By Matt Conner
If you're many who waited (and waited) for new music from Fiction Family to finally release, you’re not alone. Jon Foreman and Sean Watkins, the two men who founded the group, were as eager as anyone for the new album to get out.
After the alt-folk group debuted in January 2009, the songs for a follow-up album wrote themselves quickly. In fall 2010, Foreman noted via Twitter that the release was “getting close.”
But it was four long years after their debut album that Fiction Family Reunion finally released on January 29.
Both songwriters admit that they were anxious to show fans the music. “The record was done for pretty much two years,” Foreman says. “We just sat on it. This winter is a time when everyone was free. So that’s when we decided, ‘Let’s put it out and make a big deal out of it.’”
“It’s just a juggling act,” Watkins says. “You want to have the most time. You want to give a record the best shot. But then you also have to save time for other things that you’re working on. It’s just shifting things around. It’s like the rest of life.”
The Fiction Family Tree
For the uninitiated, the “things to shift around” are Foreman’s and Watkins’ primary creative outlets—Foreman is the frontman and principal songwriter for Switchfoot, while Watkins has his own solo career along with a storied history in the platinum-selling, folk-pop trio Nickel Creek. In addition, Fiction Family is hardly the only side project of either player. Foreman has released several solo EPs, helps numerous charitable organizations and has penned many essays for Huffington Post. Watkins and his sister, Sara, play in Watkins Family Hour, and Sean is a founding member of Works Progress Administration, a dynamic collaboration that includes songwriter Glen Phillips among several others. “The biggest hang-up was our schedules, to be honest,” says Foreman. “We were convinced that we wanted to tour this record. Fiction Family, more than anything I’ve ever been a part of, was—is—such a fun experience for me live. It has a lot less pressure on me as a frontman and as a musician in general. I just show up and have a great time.”
“When we started talking about when to release this second record,” he continues, “we said, ‘Well, we could just put it out and not tour it and just kind of let it sit on record players but never live, live. And we decided that plan wasn’t any fun at all and that we wanted to actually hand-deliver it and tour this new record and really support it because we believed in the songs.”
The major change between the band’s first release and its second release is the player lineup. Fiction Family has become an official foursome, bolstered by the permanent additions of bassist Tyler Chester (Phil Wickham, Brooke Fraser) and drummer Aaron Redfield (Sia, Cake).
FICTION FAMILY... HAS A LOT LESS PRESSURE ON ME AS A FRONTMAN AND AS A MUSICIAN IN GENERAL. I JUST SHOW UP AND HAVE A GREAT TIME. - JON FOREMAN
“The great thing about this record is that Aaron and Tyler really played an integral part,” Foreman says. “Aaron is one of my favorite drummers, and Tyler is just a great musician. It feels like a different band than the first record. It feels like a band, where the first record kind of felt like exactly what it was: two guys messing around in their spare time.”
While the new additions round out the mix, the band’s material is really built upon the chemistry and friendship that’s formed between Foreman and Watkins. After meeting at a festival in San Diego that featured both Switchfoot and Nickel Creek, the two exchanged emails and talked about meeting up.
But the difference between this and other such occurrences between musicians came down to one simple thing: follow-through. “It’s kind of a joke that whenever you hang out with other musicians or guitar players, you think, ‘Oh, we could write a song together someday,’” Foreman says. “And that’s kind of passed around a lot, but nothing ever happens. The funny thing with Sean is, we actually did. We actually followed each other up and started writing songs.”
“A lot of times, the chemistry is just not there, even with the people you really think it will be—people that come from similar musical backgrounds,” Watkins says. “But it was [with Foreman]. It was really just fun. That was it ... There was no preconceived goals or anything like that. It was just fun.”
Just Having Fun and Trying Stuff
Foreman and Watkins are quick to say that Fiction Family wasn’t born out of any frustration. Both artists maintain a solid footing inside their chosen musical genres, and Foreman holds a central position within a Grammy-winning band established in 1996.
Rather, the collaboration brought with it the freedom of a new creation. In short, Fiction Family was a chance to break the mold.
“That’s why side projects are good for what they are,” Watkins explains. “They give you an opportunity to do and say something that you wouldn’t normally do. You have a new voice. For Jon, it was much more of a folky thing. For me, I was able to do things, genre-wise, that just didn’t fit into what I was doing with Nickel Creek at the time. That’s not to say I felt trapped or anything, but a new outlet kind of can bring out a new set of creative ideas.”
Foreman agrees and is quick to clarify there’s no tension in his current role with Switchfoot. In fact, Switchfoot is knee-deep in preparations for a new soundtrack and documentary about its global journey over the years, slated for release in summer 2013.
If anything, Fiction Family is simply an organic movement, birthed out of a mutual friendship and mutual musical discovery.
“For me, it’s always been about friendship,” Foreman says. “Switchfoot started out as friends. My relationship with Sean and the rest of the Nickel Creek guys and ladies, we were just friends. We met them, and then I met him again a couple times. We had coffee.”
For a kid who got his musical start in a Led Zeppelin cover band in junior high, Foreman says he’s found an education through Fiction Family because of Watkins’ well-versed background in traditional bluegrass, Americana and folk.
“It wasn’t so much a matter of what I couldn’t do with Switchfoot as much as the potential of what could happen with Sean that I had never been a part of before,” Foreman says. “It was just so eye-opening to hear this canon of American folk music ... to see it through [Sean’s] eyes and hear the backstory of all this music that I had never heard but was kind of right under my nose all along. It was out of that friendship that the songs kind of came, just almost as a byproduct, just really naturally.”
Making Music That Sticks
The positive side of being so busy is that neither Foreman nor Watkins is dependent on Fiction Family to become anything more than what it naturally is: plain fun. With this project, the duo finds no agendas, no external expectations and no logistical hoops. The end result is a batch of songs that make the cut simply because the artists love them.
“We never really discuss topics that need to be discussed,” Watkins says. “It seems to just be about the song. ‘Do you like the song or don’t you like the song? Does this song work in this context or doesn’t it?’”
Foreman adds, “With this record and the last one—again, because there’s no real pressure, there’s no real expectations that we’re feeling or feeding off of—we could simply just kind of speak off the cuff, and any song that felt like it was a Fiction Family song, we would just kind of throw it on a pile.”
When it comes to the new album’s material, fans will find another collection of vulnerable, honest songs that speak to the entirety of life, love and faith. For Foreman, this breadth of subject matter is about going beyond traditional songwriting fare.
"I get bored with sad songs about girls. Nothing against those songs—I’m sure they need to be written. Heaven knows we’ve all felt sad about girls,” he says with a laugh. “But for me, as a songwriter, I feel like they’re not attractive to me. They’ve been written so well and so often that I’d rather write about other things.”
Foreman points to one new track in particular, called “God Badge,” that kicks off the second half of the new album. The song is a straightforward, mid-tempo pop song that includes pointed lines like: Put the God badge down and love someone / Let it free your soul / The world never was and never will be in your control ... There is no “us” or “them” / There’s only folks that you do or don’t understand / Unlock your heart and love someone.
“I feel like sometimes there’s these songs that ruffle feathers in a good way,” Foreman says. “When I can sing a song and feel like it’s singing back to me and feel like I might need to change my actions because of it, then that’s probably a true and honest song. ‘God Badge’ definitely feels like it’s hitting that role on the record.”
While fans and even the band’s members hoped for a shorter span of time between releases, Watkins believes the new release, titled Fiction Family Reunion, turned out stronger because of the wait.
“I think it sticks together more as a whole now than it did,” he says. “When we first started recording, it was like, ‘Here’s this song.’ ‘Okay, yeah, cool. That’s great. Let’s do that. Here’s two songs of mine.’ ‘All right, let’s do those.’ Then a month or two later, we’d do something else. The songs were all good, but they were all over the map. Had we put it out then, it would have been a schizo record.”
In the time between those first sessions and the album’s final cut, Watkins estimates the pair added 5 or 6 new songs. The album itself only comprises 10 tracks, which means the delay allowed them to pick the strongest and most cohesive mix among the lot.
“Once you’ve got a record and you put it out there,” he says, “you always wish that you’d done things differently, like, ‘Oh, I wish we would have recorded this song,’ or, ‘I wish we could have taken this song out and put this song in.’ But it’s out there and you just let it be what it is.”
“For us, it was sort of like having a second chance,” he continues. “We sort of had it done, and we were able to step back and look at it and have the ability to take certain songs out and re-record. We re-recorded two songs, and they ended up so much better than the original ones. The opportunity to do that was really great. Now we can put it out and feel pretty good about it. There’s not much I would change at this point.”