Tony Cummings looks at the career of the career of SWITCHFOOT's ill-but-recovering Jerome Fontamillas
The keyboard player Jerome Fontamillas for San Diego-based hitmakers Switchfoot, whose 11th studio album 'Native Tongue' is set to be released on 18th January, underwent surgery on 29th December after being diagnosed with kidney cancer. A cancerous tumour was removed and the band have announced that there is no sign that the cancer has spread to other organs.
When Jerome's cancer was first announced, Switchfoot's lead singer Jon Foreman wrote movingly to the band's legion of fans about his friend. "When I first met Jerome, he was the bass player in one of my favourite local bands, Fold Zandura. When they broke up, I called him up and asked him if he wanted to come and play music with us. The day that I called happened to be his first day of work at a "real job" in one of the tallest buildings in LA. He quit his job, called me back, and we've been playing music together ever since. The rest of our story includes family, songs, thousands of shows, and a journey that has taken us from California to Kolkata and back.
"Jerome is one of the finest humans you could imagine. He is kind when I'm grumpy. He remembers names and faces when I forget. He eats healthy when I don't. In decades of knowing Jerome, I have never once seen him angry (and I'm in a band with him!). I asked his brother about it one time, and he said that he had never seen him angry either. Suffice it to say, Jerome is one of my favourite people on the planet.
"I got a call from Jerome a few weeks ago. He was calling with sobering news: he has cancer. One of Jerome's kidneys has a large mass on it that has been growing for quite some time. The good news is that the cancer has not spread to his other organs. Removing one of his kidneys will hopefully be the first and final cure for Jerome's fight with cancer. The surgeons and the medical team have been incredibly accommodating, making sure that the surgery was scheduled as soon as possible."
Jerome Earl Fontamillas was born in Pasay City, Philippines on 20th June 1967. When he was three years old, his family moved to the United States where they lived in Chicago and then California. He started taking piano lessons when he was a child. In 1985 Fontamillas graduated from Monterey Bay Academy in Watsonville, California. Three years later Fontamillas, together with Jyro Xhan, Ray Tongpo and Wilson Peralta, released a six-song cassette, 'Wish Fifteen', as Mortal Wish. The Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music wrote about the band who were signed to Frontline/Intense Records as Mortal in 1992. "Mortal began as a Christian version of Skinny Puppy or Nine Inch Nails, though they showed enough originality from the very start to avoid being written off as a clone band. Combining elements of metal, pop, techno and punk, the group participated in the crafting of a style that would eventually be called 'industrial music'."
When writing about Mortal's first Intense album 'Lusis', produced by Christendom's alternative rock pioneer Terry Scott Taylor, HM magazine wrote, "It's got the energy and minor key discordant feel of metal and the bounce and rhythm of dance music."
Further Mortal albums, 'Fathom: Intense Live Series Vol 5' (1993), 'Wake' (1994) and the largely instrumental 'Pura' (1995), were released before albums for 5 Minute Walk, 'Mortal' (1996) and then KMG, 'Godspeed' (1998). Confusingly, alongside those releases Jerome, Jyro Xhan and Frank Lins were also releasing albums under the name Fold Zandura - 'Fold Zandura' in 1995, 'Return' in 1997 and 'Ultraforever' in 1997. In 1998 Jerome produced 'The Echoing Green' for the band of that name and the following year was back playing on the final Fold Zandura seven-song mini-album 'King Planet'. But in 2000 Jerome quit his day job and started touring with Switchfoot shortly before the release of their third album, 'Learning To Breathe'.
In 2002 Jerome and Jyro released a Mortal reunion album 'Nu-En-Jin' but more significantly joined Switchfoot as a full time member. His first release with the San Diego rockers was their breakthrough album 'The Beautiful Letdown'. Since then of course the band have risen to become one of the biggest names in Christian rock. Though they've never quite reached the Platinum-selling heights of 2003's 'The Beautiful Letdown' (US sales 2,700,000), Switchfoot's subsequent albums, 2005's 'Nothing Is Sound', 2006's 'Oh! Gravity', 2009's 'Hello Hurricane', 2011's 'Vice Verses', 2014's 'Fading West' and 2016's 'Where The Light Shines Through', have all reached one or two on Billboard's Christian music chart and they have built up a large international fanbase with Jerome's artful keyboard licks being an integral counterpoint to Foreman's keening songs. It's particularly intriguing that the album 'Native Tongue' about to be released after a year-long touring sabbatical should feature as one of its strongest tracks "The Hardest Art" which the Cross Rhythms reviewer described as being "full-on EDM blending elements of '80s electronica with bang-up-to-date synth rock."
The legion of Switchfoot fans about to enjoy 'Native Tongue' will no doubt spare a thought and a prayer for the band's virtuoso as they groove to "The Hardest Art". The character of this hugely gifted musician featured on the cut is summed up in the note Jerome passed to Jon Foreman as part of the band's announcement of his illness. He wrote, "It's hard to think about being on the sidelines while we release this album. But the songs have meant so much to me, even through this experience. We've been through so much as a band. This [Jerome's cancer] is just one more mountain to climb, one more storm to weather. I know we'll get to the other side. And I look forward to having more reasons to be thankful when all of this is behind us."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.