A New Stance in the Opposite Direction (A Conversation with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot )

Foreman_for_ArticleThe venue was filled with excited fans of all ages, shapes and sizes. The evening would stand out to be extremely memorable for about fifty chosen people. One of the Tulsa radio stations was sponsoring a “meet and greet” which allowed these lucky individuals to meet and have a few minutes with the band Switchfoot, who with their tour companions Paper Tongues, promised to move the walls of the historic Cain’s Ballroom. At most rock shows I attend as a journalist, my routine proves to be anything but glamorous. As usual I sit beside the sound booth, and review the notes from an interview I may have conducted earlier that day. I desperately listen to my tape recorder and try to decipher the audio, which is buried behind periodic snare drum hits and distorted guitar chords. On this night I sat in a chair alone doing these very things but I also experienced something different and memorable. One thing we will visit at the conclusion of this article, but the one I will write about now is the very reason I am sharing this story.

As I have explained, this show was many of a long line of gigs on the “Hello Hurricane Tour” taking San Diego’s Switchfoot and North Carolina’s Paper Tongues around the country to promote both of their new releases. With live performances there are hours of preparation before the show can begin. On this night the crowd of lucky fans gathered in the center of the ballroom floor as the members of Switchfoot tuned, checked and adjusted their instruments to get the sounds just right. As I sat relaxed with my feet propped on a chair, I watched vocalist and guitarist Jon Foreman slowly and quietly move about his area. He would often look across the stage and share a kind smile with one of the others with a spirit of family in his glance. I could tell the closeness of these five men from twenty feet away and I had never met one of them before. Seeing Jon, his brother and bassist Tim Foreman, drummer Chad Butler, keyboard and guitarist Jerome Fontamillas, and guitarist Drew Shirley interact was a different dynamic than anything I’ve witnessed in the past. Foreman would also exchange smiles and waves with those fans standing in wait for the first note to ring out. With the humility of a high school band playing for the first time in their basement, the brooding personalities and rock star bravado were absent. They were just grateful and happy to share their music with those who came to listen.

Jon_Foreman_JPP2On the night of this show, I was not one of those in attendance to specifically listen to Switchfoot. My interview with Paper Tongues guitarist Devin Forbes had finished so I sat and relaxed waiting for the actual show to start. My wife had always sung the praises of Switchfoot, but at the time of my arrival I was still not really a fan, only because I was not familiar. On this night I was just another writer on assignment. After my voyeuristic examination of them preparing for the show, I knew I was in store for something different. I had a feeling in my bones that something very special would happen. The Cain’s Ballroom had an energy running through its air that radiated off these five gentlemen. With the small crowd standing patiently, the band began to play the beautifully mesmerizing “Sing it Out,” a deep cut from their latest Hello Hurricane release. As the song built, the sound floated over the ballroom like a wave of spirit that drew my ear in close and caused my spine to tingle. Foreman approached the microphone slowly as if to drain his heart on to the stage. “I'm on the run/I'm on the ropes this time/where is my song?/I've lost the song of my soul tonight,” he sang low as my heart quickly climbed into my throat.

With powerful feeling and the edge of a tear on each word, his voice then soared along the ceiling, “Sing it out/Sing it out/Take what is left of me/and make it a melody/Sing it out/Sing out-loud/I can't find the words to sing/You'd be my remedy/My song/My song/I'll sing with what's left of me.” I felt suspended in mid air as I watched and listened to the song continue. The room was humming as its powerful bass notes moved it through its last parts. The crowd was looking on with happiness and seemed to completely read Foreman’s mind as he sang each note. As the song concluded, Jon quietly asked the crowd what they thought, smiled and looked to his band mates again with satisfaction. After a few more minutes working over some specific parts of the song, the band took some questions from the crowd, explained how certain instruments worked, and what effects made the sounds unique within the song. Without being quick, annoyed, or bored with the formality, the band showed that it sincerely cared about the answers they gave and it was evident that they care about the fans in front of them as well. As the sound check ended, I continued to look on as Foreman and the boys began to climb off the stage and step into the crowd. I stood to observe who Jon would approach first and reached for my pen and pad to take proper notes.

“Hey man…how are you?” Foreman said as he walked towards me across the floor with his hand confidently extended. “Did you enjoy the song?” he asked.

Jon_Foreman_JPP3It was strange but I felt immediately comfortable like I had known him for years. After our shake, we both walked slowly towards the middle of the ballroom as I explained my purpose for attending the show quickly confessing that I was not a part of the meet and greet I was clearly interrupting. With kind volume in his voice, Foreman confirmed that he was happy to have met me and would enjoy speaking again sometime. After exchanging contact details, we shook goodbye and he then attended to the patient and excited crowd. For the next twenty minutes I would again watch these five men mingle, laugh, hug and pose for photographs with each and every person in the crowd.  The amount of quality in the time they spent was heartwarming and it made an immediate impression on someone who has seen just about every type of rock star in and out of the limelight. In a world of excess, mystery and selfishness an example of honesty stood out between the walls of a dark old dancehall where many of questionable character had stood before. I would only see a small dose that night, but in the weeks to follow I would gain more of an appreciation for this man, his band and what they stand for collectively.

I would not speak with Jon Foreman for several weeks as our lives and schedules pushed onward in different directions. The Hello Hurricane Tour would bring them through a few more U.S. cities by the time our real conversation would begin. Their release would begin to gain exposure on radio, music television, and web quickly demonstrating that Switchfoot’s force is positive and powerful. During this time I listened to the release more and more, and began to appreciate the inspiration behind its creation. In their press release, Foreman’s words clearly permeate, “Hello Hurricane acknowledges the storms that tear through our lives. This album is an attempt to respond to those storms with an element of hope, trying to understand what it means to be hopeful in a world that keeps spinning.”

Between the cutting tones of the rock hard “Mess of Me,” the powerful sensitivity and beauty behind the words of “Your Love is a Song,” and the solid conviction of “Free,” Jon and Switchfoot have painted a diary of feelings, hope, rebirth and strength that anyone could appreciate. After these weeks had passed and the tour schedule had eased, Jon and I finally reached the day when we could speak about the recording and how Switchfoot has changed for the better over the past few years. Ironically, we would next speak on a quiet morning held sacred to many as the ultimate day of rebirth and resurrection of spirit.

On a quiet Easter Sunday, my cell phone rings out loudly into the emptiness of my studio office. I’ve been up early drinking coffee and making my best attempt at catching up on some other assignments before my scheduled call is received. Per the tour contacts, Jon’s flight has been delayed and he will be in touch as soon as he lands in Dallas. 

“Hey Bryon,” Foreman starts with a warm fresh voice unlike many who would immediately step off a plane and need to call in to an interview on a holiday morning. His spirit was kind, mellow and positive as we spoke of the tour and how Switchfoot’s dedicated fans were responding.

“You have bonds that are stronger and old ties to older songs. It is a rare thing when most of the people that like the old stuff instantly adhere to this record. That’s something really rare. So we are really grateful that everyone appreciates this record as much as we do. I think a lot of times you don’t know what it’s going to connect, you know? You hear something, you’re making music for yourself and think you appreciate what you feel is important at the time. It is always rewarding when somehow that travels into somebody’s world and they appreciate it as well." Switchfoot fans, at least the ones I witnessed in Tulsa, are more that appreciative. They see beyond the music and see the message that is being delivered. As Jon spoke I could feel his honesty and his gratitude for those who come out to hear him do what he loves so much. Support is a cycle in this world and as this band has performed and toured over the years it has always been important for them to frame each performance with their supporting musicians and bands who play with them.

The opening artists are also very important to Foreman and the others in Switchfoot as they can be one of the most important aspects of a successful night of performing and continuing tour. A few acts have been instrumental in making some of the best shows ring out for fans throughout the tour. In addition to Paper Tongues, many other up and coming acts have shared the audience and been completely supported by Switchfoot as fans themselves. “On this tour we actually had this up and coming band called The Civil Wars that were pretty amazing and very, very cool. They are from Nashville. For us, we all have the bands we love to listen to and we try to pick out local bands as well. The supporting bands are a huge, integral part of the tour. They set-up of frame the performance.” The truth of the matter: Switchfoot gets it. Fans will automatically adopt the band just for being a member of the tour, but will always remember the band as friends of Switchfoot. As you look back on the band’s past tours and collection of artist they have chosen to play with, you will see a diverse set of musicians and musical styles but all proved to be inspiring in their own way.

As we began to talk about the newest release, I could feel the respect Foreman has for its meaning and artistry. Influenced mainly by the band’s experiences while in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this record is an incredible testimony to the meaning of rebuilding, recovering, and healing. “Sing Out,” is a powerful tune that will inspire all that listen to its lyrics carefully and feel every nuance of emotion in Foreman’s delivery. “That song, for me, is directly tied to what we do night after night. There are times when you are far away from home, lonely. It’s kind of the lonely, depressive reality we live in for much of the year away from home. One moment you are in front of hundreds or thousands of people that are singing along while you're full of expression and unity. The next moment you are in a city where you don’t know anyone, in this sketchy alley behind the venue”, He said laughing. Foreman continued, “For me a lot of times whatever problems or pain we are going through, many times wanting to be able to Sing Out and actually feel something larger than yourself, come through working above all the pain.”

This band is no stranger to success but has also had to make changes and decisions that could have taken them on a different path entirely. Getting back to the roots of their creativity, building their own studio, and creating music with little restraint, it seems that Switchfoot have taken their lives to a different level. Foreman and the boys have the attitude that everything, even the unsatisfying, happens for a reason. The combination of events and decisions they have made make up the recipe for their success and character. Knowing what they know today wouldn’t make them do anything dramatically different. “Man, for us as a band, I don’t know if we wouldn’t have learned what we know now without going through what we have lived. For any relationship, you go through a tricky situation together and when you reach the other side it brings you closer.” As he begins to laugh he adds, “You know, if you do reach the other side.” He continues by saying, “For us I’m thankful because we made it to the other side of many, many different rivers that seemed un-passable at the time. So I’m incredibly thankful for where we are and I don’t know that there is another road to take.”

Listening to Switchfoot’s music and hearing the tone of Foreman’s voice, you wonder who and what has inspired and influenced him in his creative life. As we spoke, I gained the understanding that Jon is a grateful person and is always thinking of those who have watch his course and helped to steer his path. When asked who his most important influences are, he paused and first simply said, “Well, my Dad…” then paused again with a grin in his tone, “and someone by the name of Charlie Peacock who produced some of our first recordings like the Re-Think record. He is kind of a musical father figure to me.” Then with a slight laugh he adds, “Well, I would probably throw my mom in there.” 

Then, he speaks with someone with affection outside the expected realm of music and family, Jeremy Wright, an art teacher at San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas who often drives through the blighted East Village area of San Diego to find places to add some beauty and involve homeless people in the process. “I mean he does everything. He’s the guy who will create a mosaic on an abandoned concrete structure to make it more beautiful for everybody.” Laughing he continues,  “What’s funny, they don’t know what to do with that you know? Should they arrest him? Drag him to the funny farm? You know what I mean?” He adds, “So many different individuals that have been supportive over the years and really embodying what it means to be a musician-living it out and taking us under their wing in little ways.”

From everything we spoke about, I took the most from Foreman’s comments on his influences and inspirations and how the support of others has been the most important component of the band’s good fortune. As our conversation continued I grew to understand what Switchfoot is all about. Beyond their music, their good works and positive attitude is the substance that makes up Jon Foreman and his band of brothers. In addition to their continued support of Habitat for Humanity, is the tenth annual Bro-Am on June 25th and 26th at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas California. This is a dedicated event, which benefits local chapters of StandUp For Kids, a national outreach, non-profit organization to helping change the lives of at-risk and homeless kids through music, surfing, art and community. Switchfoot traditionally encourages the bringing of canned goods to their shows to provide continued support to local food banks.

Additionally with all the tragic events throughout the world, namely the disasters in Haiti and Chile, Foreman noted an upcoming cause that they have been focusing on seriously: “We are actually putting out a CD to benefit Haiti along with OkGO and other friends. It will be a pay what you want situation with all the money going directly to Haiti. All these things, including TheWorldYouWant.com, are basically a catalyst in a world we feel we can’t change when we want to change it. Bridging the gap of that enthusiasm and actually making sustainable effort to making the world a better place and celebrating the heroes that are already doing it.” These five individuals have become the inspirations and influences for others through their work of channeling people in the right direction.

Jon_Foreman_JPP1When I realized that our conversation was soon to come to a close, I quickly shared an important story with Jon that I felt he should hear. I returned him to the day of Switchfoot’s show at the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, but hours before Jon and I had met during their soundcheck. During a short lunch break in a café near the Tulsa venue, Jon and other members of the band happened to meet a young fan named Adam who was sitting alone doing his college homework. Not having a ticket to see his favorite band in his own city, he spent the morning hours wishing that he could attend the show and hoped to meet Switchfoot in person. To him, sitting in a small café in the middle of the day, a wish like this seemed too good to come true. When he saw Jon and the others enter the café and sit down for lunch, it took all of his strength to walk over and speak to them. The rest of the day would be nothing shy of a dream come true for this young man. Jon would then invite him to spend the day helping Switchfoot get ready for their show, loading in their amplifiers and instruments, setting up their equipment, learning how to operate the soundboard, working the lights, and just about everything else. With a laminated badge labeled “Switchfoot” attached to his hip, this young man told me of his experience with a full heart and the brightest eyes I’ve seen in years. He said that he never thought he could ever have had a day this good. One where everything he wished would come true all at once. Because of the generosity and kind heart of Jon Foreman, a young fan was able to live a dream for one day. This one act of ego-less kindness has changed Adam’s life forever.

Jon Foreman and Switchfoot serve as true examples in a world of missed matched messages. With a world full of ears craving to hear something meaningful and honest, Foreman travels not only to promote a new record and help a few people appreciate their craft, but most importantly they spend each night singing out and spreading the wealth of experience, hope and faith through music. One hello, one example, one story, and one conversation has left me with a lasting impression and created a fan and supporter of their hopes, ideals and music forever.

Bryon Turcotte


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