BACK TO SWITCHFOOT

 

by Keavin Wiggins

In the recent past San Diego has been best known for the springing Blink-182 on us (ok it’s Poway but that’s close enough to San Diego). But there is a lot more going on in San Diego County than the pinup boys of Blink. From the hardcore metal of Cage to the power-pop of the Happy Regrets and then there is the melodic modern rock outfit Switchfoot, who have been working hard under the radar for years establishing themselves as formidable soundsters with a knack for turning out addictive melodies and heartfelt ballads.

It all began in San Diego as the three members of the group, frontman Jonathan Foreman, his brother Tim (bass) and drummer Chad Butler grew up together. Their first connection to each other was through church but it was on the beaches of San Diego where they really connected as surfers. They became quite well known in surfing circles, competing in national championships and earning product endorsements from surf equipment companies but they eventually discovered their mutual shared love of music and decided to form a group.

Instead of opting for the traditional surf music or the punk that is popular with many So Cal surfers, they instead decided to make music that fit into the modern rock category that was ruling the airwaves at the time courtesy of bands like Dishwalla, Matchbox-20 and Tonic. When it came time to selecting a name they opted for the surfing term “Switchfoot,” which is used to describe when a surfer changes his footing on the board while riding a wave. In a way it was the perfect name for the group because unlike most modern rock bands, their songs do seem to switch perspective and direction quite often.

From the beginning it looked like fate had smiled on the group. A demo tape that they recorded in Jonathan’s bedroom shortly after the band formed somehow made its way across the country and into the hands of Charlie Peacock, a respected signer/songwriter and producer in the Christian music world.

Peacock loved what he heard on the crude demo and offered the band a deal on his EMI imprint “re:Think Records”. Peacock took the band under his wing and executive produced their debut album, “The Legend of Chin.” The album made an immediate impression among underground modern rock and Christian rock fans and earned the band the ASCAP San Diego Music Award for Best New Artist. The same honor that Jewel had received shortly before her career took off in a big way.

Fans latched onto Switchfoot because of their well-crafted melodies and sentimental lyrics. Although some have criticized the band for being a bit too sentimental in the lyric department, there was no denying the music’s overall appeal and the group setout to win fans over on the road, which would become a second home to them over the next few years as they traveled the world exposing their music to all who would listen. It seemed a lot were listening as their fanbase grew across the world but the band couldn’t seem to break into the mainstream in a major way.

Their second album, “New Way to Be Human,” built upon the foundation of their first and opened the doors further for the band in Christian music circles. The title track went on to earn a Dove Award for the Modern Rock Song of the Year for 1999. Their star had indeed risen in Christian music as that song became the most played Christian recording of 1999.

In the secular world they began to make an impact as well. Their third album, “Learning to Breathe,” began their major breakthrough to the mainstream. The video for the single “You Already Take Me There” got healthy airplay on MTV2 and the album went on to earn the group their first Grammy nomination in 2001.

Meanwhile, television producers caught on to the group’s appeal and their music has been featured more than 30 times in television programs ranging from “Dawson's Creek” and “Party of Five" to "Felicity" and “Jack and Jill”.

All told Switchfoot’s indie releases have sold upwards of 400,000 copies but their major break came from the most unlikely of places--teen pop singer Mandy Moore.

When the producers of the film, “A Walk To Remember”, went looking for music to include in the film they turned to Switchfoot. The bitter sweet movie marked Moore’s debut as a leading lady and actually shocked many when the film was released due to it’s maturity and Moore’s remarkable acting ability. Many were ready to write off the film as just another teen singer turned actor vehicle but instead the movie was greeted with acclaim and the detractors were soon silenced when they discovered it was a serious drama.

The producers of the film turned to Switchfoot to provide the signature song for the film, “Only Hope,” which Moore performed in the film (Switchfoot’s original version was also featured during the climax of the movie). The ultimate irony came when Switchfoot and Jonathan’s music was featured as prominently in the film as Moore’s. The soundtrack, which included 5 Switchfoot songs, went gold and helped expose the band to a larger audience but more importantly it caught the attention of executives at Columbia records, who offered the group a record deal.

Critics and longtime fans all seem to agree that Switchfoot’s major label debut, “The Beautiful Letdown,” is their best work yet. The title is ironic because the album is definitely not a letdown to fans. The group seem to capitalize on their strength this time around and while the band remains Christian at it’s core the spiritual content of the lyrics is approached in a practical manner so there is no fear of alienating the secular audience because once again the message is there for those who choose to find it but is also written in such a way that secular fans won’t feel preached to or in most cases pick up on the Christian angle.

The band is careful to point out that while they are indeed a Christian band, their music is meant to appeal to everybody. When asked how they feel about the Christian label, Tim said, "It's an annoyance if people use it to write off your music".

They shouldn’t fear people writing off their music. While the lyrics may come across as overly sentimental to some, overall the music is compelling and highly enjoyable if your tastes run to the modern rock sound. Like all of the group’s efforts, “The Beautiful Let Down” varies from full on modern rockers to middle of the rock indie rock and bittersweet ballads. Jonathon’s rich soulful vocals should appeal to mainstream modern rock fans as it fits nicely in with other vocalist in the genre like Johnny Rzeznik, Josey Scott and Brandon Boyd.

The album is chock full of appealing tunes from the instant classic modern rocker “Meant to Live”, the equally rocking yet melodic “Ammunition” and “Adding to the Noise”, to a mid-tempo number like “More Than Fine” and the somber ballads “On Fire” and the beautiful heartfelt “Twenty-Four”. The band gets a little funky with “Gone” but their finest moments come with the radio friendly “Redemption” and the moving emotionally charged “Dare You To Move,” which was the leadoff track from their “Learning to Breathe” album.

All told Switchfoot have once again topped themselves and the music on “The Beautiful Let Down” is more than strong enough to complete the band’s journey from the underground to the mainstream. If you are looking for a strong group of melody makers in 2003, all you have to do is look to Switchfoot, a band like last month’s featured melody makers, Jimmy Eat World, that has steadily and patiently prepared for their moment of truth and face it with their talents but also with their integrity intact.