You look the most hipster out of all of us with that bike,” Switchfoot lead singer Jon Foreman laughs.
I look back over my shoulder at Foreman behind me.
“I don’t know about that,” I laugh, as I coast down a hill on a yellow, rusted fixie they’ve lent me from their tour bus. The paint is peeling, and the bike appears to be more silver than yellow. The bike is wobbly and the front brakes are practically non-existent.
A girl is walking toward us on the sidewalk and it feels, for a second, like I’m going to run her over. I dodge her and tell myself I was never one for first impressions.
“If I die,” I say to Foreman behind me, “just tell my mother that I love her.”
It’s 7 p.m., and the sun is setting on a cool, March evening in Charlotte, North Carolina. Switchfoot is set to perform at Amos’ Southend, a concert hall just south of downtown Charlotte, but first, they’ve scheduled an interview with Sports Spectrum magazine, and apparently, the interview is beginning with a bike ride.
We coast past All American Pub on our right, then ride past World of Beer on the corner of South Boulevard and East Bland. We make a right onto South Boulevard, and Foreman pedals up next to me. Drummer Chad Butler is in front of us, leading the way.
“Bet this is one of your more interesting starts to an interview,” Foreman laughs.
“Hey,” I say matter-of-factly, somewhat out of breath, “It’s all about the journey, right?”
For Grammy-Award winning alternative rock band Switchfoot, “journey” might be the best word to describe their story as a band.
Formed in 1996, the San Diego-based band consisting of brothers Jon (lead vocals, guitar) and Tim Foreman (bass), Chad Butler (drums), Jerome Fontamillas (keyboard), and Drew Shirley (electric), have continued to revamp their sound and top the charts since they burst onto the scene in the early 2000s—when their fourth studio album The Beautiful Letdown went double platinum. This last year has been one unlike any other, as they produced an album and a documentary, both sharing the name Fading West.
In the documentary, Foreman reflects on their story as a band and is quoted as saying, “It was all about the joy of the journey.”
His words “joy” and “journey” seem to be a summation of life. The journey might be hard. But joy was always there. Despite circumstances, joy was always accessible, if you could only find a way to continually revisit its fountains.
Joy In Saltwater
We’re on Your shore again / I can feel the ocean / I can feel your open arms / That pure emotion / I’m finally free again / By my own explosion / We’re on your shore again / I can feel the ocean
We bike across South Boulevard, and arrive at Nova’s, a quaint coffeehouse and bakery a few blocks from the concert hall. Butler locks our bikes up to a sign in the parking lot, and we enter the coffeeshop.
Foreman, 37, has long, blond surfer’s hair hanging out of his black-and-gold patterned ski-cap, and he has a tight leather jacket over his zip-up sweater. I notice a scar running below the right side of his nose. He would later tell me it came from a “gnarly” surfing accident. Butler, 40, another passionate surfer, is wearing a red and gray, plaid button-up shirt and a heavier greenish-gray jacket. Away from the lights, stage, and thousands of screaming fans, they seem rather ordinary, just a couple of “bros” hanging out in a coffeehouse…like anybody else.
I offer to buy them coffee.
“You sure?” Foreman says.
“Are you kidding me?” I tell him. “After the impact you guys have had on me, I wish I could get you more than a coffee.”
It’s true. If we had time for a steak dinner, I’d feel as if I owed it to them for the times their music has carried me through. Most recently, I’m reminded of when I quoted their song “Where I Belong” in the eulogy I delivered at my grandfather’s funeral: On the final day I die, I want to hold my head up high, I want to tell You that I tried, To live it like a song.
Foreman and Butler are as genuine as I always imagined them, thanking me for the coffee and telling me that the compliment meant a lot. Even their willingness to ride bikes to a coffeehouse with a random writer, in a random city, merely hours before they take the stage at Amos’ Southend, I figured, was a good anecdote to demonstrate how relaxed and free-spirited they were, and a reflection of how much they valued people.
Butler gets his coffee and takes a seat. Foreman and I stand at the coffee bar, as the barista prepares our drinks. Foreman begins to tell me about an article he’s working on for The Huffington Post. I tell him that I really enjoyed a previous article he had written about the concept of wonder. “Against the backdrop of wonder,” his article said, “I am reminded of the larger symphony going on around me, reminded of how small I really am.”
I tell him how I’ve been thinking a lot about wonder lately—how love can lead to wonder, how fear can lead to wonder, how doubt can lead to wonder. It’s as if every emotion we experience in this lifetime, whether positive or negative, points toward a bigger story that is being told.
Foreman then goes on to tell me about Victorian literature and their fascination with “the sublime,” how writers like Charles Dickens and William Butler Yeats brought their readers into a world where they experienced a “state of ecstasy,” which caused them to think outside of themselves.
We eventually sit down at a table next to Butler, and Foreman asks me whom some of my favorite authors are. I tell him that I’m currently enjoying German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship, then confess to him that I can only read a page at a time because of its depth.
“How about you?” I say.
“Well, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is amazing,” Foreman says. “He wrote a book called Ethics, I think, that wasn’t finished (before he died), and I’m reading that off and on right now. Again, it’s one of those, where you pick it up, read a couple pages and say, ‘Well, now I can think about that for a year,’” he laughs.
We start talking about martyrdom, as Bonhoeffer died for the sake of Christ under the oppression of Nazi Germany in 1945, then start talking about grace and the will of God, lofty concepts we do not understand yet long to understand more fully.
It was obvious—whether it’s through their music, documentary, or the current interview—that Switchfoot loves to think and ask big questions about both life and God.
This leads us to talking about the sublime again, these things that remind us how small we really are, things that free us from a world where we think far too big of ourselves. Foreman and Butler start talking about surfing in the context of the sublime, thus giving me a sports angle in my guilty pleasure of writing music stories.
“Surfing might be to Switchfoot what music would be to a professional athlete,” Foreman says. “Where music is their release, their escape, their chance to connect with their soul and go to another land for a second—for us, surfing is that. Our job—we love it and we wouldn’t trade it for the world—but it’s demanding at times. There are ups and downs. To be able to stare back at the shore and remember how small you are and to gain that kind of perspective and see all of your problems down there on the shore, and realize, wow, this is a much bigger world than all the text messages I’ve been dealing with, the problems I’ve been having in the studio or on the road.”
“It’s usually removed of all human noise,” Butler adds. “You are removed, you have the ocean, maybe some birds flying above. You are in the elements.”
The ocean is where Switchfoot feels small again.
“The stage is this bloated, weird place to exist,” Foreman says in Fading West, “where people give you unnecessary amounts of attention, and in the water, all of that is washed clean.”
Surfing has always been one of the threads to Switchfoot’s brotherhood—even their band name is a surfing term. Recently, Switchfoot spent all of 2013 touring the globe while filming a rock/surf documentary (released December 2013) while recording an album (released January 2014) while hitting up some of the world’s most renowned surfing hotspots in Australia, Bali, South Africa, and New Zealand, alongside surfing legends Rob Machado and Tom Curren.
“Every great novel or album comes from a place,” Foreman continues. “Bob Dylan goes and visits the homeless, and Bruce Springsteen visits the people that he admires musically…For me, I don’t think that any of these songs could exist without the ocean. The ocean is a common thread in our friendship—my wife calls it my baptism—it’s this element that can be the breath in when so much of life is giving and breathing out. The ocean, really, just gives back.”
Joy In The Hurricane
Hello hurricane / You’re not enough / Hello hurricane / You can’t silence my love / I’ve got doors and windows / Boarded up / All your dead end fury is / Not enough / You can’t silence my love
I tell Foreman and Butler that I enjoyed their documentary, that the videography made it a spiritual experience, and their honesty and transparency amidst trials and doubts made it an intellectual experience.
At one point in the film, Foreman has to abandon their global tour and fly home to San Diego because his daughter, Daisy, is unexpectedly rushed into surgery. Another scene shows him and his younger brother, Switchfoot bassist Tim Foreman, having an emotional conversation about Tim and his wife’s miscarriage years before.
Suddenly, in a documentary with spiritual undertones, both through its music and videography, the sometimes-taboo subject of doubt is brought to the forefront. I tell Foreman and Butler that this is what I identified with the most in their documentary: doubt.
“We included a lot of personal stuff in the film. We are not filmmakers, we are not actors,” Foreman laughs. “If there is anything compelling that is going to come out, it’s going to be honesty. If you take away honesty, you probably don’t have a reason to be on a film. As a songwriter, those are always the most compelling elements of the song—when there is some risk involved and you actually put yourself in the music. You can really feel the difference. If someone is emotionally invested in a song, or if they are just kind of playing it cool, trying to be somebody else. At the end of every song, you have the question to ask: Do I believe it?
“We were talking about Springsteen and Dylan earlier—all of my favorite singers/songwriters bands/whatever, are people that, when the song ends, you can say: that guy believes what he is singing. I might even disagree, but he believes it.”
For years, Switchfoot has used rock-and-roll as a channel to address issues that might not be able to be addressed effectively otherwise. Politics. Pain. Doubt. Faith. Their documentary was as honest as their music.
“As far as doubts, I think doubt is the flipside of belief,” Foreman says. “Any form of faith or trust in a relationship, doubt is available at any point. We show what we believe by the way that we live our lives.”
Foreman looks down at his chair.
“For example, I believe that this chair is going to hold me up as long as I’m sitting here. In talking about our doubts, it’s another way to talk about our faith and another way to talk about what God has brought us through. I think, as a songwriter, I’m not afraid of being honest in that way. Fortunately, I think it kind of reflects the stance that we’ve had as a band.”
“I’ve heard it said, ‘Don’t trust a man without a limp,’” Butler adds. “I think it’s important to acknowledge your flaws and, in them, pursue honesty. We don’t have it all figured out, but we are in this together, and I mean that as a brotherhood, as a band, and also in it with our audience.”
Foreman piggybacks off Butler: “It’s funny, because, just like doubt is always available to you, joy is also always available. Joy is one of the few things that set us as a human species apart…Maybe dolphins enjoy riding waves…But the idea of taking joy in every stage of life, the rationality that it takes to find joy in both places (good times and hard times) is something that is uniquely human.”
“Counter-intuitive to our human instincts,” Butler adds.
“Especially a winning-losing culture,” Foreman continues. “It’s all, ‘You’re happy when you win, sad when you lose.’ But that means you will be sad most of the time—for most of us,” he laughs. “Or it may mean that you’re happy for a little while, and then, at the end of your career, it’s all sadness! But for a believer, it comes down to the idea that, no, this life is only a fraction of the joy that is available to us. As far as winning and losing, there is so much more joy than just the joy of victory.”
As we rode back to the concert hall on our bikes, I thought about two words—joy and journey—and how our journey includes both winning and losing, like Foreman said, and how the joy in this life is only a fraction of what we’ll one day experience.
When Switchfoot took the stage that evening, I noticed how it all tied together, how their music, for a moment, helped people experience a fraction of joy and step into the sublime, while, at the same time, their music also helped direct them to the Source of all joy.
And before launching into their final song of the evening, Foreman prefaced it with a statement that seemed to tie “joy” and “journey” together perfectly. A white flag draped over his neck, with the song title “WHERE I BELONG” spray-pained in black on the flag, Foreman stated: “This is a song about a destination.”
And perhaps it is this reality, that we are merely passing through this life on earth toward a much more glorious destination, which frees us to experience true joy in the journey.
By Stephen Copeland
Stephen Copeland is a staff writer at Sports Spectrum magazine.