With their fourth studio album, Californian surfers Switchfoot have struck gold.
Well, double-platinum to be precise, because The Beautiful Letdown has sold two million copies in the US and spent the last two years entrenched in the charts.
The rest of the globe has started to take notice, thanks to Switchfoot’s relentless touring schedule and singles like Meant To Live and Dare You To Move.
musicOMH collared the quartet to find out about doing charity work with Bono, soundtracking TV hot tub scenes and surfing…
The Atlantic Ocean does not simply represent a huge, Continent-separating expanse of water – it’s a veritable musical gulf. For where Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown was released State-side two years ago and has been selling an average of 20,000 copies a week ever since, it is yet to get a look-in in the UK.
Not that it seems to faze the four, impossibly relaxed chaps sat opposite me in their record company’s London offices. Instead, the band view playing smaller venues as a welcome blast from the past, as bassist Tim Foreman explains:
“We feel really at home at small, sweaty rock clubs. It has probably been a couple of years since we played at clubs so small so it feels fresh and exciting for us.”
This enthusiasm is clear to see, as anyone who has witnessed Switchfoot live will tell you. In fact, last year’s shows at The Metro Club and ULU (supporting Alter Bridge) were nothing short of triumphant. Tim’s brother – vocalist and guitarist Jon – theorises on the reason for their live success:
“We have always taken the approach that we as the band and the audience are just two parts of the same thing. We’re not up on stage taking ourselves too seriously, we’re just part of the whole.”
“If we do have a sphere of influence I want to make sure that we are using that for good.” – Switchfoot vocalist Jon Foreman on their work with Bono’s charity DATA (Debt, AIDS and Trade for Africa).
The idea of the band constantly interacting with their audience is one that comes across on CD too, particularly in the lyrics. At times, The Beautiful Letdown feels like a philosophical conversation with the band asking the listener personal questions such as, “Are you who you ought to be?” (This Is Your Life), and broader ones like, “We were meant to live for so much more. Have we lost ourselves?” (Meant To Live).
The band clearly feel that the answer to the latter is an affirmative, but rather than just talking the talk, they are walking the walk too by being involved with Bono’s charity DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade for Africa). It’s a subject close to Jon’s heart:
“We’re not overly idealistic about our rle as a band – we’re just four punks playing music – but at the same time I have a firm belief that every day you are alive, you change the world and that goes for everyone. As a band we’re no different than the next guy and if we do have a sphere of influence I want to make sure that we are using that for good.”
“You write a song at three o’clock in the morning about the meaning of life; then, a year or two later, a friend calls you up and says, ‘Heyyyy! That song is in a hot tub scene!’” – Switchfoot on the downside to TV picking up on their songs.
This “sphere of influence” is a result of three albums’ worth of building a cult following, followed by The Beautiful Letdown’s next-level of anthemic songwriting that takes in a spectrum of musical styles – from grungey rock (Meant To Live), through sunny pop (More Than Fine) and on to pensive slowies (On Fire, Twenty-Four). Keyboardist and otherwise quiet guy Jerome Fontamillas explains why diversity will always be a feature of Switchfoot’s music:
“We always pick the ‘songs-first’ approach – what’s best for the song. If the song is going to be pretty heavy, that’s because that’s the best way to present that song.”
Another reason for The Beautiful Letdown flying off US record shop shelves is that many of its songs have been picked up by TV shows like Felicity and Dawson’s Creek. Unfortunately, the context in which they appear can sometimes be far removed from their original spirit, as Jon now knows too well:
“The irony of the whole thing is that you write a song at, like, three o’clock in the morning about the meaning of life and trying to figure out why we are; then, a year or two later, a friend calls you up and says, ‘Heyyyy! That song is in a hot tub scene!’ But I take it as a compliment that somebody from a different art form saw our song as worth it in their particular thing.”
“We love doing music and nothing can take us away from doing this – it’s the greatest job in the world.” – Switchfoot tell the truth about being in a rock band.
Becoming successful has other downsides too. With The Beautiful Letdown still shifting and the band seemingly on tour permanently, their record company has not exactly been itching to see Switchfoot record a new album. The band, however, have not let that stop themselves from being prolific.
“Every soundcheck we try and work on a new song… We’ve got four albums already written!” says Tim.
Jon adds: “We’ve got, like, 60 songs ready but it’s more a matter of trying to whittle them down… I’m definitely excited to start tracking some new songs.”
In fact, as we speak, the band are doing exactly that before they head out to do more US shows and then tour Australia. The latter is particularly appealing to Jon:
“We’re hoping to get our surf in there!”
The clue that the band love surfing is in the name – “switchfoot” refers to when a surfer changes foot position on the board. Drummer Chad Butler has the final word, weighing up the band’s twin loves:
“I think 20 years from now, we’ll definitely be at the beach looking back at the years we were in a band. Surfing is sort of a lifestyle thing and it will stay with us forever. But music is what we are devoted to right now so we don’t miss it [not surfing]… We love doing music and nothing can take us away from doing this – it’s the greatest job in the world.”
Many would say that Switchfoot are making a great job of it, too…