Editor's Note: This story appeared in its original format in the Winter 2014 issue of Variance.
Switchfoot is currently at the forefront of a very big moment in its history. Nearly two decades in, the San Diego alt-rock outfit is not only releasing a new album, but they’re telling a story that’s perhaps been a long time coming—18 years, to be exact.
Preceding the band’s newly released Fading West record was a documentary of the same name, which followed the surf-rockers across the globe capturing behind-the-scenes footage, tour struggles and even some very personal hardships.
“There are some parts of the movie that I honestly just don’t like to watch,” frontman Jon Foreman confesses, speaking with Variance on a late fall afternoon at the end of the band’s tour to promote the new record. “The truth is, though, we wanted to tell an honest story. You can tell the truth in metaphor or in poetry, which is what we have done for years. But people can take away their own interpretation from that. Many times, you can tell the most brutal story in a song, but not everyone will understand what they’re hearing. It’s not that as a band we haven’t had our hardships, it’s just that the expression, looking for hope in dark places, has been in metaphors. With the movie, the question was, how much do you leave in? How much of the personal element do we allow into the public? Because we don’t have all the answers. And I think the film was a reflection of that. It lets people into that struggle.”
The film, which began as a surf project to showcase the guys’ other love outside of music, turned into something more. After years of label-hopping and being pigeonholed as something they’re not, Switchfoot’s fun side-venture became an opportunity to reveal, in the words of their new single, “Who We Are.”
Switchfoot has long been pegged as a “Christian” band, and their battles to overcome the stigma of the genre have been well-documented. But despite notable mainstream success, even Foreman’s brother Tim (the band’s bassist) lamented during the documentary that they still don’t know where they fit in.
While Foreman acknowledges the challenges associated with being this sort of crossover band, and he sees a bigger picture.
“Music is one of those few, incredible common bonds that unites us,” the singer explains. “It’s one of the true uniting elements of humanity that we can share together. But then again, the reason I sing the songs and the reason I’m doing what I’m doing might differ from the next guy over. And those are the things that feel the most different between us as a band and a lot of the bands that we end up hanging out with on the road. The motivation behind it.”
At this point in the band’s career, turning back the clock isn’t an option. But the film gives them the chance to change the narrative and present their story unfiltered, potentially appealing to a wider audience.
Having a loyal core fan base is certainly a major perk for any band, but Switchfoot never intended to be a “Christian” band. And with the religious landscape more diverse than ever, Foreman is being a little more vocal about it.
“We’ve always wanted to play music for thinking people,” he says, pointing to critics. “If people don’t have that kind of open-minded approach to life, then maybe our songs aren’t for them anyway. We want to play music for everyone, but if people want to live in boxes, that’s not really my job to tell them otherwise. The beauty is—and this is our inspiration—that I’ve met so many people from all forms of faith. Islamic and Buddhist and Christian and Atheist, they all find something that resonates with them in our songs.”
Although Switchfoot casts a wide net with their music, the religious sect that embraced the band early on is in many ways fractured and arguably more rigid than it was 10 or 15 years ago. And as Foreman sees it, it’s not healthy.
“In many ways, everyone is now more closed off than ever,” he posits. “People are very seldom starting conversations to learn. Most of the time, when you hear a political debate, on TV or at a backyard barbecue, it’s because two people are dead set in their views and want to prove the other person wrong. For example, in the film, I got a chance to interview Greg Graffin from Bad Religion. A lot of people would think, 'Switchfoot and Bad Religion have nothing in common. Why would they even have a conversation?’ But we have tons in common and in many ways, I have so much to learn from him and maybe he’s got something to learn from me. We have to approach situations with open hands, not with an agenda. That’s the only way for us to move forward in a positive way.”
People are very seldom starting conversations to learn. Most of the time, when you hear a political debate, on TV or at a backyard barbecue, it’s because two people are dead set in their views and want to prove the other person wrong.
As agendas and ulterior motives tend to be relative with the music industry, Foreman says acts like mewithoutYou, Mumford and Sons, Vampire Weekend and Dr. Dog give him hope for the future of music, noting that he tends to “end up gravitating towards songs and stories. It doesn’t matter how many or how few people they’re in front of, I listen to their story and I’m moved by it. And that’s something I really appreciate.”
After years of making music, with a critic for every fan, the 37-year-old believes the band has remained true to its original vision, despite many who might argue against that claim.
“Sure, we want to reach more people,” he says. “But we’ve never sacrificed who we are to do that. Both in surfing and in music, it started with the endeavor of joy. You pick up a guitar or you paddle out on your surfboard, and you are immersed in this incredible world unlike any other area of life. Of course, there’s the self-expression. And I know sometimes we throw around ‘hope’ and these large words, but even to this day, when I’m singing live on stage, I feel the purpose is for the sheer joy of being alive and simply wanting to share that. So where I am at this very moment, I certainly feel we’ve remained true to that foundation.”
With a new album and documentary and tour dates to follow, Switchfoot’s short-term plans are intact. But while the distant future is uncertain, Foreman hopes the band will still be around for years to come.
“We’re a band of brothers,” he proclaims. “We will always have that. I know we are at that place where we have families, and you never know. But whether or not we’re making music together, we will always have that common bond. Who’s to say what the future holds? It seems with every album, we do kind of break up the band and start from scratch. We want to make sure we’re not just going through the motions, that music doesn’t just become a paycheck, and that it comes from the heart. But I guess never quite knowing what comes next, just riding the wave, it’s all part of the thrill of it. And I couldn’t ask for anything else.”