FEATURE - Keeping Their Feet On The Ground

By Lyndsey Parker

Switchfoot's fourth album may be the titled The Beautiful Letdown, but it's anything but: The San Diego, California alt-rock quartet's much-awaited transition from the contemporary Christian world to the major-label mainstream has been smooth and seemingly effortless, with all of the band's spirituality and conviction thankfully intact. Conveying universal, non-denominational messages of hope, truth, and the search for real meaning in this messed-up world with their heartfelt but always hard-rocking anthems like "Meant To Live," "Dare You To Move," "Redemption," and "This Is Your Life," these surfers/musicians/modern-day philosophers are providing a much-needed antidote to all the negativity being peddled by so many post-grunge and nu-metal bands today--while at the same time, still making music that would appeal to fans of those bands. No easy feat, but they've pulled it off.

Switchfoot leader Jon Foreman recently sat down with LAUNCH's managing editor Lyndsey Parker to talk about his band's place in the music world, as well as his personal quest--through rock 'n' roll--for the meaning of life. It was one of the most interesting and profound interviews LAUNCH had conducted in quite a while. Read on to see what Jon had to say:

LAUNCH: A lot of people think Switchfoot is a new band, when actually you've been around for a while and you're on your fourth album. How do you feel about perceived as a "new" artist?

JON: We have been around for a long time, but there's a lot of bands that don't get the credit that they deserve until seven or eight years down the line. And it seems like most of my favorite bands are the ones that I hear about from friends: They tell me, "Oh, you gotta check out this band." And I guess that's what we want to be, the type of band that your friends tell you about, not that somebody shoves down your throat. So that's the goal--to just keep working at it, and spread slowly.

LAUNCH: Is it better that things have worked out way, rather than having everything happen at once?

JON: Yeah, totally. I mean, in the very beginning, we were all about trying to get the music out as fast as we could. But I'm pretty sure that if we had succeeded, we probably wouldn't be a band anymore, you know? There's so much that you have to learn along the way that you don't know when you first start out. But after seven years in clubs, you're forced to figure it out.

LAUNCH: Is there a unified message on your album? It seems to be about a quest for truth or meaning in life...

JON: Yeah, the songs are all driven, I think on this album in particular, by kind of the 3-in-the-morning, trying-to-figure-out-what-life-is-about type of song. That kind of seems to be the theme for the album. I think there's definitely a spiritual element there, because for me, all the songs are coming from a very spiritual place. Sometimes it's the type of song where you think it's only your experience, something that's too personal to talk about with anyone else--and then you play it for somebody else, and they know exactly what you're talking about. That's the type of song that I think this album is composed of. It's the type of song that is very personal, but universal at the same time.

LAUNCH: Where does that quest for truth or meaning come from? A personal restlessness?

JON: Yeah, I think so. I don't know. I look around and I know there's a lot in the world that I want to see changed--and I want to be a part of something bigger than myself. I want to see things change...and oftentimes, that's in myself as much as it is in the world around me. And so these songs are kind of stretching for that. They're going for it. It's something that I haven't already gotten, but it's something that I want to achieve. I think that that's a good place to be; I hope I'm there for the rest of my life.

LAUNCH: Do you actually think that music can change the world?

JON: Well, we're very realistic about ourselves and our impact; we're not people who think, "Oh yeah, I can single-handedly turn the world around!" But I do know that music has a very powerful effect on me--everything from Bob Marley to U2 to Bob Dylan. There are a lot of songs that have impacted the way that I live. And if we could be a part of that for somebody else, that'd be amazing.

LAUNCH: Do you consider Switchfoot to be a political band? For instance, there are references to war in your new single, "Meant To Live," that resonate particularly strongly in our current political climate.

JON: If anything, we're more about the politics of the heart, the politics of the inside. Of course, everyone wants peace. But I think a lot of times, we overlook the fact that external peace can never happen until internal peace happens. And I think this album is more of searching after internal peace than it is searching for external peace.

LAUNCH: You seem to really have your heads on straight, especially compared to many other musicians and celebrities. How do you guys stay grounded?

JON: Well, thank you for saying that we're grounded! I guess a big part of it is the fact that we grew up together. We have always been close, and hopefully when we're 85, we'll still be having barbecues and hanging out, and talking about the time we did that thing on LAUNCH or whatever. But we started as three guys who loved music; we loved to surf and hang out together, and we'd just talk about music and talk about what's going on. And then when we joined up, it was kind of a natural progression. That closeness kind of keeps us from going off the rocker too far, because you're tight enough to slap somebody in the face and say, "What are you doing?" And we all need that sometimes--me, too. Especially me! [laughs]

LAUNCH: Do your religious beliefs have anything to do with your groundedness?

JON: Yeah. Definitely for me. I've been through a lot in the past couple years especially, just trying to figure out what I think about this or that, where I stand--and what I believe spiritually is a big part of keeping me on balance and on course.

LAUNCH: Your music is very positive compared to other music of the day. Do you think that's well-timed considering what's going on in the world today? Does the world need Switchfoot right now?

JON: Well, as far as the timing of positivity or hope...hope is always relevant. I think the problem with hope is that oftentimes, we get sold a hope that is only skin-deep; it's kind of like a band-aid. Things'll get better and you kiss it and hope it feels better--but the problems still remain and the wars are still going on. And what this album is an attempt to do is to talk about real pain and real loss and the real crap that goes on every day, and then in that context talk about hope that gets deeper than the wound. That's kind of what The Beautiful Letdown is all about: the idea that in this terrible, crazy world, there is hope, there is beauty. "I look around and I know there's a lot in the world that I want to see changed--and I want to be a part of something bigger than myself. I want to see things change, in myself as much as in the world around me."

LAUNCH: Do fans ever tell you that your lyrics have touched or changed them?

JON: Yeah, totally--that's a big part of what keeping you going on when you're running on two hours' sleep for the past four days and you're trying to figure out, why on earth are you in the middle of Idaho playing a show? Not that I have anything against Idaho, but still, it's not home. But just to be able to talk to people after shows...we really try and hang out after shows and really connect with people, because that's kind of where it all happens. For us, music is like communicating, and that's our part of the communication, up onstage. That's when we're "talking," and then after the show, that's kind of our chance to listen. I mean, certainly music is a very emotional experience, and a lot of people have said, "I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for your music," and things like that. You've gotta take everything with a grain of salt, but definitely comments like that are very appreciated, because it makes you feel like you're making a difference, that you're part of something bigger than yourself.

LAUNCH: How have these long-term fans of yours reacted to Switchfoot signing to a secular label?

JON: It's been a great transition for us, to go from a kind of smaller label to the bigger label. And a big part of that is, I think, the fact that our fans really understand what we're about; it's great to be able to have fans that appreciate the music so much that once you're bigger than you were yesterday, or more people are hearing about you, they're not gonna jump off because you're not "their band" anymore. That's something that I really appreciate. When I was a kid you'd listen to a band and you'd be a part of a scene, and you'd want the best for that band. But now when a band gets above a certain popularity level, it somehow becomes "uncool" to like that band anymore. And I feel very fortunate that our fans are bigger than that--that they're about the music, and what's behind the music.

LAUNCH: A lot of Christian rock bands deny their religious background once they find mainstream popularity. In order to take things to the next level, they feel the need to distance themselves from the "Christian rock" label. Are you comfortable with that label?

JON: Well, we've been trying to climb out of boxes ever since the day we first started. In my first band in high school, everyone was calling us a "punk" band, and we were like, "No, we are not punk!" Just certain things that you're always trying to, as a musician, clarify, and get out of the box, so people can listen to the music behind it. We've always been very open about what we believe and who we are, but at the same time, we feel like our music shouldn't be put inside a box--that it's for everybody. These are songs that I don't feel like your faith would limit you from listening to. We're just average guys making music, and of course our beliefs are gonna come out in that. I think of my favorite band growing up...when I was a kid, my dad sat me down and he played me a song by U2, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." He sat me down, made me listen to the whole thing. We were in the car; he parked on the side of the road and said, "Now see, that's a song. That's a really good song." And that always stuck out to me. I feel like one of the reasons why U2's music has meant so much to me over the years is because of they're not afraid to talk about what's going on spiritually, and it connects with you on a spiritual level. And I guess we're attempting to do the same thing.

LAUNCH: How do you do that without alienating non-Christians, or anyone in general who doesn't share your beliefs?

JON: Well, like I said before, there are a lot of themes that are universal, like hope, and a lot of things that we're talking about in our songs are pretty much for everybody. Again, it's trying to be outside of the box. It's not trying to write the song that'll make the whole world sing, but it's an attempt to write a song that makes my own heart sing. Something that's beautiful and true. And if that's done well, then that's gonna resonate with someone else.

LAUNCH: How autobiographical are your lyrics?

JON: They're pretty straightforward; I tend to think of this album as a diary of sorts. In the past, I've written songs that are a little less straightforward, a little more cryptic. But this album, for me, seems very obvious that it's about searching at 3 in the morning, scribbling in your journal, trying to figure out why we're here on this planet.

LAUNCH: Talk about your song "24." Was turning 24 a milestone for you? Why do you focus on that particular year?

JON: I remember "24" really well. It was the day before my 25th birthday, and I had just broken my wrist skateboarding. I was kind of sitting there, a little dejected and forlorn and trying to figure out what I was gonna do for the next couple shows, trying to play with a broken wrist and stuff. And then there were a couple other events that led to the writing of that song, relationships and things like that. "24," for me, is about the 24 hours in the day, and the voices in my head, just trying to come to terms with all the decisions that go on in daily life. When I talk about the voices in my head, I just mean that with every decision, it's almost like Congress is up in my head and they're all bickering and arguing, trying to figure out what the next plan of attack will be. And the goal for me would be to be one, to be unified--to have one voice. I've heard it said that purity of heart is to will one thing. And that's kind of what "24" is about.

LAUNCH: What about the song "Adding To The Noise"? It has the lyric, "If we're adding to the noise/Turn off this song." That's a pretty ballsy thing to do--to dare or encourage someone to ignore your own music!

JON: Yeah, we always thought it would be really great to tell somebody to turn it off. See, we were looking at statistics, and the number-one CD of last year was the blank disc. And I was just thinking, what a better world this would be--and this might sound really odd coming from a musician--if we all listened to that blank disc just for an hour and 15 minutes, and contemplated life and just thought about what we're doing here. Maybe pop it in and go for a drive or something, and be forced to think our thoughts. That's kind of what "Adding To The Noise" is about. Our world spins very fast and there's a lot of traffic that goes by very quickly, but at the end of the day, there's no real motion, nothing has really changed--our hearts are still the same and our planet's still messed-up. So that song's kind of just...I don't know, I guess it is an ironic thing for somebody to tell you to turn the song off.

LAUNCH: Tell me more about your single, "Meant To Live." It seems to sum up all the themes on the album that we mentioned before, about searching for truth and meaning.

JON: That for me is probably the most straightforward song on the album. With the verses, I think of them in the third person, talking to myself--talking about myself, maybe. I'm the kid fumbling his confidence, wondering why the world has passed him by. And I think we're all born with this innate knowledge that we're meant to live for more than the new car and the new guitar. It's a song about meaning. It's a quest for joy, a quest for truth, and searching for the reason why we're here. It's knowing that we're meant for more than what the magazine pages sell us.

LAUNCH: You speak about fumbling confidence, even though you seem very confident to me. Yet I understand that you used to hate playing live--is that true? And if so, why?

JON: I guess it's because you get this surreal sense that you can actually be "perfect" when you're in the studio. Because even when I was a kid, when I had my four-track, you did it until you got it perfect, and then you'd move on to the next track, and if you didn't like it once, you could double it up and put 100 guitars on it, and then that would probably sound, I guess, better than one. But live, you only get one shot, and say your amp breaks or the string breaks...entropy is always at work. It doesn't matter whether you're playing in front of 1,000 people or two. And so when I first started playing live, it was just that frustration of knowing that these people weren't hearing it exactly "perfect." I guess I'm somewhat of a perfectionist in that way. But then as we began playing more and more, I learned to really appreciate the element of suspense and surprise--that when the string breaks, you can throw your guitar aside and just sing and see what happens then. It's just the idea that anything can happen when you're playing live. That's why people go to a live show instead of just popping in a CD: You gotta do something different, you gotta do something crazy.

LAUNCH: You seem to all play together really well. Tell me about the band's chemistry.

JON: Chemistry? It'd probably be an endothermic reaction [laughs]. Our chemistry I was saying earlier, we're very good friends, and I think that influences us playing live. We were a three-piece for a long time, and [second guitarist] Jerome [Fontamillas] has been playing with us for three years now. I think the reason why he works is not that he's not a great musician--although he is--but is because of his personality. I think that that's almost more important than what happens musically: how four people fit together.

LAUNCH: Tell me about your band name--isn't it a surfing term?

JON: Yeah, "switchfoot" means putting a different foot forward on the board. It's like a switch-stance.

LAUNCH: Tell me about your surfing background. You used to compete, right?

JON: Yeah. It's less of a novelty in San Diego than it is other places. But I grew up on the surf team, doing surf P.E. and all that. And like every kid, I wanted to be the next Kelly Slater and turn pro. But I wasn't good enough. So music kind of took off for me instead. I think if I had it to do over again, and I was good enough to do the pro surfing thing, I'd choose music anyways. We just got back from Hawaii and got a chance to surf, and I guess that's the closest I'll ever be to be a pro surfer [laughs].

LAUNCH: Is there any similarity between catching the perfect wave and playing the perfect show or writing the perfect song?

JON: Well, I think surfing is a much more personal thing where it's just you, and maybe a pack of dolphins and the sunset. But music is loud. It's sweaty. It's got a certain smell to it. And at the end of the night, there's this energy that's filling a room. Whereas with surfing, you're under this great big sky and you've got a lot to be thankful for, just looking at the sunset and glad that you're alive. It's totally different, but two different beautiful things.