Putting Their Best Foot Forward
By Chris Carpenter
You cant seem to miss Contemporary Christian recording artist
Switchfoot these days. Riding high on a rocket blast of popularity, the California
based quartet is seemingly omni-present in support of their new album "The
Beautiful Letdown". Yahoos Emerging Artist of the Month for September,
they have become a late night television staple in recent months, performing
on such programs as the "Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn" and "Last
Call with Carson Daly".
With their song "Meant to Live" racing up the Billboard Modern
Rock charts (currently #25) it would appear that Switchfoots musical reputation
is destined to be forged in platinum. However, success has its pitfalls. While
"The Beautiful Letdown" is their fastest selling record to date,
they find themselves caught up in an interesting dichotomy. While the secular
media has been trumpeting their musical prowess on one hand, many ardent followers
of Contemporary Christian music wonder if they have compromised their message
in some way.
Standing prominently at the forefront of Switchfoot's alleged compromise
is their decision to sign with Columbia Records following the release of their
last album "Learning to Breathe".
"Since we signed with Columbia we have been very adamant about making sure
we don't leave anyone behind," says Switchfoot frontman/guitarist Jon Foreman,
in reference to their Christian fan base. "There is no communication about
the fact that we are the same people writing the same songs. Our entire new
album was recorded before Columbia got on board. To put to rest any rumors
that we changed our lyrics to try and fit in or something like that; there
is no hidden agenda."
For Foreman, bassist Tim Foreman (Jon's brother), drummer Chad Butler, and
guitarist/keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas, there never has been a hidden agenda.
They have made it a priority to remain the same people onstage as they are
off of it. In other words, they remain true to their faith and devoted following.
Taking their name from a surfing term that means to switch your approach
to a wave (or as Butler points out a switch in how they approach the world
because they are Christians), Switchfoot formed in San Diego during the mid-1990's.
Sharing a collective love of God, surfing, and music, the quartet devoted
most of their early days to surfing competitions and honing their musical
craft in local churches.
The story of how they were discovered is something straight out of Hollywood.
Having recorded a demo in a bedroom featuring cymbals that frequently drowned
out the guitars as the dominant instrument, the tape somehow found its way
into the hands of legendary Christian producer Charlie Peacock. Peacock obviously
saw something in the band and signed them immediately.
With a polarized sound that has been compared to a cross between the Beach
Boys and Creed, Switchfoot released their debut album "The Legend of Chin"
in mid-1997 on Chordant Records. Subsequent albums "New Way to Be Human" and
"Learning to Breathe" soon followed, the latter earning them a Grammy nomination
Then came the aforementioned decision to leave Chordant to test the waters
of mainstream success. Doing so thrust them into an entirely different arena
... literally. The transition has been an interesting one as the band will
play a nightclub one night, perform at a Christian music festival the next,
and follow that up two nights later by opening for a secular artist such as
"For me, it has affirmed that it is definitely a challenge to have everyone
singing along one night and then playing somewhere the next where everyone
is just kind of standing around with their arms folded," explains Jon Foreman.
"What is great is when I talk to five or six people after one of those shows
(secular) and they are very adamant about how our music has changed their
lives. That is what it is all about for me."
Released to critical applause earlier this year, "The Beautiful Letdown"
is a masterful collection of songs that reflect on the tension of human existence.
""The Beautiful Letdown" is a broken record," says Jon Foreman. "All of the
songs on it are trying to come to grips with the differences between the beautiful
aspects of what this world can be, and the other half which can be the terrible
For me, I feel like this album is an incredibly Christian album. It is ironic
that this is for me the most overtly Christian of all of our albums and it
is the one being pushed in the mainstream record stores. Irony reigns supreme."
"The Beautiful Letdown" has certainly resonated with an audience wider than
Switchfoot could have ever imagined. The album, which entered the Billboard
Top 200 at #85 in its first week of release, has already shipped 300,000 units,
an astronomical mark for a Christian artist. Record sales and mass airplay
is something that is certainly flattering to the band but at the same time
it also focuses them on their mission.
"It has been exciting to be looking at album sales and realizing we are actually
selling more CD's in the mainstream world right now than we are in the Christian
world," remarks Tim Foreman. "That is something that is completely new and
exciting for us. We feel very blessed to be given the opportunity to go out
into the mainstream like that."
"With this album it seems like there have been opportunities for people to
hear our music that aren't coming to our shows but they are hearing it on
the radio or on television," points out Butler. "That is really exciting when
for us it is about reaching the most people possible and trying to make a
dent and be salt and light."
As for what lies ahead in ensuing months, Switchfoot began a two-month national
headlining tour last Friday (September 26th) that is set to run through the
end of November.
To those in the Christian audience who might question whether they have compromised
their message in any way by crossing over into the mainstream, Jon Foreman
"You are always going to have people who are saying 'how come you didn't
do this'. Trust is a very hard thing to earn. I feel wonderful that over seven
years we have developed a trust with a lot of people. People understand who
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