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Riding The Wave
For Switchfoot’s Jerome Fontamillas, it’s supportive Filipino parents and surfing that helped land him in rock stardom
BY REI NISHIMOTO

Finding success is sometimes a wave away. Just ask San Diego-based Switchfoot: during this past year they were presented with many big opportunities and a big climb up the status ladder. The quartet started as friends who loved music as much as their other big love: surfing. They named the band after a surfing move, and the rest is history.

Their latest CD, The Beautiful Letdown, took off faster than they ever expected. Tours around the world, strong airplay on radio, and a growing fanbase kept them going, and the venture kept them going.

This past year saw bigger opportunities for Switchfoot. On top of playing to bigger crowds, they also earned a platinum-status CD, along with television appearances on late night television shows, and meeting some of their heroes, including Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Bono of U2.

Despite their move up from the clubs to larger-sized venues, Switchfoot prefers playing to an intimate crowd, where they do not want to lose touch with their core audience. “The best shows we’ve done,” says keyboardist/guitarist Jerome Fontamillas, “are in a small, sweaty rock club. We could see it gradually getting bigger and it’s been exciting. But we always look fondly at the times where we play in a small rock club. Playing in front of a bigger audience is also great. Crowds singing along to the songs from the radio--you’re like ‘wow! How do they know all the lyrics?’ But it’s been awesome.”

Their appearance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” was a memorable experience. “Oh man...[O’Brien] looked taller in person!” he recalled. “He’s a giant. But he’s a really cool guy. After we played, he picked up the guitar and started messing around. He’s a good guitar player. But he’s relaxed and calm.”

One of their bigger fans is Mandy Moore, the high-profile actress/singer, who they also collaborated with on a song. “They put in four or five songs [in A Walk To Remember]. We met her on a few occasions. She’s really nice. I think she was a fan before we met her,” explains Fontamillas.

Being the “new” guy in Switchfoot, he had been mutual friends with the members and has witnessed the evolution before joining in 2000. “It’s...weird!” he says. “We’ve been given this opportunity to play in front of all of these people. We all look at it as getting the best job in the world--performing in front of people. We just consider ourselves lucky. The past four years I’ve been with them, the growth has been substantial. The older you get, the more life experience you go through. It’s great because we’re a tight-knit group. We’re very close friends.”

Fontamillas joined Switchfoot in 2000 as a session player on the band’s independently released Learning To Breathe album, after his previous band Fold Zandura broke up. He was a bass player, but switched to playing keyboards and guitar in Switchfoot, which were both what he originally began playing. “[Switchfoot] didn’t need a bass player,” he explained. “My main instrument is the keyboards. That’s probably my best instrument, but I love playing the bass and guitar. Luckily, I get an opportunity to play keyboards and guitar with Switchfoot, which is a lot more fun.”

Upon the first time Fontamillas joined the band, the Foreman brothers--vocalist/guitarist Jon and bassist Tim--had the ability to write deep and meaningful lyrics left a lasting impression. But it was the song “Dare You To Move” that drew him in.

“When I joined four years ago,” he remembers, “they already had ‘Dare You To Move.’ I liked the music that’s coming out of this band. Four years later, that song’s on this album and it’s still as powerful as it was when I first joined the band.”

For Fontamillas, his musical training came at an early age. “My parents forced me to play the piano at a young age. I didn’t really like it, but the older I got, it started to grow on me,” he said. “I started picking up the bass and guitar in late high school. It was the cool thing to do at the time.”

But unlike many strict Filipino or Asian families, his family was supportive toward his decision to make music his career. “You know what a pain that all Asian kids have to go through!” he laughs, when remembering this defining moment. “Lucky for me, my parents have been very supportive. Obviously, they’ve had their concerns. With Asian families, they want to make sure your life is stable--being a musician, you’re living on the edge. But they supported me. They wouldn’t kick me out of the house. My parents wanted me to stay with them for as long as I can. In that sense, they really didn’t understand the dedication that had to happen, but they trusted my decision is what I wanted to do.

“It’s paying off now because we’re doing pretty well. They’re finally seeing the wider vision that I’ve been trying to express to them a long time ago. Asian parents--they’re in their own world! It’s hard for them to see outside the bubble.”

Finally, one aspect Fontamillas is slowly learning is that the rest of the band has mastered the art of surfing. The band members, when they are home, are found frequenting the various beaches in the North Coastal areas of San Diego. Being that he, admittedly, is not quite at the same level as his bandmates, he boldly shared the secrets that he learned about how to surf.

“90% of surfing is paddling,” he reveals. “The key is you have to have good upper body strength. My first time surfing, it tired me out paddling through these waves. But if you could just learn to paddle, you’ve got 90% of it! Getting out isn’t that hard. Paddling is all that you do.”

Switchfoot is due to appear on the WB’s Pepsi Smash television series this summer. Check your local listings for airtimes and dates. More info: Switchfoot.com.