The new album by California's SWITCHFOOT brings us another set of radio friendly songs with thought provoking lyrics. Tony Cummings chewed the fat with the band's frontman Jon Foreman.
In the pop/rock genre populated with hundreds of bands whose utterances to the media seem never to go beyond "we just want to be real" cliché, a talk with Switchfoot's singer, songwriter and guitarist Jon Foreman is an illuminating experience. Here is an intelligent, articulate and passionate artisan who thinks deeply about the songs he sings and the entertainment world through which they pass. He must also be greatly encouraged by the steady progress Switchfoot have made in their seven years of existence.
The band formed when University of California students Jon Foreman and drummer Chad Butler along with Jon's bassplaying younger brother Tim made a rough demo tape which fell into the hands of record producer Charlie Peacock. Signed to Peacock's re:think Records, the band's debut album 'The Legend Of Chin' was described recently by Mark Allan Powell in the Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music as "Christian music's most authentic answer to Weezer-exponents of slacker rock with strong pop influences." With the release of 1999's 'New Way To Be Human' a nonslacker Switchfoot emerged. The album was brimming with hooky power US Christian hits like the title track and the bouncy "I Turn Everything Over". The album also demonstrated Jon Foreman's theological leanings with "Something More" relating thoughts from Augustine's Confessions and "Sooner Or Later" articulating the musings of theologian Soren Kierkegaard.
The band's third album 'Learning To Breathe' (2000) proved to be the group's most successful so far, incorporating Radiohead influences and a sublime title track which was both anthemic and ethereal. Again Foreman's eclectic, literary influences shine through with "Love Is The Movement" inspired by the images of frozen statue-like people awaiting redemption in CS Lewis' The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. The release of this year's 'The Beautiful Letdown' has brought the band into complete creative focus. With its breathtaking production from John Fields (Semisonic, Andrew WK and Jaron) and with new member Jerome Fontamillias adding new rhythmic textures on guitar and keyboards, the group now seem ready to soar above the limitations of the Christian subculture. Jon Foreman admits that musically Switchfoot are hard to pin down. "We've never tried for a specific sound or genre. The 'Switchfoot sound', if there is such a thing, has been simply an attempt to put every song on tape with the unique production that every individual song needs. The song is king, not the album."
Switchfoot songs come from a place near the centre of who I am. These songs are my way of exploring the world and at times challenging the way things are. I've always had trouble writing the caffeinated chorus that pretends to be something that I'm not. We've never fit in any of the genre boxes, so we did our own thing, not in an attempt to be different but simply trying to be ourselves. I try to be honest in my songs and in my life as I try to wrestle with the tension of 'how it is and how it should be. ' I want the listener to wrestle with the tension for herself because freedom and truth and love are worth fighting for. Moreover, life is worth living."
Jon describes 'The Beautiful Letdown' as being an examination of the good, bad and ugly aspects of life. "It's an honest attempt to reflect on the great and terrible aspects of being human, the tension of existence. A lot of people run away from this tension because the problems in our world are too hard to face. But the tension of being human is where we live and think and breathe. In fact, the very lowest moments in our lives are when we stand toe to toe with the truth about ourselves and our world. The way I see it, hope means nothing at all if hope doesn't reach to the core of our need. 'The Beautiful Letdown' is where meaning and hope invade our greatest and worst moments. 'The Beautiful Letdown' is where we live, who we are and where the future begins." As usual on a Switchfoot album there are plenty of theological and literary influences on display.
Jon explains how the reading of the TS Elliot poem The Hollow Man inspired him to write the song "Meant To Live". "The imagery in the poem continues to haunt me: 'We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men...' ' I look at our planet and I see a horrible, beautiful worldÉ where love and hate breathe the same air. This is where we wake up every day; this is where we live. Maybe the kid in the song is me, hoping that I'm bent for more than arguments and failed attempts to fly. Something deep inside of me yearns for the beautiful, the true. I want more than what I've been sold; I want to live life."
Another outstanding track on Switchfoot's new album is "This Is Your Life". Jon spoke reflectively on the song's lyrical theme. "Music holds her cards close to her chest; she always maintains the element of mystery. Sometimes everything feels so right and you can't explain why. This album felt that way for us. We only spent around two weeks in the studio but I wouldn't have spent another minute. This tune is a good example of the mystery of sound. We started messing around at my house with different low-end synths and lo fi beats and this mellow acoustic song became transformed. I'm not quite sure how we got here but I'm glad that the song rrived.
"I flew out to South Beach in Florida (where Tom Lord-Alge's studio is) to be a part of the mixing process for this track. We could only afford one ticket so I went solo. Stayed at a funky hotel a few blocks from the beach, delirious from red eye flying (and a crazy conversation with the cab driver), watching a guy I've never met mix our song. I remember thinking, 'This is crazy. This is my life! ' Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest to answer; kind of like the way the night sky can still shake me up."
The closing song on 'The Beautiful Letdown' is "24". Jon shared with refreshing candour, "I wrote this song near the end of my 24th year on this planet. Wherever we run, wherever the sun finds us when he rises, we remain stuck with ourselves. That can be 0verwhelming. Sometimes I feel like my soul is polluted with politicians, each with a different point of view. With all 24 of them in disagreement, each voice is yelling to be heard. And so I am divided against myself. I feel that I am a hypocrite until I am one, when all of the yelling inside of me dies down. I've heard that the truth will set you free. That's what I'm living for: freedom of spirit. I find unity and peace in none of the diversions that this world offers. But I've seen glimpses of truth and that's where I want to run."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.