Jon Foreman is relentlessly hopeful. He’s a deep thinker whose sincerity is sobering in a world shrouded in senseless violence.
“Most of the headlines are disaster and genocide and war and racism,” he says, “but there’s also this undercurrent, where you look into the eyes of, you know, my young nephew or my grandmother, or you hear the birds in the air, or you smell the seashore — or whatever it is — and you’re reminded there’s a beauty to the planet, as well.
“So that’s the balance that we’re kind of — that’s the tension that the human soul is stretched tight between, like a guitar string. I think the escapist is to say it’s only one or the other. But I think the music happens when you allow that tension to exist and begin to play within it.”
The Switchfoot frontman was raised riding real-life rip curls and playing music in the San Diego area. So when he invokes water as a metaphor when considering the yin to humanity’s detestable yang and then likens the dynamic to something musical, it’s entirely fitting.
And he means what he says. From the way that he takes his time and pauses deliberately after you ask him a question, you can tell he puts a great deal of thought into what he’s putting out there — not even as an artist, but as a person. But this obviously carries over into the music; Foreman’s not merely making pop music. A bona fide beach boy, this campfire philosopher is sprinkling substance into his surfin’ safaris.
“I think it’s a daily remembering of the bigger picture,” Foreman says. “I think, first of all, every human soul has a belief system. It can be agnostic; it can be Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, capitalist, materialist — whatever it is. We live out what we believe with our daily actions. And yet, we can all say, well, it’s true, but sometimes there’s a struggle there. Sometimes that’s where the fight comes in.
“I am, by nature, I wrestle with darkness and death and fear and doubt, and that’s where most of these songs come from,” he says. “I think, for me, my faith would be the field on which those struggles are played out on: Do I give up hope, or do I continue to press on and say, ‘No, life’s worth living,’ and let’s figure it out? That’s where a lot of these songs come from, trying to piece it together. I would say I write songs about the things I don’t understand.”
From that standpoint, Foreman has certainly become highly seasoned. Since founding Switchfoot nearly two decades ago with his brother, bassist Tim, he — with the help of his other bandmates, drummer Chad Butler, guitarist Drew Shirley and keyboardist/guitarist Jerome Fontamillas — has filled nearly a dozen albums with songs of hopefulness and soul searching.
Initially a Christian act signed to Charlie Peackock’s (Civil Wars) Re:Think imprint and then to Sparrow Records, which released the outfit’s first three records, Switchfoot first attracted massive mainstream attention in the early part of the past decade with two breakthrough singles from its major label debut, “The Beautiful Letdown.”
Those two tracks — “Dare You to Move,” elevated with lines such as “Maybe redemption has stories to tell / Maybe forgiveness is right where you fell,” and “Meant to Live,” which likewise lingered on the notion, “We were meant to live for so much more / Have we lost ourselves?” — effectively set the tone for what was to follow, namely thought-provoking songs that challenge and inspire.
With song titles such as “Love Alone Is Worth the Fight,” “Say It Like You Mean It” and “The World You Want,” from its latest album, “Fading West,” it’s safe to say that Switchfoot’s affecting earnestness hasn’t waned. Although the band — along with its San Diego-area counterparts in P.O.D. — has easily become arguably one of the most accomplished crossover Christian bands in the entire industry, at this point it’s just a band, no modifier needed — although Foreman understands the need for folks to compartmentalize.
“When it comes to any form of music or art, that’s the way the human mind wants to work,” he allows. “You know, what kind of species is this? Let’s put a category on it; let’s put a subtext. Let’s put it in some sort of outline that’s a little more understandable. And as we all know, there’s always those creatures that defy the categorization, whether it’s a platypus or something like that. Where it’s like, ‘It lays eggs, and it’s got fur, and it’s poisonous — I don’t know. I don’t know what to call it.’
“I think people are like that. The human soul doesn’t suffer categorization easily. And I think we’re doing ourselves and the rest of the planet a disservice when we begin to put people in boxes, by anything, your skin color, your political views. We talk about how he’s a Republican, or she’s a Democrat, but there are very few people that will toe the party line for everything.
Foreman points to a certain iconic artist as someone who proved you can represent your faith faithfully while also breaking out of the box of convention that people place you in. “I love watching old movies about Bob Dylan,” he says. “I think he’s an artist that’s incredible about reminding us that there’s no categorization for that. I guess, for us, the idea of opening the conversation of what it means to be a believer — that’s one of my favorite conversations — what does it mean to try and follow Christ.
“But as far as the ‘industry’ of selling religion,” he says, “sometimes I get really nervous about stamping anything with some sort of Christian kosher. I don’t think I’m kosher. The thing is, being affiliated with the name of Christ is always an honor. It’s just a bigger conversation than where you stock somebody’s — it feels like a conversation of commerce, rather than art. And for me, I guess that’s the concern is whenever we begin to mix commerce and religion, that’s when I get a little bit gun-shy.”
At the same time, Foreman, who’s soft spoken and humble, isn’t remotely reticent to react with righteous resignation when something stirs him. Last month on Twitter, after yet another senseless shooting, he tweeted: “Lord, save us from ourselves. I’m deeply disturbed by #CharlestonShooting. Black? White? The blood runs red. America — who are you?”
But even now after greater reflection, he’s pivoted his perspective to balance the brutality with benevolence. “The beauty in that situation,” he says, “is the victims’ families coming before the shooter and telling him firsthand what they will miss about the person that he took from them — the life that he stole from the planet — and then saying, ‘And, yet, even now, I forgive you.’
“I think the fallacy is to say that there is no choice, that hope is irrational, and fear and doubt and cynicism are logical. For me, that’s simply not true. Hope is a logical choice. In fact, in many cases, forgiveness is the only way to be set free. I think, again, that’s the choice that I make — try to make. I guess that’s the attempt of anybody who professes to be a believer.”
And these are clearly not mere words for Foreman. He and his band have indeed been living out what they believe. For the past decade, Switchfoot has been presenting the Bro-Am in its hometown of Encinitas. The 11th annual surf-based event attracts thousands to watch and participate in the competition and to see the group perform.
In that time, the Bro-Am has generated more than $1 million for local charities. And this month, through its Bro-Am Foundation, the band is launching a nonprofit music school, which will offer music lessons on a sliding scale, based on what the families can afford, along with providing instruments and recording gear for the kids in the community.
“Thoughts become clothed in action,” Foreman says, “and suddenly at the end of a year, you can look back and say, ‘Well that’s what you believe, because that’s how you acted.’?”
Read more from Dave Herrera at bestoflasvegas.com. Contact him at dherrera@reviewjournal.com.