By Jonathan Widran
In a business driven all too often by ego, where the double-edged sword of rising mainstream recognition and critical and commercial acclaim can spark an emerging young band’s loss of proper perspective, Jon Foreman is grateful for the humbling he experienced at the hands of Radiohead.
The first day he showed up at Ocean Way studios in Hollywood to lay tracks with producer John Fields for his band's now-platinum-selling fourth album, The Beautiful Letdown, the charismatic lead singer of the San Diego-bred Switchfoot - currently riding high on Billboard's alternative and modern rock charts (and steadily rising on the Top 100 singles chart) with the smash "Meant To Live" -- got lost in the labyrinth of sharp turns and same-looking hallways. The sign that said "Closed Session" piqued his curiosity, and seemed as logical a choice as any, considering that producer Fields would want to work in privacy. In a split second, he found himself on rock's Mt. Olympus, face to face with two of his personal heroes, Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke of Radiohead.
Momentarily a kid in the proverbial candy store, Foreman lost all sense of decorum and was floored that they were hanging around at a Switchfoot session. Maybe these alt-rock gods were guesting on the album? After all, Switchfoot was newly signed to Columbia and had played a huge part in the phenomenon of the A Walk To Remember soundtrack, scoring five tracks on the quadruple-platinum album. The foursome’s music was all over the WB (Dawson’s Creek, Felicity).
Switchfoot’s first three albums, beginning with 1997’s Legend of Chin, made the band the darlings of the Christian rock world and sold over 400,000 units combined. In the years before keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas joined in 2000, Foreman, his bassist brother Tim and drummer Chad Butler won Song of the Year at The Dove Awards (the Christian equivalent to The Grammys) for “New Way To Be Human” and won a Best Rock Gospel Album Grammy nomination for Learning To Breathe, which is currently riding high on Billboard’s alternative and modern rock radio charts, and steadily rising on the Top 100 singles sales chart with the smash, “Meant To Live.”
Building a following the old-fashioned way, the unit toured relentlessly, doing over 150 shows a year. And closer to home, they remained stars on the San Diego rock scene — where the band got started circa ’96 — winning the 2001 ASCAP San Diego Music Award for Best Pop Album and Best Pop Artist and the 2002 award for Best Adult Alternative.
All those accolades meant just about squat to the guys from Radiohead, who responded with puzzled, “Who is this punk in our studio?” stares when Foreman tried to engage them in conversation. He thought it would impress Greenwood to say the two had met briefly at The Grammys a few years ago. But later he remembered it was Greenwood’s brother. Greenwood impatiently said, “That’s funny, because I’ve never been to The Grammys.”
Yorke added, “The sign on the door is for you. You shouldn’t be here.” Foreman apologized, slinked out of the room and, eventually, found the right studio.
It was a beautiful letdown, indeed, but one that perfectly sums up the band’s spiritual-minded, well-balanced philosophy about life: “The album title is about the tension between beauty and pain,” says Foreman, 27, the band’s chief songwriter. “Even the highest emotional peaks in this life will come with a certain amount of pain attached. You see a beautiful sunset, and then it’s gone and it will leave you wanting more. Even when we experience the pain, there’s a beauty in what we can learn from it.”
Foreman had better luck meeting another rock idol, Bono, at last December’s Nashville summit for DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade for Africa), the U2 frontman’s charity organization that promotes AIDS awareness and debt relief for developing nations. When the meeting ended, Foreman walked up to Bono and handed him $40 — payback for sneaking into a U2 show in London a few years before.
“He laughed and said he did the same thing when he was younger,” says the singer. “He gave me the money back, saying he felt he’d already been compensated. To be honest, I was relieved, because it was my last 40 bucks and I needed the money to get home.
“Despite the fact that our first recording opportunity was with Sparrow Records, a huge Christian label, we see that as our faith, not our genre,” he adds. “Still, those core values really help us keep things in their place. At the end of the day, we’re all just human beings. Our culture puts such a premium on fame, but I’ve learned it’s best not to believe too much of what people say about you in the press, either good or bad. But, like U2, it’s important to use that fame for positive purposes.” Foreman says he’s always written songs about love, meaning, truth and the things that matter to him and his band. “Being well known is just a byproduct of that. I write songs to start a fire, like it’s a new star exploding in the night. I want people to laugh, cry and burst into tears. I want to speak of positive things for this generation, and it’s great to see people respond to that.”
It’s hard to say if Radiohead would respond more respectfully to Foreman now that The Beautiful Letdown is on the cusp of the Top 40 on Billboard’s album sales chart. But it’s a good bet they’re humming right along with Switchfoot’s fiery and anthemic multi-format breakthrough hit. Even as the second single, “Dare You To Move,” is in the Top 40 at CHR and the Top 25 of the Alternative Rock chart, “Meant To Live” — still steaming in its incredible 16th month at radio — has crossed over big-time from Modern Rock and Alt-Rock (where it was a Top 5 fixture) to the Top 10 at pop radio. Earlier this spring, the song’s original video (directed, ironically enough, by Laurent Briet, who helmed Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates”) was Top 20 on MTV, MTV2, Fuse, VH1 and Canada’s Much Music channels. Columbia, in charge of the “music inspired by” soundtrack for Spiderman 2, is so confident in Switchfoot’s emergence into the mainstream that it has funded a new video, including scenes from the film, snippets of which will appear in every radio and TV commercial and trailer.
Successful artist soundtrack tie-ins are the particular expertise of the band’s manager, John Leshay, a former marketing VP at Elektra, Columbia and Warner Bros., whose company, Storefront Entertainment, has an entire division devoted to movie music. In 2001, his biggest client, teen singer/actress sensation Mandy Moore, was gearing up to star in A Walk To Remember, and one of his employees (who knew Switchfoot from its club heyday in San Diego) gave Leshay a tape of the song “Only Hope,” which he heard as a perfect fit for a particular scene. The industry veteran is convinced that the widespread success of the film’s soundtrack ultimately contributed to the band’s ability to go platinum on its own.
“When they approached me about managing them, I agreed immediately, and saw tons of potential beyond just the way their songs worked in the movie,” says Leshay. “Their music has an incredible sense of honesty, and we all had our sights set on breaking through to the next level. As much as people wanted to categorize them as a Christian band, and as big a presence as Sparrow was at Christian bookseller outlets, I just didn’t see that as a problem. Their songs are about human themes, and numerous bands have sets of important beliefs that drive their creativity. Long before I came on board, they were drawing two or three thousand fans to their concerts. And, while some of them were Christian, a lot were from the San Diegan surf community that gave them their start.”
The band’s initial support came from the Foremans’ fellow wave catchers at Cardiff and Seaside, whose original goal in life was to be the next (surf champ) Kelly Slater. “Switchfoot” is a surfing term that the Foremans applied to their musical idea of “putting a different foot forward and mixing it up,” as Jon Foreman explains. “A good surfing style is very fluid and doesn’t involve a lot of flailing of the hands, just as in music the goal is to make it all look easy.”
Slow & Steady
Foreman recalls that when Sparrow came calling, the band was more concerned about finally having a shot at a record deal than how their music might be marketed. “It really took us quite a few years to figure out who Switchfoot was and what we wanted to do, so our identity sort of evolved,” he says. “We were focused on trying to record the next The Joshua Tree, not what the label would do with us. When you’re a kid, you don’t realize all the implications of what you’re doing. We were just three guys who loved music.
“Truth is, everyone wants to put you in a box, and that’s just human nature,” he adds. “But we never let that limit us. People think that achieving this wider success took so long because of pigeonholing and perceptions of us as one thing or another. But actually, the slow build was part of our mission from the beginning. You make it big quickly, and you can fall just as fast. But we wanted to grow steadily, build a grass-roots following and be the best band you’d ever tell your friend about. The San Diego club scene has been so good to us. There was a certain amount of open-mindedness about the music bands could play, so there wasn’t one specific sound. We basically just took advantage of every opportunity and played each gig like it was our last.”
Leshay connected immediately with Switchfoot’s slow-and-steady-wins-the-race mentality, and chose this over the quick-hit route when the band signed to Columbia. He attributes the monstrous success of “Meant to Live” and The Beautiful Letdown to this approach, coupled with the seamless teamwork between his management company, record company, booking agency, and so on.
Although he agrees with Foreman that a band should always be hands-on aware of the fine-print of the business dealings its handlers engage in, Leshay is quick to also give credit to Switchfoot’s legal reps, Elliot Groffman and Jennifer Justice (of NYC’s Codikow, Carroll, Guido and Groffman) for smooth contract handling “in the age of changing contracts due to emerging technology.”
Leshay adds that it was just as important to recognize what a major like Columbia couldn’t do for Switchfoot as it was to acknowledge what they could do. The group didn’t ask the label up-front for singles or big money. They started by making a low-budget video on their own. To get the record in the stores, the band went through RED, Sony’s indie distribution system, and then just practiced hardcore patience in line with Leshay’s credo, “I don’t manage singles or videos, but bands. Things take time.”
As the band’s touring schedule heated up, a few radio stations around the country began playing “Meant To Live.” The resulting buzz helped push album sales to 150,000 — at which point Leshay asked for Columbia’s marketing muscle and higher video budgets to take Switchfoot to the next level.
“I’m not saying this is the best approach for every band out there,” says Leshay. “But they’re going to need a career beyond the age of 25, and this was, in my opinion, the best way to ensure that.”
Kicking it Up a Notch
Not that Foreman and company had any problem embarking on a more extensive touring schedule. “Like I always say, except maybe for surfing, being in Switchfoot is the best job in the world,” says the singer. “Since our early days in San Diego, our goal was to be contagious and get the crowds excited. There are really no barriers be-tween us and the audience, even if we’re a few feet higher due to the stage setup. We’ve always made ourselves accessible to fans, and the only problem with that is talking so much that I might lose my voice.”
That connection, according to Foreman, is what it’s all about. “But there’s also this weird, Groundhog Day element that you have to deal with as part of the life,” Forman continues. “It’s strange being away from home and having no roots. It’s like a free-floating existence that keeps repeating in the hours before we hit the stage. I call it the ultimate manic depressive lifestyle. You’re in a daze some of the time, but then someone will come up and tell us that our music brought them through a hard time or a tough situation in their life. Or someone tells us one of our songs really helped them a lot. Isn’t that the goal of a songwriter? To write something that changes the world?”
When Foreman is having an off- day creatively, and his melodies and lyrics are falling far short of such lofty aspirations, he always has his brother Tim to give him a reality check, one that makes the Radiohead anecdote look fluffy by comparison. “The best part of having my brother as a partner in the band is that there’s no dancing around a subject, no worries about stepping on toes,” he says. “We can go head-to-head and still be friends. But that’s what makes the songwriting process as magical as it is. We really put ourselves out there, trying to tackle deep philosophical themes, such as the idea that, despite all the technology and conveniences in our lives, we don’t really know anything more about ourselves. We’re more materially secure, but less so spiritual. As I sing in ‘Gone,’ everything is somehow transitory.”
But that sort of inspiration isn’t always easy to come by, Foreman adds. “Tim, Chad, Jerome and I don’t just sit and start to play and come up with ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Sometimes, the best music happens like the collision of stars. A certain energy emerges when things are fought over. Disagree-ments are healthy and normal. If you’re passionate about what you’re fighting for, something great will come out of that.
“I believe that the best songs come not from serenity but from friction,” he concludes, “which can start the kind of fire that we’re after. The Beautiful Letdown isn’t up there yet with The Joshua Tree –– but then again, in a lot of ways, we’re just getting started.”