Q & A: More Than Fine

Switchfoot returns a star

Taking its name from a surfing term, it's little surprise that Switchfoot hails from San Diego, Calif. But what has been astonishing is the band's sharp rise in the pop/rock world on the heels of the 2003 album The Beautiful Letdown.

Getting its start on the contemporary Christian music scene in the mid-'90s, the quartet of brothers Jon and Tim Foreman, Chad Butler and Jerome Fontamillus have scored radio hits with "Meant to Live" and "Dare You to Move" as the record reached platinum status.

With a concert DVD Live in San Diego also recently released, the foursome returns to Detroit's State Theater tomorrow with guest The Format.

Nick Brandon talked with frontman Jon Foreman about Switchfoot's beautiful boost.

NB: The last year in your band's career, it's been pretty incredible — how could you put it into words?

JF: It's so surreal to have a band that looks up to a bunch of indie-rock bands in San Diego. We grew up listening to bands that sold 30,000 at the most, so for us, to sell a million records is very ironic and it's a little strange. But it's great. We've always had the view that we really feel like our music deserves to be heard, and we feel like it's music for everyone. I'm really thankful that everyone has been given a chance to listen.

NB: It really is music for everyone; the songs are well written enough where any genre can take it in. How did your style develop from '97 on?

JF: It's developed as we've grown up. The past eight years as a band has been uncovering what we were really trying to say all along — a lot of things change just as life goes on. You learn different things about yourself, you learn different things about the world. I'm on a journey, and these songs are the documentation of that journey.

NB: One thing that sets you guys apart is the fact that there's a real crisp message to your music; it's very introspective.

JF: For me, growing up, I played my share of Dead Kennedys songs in high school. I feel like there's a point where I figured I was tired of being angry and wanted to sing about something more worth living for. Everyone's got their thing to do and I'm not trying to come down on anyone who's doing their thing, but what we're doing is something that maybe has a little more hope in it. There's a lot of really dark aspects to the record that might come through on a second or third listen. But when you hear a kid come up to you after the show and tell you your song got him through a really tough time in life, that's the punch line right there.

NB: It kind of makes it all worthwhile, you know?

JF: Yeah, totally — 'cause we've all been that kid who's trying to figure out their own little world and what's worth living for. For me, songs got me through some of the hard times, so it's a great reciprocal end to be on the other side of that.

NB: It's cool you mentioned the darker aspects of your music, because I think it's something your listeners maybe miss out on. With "Dare You to Move" for instance, however hopeful that song can feel at times, it kind of is dark in some ways, don't you think?

JF: Yeah — I think the whole record is kind of right on the border of sunrise and sunset. You can't really tell whether it's going down or coming up. I feel like that twilight; those are my favorite songs. Whether it's Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan, you feel the tension between the darkness and the light. That's what music is, tension release, the major and the minor chord playing off of each other. In "Meant to Live," the chorus is really upbeat, but the verses are pretty dark and there's not much hope there. So it's kind of the question — it's kind of maybe more a Socratic dialogue that's going on between the chorus and the verse.

NB: Do you think that quality also sets you apart within the Christian bands that a lot of people associate you with? Not to corner you into that, but there are some stereotypes that are probably true.

JF: I think all you have as a musician is honesty. That's something that is sometimes that hardest thing to put out there at the same time, because the moment you become honest, you become vulnerable. I used to hate playing live because of that vulnerability. Like the other night, we were playing the Warfield, and like two-thirds through the set I didn't realize my zipper had been down — so that's vulnerability right there!

NB: How un-rock star of you.

JF: Yeah, right. That's why I go to see live music, because of the things that can go wrong. My favorite show I ever saw was Elliot Smith.

NB: Wow, you got to see him?

JF: This one time he was playing in Nashville, and the tower was out because a lightning storm went through town. It's kind of one of those moments where the whole crowd is wondering whether he's going to go on or not. Twenty minutes later, Elliot Smith comes out with acoustic guitar and a candle, and that was probably the best show I've ever seen.

NB: That must have been incredible.

JF: It's what happens when things go wrong, that's what defines who we are. Once you try and wrap your head around that, then it's easier to live life — and it's easier to play live music. 'Cause you understand things are going to wrong, that's just the reality — what happens next is up to us.

NB: Is that "The Beautiful Letdown?"

JF: Yeah man. It's somewhere between beauty and pain, and that's kind of where we live.

NB: It's interesting that musically you try and capture that, not just with the lyrics.

JF: It's the type of thing where, usually, the music and the lyric come at the same time, they kind of play off each other. Hopefully they're working with each other instead of against each other, telling the same story.

NB: With The Beautiful Letdown, you used electronics in a very cool way. Was that partly Jerome's doing, since he was still new in the band when you recorded this album?

JF: Yeah, this is the first record he's been with us. He was definitely a big part of that, but we've always been interested in what you can do with electricity and sound. I took a course on it in college, trying to figure out the way synthesis works and all that. One of the amazing things about having Jerome on board is being able to do everything live. We still definitely play the songs differently live, but to be able to have everything at your fingertips … our songs are telling a story, and the goal is to get that story across — sometimes you need a couple more fingers, a couple more hands. Jerome is definitely one of us, he's an amazing guy.

NB: Mentioning how some of the songs take a different life live, when I saw you guys on Letterman when you played Dare You to Move. It was a lot more raw — it sounded like four guys in a practice space. Is that one of the tracks that took on a new life?

JF: Definitely. It's still hard trying to fit what you do live … on a CD. I feel like with this record we came the closest, but it's really always been the case for this record that these songs live and breathe in a dark, sweaty rock 'n' roll club. That's where they come into their own — sometimes it's just too pretty on a CD, there's just an energy you can't feel through the jewel case.

NB: Speaking of the live performance, the live DVD is quite an accomplishment at this point. As I watched it, I was impressed at how intimate of a look it gives a Switchfoot live concert experience. Is that the case?

JF: We're always trying to figure out how we can get closer. We are very aware that there's no difference between the crowd and ourselves. The barrier that some bands put between the stage and the audience, I feel like our goal is to try and break that down. A successful show is one where we're all singing the same song.

NB: Your touring is something I've gotten to experience firsthand the way it's grown. A couple years back I first saw you at The Shelter, which is the basement of St. Andrew's Hall. It was a good night — and then like a year later, I go to St. Andrew's Hall and you guys sold out. It's pretty amazing how things have grown, isn't it?

JF: It's incredible man. I just always say I'm honored to be able to play music for a living. I'm thankful that there's people that want to hear us. Like you said, this is our fourth time through (Detroit) in a year and a half. The goal for this record was to be the type of album that your friends would tell you about, and I feel like that's what the touring story has told. It's spreading very organically.

NB: How are you looking forward to playing here again?

JF: I can't wait. We've got a couple tricks up our sleeve. We're going to be bringing out a couple new things, and playing a couple new songs as well.