Interview: Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman on God, surfing, and life in front of the camera

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California rock band Switchfoot, led by Jon Forman (second from left), will screen a documentary about making the album, Fading West, before playing it live at the Paramount on Friday. California rock band Switchfoot, led by Jon Forman (second from left), will screen a documentary about making the album, Fading West, before playing it live at the Paramount on Friday.

Over the last 17 years, Jon Foreman has cemented his status as one of his generation’s most insightful lyricists and dynamic rock singers. He has released four solo EPs, two albums with the rockgrass band Fiction Family—his side project with Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins—and has achieved worldwide fame for fronting the Christian rock group Switchfoot. Foreman spoke to C-VILLE Weekly by phone recently about the band’s new surfing-meets-rock ‘n’ roll-meets-faith documentary film, Fading West, which will be screened at the start of the band’s concert on October 18 at The Paramount Theater.

C-VILLE Weekly: Talk about the idea behind Fading West and how you decided to do the EP, the forthcoming album, and the documentary all at once. 

Jon Foreman: This whole thing has evolved over the years. The concept was, “How can we tell a story that’s bigger than a three-and-a-half-minute rock song?” None of us are good actors, so the thought became, “Well, maybe we can make a documentary.” We’ve loved surfing since the beginning and we love surf films, and I feel like it’s a really good format to tell a story about a journey. That’s kind of what we are on as a band—traveling around on the road, life is unfolding, and you’re making your own decisions, but you’re also definitely being influenced by what’s happening around you. We felt like it would be an appropriate place to begin, being in the ocean, and on stage.

What was it like going through the documentary experience, not only recording everything and putting all that footage together, but also finding a narrative? Was there anything that surprised you?

That was actually an incredibly revealing aspect, not only about the documentary, but also about ourselves in general. The disturbing realization is that there is not one plot, but actually there are thousands of plots. Every film is only telling a few stories at a time, and the hardest part of making this film for us was cutting the thousands of other stories, and hundreds and hundreds of hours of film that are on the cutting room floor at the end of this whole process.

That was probably the most difficult part, but I think it’s similar to making a record. We probably wrote close to a hundred songs for this project, but you [will] only hear 10 or 11 [on their upcoming album, Fading West, due in January], so I think with that we kind of adopted the iceberg principle. A friend of mine told me that Hemingway had this thought that all art—the good stuff at least—has this immense depth underneath the water that you don’t actually see. It’s like an iceberg, you see the tip of it but not the rest of it, so that’s kind of been our mantra not only for the film, but for the music that accompanies it as well.

With regard to all the other songs that are not going to be on the album, what happens with those? Do you think that writing those other songs informed the songs that did make it onto the album?

Yeah, absolutely. I think everything informs everything. Every experience you have in this life is a unique experience that informs the rest of your existence. And for us, I don’t view any song that doesn’t make it on a record, per se, as a failure. I think you have to give yourself the ability to try and take risks and know that not everything is going to be great. I’ve always thought that to write a song you have to have two voices: the critic and the child. You have to love the child even if they say and do stupid things, and not everything that voice says or does is going to be heard, but I think you have to allow yourself room to fail. So will those songs be heard on anything? Maybe someday, but I’m O.K. with it if we just did it for ourselves and for God and no one else needs to hear it. That’s fine too.

Was there ever a point where this project could have ended up being just a film or just an album, or was it always going to be both from the start?

Well, it was kind of a plan that unfolds as it goes, you know? That’s the thing about a record or a documentary. We’ve made records before that we got halfway through experiencing and decided it would be better to start from scratch for whatever reason. Let’s start over. So with the documentary, we’d never really done that before but it was the same thing, where if the storylines don’t feel compelling and nothing’s really happening, then at some point you have to ask yourself the question: “Is this a tale that’s worth telling?” So I think we went into this journey not knowing whether either the record or the movie would be anything at the end of it, but hoping that we’d capture something that would be worth revealing to the rest of the world.

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