We sat down with Jon Foreman from Switchfoot to discuss the new album, their colourful new video clip and ‘that’ Easterfest performance.
There’s a certain danger involved when a band has been around as long as Switchfoot has. The formula tends to get the same – similar sound, similar vibe, same structures, etc. It’s something lead singer Jon Foreman is fully aware of, which explains why the band threw the formula out the window with their new release Where the Light Shines Through. In fact, it seems the album is a near complete departure from the Switchfoot sound that we have all become accustomed to:
“You can be friends with someone for a while and there’s a side you’ve never seen…It’s the same with bands,” Foreman explains, talking about the album’s lead single, Float. “Float is unlike anything we’ve ever done!”. The reggae-funk inspired track has a video depicting the bands experience in Philippines, and shows them playing on a round-a-bout in the city of Manila.
The video does two things – firstly it highlights the party atmosphere of the track, which is something that Jon credits to his brother Tim Foreman, the band’s bass player. Secondly, it sets the tone for the whole album. Secondly, it sets an uplifting tone for the album as a whole. The title Where The Light Shines Through introduces the albums central theme: that positives can always be found in dark places
Once the album was recorded, Jon explains that it wasn’t a difficult process to choose Float as the lead single, but the video itself was a very difficult thing to pull off.
“For the video we wanted something that reflected joy in a difficult situation… we asked ourselves How can we view that? How can we pull that off without being vanilla?”. The video was shot in one of the slum areas of Manila with the assistance of an organisation called Younglife, a charity dedicated to working with children in poverty-stricken areas. Switchfoot quite literally set up a small generator, amps and then began to play in the middle of a roundabout in one of the city’s largest slums.. The end result? A video the exhibits …pure joy, depicting one of the poorest areas of the Philippines as a hive of colour and happiness, a result that Jon Foreman says “…was amazing and really captures what the song is about”
Where the Light Shines Through is an overwhelmingly positive album, with a joyful vibe running from track to track. There’s an old adage that the happiest sounding albums are always the most torturous to make. It’s a sentiment that Jon Foreman agrees with, as the album came about at a time where the band was wrestling with some really tough issues. The uplifting sounds produced by the issue came as a surprise to the band, and in the end served to exemplify the overall message of the album. Jon wrote it from the perspective of the people listening to the album at a point where they don’t want to listen to a happy album.
“…you were looking for hope, meaning, purpose and sometimes you’re striking out. … Maybe you’re better off not trying to find happy songs, but truthful songs. Our job isn’t to be a lawyer, our job is to be truthful.”
Honesty in Christian music is a hot topic right now. With several bands being criticised for being too truthful in their music and as a result being rejected by Christian radio and Christian stores, Jon Foreman says it’s a fine line that he believes Switchfoot is able to walk.
“There’s always going to be different approaches…[to] how it should be done. I think the dialogue [about truthfulness] is more important than anything else… the dialogue that you find there pertains to much more than just music. With the music you’ve got this implication of ‘what does it mean to be a believer and to make art that matters?’”
It’s a discussion that some segments of the church aren’t up for, and when those rocks were directed at Switchfoot during a time where they openly rejected the tags “Christian music” and “Christian band”, it was something they had to deal with in detail. Instead of making broad, sweeping statements over the scene in general, Foreman was keen to engage in a dialogue that engaged both sides of the discussion. “Before we throw rocks at something it’s good to talk to someone and find out where they’re coming from.”. It was something that, as a band, Switchfoot needed to wrestle with and come to peace with. Ultimately though, it was something they just had to hand over to let God deal with, especially when the criticism came in hard and fast.
“That’s the beauty of faith, knowing that you have a one-on-one relationship with the Maker Himself. That’s a dangerous thing when you’re in relationship with other human souls, broken, twisted human souls capable of beautiful things and horrible things. The tendency is to run to legalism and the law and say ‘we have to set up some frameworks here”.
Switchfoot are currently on tour around the USA supporting the album, and they would love to make their way back to Australia in 2017. They are no strangers to Australia and have a deep affinity with the country that stems from a time Jon spent time doing a university exchange in our fine land back in 1998. He loves the way in which our festivals and gigs are run around here, and says that Australia has always provided some of the coolest tour stories. From the power being cut at Soundwave Perth and a full electric set turned acoustic to being a rock band at a blues festival and of course – the Easterfest flood of 2011. I asked Jon if he was aware that their performance at Easterfest in 2011 etched Switchfoot into the folklore of Australian Christian music forever. He recalls the show with remarkable detail: “The police were concerned with the safety of the people … The festival was in their hands, but they went from saying ‘you can’t go on stage’ to ‘you can’t come off stage’. Then the tent collapsed and a river ran through it – it was terrifying…”
Jon said the turning point came during the second song of their set when he saw the pelting rain hitting the amps and the front row standing knee-deep in water. He said the band just said to each other “If rock ‘n’ roll can help the situation, then let’s play some rock ‘n’ roll!”.
In the aftermath of the 2011 festival, Switchfoot were credited with keeping the crowd calm and helping prevent a disaster turning into a tragedy. Following their 2015 performance at Easterfest, I asked Jon how he felt talking with people who said Switchfoot helped them stay calm as memories of the Christmas floods kept coming back. Some people referred to the band as heroes, which is a title he’s uncomfortable with but can understand. “When I go to a show I want to see my heroes being heroes, and you can’t be a hero until something goes wrong.” Somehow, Switchfoot always seem to turn those potential disaster stories into the biggest talking points of whatever shows they perform. “I love it after the fact, but in the moment you’re sweating it.”.