Switchfoot: One Step Beyond

San Diego boys talk surfing, explain lyrics, and genuflect to Bono.

by Brian Ives & C. Bottomley

"We are meant to live for so much more," goes the chorus to Switchfoot's current hit. It's pretty indicative of where the San Diego band stands. While others might be in it for the money or the girls, Switchfoot are after bigger game. They want to move hearts and get people thinking.

It's a lofty goal for a bunch of surfing buddies. Singer/guitarist John Foreman and his bass-playing brother Tim first made friends with keyboardist Jermoe Fontamillas while riding giants. The three of them competed in national surf championships and had sponsorship deals, too. But inspired by U2, the Beatles and Elliott Smith, they chose rock as their true calling.

With Chad Butler on drums, Switchfoot have stuck it out over the course of four albums, slowly winning converts. Their followers are dedicated to their inspirational music and rapturous live shows. They've played with the likes of Evanescence and P.O.D., and while they may not be on first name terms with Radiohead yet, they did bum-rush the Brit band's recording studio.

Their newest, The Beautiful Letdown, is anything but. "Meant to Live" introduced the world to their anthemic brand of uplift, and "Dare You to Move" looks set to follow. As the Switchfoot crusade continues, VH1 sat down with the band to talk about how they gave Bono forty bucks and why it's okay to be earnest sometimes.

VH1: How did you all first meet?

Tim Foreman: [indicating JF] I met this guy right here when I was zero years old. We're brothers. We met Chad in high school through the surf community in San Diego, which is pretty tight. We started playing music in different local bands. We met Jermoe on the side of the road selling
Jonathan Foreman: Crack?
Jermoe Fontamillas: Lemonade.
Tim: He was in another band we used to tour with. We joined forces and together we are
Jonathan: Wyld Stallyons! [Laughter] [Watch Clip]

VH1: Switchfoot is a surfing term, right? What does it mean?

Jonathan: It's putting a different foot forward than you normally would, which changes the way you're facing on the wave. In skateboarding or snowboarding, it's a little more functional. In surfing, it's more of a fun thing to do [when] the waves are small and you're goofing around with your buddies. For me, it implies change, and that's something we latched onto from the beginning.

VH1: Ben Harper says songs come to him while he's surfing. Has that happened to you?

Jonathan: Sometimes you get songs like that. Surfing's a very rhythmic thing. Most of the time you spend on your stomach paddling, like right/left, right/left. It lends itself to more of the four-four type songs. A lot of times you get really horrible songs stuck in your head and you're thinking like, "Oh, I need to get this song out!" Maybe that's how you write a new one.

VH1: Tell me about "Meant to Live."

Jonathan: It's a song I wrote in a period of my life when I was stuck in a rut. Although the song's in third person, I tend to think it's more about me. I sing the lyrics like that, talking about myself. The verses are a bit darker, going over failures of my own. The chorus is a little bit more hopeful. It's reminding myself that we're meant to live for more than a new car or a new TV, a new this that or the other.

VH1: Explain the line "We want more than the wars of our fathers."

Jonathan: It's a strange line to have in there, especially when the Iraq war came about and you have two different George Bushes as president. But I actually wrote it before the war had started. Where I was coming from was a little more along the lines of the wars that have raged since the dawn of time. There's something inside of us that's burning and fighting and a lot of times we find a release from that in destroying each other and how ridiculous is that?

VH1: Were you recognized in the street before the record hit?

Jonathan: [jokingly] Well Jermoe was already pretty famous with his starring roles in B-movies and the Michael Jackson videos.
Jermoe: "Are you that guy that was over there?" [Laughter]
Tim: [jokingly] I wear a moustache disguise in public. In airports and stuff like that, people come up and get autographs now. It's fun to meet people, as long as you can keep it on that level where it's still a conversation. That's what we're always trying to do, break down that weirdness between the stage and the crowd.

VH1: What's behind the next single "Dare You to Move"?

Jonathan: I like songs that kind of go different places. That's what this one is. Live, it really comes into its own, when you can have a thousand people screaming it back at you. It feels like a family.
Tim: That's what we all love about live music and going to see a band. You never know what's going to happen. I think we feed off that reckless type of approach, where anything can happen.
Chad Butler: It drives me crazy! [Laughter] [I have to] try to play different every song!

VH1: Are you thinking about that communal experience when you're writing a song?

Jonathan: Sometimes. The ironic thing is a lot of these songs are almost like diary entries. When you write a song that's super-personal, you don't know if people are going to understand it. One thing I've learned is a lot of times the most personal songs I've ever written are in fact the most universal. Pain, frustration, love, hate, and fear are all things inside here [points to chest]. But we've all been through it. So you can't write for everyone. You have to start right here.

VH1: Do you have any funny stories about the making of The Beautiful Letdown?

Jonathan: We were mixing the record right next door to where Radiohead was cutting their record. So the first day we arrived, we're trying to act like we know what we're doing. The lady at the front desk kind of directs us where to go, but we got the wrong room. We ended up in Radiohead's room, but we think it's our room! I'm thinking, "This is awesome! Radiohead are just hanging out in our studio!" I listened to Radiohead for years. Them and Ben Folds Five got me through college. So there's Tommy Yorke [sic] and Jonny Greenwood. And I'm like, "This is great. How you guys doing? What's happening?!" And I'm sure they're thinking like, "Who is this prick coming through the studio acting like he's supposed to be here?"

VH1: You're also big supporters of DATA, the organization Bono helped start for African relief.

Jonathan: It was an eye-opener for me. This is an organization that is really user-friendly and it's for an amazing cause. Seven thousand people a day are dying, most of them from AIDS. But it's [about] debt, AIDS, trade, Africa. [There's] a trade imbalance. It's debt they owe to these large First World banks. Basically, it's a war that can be won, so we've just been telling people to check it out. Go to Data.org for more info.

VH1: What happened when you met Bono?

Jonathan: What do you say to Bono? For me, The Joshua Tree was the record. My friends tried to blow [the CD] up because they heard it too many times. I gave him $40 and told him that was for sneaking into their show in London a couple of years back. He was very cool about it. He told me about how he used to sneak into shows when he was a kid. He gave me the money back, which was important, because that was the only $40 I had at the time! He's a very gracious man.

VH1: A while ago it wasn't cool to be so earnest. What made you decide, this is the way we want to be?

Tim: I think if you're going to be on the road 355 days out of the year and just really pouring your heart into the music, it's got to be songs that you're passionate about. I don't think any of us could do this for four albums if we didn't believe in it.

VH1: What have the kids said about what your songs mean to them?

Tim: Whether it was Bob Dylan or Bob Marley or James Taylor, there are a lot of songs that got me through hard times growing up. To have a kid come up after a show and say, I was really contemplating suicide and I heard your song, what do you say to that? That's obviously much bigger than just four guys playing music. But it's an amazing feeling.

VH1: That's a big responsibility.

Jonathan: It's not because we play rock n' roll we have a responsibility. It's just because you're alive. Somebody is looking up to you and watching what you're doing and what you're singing about. Even if it's five kids that came to the show, and no one else cares but those five kids, you better sing your heart out.