On the Surf(ace): Switchfoot Doesn't Bottle Up It's Message

By Andy Argyrakis


At face value, Switchfoot is one of the most engaging and entertaining alternative rock acts to come out of Southern California in the last 20 years. But those who take a longer look at the Grammy Award–winning group will also find some of the most socially conscious, spiritually enlightening, and ultimately thought-provoking lyrics of their generation.

Of course, that’s yielded smash singles such as “Dare You to Move,” “Meant to Live,” and “Stars,” plus multiplatinum- or gold-selling modern day masterpieces such as The Beautiful Letdown, Nothing Is Sound, and Learning to Breathe. However, Switchfoot also built up a sizeable community of listeners who’ve been consistently challenged by the band members to make a difference in their corner of the globe. In fact, both the band and their fans did exactly that earlier this season at the 13th Annual Switchfoot BRO-AM, which merges a massive music festival and surf contest, with all the proceeds benefitting various children’s charities.

Following the event’s enormous success, Switchfoot jumped right back on the bus in support of its latest long player, Where the Light Shines Through, joining forces with Lifehouse on the “Looking for Summer” Tour. But just before hitting the road, co-founding member and drummer Chad Butler shared a colorful, philosophical, and hope-filled phone conversation with Ravinia magazine ahead of the group’s co-headlining return to Ravinia on Tuesday, August 29. 

How did Switchfoot get hooked up with Lifehouse?

We’re really honored to be going out with our friends Lifehouse. What a great band! We met and crossed paths years ago. We played a few shows and festivals and have just stayed in touch over the years. This is one of those tours we always thought, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool to go out and tour with those guys,” and it’s finally here. It’s a dream come true.

What can we expect from the show? Will you be turning in your own sets or collaborating?

I know for both of us having many records and many songs to choose from, it’s going to be a mix of the older stuff and the more recent stuff. As far as collaboration goes, we’re all for it. We’ve been talking about some moments in the set, but it’s all to be unveiled. We definitely have some surprises up our sleeves.

You’re no strangers to Ravinia. How would you describe your experience playing here?

What a historic, beautiful place! Yeah, we were there with our friends in Needtobreathe and had a great night there. I think playing outdoors in the summertime is one of those magical moments. There’s something about rock ’n’ roll and the warm summer nights that just go together. It’s a very unique venue. It’s a really amazing setting for a band from the West Coast. We don’t get many situations that look like that.

Tell us about your relationship with the Chicago area. What do you remember most about coming to town throughout the years?

I’ll never forget the first time we got to headline at the Metro. That was one of our goals as a band. It was definitely a bucket list moment for us, and from there the audiences in Chicago have been so supportive. We got to play Lollapalooza a few years ago and just being part of the community has been amazing.

What are some of the other bucket list items you’ve been able to check off?

I have very fond memories of that first moment when you are able to headline a rock club in a town that’s very far away from home. We’ve done that across the country and around the world for years, so those moments are souvenirs that you hang onto. But if I had to look back on some of the things like winning a Grammy, that was a moment in our career where it’s a gift that has nothing to do with anything we did necessarily. It’s voted on by peers and that’s a wonderful thing to receive an award, but then the next day you go back to normal life and making music like you always did. It’s one of those things you look back on fondly, but you can’t take credit for those moments. It’s a gift.

Well, you’ve certainly had a role in putting together really compelling, meaningful music over the years, so those kinds of recognitions are much deserved. Do you feel like Switchfoot has a unique sense of musical and lyrical makeup? When you come on the radio, it doesn’t necessarily sound like a lot of the bands out there.

I appreciate the compliment. For us, we’ve never really stuck to one particular sound or genre approach. We’ve always approached each song as a unique opportunity to explore new musical territory and put a different frame around the music, and I feel like, for us, it’s always just been about making music that we love and not worrying about what the industry is doing at the moment. And I’m really proud of the music we’ve made. To have 10 albums, that’s unheard of these days for a band. To continue to make music that long is something I don’t take for granted. It’s something that I feel has been possible because we actually care about the songs and we care about each other. We’re friends offstage as well as onstage.

A couple of the guys in the band [singer/guitarist Jon Foreman and bassist Tim Foreman] are even brothers. I always think of Oasis as one of the more infamous acts in that situation, but Switchfoot doesn’t seem to have the dramatic element. Does having a couple of guys who are related bring any particular dynamic into the band or does everyone feel like brothers at this point?

You know, that’s a good observation. I think we see ourselves, the five of us, as brothers. We spent more time together over the last 10 records than just about any other people on the planet. I’m thankful for that camaraderie and that deep brotherhood. We support each other through the highs and the lows, and there’ve been a lot of both in our career.

Are there any of each of those, the peaks and the challenges, that stand out?

I think the most satisfying moments are making music together, traveling the world together and seeing these amazing places. Those are the highs; those are the moments when I still shake myself that I’m not dreaming. It’s an incredible opportunity that very few people get, but then the time away from home definitely takes its toll. The road is a challenging place to raise a family, to succeed as a husband and as a father. Those are challenging things, and I think without the support of my brothers in this band, I would never have made it in those things that matter most. So I’m thankful for them and I’m really grateful because I don’t know that many bands have that kind of a deep friendship. I believe it’s a really genuine and unique thing.

Do you ever fight or is the temperament pretty low key?

We’re passionate about the art and that’s gonna bring potential conflict. There’s definitely been that friction, but you can either allow that to derail the friendship and derail the band or you can allow it improve the excellence of the art that you’re working toward because that’s the common goal. If you’re able to leave those disagreements behind in the studio and walk out as friends, then I think you’re going to succeed.

What were you hoping to accomplish in the studio with your latest project, Where the Light Shines Through?

Musically and socially, it’s a return to rock guitars for us. On the previous project, we intentionally left guitars until the very end, and this record had a certain freedom where we just tried to capture that energy that we have as a live rock band. It’s got maybe a looser energy then the previous record. I love that there are no rules or boundaries in music. And then thematically, I think this record was about looking for light and looking for hope in an uncertain time in our world and our country. Ultimately, as a band, we want to communicate hope. That’s always been a big goal of ours. We have a firm belief that hope deserves an anthem.

You guys have always had a message associated with your music. What’s swirling around in your collective consciousness right now?

That’s a great question. We just wrapped up our Annual Switchfoot BRO-AM, which is a music festival for charity that we throw every year. It’s a big beach party and surf contest, all to raise money and awareness for local children’s charities here in our home town. We just had our 13th event and it was so rewarding to be able to gather the community and to give these kids that have been dealt a difficult hand in life—whether they are homeless or at-risk or don’t have the same privileges we do—and really shine a spotlight on them. It also gives them a [gateway] to experience the great things that kept us out of trouble growing up—surfing, music, and the community we had to support us. It’s a big celebration here, and that, for me, kind of embodies what we’re singing about it. We want to live it out.

To what extent has sharing a love for surfing influenced Switchfoot’s sound, and how has the recreational aspect of it allowed you to share a deeper sense of community?

Surfing has been a common bond even before we were a band together. We were surfing on the weekends and spent time being at the beach together. There’s something beautiful about being out at the ocean and staring at the infinite, looking out at the horizon and waiting for the waves together. It gives you a certain perspective that you are so small and the world is so big. I think that is inspiring for art, and it’s been really grounding as people to grow up in this element here, living near the ocean. And I do believe that surfing and our love for the ocean is a big part of why we are a band 20 years later. We enjoy that experience together offstage. I’m really grateful for that and also for being from San Diego. It’s not LA; it’s not New York. It’s a more eclectic music scene, maybe not as mainstream, and it definitely allows some creative freedom here. The music community in San Diego is very diverse and very inclusive, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

The group also had a significant season in the Christian market starting out.

I feel like it’s been a compliment to us that people from all different walks of life would listen to our music, that they relate to the songs and that they find connection to songs regardless of beliefs or ethnicity, religion or whatever. I just appreciate them listening to and supporting our band. That’s a big compliment to have someone come to your show, to buy your album and sing along. I think over the years, we’ve had support from all different areas of music and areas of the population. I’m grateful for all of it.

Do you keep up with what’s going on in that scene? Are you still in touch with any of those bands?

I definitely stay in touch with the friends we made. People are people regardless of what musical genre you may be in or out of. I’m thankful for friendships. We’ve had a long career and gotten to tour and collaborate with many, many artists of all different backgrounds, and I try to really hang onto those friendships.

Who have been some of your favorites to tour with over the years, whether because of friendships, collaborations, or simply great rock shows?

I remember the first time we got to share the stage with some major nationally known acts was at a festival here in San Diego. We played right before Wilco and R.E.M. and that was a big moment for us. To be able to grow up listening to Wilco and then actually have our gear on stage with them and hang out with them and meet them—yeah, there have been some amazing moments like that in our lives! I also remember opening for Foo Fighters in Nashville at a festival and getting to be side stage with your heroes. I could go on about musical heroes, but I’m thankful for all of it, even the smaller shows, even the early tours in a van. All of that shaped us to be who are.

I have to ask you about an older album, The Beautiful Letdown, that came out somewhere in between the vans and the major stardom. That project had tons of hits on it, continues to sound great over a decade later, and has influenced some younger alternative acts. Why do you feel like it connected so strongly all across the board?

Yeah, that was a really special record and we still play a lot of those songs. I think that was a time when we were recording at home in San Diego. We were all sort of in this flux of being young and flexible, in between school and trying to tour as a band part time and not really having that many responsibilities in the world where we were able to spend a ton of time on music and songwriting. It was just a really playful record, I think, because of that. Obviously there’s some weight and depth in the lyrics, but musically, I think there’s a freedom there that is just very young and fun.

Are there any records you wish would’ve been given the same spotlight?

Nothing Is Sound, which is the follow-up to The Beautiful Letdown. That record was one that that we really labored over and I feel really proud of it, but it definitely fell through the cracks of the industry at that point [in 2005]. We quickly followed it up with Oh! Gravity. In hindsight, I wish that those songs had seen the light of day. With a little more time, maybe they would’ve. I love that record.

Being the drummer, some might say you always have the best seat in the house. What do you see when you’re looking out from behind your kit at a Switchfoot audience?

I enjoy being able to see people’s faces and to see people singing along. For me, I look out and I see the diversity of our audience, and that’s exciting to see people from all different backgrounds and ethnicities and beliefs singing the same song. And that’s the power of music. It’s all about bringing people together! 

Catch Switchfoot at Ravinia on August 29.  

Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based writer/photographer whose credits include the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Daily Journal, Illinois Entertainer, Hear/Say Now, Concert Livewire, Chicago Now, Redeye, Metromix, Paste, Downbeat, Spin.com, MTV.com, Fuse TV, UP TV, Pollstar, and Celebrity Access, among many others. He also is the founder and content curator for ChicagoConcertReviews.com.