As they enter their 17th year as a band, Switchfoot has achieved a level of success that brothers Jon and Tim Foreman and their high-school friend Chad Butler never anticipated when forming the band in San Diego in 1996. The SoCal natives have sold 5.5 million copies worldwide of their eight studio albums (including their 2003 double-platinum breakthrough The Beautiful Letdown and 2009’s Grammy Award-winning Hello Hurricane), racked up a string of Alternative radio hit singles (“Meant to Live,” “Dare You To Move,” “Mess of Me,” “The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues),” “Dark Horses,” and “Afterlife”), performed sold-out world tours (visiting five continents in the past year alone), raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid homeless kids in their community through their own Bro-Am Foundation, and earned themselves a global fan base devoted to Switchfoot’s emotionally intelligent and uplifting brand of alternative rock.
So when it came time to write the songs that would make up their ninth studio album, the members of Switchfoot were looking for a challenge. “The point became, ‘What are we going to do to push ourselves,’” Jon recalls. “Could we take ourselves somewhere we’d never been before, yet achieve a feeling of comfort at the same time? How do we go to a new place that feels like home?”
The answers lay, as they usually do for Switchfoot, in the ocean. A year ago, while touring in support of their 2011 album Vice Verses, the long-time surfers set out in search of inspiration by visiting several of their favorite surf breaks around the world. “The idea was to surf, write songs, play music, and see what ideas came,” says Tim. The band traveled to Jeffreys Bay and Crayfish Factory in South Africa, Bronte Beach in Australia, Raglan in New Zealand, and Uluwatu in Bali, and chronicled their physical and emotional journey, as well as their unshakeable brotherly bond, in Fading West — a documentary film that features stunning locales, revealing interviews, jubilant live footage, and glimpses of Switchfoot at home and in their studio in San Diego. Like Rattle and Hum meets Endless Summer, the movie is part travelogue, part surf film, and part behind-the-scenes look at the making of the band’s upcoming new album, which will also be entitled Fading West.
Not surprisingly, the album, which finds Switchfoot returning to the melodic pop sensibility of their early years, was inspired by the sea, which Jon describes as a perfect metaphor for simultaneously experiencing comfort and danger. “You’re comfortable out there, but it’s the unknown,” he says. “You can paddle out in South Africa and it’s exactly like home and nothing like home all at once. That’s what I’m hoping our record feels like — trying to find peace in dangerous places.”
There’s a memorable scene in Fading West where the band members are paddling out at Uluwatu with their friend, surf champ Rob Machado. Jon says he had a major epiphany that day. “As I sat on my board in the Indian Ocean, I realized that these waves could eventually make it back to my home of San Diego thousands of miles away,” he says. “That rhythm and pulse was really grounding and inspiring on so many levels. It made me grasp the dichotomy between the pull of the road and the pull toward getting back home. It’s like we had to leave home to find home. For a long time, home was a place of failure because it meant that we didn’t have any shows,” Jon adds. “When you drop out of college in your early ’20s and all your friends are getting jobs and you’re the guy who lives with his parents, it’s way better to be on the road. Only recently did I feel like home was a place where I could feel comfortable and content.”
Switchfoot traces its roots to the beaches of San Diego when the Foremans and Butler connected as surfers (Jerome Fontamillas joined in September 2000 and Drew Shirley in 2005). Though they competed in national surf championships on weekends, their real bond came from a common love of music. They decided to form a band, chose the name Switchfoot (a surfing term), put themselves through months of sweaty rehearsals in their garage, and then hit the road. After just 20 gigs, Switchfoot signed with re:Think Records and released three albums, The Legend of Chin (1997), New Way To Be Human (1999), and the gold-certified Learning to Breathe (2000), before signing with Columbia Records, which released their fourth album, The Beautiful Letdown, on its Red/Ink subsidiary, upping the band to Columbia proper after the album sold more than a million copies. (It eventually sold 2.6 million.) The band released two more albums with Sony, 2005’s Nothing Is Sound, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard album chart, and 2006’s Oh! Gravity., which climbed to No. 1 on the iTunes Album chart, before going their separate ways with the company.
Itching for creative freedom, Switchfoot financed the building of its own studio where they recorded their seventh album, the hard-hitting Hello Hurricane, and its groove-oriented follow-up Vice Verses, both of which they released on their own lowercase people records via Atlantic Records. (Jon also released four solo EPs and a debut album with Fiction Family, his side project with Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins.)
Along the way, Switchfoot have been steadfast in their commitment to giving back by supporting various humanitarian causes, such as DATA, the ONE Campaign, Habitat for Humanity, Invisible Children, and To Write Love on Her Arms. In 2005, the band held its first annual Bro-Am, a day-long event that includes a surf contest, live concert on the beach, charity auction, and after-party at local tavern Belly Up. Now in its ninth year, the Bro-Am has raised more than $715,000 to benefit local children’s charities that aid at-risk, homeless, and street kids in San Diego. “We’ve got a really young fan base and some of the kids who come to our shows are homeless,” Tim says. “You’d never know it, but they are. I think we’ve always been drawn to the underdog, and I can’t think of a bigger underdog than a kid who’s fighting for his life at the age of 12.”
Switchfoot is currently gearing up for the August premiere of Fading West at the Summer X-Games. (The band have been very active in the action sports world, having performed at numerous NFL and MLB post-game events, as well as at the US Open of Surfing in 2011.) The album Fading West will be released in September. “We weren’t chasing anything in particular when we started the band,” Jon says in the film. “We simply had these songs that we loved playing. It’s that joy that fueled us and it’s that joy that has kept us going and brought us to here.”