drums and bass to drive the motor in a way that really hasn’t happened since we were a three-piece. There was a specific directive we went towards. We wanted the sound of the bass and drums to be so compelling there would be no need to stack a bunch of guitars on top of it. We didn’t want to make a Hello Hurricane Part II, but show some different colors.


OTM: Before the Internet turned the music business inside out, the Christian music industry had already learned how to make technology its friend. Did that knowledge prove invaluable when it came to putting the band on the map?

Well, it certainly didn’t hurt. Obviously Christian music labels didn’t have the big budgets the major labels did back then. It forced us to think outside the box when it came to marketing our music. The Internet proved to be invaluable to getting the word out about the band, our touring schedule and especially the music. We were in a very unique spot, and it afforded us the freedom to decide what we wanted to do after our contract with Sony expired.


OTM: Over the years, I have found it to be quite amazing how polarizing the term Christian music can actually become. It has created a sort of ‘us vs. them’ mentality, not only with fans, but musicians as well.

For this band, we are at our best when we are not making music that other people are going to like, or will ever hear. That can be a real tricky head game if you choose to play it. We are at our best when we block out all that malaise. You never know what fans are going to like. You never know which demographic is going to get behind your album and purchase it. Ultimately, before anyone else hears it, you have to decide whether you love the music or not. If the answer is no, then you need to keep working.


OTM: It’s one thing for a country band to find crossover success on the pop or adult contemporary charts. It’s viewed as a whole new extreme when the music of a Christian rock band finds success on the mainstream side of things.

There is no doubt that the term ‘Christian music’ elicits all sorts of emotional responses from people. It’s a tricky thing when you have art and commerce on one hand, and then you throw faith in there. It gums up the works. My favorite artists have always been the ones that created very spiritual music, whether it was Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan or Bob Marley. You have these songs that are coming from a deep, intense place of beliefs and meaning, and for us, that’s always our goal when we write a song. Dolly Parton once said “If you’re not crying, then why are you singing it?” The point is this. We care a great deal about the songs we write and the stories behind them. It’s what keeps us motivated.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJ1ynQ46984&w=560&h=315] WATCH: FADING WEST OFFICIAL TRAILER

James Villa