To Jon Foreman, songwriting is a sacred thing. Yes, the Switchfoot lead singer and songwriter often writes about his Christian faith, but that’s not what he’s referring to right now. Speaking from his car — he originally tried the beach but decided it would be too loud — Foreman is discussing the craft of songwriting itself, which he first discovered as a high-schooler with a speech impediment who had just moved from the East Coast to California. “Music was this safe place where I realized I didn’t stutter when I was singing,” he remembers. “So that became a place that I realized I could talk about God, girls, sex, politics, whatever it was, with complete honesty, in front of whoever I wanted to, and feel completely comfortable because it felt like the song was some sort of armor. And I definitely feel that way still.”
That ability to tackle an array of subjects without speaking from any pulpit is what made Switchfoot stand out from other so-called Christian-rock bands when it first emerged. In the early 2000s, around the release of the breakout album The Beautiful Letdown, the San Diego group carved out a lane that included both contemporary-Christian-music and alternative-rock markets — thanks to lyrics that trended more toward motivational than explicitly Evangelical along with some undeniably catchy hooks and guitar riffs (which also played too well in the 2002 Nicholas Sparks adaptation A Walk to Remember, starring Mandy Moore as a preacher’s daughter with leukemia). Switchfoot had previously been more steadfast in its refusal to outwardly and exclusively identify as a Christian band, once refusing to play Christian festivals and describing the band as “Christian by faith, not by genre.” But at the same time, the band never shook its popularity in the contemporary-Christian genre, staying in radio rotation and continuing to earn Dove Awards (the genre’s answer to the Grammys, although Switchfoot also won one of those in 2010). To a nerdy kid like me, who grew up steeped in Christian music and listened to it nearly exclusively through middle school, that Switchfoot could break into the secular world made the band my definition of cool.
In the over two decades since beginning as a band, Switchfoot has split from a major label (Columbia), dabbled in everything from hip-hop to metal, and taken one very brief hiatus. (It has also maintained the same lineup for the past 15 years, consisting of Foreman’s brother, Tim, on bass along with Chad Butler, Jerome Fontamillas, and Drew Shirley.) Now, Switchfoot is back with interrobang (named for this emoji: ⁉️), released on August 20. It’s a record that Foreman says “represents a lot of places that we haven’t really visited very often,” with the band introducing retro-pop stylings to its usual anthemic rock. Ahead of the album’s release, Foreman spoke to Vulture about the highs, lows, and biggest surprises of Switchfoot’s career so far.
Favorite Switchfoot song
My answer that I always have is it’s the song I wrote yesterday. And that is generally the case, where I’m always most excited about the newest thing. But I think if there was a song that captured the essence of what we’ve been doing and what we’re trying to speak to, “Dare You to Move” would be probably the one. It’s kind of an existential crisis of a song where it’s attempting to capture the tension of the moment, and the dialectic between who you are and who you could be, and the way the world is, the way it should be. I feel like that second verse sums up the crux of what a lot of our songs are speaking to and attempting to wrestle with.
I think there’s a reason why Kierkegaard is always the philosopher that I come back to, because I feel like that existential crisis of meaning, purpose, faith — it absolutely keeps me up at night. [Laughs.] Our very first demo as a band, I did a hand-drawn picture of Kierkegaard and put him on the cover. This is back in high school. So I think that you could either say that we have been dedicated, obsessed, or maybe our development has been arrested, however you want to put it, but I definitely think that [question] has been a big part of our story. It’s the most interesting part of anyone’s tale — is that moment of decision, the moment of crisis. And the irony is that it doesn’t really go away. That every day it’s with you, and every moment, you decide anew. Maybe that’s my justification for the obsession.
Song you regret
I would most apply regret to production choices. I feel like the song has its own validity in the moment — if you are writing from an honest place, whatever that honesty is saying, I’m ready to hear it. I might disagree with you, but I feel like that in itself is its own pursuit that is valid. I think the production choices that we’ve done over the years, sometimes they go with the trends and the fads. So you look back on bell-bottoms or whatever, and you think, Oh my gosh, why was I wearing that? [Laughs.]
This is one that I actually remember arguing about with our producer [John Fields] as we were making it, so maybe he would feel differently. But there’s a song called “The Setting Sun” that’s on Nothing Is Sound, and it’s produced like a really upbeat pop song. I think it’s well crafted for that purpose, but in my head, I hear it as a heartbreaking juxtaposition of — it’s a major key, but the lyric definitely has a wistful, bittersweet element to it, and I feel like that element is underrepresented in the production. And I wish we got to represent the truth of [it].
Most surprising new song
Maybe “Wolves.” I actually wrote it the first time we ever went to Berlin, like 2004 or ’05, so a long time ago. It is a song that we’ve not known what to do with for a long time. It’s been an amazing journey because I feel like this record reaches both into the future and into the past to find its place. A lot of the songs were written specifically for this album, but then there are songs that you’re digging up to try and give it this expansive sound.
Song whose meaning has changed the most
That presumes, correctly, that songs can change. [There’s also] the idea that when you write a song, it becomes its own entity that can then be affected by the world around you. I remember, for example, after 9/11 hearing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, by Wilco, and “Ashes of American Flags” — that song in particular, I felt like, Wow. For me, I’m trying to think, What would be a song like that? They all change subtly. I’m thankful that we don’t have any songs that I can’t sing, that I just find no meaning or reason to sing them anymore. I have a lot of friends that — their big hit was about some girl that they don’t really like anymore or something.
Most unexpected secular hit
Secular implies that there’s a part of the world that isn’t religious. And if you think of religion as the impetus for your not committing suicide, for your continued engagement in the stuff that we call life, then I think there’s no part of your life that’s outside of that. There’s a song [“The World You Want”] that we say, “What you say is your religion / Who you love is your religion / How you love is your religion / All your wars are your religion.” The way you cut someone off on the freeway: That says something about what you believe, you know? I think that Christianity loses its meaning when it applies to something that can be bought or sold. So in the same way, what I love about rock and roll is that it is this forum for everyone. I would include atheism, agnosticism, Buddhist, Muslim, whoever it is, whatever you’re thinking about — everyone’s welcome. That’s kind of been my philosophy since I was a kid, which has kind of gotten us into a lot of trouble [laughs] ’cause I don’t think everyone else sees the world like that. A lot of people see the world in black and white [and] put things in boxes.
I think our biggest song ever on alternative radio was a song called “The Sound,” which was a song celebrating and paying homage to one of my heroes and friends, a guy named John Perkins. [He] was, and still is, a civil-rights leader. He’s the son of a sharecropper in Mississippi, who after being beaten to just moments away of his life ending, chooses to love and forgive his oppressors. To me, that is the Christian message, and I think that, again, that’s his religion. That might be the most surprising song if you’re talking with the boxes. It was a beautiful thing to hear that on the radio.
Song that reminds you of California
California’s such a big state, and there’s parts of it that I love and parts of it that I wrestle with. I write about L.A. a ton, kind of in a love-hate relationship. [Laughs.] “Let Your Love Be Strong” talks about the train going to and from L.A. in the middle of the night. Actually, there’s a train track that I can see from here that I used to walk; that’s where I wrote that song. I used to live right over there, in the house I was renting. When I couldn’t sleep at night, I’d just go out and walk the train tracks. It was a great place to write — no one else around.
“Fading West” is another song that feels like it absolutely — I think it’s the only song that name-drops California. I saw a thing the other day that said, “Unless there’s some form of intervention, by the year 2030, every song will be about California,” which I thought was really funny. There’s been some great songs about California, but that’s the only song we have that name-drops California. The [Red Hot] Chili Peppers have too many songs already, so we can’t write them.
Most anthemic song
There’s a song called “Where I Belong” that has this big anthemic vocal element. That particular song feels like it has a finality and a gravity to it. And I do think that is a big part of who we are. The communal expression of song is part of what drew me to music in the first place. In a different way, it was always the local backyard [and] punk-rock scene where I felt like I was accepted without trying too hard. Between that and church, they both felt like there was this unity. It wasn’t a homogenized unity — everyone was distinct, and yet everyone was singing the same thing. Fists in the air, sweaty, bloody, whatever it was, we’re all there for the same purpose, singing the same song. That is absolutely a huge part of why we do what we do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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