Interview: Jon Foreman of US band Switchfoot
Lead singer and chief songwriter of San Diego rock band on music, faith and progress
In their native USA, San Diego rock band Switchfoot have been a household name since 2003, when their major-label debut The Beautiful Letdown became a multi-million-selling hit. In the UK they’re a much less familiar proposition, but have built up a solid following in the last decade, attested to by the sell-out audiences at recent UK dates supporting their eighth album, Vice Verses. The List sat down with Jon Foreman, the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, before what would turn out to be a rapturously-received show at Edinburgh’s Liquid Rooms, to get to the heart of what makes Switchfoot go.
From your first record, you’ve seemed like a band with a clear purpose in your songs. You’re always trying to peel away the surface of life and look deeper, aren't you?
I feel like our songs, for me personally as a songwriter, have been using the medium of notes and melody to kind of pry back at things you can’t talk about in normal life. I’ve written about things that I don’t particularly understand, or maybe things that I don’t feel comfortable talking about in front of strangers – God, girls, sex, politics, death, y’know? Those are things that attract me in a song, where I think ‘Oh man, this is a perfect form to actually be honest for once’.
What's your motivation when you're writing a song? What do you get out of it?
Usually for me it’s not this Socratic dialogue where I’m asking questions I already know the answers to. Vice Verses’ title track, the final verse says ‘Where is God in the city light, where is God in the genocide, where is God –‘. All these things where being open about my faith means also being able to question things. I think again, in a song you can say these sorts of things better than you can, maybe even an interview!
You’ve mentioned faith, which is obviously a big element in your band. Over here in the UK if you say ‘American Christian Rock band’ then people have a certain negative preconception - which is not what Switchfoot is, is it?
Well, I’m always honoured to be affiliated with the name of Christ – this iconoclastic rebel who fought for the oppressed – and yet, I get what you’re getting at. We’ve always just said that we’re music for thinking people, and I feel like the body of work that we’ve created is like a body of water, where you can either skim across the surface or you can go down and see what’s below. I want it to have layers of depth and meaning for whoever would be brave enough to go down there.
I think Vice Verses is perhaps the most musically confident album I've heard from you – does that make sense?
Yeah, absolutely. We went through the fight of our lives, musically speaking, to make [previous album] Hello Hurricane. Even before we pressed record, we had been through so much with our label – we had decided that since Sony was firing everyone on our team and it just felt so volatile, we were better off pulling out, so we cut ties with everyone and everything. We built our own studio down in San Diego and decided ‘let’s start from scratch – let’s just record, and fall back in love with rock ‘n’ roll and what we do, and figure out why we’re doing it!’ And that gave birth to all these questions, where you’re thinking, with the 80 songs that we recorded, ‘What are the songs that we actually want to put on a CD?’ Not ‘Oh this is a fun riff to play on a guitar – let’s track it!’ but ‘What do I want to die singing?’ So those big questions kind of became the breadcrumbs to get back to what we are as a band. And I feel like having been through that storm together – I mean, any of those life-changing things you go through with friends, it brings you closer together and further defines who you are – so after having been through Hello Hurricane, Vice Verses came really easily, because it stood on that foundation.
On Vice Verses some key themes come up that often recur in your music. In ‘Selling The News’ there’s the idea of mistrusting the stories we are told in the media. Is that something you feel particularly stongly about?
Yeah, in a way. I feel like it is exceedingly depressing that there are thousands of people that have been dying of a lack of a clean water supply in the Lakes Districts of Africa, and we don’t hear about it. But we hear about Paris Hilton or something like that. To me, news is relative. If your mother dies, that’s huge news to you, but it might not make the news over in the States, let’s say. But it’s gonna be the most important news you’ll hear all day, all week, your whole life perhaps. With that understanding of the news as relative, then not only do we define the news but the news defines us, and I find it frustrating and even angering that pop culture would be defined by the rubbish I see on the front page, rather than the true events that our time will be known for in the annals of history.
In that pop culture context, what kind of role do you hope your music plays?
I hope that our music could open the doors and windows of my own stuffy soul, to be able to look out upon the horizons of the infinite. And perhaps afford that same opportunity to somebody else listening to it.
One of the other recurring themes in your music is the idea of inner struggle. In the song ‘Thrive’ you seem to be describing an experience of depression – is this what you’re talking about in those songs?
Well, I used to think that therapy was for people that had problems, and then I realized that I had problems! So I’m totally fine with admitting that. I’d question whether potentially maybe everyone has problems, but certainly I get depressed from time to time. I get depressed and I have the best job in the world! It’s kind of this manic-depressive reality when you go onstage and you’re playing in front of 2000 people, and it’s this amazing euphoria where everyone feels like you’re connected and you all belong, and then you walk offstage, and there’s a dark alley behind you, probably hypodermic needles in the telephone poles and you don’t know anyone, and you’re alone. That can be depressing. And I guess, again, that can be the beauty of it – I have absolutely used music as a vehicle to get to hope when I don’t feel any hope, when I feel completely lost and hopeless.
There is always a hopeful undercurrent in your music, and on the new album the song ‘Where I Belong’ expresses that hope perhaps more explicitly than you ever have before. Where does that hope come from?
I read an incredible quote from Hegel recently: “Faith is the inner certainty which anticipates infinity”. And I think that our human souls are often looking for what is timeless, what will last, you know? So for me, I certainly think that a lot of the things that I attribute to meaning and purpose – when you start talking in words like that – there is faith involved. Even if you’re an atheist you are believing in something. And ‘Where I Belong’ is meant to be the bookend to the record, so ‘Afterlife’ [the first track] is talking about the here and now, and ‘Where I Belong’ is the longing that exists even while living every breath to the full. The record begins and ends on the same note, they’re supposed to tie together, representing the tension that we were wanting to achieve with the record: with Vice Verses we wanted to stretch things tight between death and life and hope and despair, and then use those as musical strings upon which to play the record.
It speaks to the fact that, unlike many bands who just do it because they want to rock, with Switchfoot it more and more feels like your whole lives are wrapped up in the music – that seems quite rare.
(Laughs) I have no other way to write! I’m such a poor songwriter that I can’t do anything but write from here; that’s all I have, just writing from the heart. At least those are the best ones, right? Sometimes I write fiction, but the good ones are fact!
And as well as Switchfoot you have various side projects, particularly the solo EPs – do you have plans to do more of that?
Yeah, I’ve got another 50 or so songs that could work for that, so I’m actually diving through that right now, trying to figure it out. In the meantime, I’m gonna put out another Fiction Family record. That’s been ready to go for a long time, we’re just waiting to see when Switchfoot will stop touring, so we can actually put it out.
Do you feel like now you’re in a place where you can decide what to do – where you’re fully in control?
Absolutely. This is potentially the first time in our career where we didn’t feel like the tail was wagging the dog, or one of those types of analogies. Like, for Vice Verses, we decided ‘these are the songs we’re going to record, this is the producer we want, we’re going to make it at our studio’. We pay for it, we pick everything, and then we give it to Atlantic, and Atlantic says ‘yes!’ So it’s great to have them partner with us and distribute it around the world, that’s great. And then we get to do what we want, and release this other stuff on the side. I couldn’t ask for anything more – as a musician, it’s a dream.
In the States you’re huge, and in the UK you seem to have a solid following now – what’s your relationship with the British audience these days?
We have had an incredible run of it over here; I love it. The people that we’ve met, the interaction that we’ve had onstage. I can’t speak for Scotland yet, but I have high hopes! Jerome [keyboards & guitar player] was saying London was one of his favourite shows ever in Switchfoot. I mean, out of thousands of shows that we’ve played, that’s high praise! I feel the same way; we’ve had some of our favourite shows over here this time.
The Liquid Rooms is pretty intimate by your standards isn’t it?
We were just talking about it – we might have made a mistake because it sold out like that, but you know, I love the smaller ones, so if it’s a mistake it’s the best kind of mistake.
Finally, who do you read, and where do you get your inspiration from in terms of faith and life?
I love reading. I love reading thinkers that have thought through life, because I’m pretty sure they’re smarter than I am and have dealt with it. Lately I’m reading a book called ‘The Flight From God’ by Max Picard, and another book called ‘Common As Air’ by Lewis Hyde – I love those. There’s certain thinkers that push me, those are the ones I gravitate towards.