Frontman Jon Foreman discusses his new seasonally-themed solo project, why songwriting is like archeology, parting ways with Columbia Records, giving back to the community, and where Switchfoot goes from here.
So how did you guys end up playing this birthday bash here at Biola?
We’ve never actually played a birthday party for a school, let alone a 100-year type thing, so we figured, “Why not? It sounds like a fun thing to do. It’s right up the street.”
And then you played a solo show here a while back, too.
Yeah, and I think that was for Invisible Children.
Right. Anyways, you guys are going to be starting a new tour next month, the Up In Arms Tour, for To Write Love on Her Arms. How did that come about?
We’ve been really good friends with Jamie and were actually there the night he got his first shirts printed. So we’ve known him for a long time and really support what he’s been doing. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, and it finally made sense for both of us to go out on the road together. It’s kind of a dream come true.
Your song “Love Is the Movement” has kind of become their slogan now. How does that make you feel?
Yeah, it’s cool. It’s an honor. It’s strange to write a song and have somebody else take it and put it to use for something else, but at the same time I feel like that’s kind of the beauty of art. We can take these things and use them as a feel for something other than maybe what their intended use was.
Now you’re currently releasing the four solo EPs. How did that idea originate?
The EPs are again kind of a dream come true. When we got off of Columbia, it was a chance that I’ve been… I mean, Tim and Chad have been encouraging me to go out and pursue this for a long time, and so it finally made sense once we had gotten rid of Columbia.
It’s one of those things where all these songs you record at 3 o’clock in your bedroom or home studio, never thinking they’re going to see the light of day. So when they actually are released, on the one hand it’s really amazing because that’s never been the object all along, but on the other hand it makes you feel a little vulnerable because of how personal the songs are.
Where did the whole Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer idea come from?
I didn’t want to release a single CD because I feel like these songs want to be heard in the context of a song. I feel like EPs are much better for songs. Records are better for an entire concept where all the songs are cohesive, but the sixth song on an EP gets almost as much attention as the first, and that’s not true for the last song on a record.
So I wanted to do something along those lines, and it felt like the best way to do that would be to release them in groups and in batches that would coincide with the sentiment of the season. Since fall is my favorite season and a lot of the songs kind of had that feeling already, I decided to start with Fall & Winter and see where things headed from there.
One of my favorite songs on the releases that you’ve had so far is “Somebody’s Baby.” Was there anything specific behind that which inspired it?
Yeah, teeth brushing is kind of like the crucial part of that song. There’s a woman who lives nears me who’s homeless, and I saw her brushing her teeth really early in the morning. It was like one or two o’clock, and I remember thinking what a volitional, conscious, deliberate act of hope that was to go out and brush your teeth. I don’t know. It felt like that was a true, valiant act. If I was homeless, I probably wouldn’t brush my teeth, and so that’s kind of where the concept came for that song.
How does Spring & Summer compare with Fall & Winter?
Spring I just finished. The masters were turned into iTunes on Friday.
Yeah, I saw the track listing you posted online.
Oh, yeah. I wanted it to be cohesive with the other two, but I wanted it to also turn a corner with the thematic element. As far as the musical element, I wanted to add different flavors that would be symbolic of flowers popping up. New colors, new life. That was the trickiest part, to draw that into the frame of the “Learning How To Die” kind of somber tones of Fall & Winter.
I’ve noticed with the EPs and stuff you’ve been blogging a lot. How important is it to keep up that interaction with fans?
Well, it’s something I’ve always done. Even back in ’97, we were doing stuff with the P.O. Box. “Send us a dollar in a self-addressed stamped envelope and we’ll send you a sticker.” You know? People would write letters, and I’d handwrite a letter back. That was the way it was. So now it’s just a matter with blogging, you can do that in a way that a lot of people get to read the letter, which is kind of nice.
In addition to that, you have the side project with Sean of Nickel Creek entitled the Real SeanJon [now Fiction Family]. What’s the latest on that?
We’re coming close on picking a name that won’t get us a lawsuit. We’re doing the final song right now, and there’s a rumor that there’s a large company that produces caffeinated beverages that might put it out in a few months. So, we’ll see.
So that’s maybe like a summer release then or something?
Yeah, and that record is surprising because we put very little into it and it turned out really good. Sometimes it’s the opposite, where you put a lot into it and you’re not really that thrilled with the results, but this was the exact opposite. We didn’t really do that much, and it just kind of fell together.
Stylistically how does it compare with Switchfoot and Nickel Creek?
It’s closer to the solo stuff. Maybe Nickel Creek’s last record. It’s got a little bit of that in there maybe. I didn’t play any electric guitar. Sean played all the electric guitar. We came up with these cowboy rules and wrote them all down. That was our code for the record that we had to live by.
Last year, you parted ways with Columbia and started Lowercase People Records. How did that whole situation happen? Was that kind of a joint thing or your decision?
Yeah, I mean neither party has any hard feelings. I think for us, the reason why we signed with Columbia was because of the people that were there. So it’s very understandable when all those people are gone, you don’t hold any real bad feelings or good feelings towards a company name. I think that’s part of the problem with the corporate entity as a whole is that there’s no true responsibility.
I think for us as a band, we just see it as there’s a time and a season for everything, and right now it was the right season for us to begin doing things on our own again with the solo EPs and with the SeanJon thing. You know, touring is even affected by what label you’re on. We had disagreements about the way things should be run, so we parted on amicable terms and it was a mutual thing. I think it’s the best thing that could have happened for us, to be able to kind of turn over a new leaf.
With the way the music industry is right now, do you see more bands going a similar route?
I absolutely do. Like I said, there’s a time and a season. A couple years ago, I don’t think it would have been the right move for us at all, but to be in a place where we are now, we don’t have to play that game anymore. We’re able to think like, “Let’s do a tour in the South Pacific. Let’s do a tour in Europe. Let’s do a tour in the States.” It becomes very simple. We want to put out a record. That’s great. OK, put it out. There’s no over thinking. There’s not 500 cooks in the kitchen, you know? I feel like we are at a place now where we understand more than ever what we want to do with our music, and it feels like the right place to be.
How is that new record coming along?
It’s good. Tim and I have just been writing. You know, it’s one of those things where you get to a point where you kind of want to shock yourself again. The reason why you started playing music in the first place is because it’s shocking and it felt like you were somehow defying gravity, or something like that. So you kind of want to find that place again. You can’t go to the same well. That’s all dry. You got to find a new place.
You guys are building your own studio too, right? Is that almost done?
Yeah, it’s pretty much done except for a few final tweaks. You know, little last minute red tape type issues.
So the most successful record you guys have had was The Beautiful Letdown back in ‘03. Has there ever been or is there still any pressure to achieve that huge status again?
On the one hand, you never set out to achieve it, but on the other hand, you’re not trying for failure, either. I think for us, our goals have always been a little bit more inline with things that can be measured outside of numerical success. So I think certainly in the back of your head, that record has helped put food on the table and certainly helped get all the rest of the songs we’ve written a bigger platform. I think to try and go back and duplicate that feels like… I don’t know. Like I said before, you can’t go to the same well twice. You have to come to new places.
With your lyrics, you love to tackle those kinds of deeper questions and feelings. How do you go about approaching that and weaving that commentary element into the songs?
I think I’m coming to the place, especially with the more recent stuff, where I’m just digging. All I do is dig. I equate it with archeology. An archaeologist just digs and on a good day comes across something that you didn’t actually create but something that was around long before you were. Maybe one day you discover this lost city. Those are the best songs, the ones that don’t have your fingerprints on them anywhere but are fingerprints of the Divine rather than your own little markings.
So those are the good songs, and the bad ones are a little bit more confined to my own reality. I think the other similarity you could draw would be with oysters and pearls. You have a piece of sand that gets in the oyster’s shell, and over time the oyster just keeps putting more and more material into the sand until it becomes a pearl. But the beauty was created by an irritant, and that’s what I feel like songs are. They’re just an attempt to come to terms with pain.
You’ve been doing this for over 10 years now. How do you feel you’ve grown as a songwriter over that time period?
I don’t know, man. Hopefully I’m a little bit more concise and a little bit more deliberate.
My favorite song of yours is “Dare You To Move.” I love that song a lot. Why do think it is still able to resonate with so many people?
I don’t know. It’s really funny because we put that on a record called Learning to Breathe, and it was like my favorite song. So it’s been around for a little while. I think it’s fairly honest, fairly straightforward. I think we all want to see movement and change, and that’s kind of what the song is a cry for. I think it also acknowledges the tension between the way things are and the way they should be.
Looking back on your career, is there a particular song, or album or event, that really sticks out to you that you’re the most proud of?
Every year the thing I’m most proud of is the Bro-Am. It’s this silly little surf contest that we hold every year that raises money for kids in San Diego. It brings my hometown together. I think we do a lot of things for other people around the world that I’m a big believer of. A lot of times as Americans we’re drawn to go to Africa, to go the Philippines, and that’s certainly a big part of something that’s needed. We’ve been given a lot, so let’s give back to the rest of the world. But I think when you see it in your own backyard, it’s that much more important.
Is there any advice you’d like to offer us college students?
Aww, man. I think that the American culture and views on importance are completely screwed up. The sooner you can discover what is true and what’s a mirage, the better, because I think that diving deep into truth when you’re young is an incredible gift. I feel like when I was in college, I look back on things that I found that are true that have lasted me my whole life, and then there are other things I wish I would have discovered sooner that I’ve chased my whole life that don’t matter at all.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press