The Unexpected Journey of Switchfoot

The path to success has changed their music—and sharpened their focus.

[Editor's note: Check out our review of Hello Hurricane]

“A cynic is just someone with a broken heart,” Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman says with the certainty of a motto. “Things tear you apart, and the easiest response is to tear something else down.” It’s a sentiment that sums up both his dismissal of and empathy toward those critics who would belittle him and his band.

Foreman is an enigma. Sitting on the floor of his band’s trailer before a concert, he’s friendly and eager to talk, but cautious ... even, yes, jaded. “For me, I think there are many things that have happened that make me cynical, even about interviews,” he looks up and laughs as he says it—a jest, kind of.

“It feels like, ‘Why do we do them, what’s the point?’ ... When I go on stage or do an interview, I try and remind myself that I am here to serve people. If they want to take what I said and use it then that’s an honor and if they don’t, then it’s not my responsibility.

“But I think the point is ultimately not about me. And if you approach the world with the apron of a servant, then you are allowed to go places that you can’t go if you approach it with the crown of a king.”

Now and then

Now on Atlantic Records, this November Switchfoot releases its seventh full-length, Hello Hurricane, the band’s first album of new material in three years. The record reveals a new side of Switchfoot, while still including that familiar anthemic rock the guys hope will continue to resonate with audiences—and, perhaps more importantly, themselves.

“I feel like with this record, the motto was, ‘What are the songs you want to die singing?’” Foreman says. “We’ve all had incredible moments on stage playing songs that are enjoyable musically. It was a matter of trying to dig deeper and to figure out what are the songs we want to sing for the rest of our lives.”

Foreman jokes that in the beginning, playing music was just a matter of entertaining himself and friends while trying not to fail college—and, ironically, it was music that prompted him to drop out of college. But now, his vision for the band has evolved.

“I think there might be a few different evolutions of how we saw music interfacing with our lives,” Foreman says. He points to that first tour as a time when the vision for their music started to form. “We toured around the world and people really [were] listening to what we [had] to say. So we said, ‘Let’s dig a little deeper into ourselves, and into the political, spiritual climate to find topics to write about other than things at the top of your head.’

“I think that was a transition,” he continues. ”And then when we first signed to Columbia, I remember our goal was two-fold. We sat down in this room, this hip-hop studio where we were mixing a record, and you could smell weed everywhere. We were just trying to find a place where we could focus and not be distracted, and I remember the clarity of saying, ‘OK, we want to be salt and light in the world at large.’

“The second part was a revolution of ‘being,’ and the idea that it’s not a revolution of ‘doing.’ I mean doing is certainly part of it, but it’s being transformed within, more than it is trying to force something else down someone’s throat. And from there to today, I think that has been expanded, and caring less about what people think, and just being very sure of what we do.”

Labels and justice

There’s something to be said for Switchfoot’s longevity. Over the past six years, the band has straddled that unyielding line between Christian and mainstream markets while maneuvering through the tangled web of major label bureaucracy at a time when the record industry continues to crumble. Through it all, Switchfoot has managed to maintain the same core lineup since forming in 1996. “We wouldn’t still be around if it wasn’t for the close friendship we have,” Foreman says.

Being labeled a “Christian band” has always been somewhat of a sensitive topic for Foreman. Switchfoot even stopped playing Christian festivals for a short spell after the double-platinum success of 2003’s The Beautiful Letdown.

“My thoughts on whether or not we’re a Christian band—I don’t think that’s our job to decide because I think people can call us whatever they want,” Foreman says. “I just think to have it as a blanket statement portrays a value I don’t really subscribe to.

“We’ve dissected our faith and made it a commercial commodity,” Foreman continues. “That’s why it’s got a stigma on it. That seems to be the reason from my perspective.”

Labels aside, Foreman has a lot of opinions on what it means to live as a Christian band—especially when it comes to issues of justice.

“I expect everyone to do social justice. ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’” he says. “Just the fact we’re here on American soil means we’re among the luckiest 98 percent of the world; we’ve got shoes, a pair of jeans, a fresh pair of underwear, opportunities to shower in fresh water. These are things you don’t take for granted when you travel.”

For Foreman, it comes back to fighting off that inner cynic.

“Cynicism for me, if I didn’t have belief in a God who loves me, I would be a very cynical man. I don’t think I would be alive anymore, there’s not much else worth living for.”

But he also admits his perspective on outreach, justice issues and even the significance of music has changed as he’s gotten older. “I have had moments in my life where I’ve been naive enough to think I’m going to change the world. And it’s a really incredible feeling, the day you discover that’s never going to be the case.

“So I think, ultimately, alongside of that has to be the corollary of truly trusting in the God of the Heavens. If this deity formed the stars and the space and actually cares about me, then as I abandon myself to Him, there’s a hope greater than some form of hope I’m going to drum up within myself. I will continue to attempt to achieve things in my life with music that means a lot to me, but that’s going to be against the counterpart of just enjoying and loving every moment of being alive.”

This article is adapted version of one that originally appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of RELEVANT.

14 Comments

85,538

AC commented…

I think Foreman is a Christian whose music touches on Christian themes, especially his personal relationship & struggles. But Switchfoot IS NOT a praise and worship band. If you want that listen to Mercy Me.

But I do think Foreman is reverent when referring to his standing before God. But he is not nor does he claim to be (to my knowledge) a messenger. I'm sure he would point you to the Bible not his songs for revelation and deliverance. But I do think his music is a strong tool for exposing social problems, our fallen human condition and the need to be broken and redeemed to something greater than this imploding world. Foreman is not explicit about Jesus but anyone with half a brain can read between the lines!

God Bless!!!

AC

85,538

PearlBelly commented…

I just saw Switchfoot last night in Dallas. It was the best show of many I have seen them play. So as a quick aside, go see this tour. It was an incredible night.

Before the show there was a meet and greet that was done during soundcheck (proof again at how accessible and down to earth these guys are) and in between songs Jon was asked how he walks the line between faith and life in his music. His answer was that there is no line. That the two are one and that in his music he simply tries to be one thing, himself.

One of the people with us in our group was "offended" that Jon did not use the name of Christ in his answer. Saying that as Christians we are called to be "bold".

I've thought a lot about that today. I think of all the times boldness in faith has started wars, and on a smaller level every day shames the name of Christ. Not because of who God is, but because of who WE ARE and how messed up we can make things when we shout out the message (that is most often our message and not Christ's).

So I think it is great that Foreman is cautious. That his intent is not just to sing to Christians. Why does a band made up of Christians just have to sing for Christians? And in a music world filled with all the amoral crap that is out there, I am VERY comfortable with Switchfoot ensuring that their message is heard by the masses, and not lost because of a need to say "Jesus" every other line. The truth is that the world simply will not listen to most Christian music.

I think Foreman plants beautiful small seeds for Christ every day. I come from the perspective of being a person of faith, but I hear themes of faith, grace, redemption and the cross in most of their songs.

Christianity Today has a good interview with Foreman as well that expands on much of the same ground.

Sara Gonzales

20

Sara Gonzales commented…

Ive adored Switchfoot since i skipped prom my Junior year in high school to drive to another town with some friends to catch a free show. Fast forward 7 years and Im more obsessed now. The honesty and sincerity in Jons lyrics are a testament to Faith, rather than Religion.

I went to a Toby Mac concert a few years ago that was an amazing show. Between songs he said he knows his concerts, and his music is for those who already believe. And theres nothing wrong with that, were all called to be witnesses in this life.
Switchfoot doesnt have to be the same thing, just because they as individuals are Believers. They hang around with people who come see their shows before and after the concerts. Almost every time. Jon interacts with the crowd, and he always explains a bit of what his songs are about during the concert. Thats where you see his faith shine through.
Isnt the personable experience better? Why do people prefer cookie cutter message meant for masses?

He lives his faith. He draws people in who may otherwise be put off by an openly Christian concert. Instead of people being offended all the time, why dont they pick up where Switchfoot leaves off, and talk to someone around them at a show and spread the Love.

I think his solo EPs were a bit of a reaction to the controversy over Switchfoots display of faith. Theres beautiful and obvious God-foward messages in his solo songs. If people are so desperate for signs of his faith, look to those.

In Love,

85,538

vmanuola commented…

I have a new found respect for Jon Foreman and Switchfoot. Normally when I look closer at the lives and beliefs of a band that I love I loose respect for them, but the more I learn about Switchfoot and its members, the more I love and support their music!

alyssa

1

alyssa commented…

You said exactly what I say to people when they dont understand Switchfoots way of going about God. They want to be able to lead all kinds of people into the Kingdom through their music without it being praise and worship. They want to be heard and being under that category of "Christian Music" can sometimes lead a band to be thrown under the bus. What they are trying to do is show what God can do without directly saying it, I guess you can say they are beating around the bush in a way so that people will be interested enough to look in the middle of the bush to find it on fire with God. And you said it right when they "touch on Christian themes". I believe they chose a great way to go about this and I respect them for they way they do things.

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