Mike Rimmer saw San Diego's thinking-man's rockers SWITCHFOOT in concert at Swansea and quizzed their frontman Jon Foreman.
One of the biggest disappointments of 2006 was Switchfoot cancelling their short UK tour. However they redeemed themselves with a short term in early February! And so it was I found myself travelling to Brangwyn Hall in Swansea to see the band gig in support of their newly released album 'Oh! Gravity'. The first time I met Jon Foreman, the band were a trio and were touring the UK for the first time opening up for Delirious?. This time around, the success of the band has allowed them to add new members and the five piece are holed up backstage having enjoyed a day at a cold local beach and as you'd expect, a spot of surfing. Unfortunately the waves were "pretty crappy" but Jon still looks like he had fun.
Jon is sat singing away at a piano when I walk in the room and performing an unsure version of "You Never Give Me Your Money", a Beatles song from 'Abbey Road'. He looks slightly embarrassed that I caught him tinkling. I invite him to demonstrate his prowess at the piano, "My prowess?! I don't think that's the word I would use for my piano skills," he laughs. "I had to study when I was a kid and then I took it again when I was in college. It was so funny to be playing all these Bach songs that I used to blaze through when I was a kid and now I'm just in college, struggling. Can't even play 'em! So it's more of a lesson to everyone out there - follow your mother's advice. Keep playing your piano." At the venue in Swansea, Jon has a guitar strapped around his neck as he leads the band through its paces in front of a very responsive crowd. They're an entertaining band live and Jon is having a lot of fun jumping off the drum riser in rock'n'roll fashion and interacting with the crowd.
For years the Christian music scene has looked for artists to cross over into the mainstream. However when bands manage to achieve sales success outside of the Christian market, there is often a question mark as to whether they have compromised their faith. Successful bands are too easy a target for judgmental, uptight, religious Christians. There are plenty of debates on the topic but it strikes me that Switchfoot have managed to create music that simply appeals to people who like to be stirred to think about life and issues. Foreman agrees, "Basically the idea is we've always attempted to make music for thinking people, and those exist all over. Apparently at times within churches as well! So certainly we play for them as well. But I think to be affiliated with the name of Christ is certainly an honour and that's not something to downplay at all. But at the same time, any sort of label that's designed for commercial use tends to lessen the.I guess the artistic intention that you have going into the music."
Back in the '70s when Christian rock music was first being created, one of the leading artists of the time, Larry Norman, was signed to a mainstream label and always wanted to see a generation of artists who would rise up and debate with normal people about faith and issues but do it on a mainstream platform. Not that many bands have managed to do that. However Switchfoot seem to have carved out a niche. Lots of bands who get to their position will tone down the thoughtfulness or spirituality of their artistry and just write songs like any other band out there. Do Switchfoot face those pressures? Jon confesses, "I'd like to say that it's this really well thought out thesis about the way we're living our lives but I think to be honest it's just a matter of the gift that these songs are to us. These songs have been given to us and we're attempting to put them in the right place. It just so happens that the right place for these songs is for everyone, you know? It's never been a really well thought out thing. The whole thing started with a lot of songs that I wrote when I was 18/19. The goal was just to see who wants to hear these songs. Let's travel around the world and play! Then the next 10 years rolled by and you've got six records and you've been travelling the world for most of your adult life. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other and trying to do right, for your faith and for yourself and for the music."
Jon talks about songs that they've been given. Does he feel a sense of stewardship in the spiritual sense of what he's been given? He responds, "I think there's definitely a spiritual element to the songs and the best songs are the ones that don't have my fingerprints on them. I've recently been equating songwriting with archaeology, where you're just digging. Every day you wake up and you dig. Some days you discover the city that's buried beneath the ground and its beautiful, amazing base and the castle wall and skeletons of this and that. And then other days you just get dirt. I think for me, I have a very objective perspective on these songs. Where I can look and them and say, wow that's amazing how that happened! I don't feel like I'm wrapped up in it. I feel like they're outside of me. I feel like almost the goal for the concert is to crawl inside the song and roll around in it. Rather than to try and be bigger than life it's actually to be smaller and allow the song to speak bigger. I don't know; it's hard to explain. But the idea that I need to decrease to be able to sing these songs. I've always taken the approach with music that the person listening is a co-conspirator in the process. So I've got a great deal of respect for the people that listen to our music and take things from these songs that have been given to us. Because I feel like we take from them as well."
Sometimes artists have been guilty of using that as an excuse for writing vague pseudo spiritual songs and letting audiences draw their own confused conclusions rather than communicating a clear message or idea. Isn't there a problem that it might mitigate against communicating any kind of truth to an audience? Jon doesn't think that's an issue for his band. "I think we've always been probably, almost to a fault, a little too outspoken about things," he confesses. "If anything that's what we've gotten flak for. Every record I've delivered within Switchfoot has included a song-by-song explanation of where these things have come from. For the American public, especially in faith-based communities.there's very little creativity. There are very few people that are looking at a metaphor and actually diving into it as a pool and swimming around in it and exploring. I think songs are, if nothing else, they have to be a metaphor. Because when you write a song you're not attempting to write a song, you're attempting to explode the Atomic Bomb. You're attempting to make people float and cry and explode and disappear. You don't write a song to write a song, you want to change the world. And yet every song comes out and it's just a song. And I guess that's what keeps you coming back."
He continues, "If you rob the song of its metaphor and tear the fangs and the claws off it and put it in the zoo and explain it: 'That's a lion. That's what it is!' it tears the very essence of what the song is supposed to be when it's out in the wild - unexplained. I feel like the mystery that surrounds us is something that is many times lost by the modern mind. The idea that, we want to explain it. We want to put it in our back pocket. Fold it up and bring it out and show it to friends on our command. It's something that we do to our detriment with our faith as well. I don't believe in a God that I can put in my back pocket. So in the same way I don't want songs that I can just use on demand. For me music is something that goes much deeper than that."
There is a sense in which Foreman is writing to intrigue people and encouraging them to step a little way towards where he is and wonder about things. "Yeah," he agrees. "I think it's more of a Socratic dialogue really, where you are attempting to ask questions. I mean for me, it's not this play-acting where I'm asking questions that are leading, that I know the answer to. I'm REALLY asking questions that I don't know the answers to. That's what inspires a song for me more often than not - the question rather than the answer. So if there's complaints of, I guess a nebulous song, maybe it's because these are nebulous areas of my own life? Issues that are unresolved. I think for me those are the strongest songs on any record."
The title track "Oh! Gravity" is one such song. The chorus is a question: "Oh! Gravity, why can't we seem to keep it together?" Jon elaborates, "If gravity exists, which I'm pretty sure it does, bodies with mass are attracted to each other. Things naturally are held together. We're not floating, you know? Yet in the political, social world, marital world, everything falls apart. Everything tends to move against each other. So it's a true, honest question that for me is driving that song. Another example of a song that has a bit of me in it but doesn't really have my fingerprints on it is 'Faust, Midas And Myself'. That was one of those songs that 10 minutes later it was written. It's not a song that I would sit down and write but it wrote itself. It's like, with the archaeology theme; you're just digging and you dig this thing up. I hear what you're saying about copping out and letting all songs mean everything but there's a certain sense that from a songwriting perspective, you want the other person to have to meet you halfway and think a little bit. Actually dive in and think: Maybe it's a metaphor? Maybe there could be this? When I was a kid I'd write a song and play it and my mom would say, 'What is that about?' And I would always say, 'Well what do you think?' And then, 'Sure I've got my meaning and I'll tell you that afterwards.'"
Obviously some things haven't changed and it's almost as if the adult Foreman is asking us the same questions that he asked his mom. But then that's part of what makes Switchfoot albums such a delight because they get better with repeated investigation. It's almost as if the listening audience have to earn the song. "Well again," says Foreman, "that comes from the idea that I'm only doing half of the work. Writing a song, that's half of it. The listener's got the burden to make sense of it. I think that's the way it is in the world though. Most of our adult lives are spent trying to make sense of the world. Trying to put it in order and say: oh, so this happened before that and this was caused by that. My heart was broken because of this. Okay, it's starting to make sense. I think it's not out of a desire to make people work for it but out of a due respect for the people that are listening. I meet these kids after the show and they're saying, 'Just got back from Rwanda and your song meant a lot to me because of this, this and this.' And when I wrote the song at three o'clock in the morning in my bedroom I wasn't thinking of Rwanda. But to think that it could go that far and be a part of their world.that's a gift that is beyond my intention that I have to just take as something other than myself, and certainly much bigger."
With six albums under their belts, the Switchfoot live set has plenty of depth. Obviously the band are enjoying playing the new material but the set also includes plenty of songs that could be deemed their "classics". Obviously songs from their most successful album like "Gone" and "Meant To Live" go down a storm in Swansea. 'The Beautiful Letdown' was a huge breakthrough and an album that just went on and on and on forever. The band seemed to work that album for a long time before recording a follow-up, and when the follow-up came, for me it was a little disappointing. Now, 'Oh! Gravity' feels like a return to form. Foreman doesn't agree with my analysis. He says simply, "I think 'Nothing Is Sound' is a lot better record than 'The Beautiful Letdown'. To use a different metaphor, as a comedian, if you think the joke is funny you tell it. It doesn't mean that everyone is going to laugh, you know? It's not good to explain the joke. It's good to just move on. I think a lot of people didn't understand 'Nothing Is Sound' so you're definitely not alone in that one."
So is Foreman saying it's my fault that the album isn't as good as 'The Beautiful Letdown'? Is he saying it's just me being too stupid to understand the album? "No!" he laughs. "I think as a musician there are two things that you are accomplishing when you write a song. The first is within yourself where you're fighting your own demons. You're accomplishing something that's within you. You're trying to create. You're following in the footsteps of the Creator essentially for purposes between you and him and within. That's the first purpose of the creation. Then the second would be the idea that you're actually communicating with others, because you're not playing the songs in the bedroom. You're actually recording them and distributing them around the world. That second goal is something that's a little bit more nebulous however because it's something that you don't have complete control over. You can make the best CD of your life but people might not understand it. So it's one of those things where at some point you have to just let it fly and if people understand it then that's great. But if they don't then you can't put that on yourself. I try to keep those two elements of creation separate.
"There are different flavours of ice-cream," Jon explains. Certain folks like certain flavours! A lot of times I'm really surprised by the critics. I don't read them anymore because essentially it tells me what flavour of ice-cream they like more than it tells me anything about the product that we've made." So the fact that 'Oh! Gravity' has gone down well and people are responding to it isn't important to him? "It's something to be thankful for," he counters, "but at the same time, for me, I end up only listening to bad press." So what does that tell us about Jon Foreman? He thinks for a second, "The funny thing is I'm fairly optimistic! I think for me, again it comes back to the idea that there's nothing that anyone can tell me about our music that would be enough to gratify the reason why I made it. Like when you write a song and you play it, you want to hear time stand still or something ridiculous. So for me again, it has to be a purpose other than what people think."
With all this talk of songwriting and creativity, is there a danger for Foreman that the whole process can become idolatrous? "Absolutely," he agrees instantly. "I think whenever you begin to twist something around your finger an ego is always creeping round the corner. I think for me, the idea of having people say the type of press that they're saying about this record is, in many ways, harder for me to handle as far as ego is concerned than selling records. Because of that illustrious idea of being 'cool' that you never escape from junior high or whatever it is. It's certainly one of those things that keeps you in check."
And along the way, it seems as though Foreman has maintained a true perspective of the world around him and the pressures. Perhaps he's even maintained a wry smile and a sense of wonder. "Yeah," he responds, "I think 'wonder' is probably an element that would aptly describe our journey. It's been something that we've never intended and from the beginning it's always been about attempting to do right by the music with the responsibility that we've been given."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.