Switchfoot's journey 'West'

Photo by Chris Burkard

I have been a Christian for 12 years. I have been writing for HM for seven of those years. There has never been a band that has made such an impact on the way I see a band being a band like Switchfoot. They are the one of the biggest and best examples of Christians being real. I have always had a great respect for what they do. They have made some of the best rock records in the last 10 years that cross over markets and genres. I am not saying their style has changed. Even if you are a metalhead, you still love you some Switchfoot. The band let a camera crew invade their personal lives as they went on a journey that every surfer and musician would dream of. They searched for the perfect wave and a new perspective on music from different cultures to create their new record and a documentary of their journey, titled Fading West. I had the chance to talk to drummer Chad Butler about the journey, the music, the business, family and the screenings of the documentary/concert tour they did earlier this winter.

HM: What inspired you guys to do this journey, to write this record with different sounds and influences across the world?
Butler: Well, having been a band for eight records – which is amazing to me – looking at a ninth album together, we really wanted to do something different. You can’t just sing the same old song. So we decided to face this dream that we’d had for years. Growing up as surfers in San Diego, we’ve always wanted to chase waves and songs around the world. We thought, “Well, why don’t we look for inspiration for our ninth record by planning a trip around the world to all of our favorite surf destinations, to put ourselves into new environments and new situations that hopefully would inspire new music?” And we decided to bring a film crew along to document it and see what would happen.

So how long did it take you guys to shoot and go across all these different places?
Well, we traveled for a year making the film. And at the end of the year, we brought home all these song ideas. We call them “seeds.” We brought them back to our studio in San Diego, Calif., and began working on the album, officially recording it. So a lot of these songs that came out of these experiences were in these really exotic locations, and we’re surrounded by different instrumentations and non-Western musical influence. Being in South Africa, the instrumentation and the sound of the voices are so different at home; and being in Indonesia and interacting with musicians that work in the temples there, they play these amazing bell-type instruments that just have a totally different scale in this Eastern music.

Just being inspired by all of that and then bringing that back to California, we really wanted to allow those songs that were born in these different countries to reflect the places, the people and the culture. So, what we did is we tied our hands behind our backs as far as guitars go. Switchfoot is known for electric guitar riffs. You know, many of our favorite songs are characterized by that. But on these we decided, “Let’s play the guitars off until the very last moment and allow the songs to live and breathe these different sounds and to allow the space of the landscapes that these songs were born in to come through, to allow the songs to reflect the places where they were inspired.”

It was really cool seeing you guys do that, especially in South Africa when you went back to the orphanage you went to in 2004. How was that experience for you guys? I know you guys were very impacted the last time you went. How was it going back there and seeing those kids again?
Yeah, it was incredible! We have so much to learn from these people. When we first visited there, my intention was to help them, to give something to these kids that have been dealt a really difficult hand in life – many of them orphaned by AIDS and living in difficult situations. But the joy in their eyes and the contagious optimism and hope that they have were something unexpected to me. So we return years later, seeing these kids thriving and live amazingly productive and creative lives as they have been growing up in this township that’s essentially a ghetto outside of Cape Town, seeing that they’re thriving and their music, dancing and creativity there are just contagious.

Yeah, I liked that you guys did that concert, and you took them and were like, “Hey, you should sing back-up during our set.” Was that planned when you got there or was that something that happened like a spur-of-the-moment thing?
Well, the song “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine” was written on our last journey to South Africa. That was on the record Nothing is Sound. So it seems fitting to return there years later to sing that song onstage, to have these kids come onstage and sing with us. That was one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip and the entire film. For me, I think that song holds more meaning even now than it did so many years ago.

With this journey, you show a lot of you guys going to different places and surfing. Have you guys surfed there before? How did you guys pick the spots that you wanted to go surf in and get inspiration to write this record? Was that hard or was it fairly easy to pick these different locations?
It was pretty easy. We had this opportunity to visit a couple of these places before — Australia, New Zealand — and surf there. Actually, a little bit in Indonesia as well. We had never surfed in South Africa before; that was just an amazing dream come true. And then to have these guest surfers show us around in Bali — Rob Machado, one of my heroes growing up and an incredible pro-surfer — to have him there and have him show us the spots was really exciting. And then same thing in New Zealand, to have Tom Curren, the three-time world champion, in the film and to collaborate music with him were a big honor. Yeah, I think that there’s this incredible connection between music and surfing that is not unique to our band. To get to show that a little bit by bringing these guys out for the film and to play music with them is…

Yeah, I mean I didn’t know that was your passion, that you guys were surfers. But I was like, “Wow! Switchfoot? They’re just a bunch of surfer guys!” I thought that was awesome that you were giving an inside-look to one of your biggest passions besides being Switchfoot.
Sure, absolutely. I think one of the goals of the film was to really open ourselves up offstage; to show a deeper look at ourselves and the dynamic that we have as a family essentially — you know, the “brotherhood of the band.” Being together this long is pretty unique. Not many bands last this long. We started off as teenagers driving around in a van, and now all of us are fathers trying to find balance in life. So, I think that was one of the themes that came out of the process that was an interesting challenge, because we never opened up our family lives in public before. We’ve always been very protective and very private of that side of us. Like you said earlier, there were some very personal moments that were painful and difficult to get through during that year of filming on the road. The choice of putting those scenes on the film was a difficult one. But I’m glad we did. I think there’s a theme to the film that is hopefully going to connect with people outside of the music and the surfing.

You are top-billboard artists that sold millions of records with every release since you guys have hit the mainstream. But then there’s also this – I can’t remember who was talking about it – but how you guys are still this small band. That was kind of an interesting look at your band.
Sure, yeah. I think that just goes along with the honesty. I just wanted to be transparent and let people see different aspects of who we are and what we go through, what we experience being Switchfoot, and also just being humans outside of the identity of the band — who we are as people, as brothers, as husbands and fathers — all of that. And yeah, I think there are definitely some humble moments in the film I think, and I enjoyed seeing that. We’ve always taken our music seriously, but we’ve never taken ourselves seriously.

Being that you guys were away for a year from your families and your kids, how difficult was that for you guys?
Well, the way we travel is spaced out. We like to be home every couple of weeks, so we don’t go for months at a time. We just go out for some days or two weeks and then come home for a while. So it’s a different lifestyle for sure from somebody who just works an office job, 9-to-5. To be a traveling musician definitely has a unique set of challenges. But I think there’s the extensionality that I’ve learned to balance the time spent away that when I am home, I try to be 100 percent present with my family and balance the other half of my life. So I feel like it’s something that I don’t have all figured out, but we’re learning and supporting each other as we go through these different seasons together as a band. We’re just trying to figure it out, you know?

For the tour, you guys are showing the film and playing songs. Are you playing the full record front-to-back, or are you guys just selecting like the top three or four tracks off the record?
This tour is ahead of the album release. The album release is Jan. 14. So what we decided to do is we put an EP of three new songs, and we’ve been playing those songs. Also, recently, we’re introducing a couple new ones that aren’t on the EP. So it’s been a fun tour to be able to debut some of these songs live that aren’t even out yet in the market. It’s been exciting for us, and I think other people enjoyed hearing some of the music.

Why did you guys decide to do more B-market towns and cities?
To be able to bring a surf film to places like North Dakota, and St. Louis and Chicago — places that surfing is not a big culture and there’s not a big surf community in these towns — being able to share our passion for things, it’s something that feels really unique. I think that in the coastal towns, people get these quite a bit. But it’s been really fun to bring surfing to the middle of the country.

Did you guys know when you were filming this and recording this record that the songs would blend together the way they did as the soundtrack to the film?
Yeah, we definitely knew that we would use songs from the new record in the film. And it kind of came full-circle. We traveled for inspiration for new songs and then go back home to record them for the album. And then the last step was to place those songs when they were finished back into the scenes in the film. And that was exciting, ‘cause you see songs come to life on screen. In Bali, for example, the song “Saltwater Heart” is written right there on the edge of the cliff looking out over the ocean on an acoustic guitar. And that scene with Jon and Tim riding. And then we go straight to a show that night in town in Tula, Indonesia, and you’re seeing the band work out the parts of the song live — keyboards, guitars, drums — and then perform it for the first time. And then you hear the recorded version of that song come to life in the film. And I think that that’s the theme of a song’s genesis. And the creative process was part of the goal as well to show more of the behind-the-scenes of how these songs come to be.

With today’s technology, you get to see a band in the studio recording a record. With such an amazing journey that you guys went on — documenting, and like you said, doing it full-circle — that was actually one of my favorite scenes in the movie: you guys playing in this little venue. And Jon, I think, was talking about how you hadn’t played a venue like that since you guys first started the band in high school.
Right. Yeah, I liked getting back to our roots in those moments and stripping away all the smoke and lights of the big rock show, and just having the music tell the story. And yeah, that is one of my favorite scenes in the film because that was genuinely happening in real life, and we happen to have the cameras rolling to capture that whole process. So I don’t think that would have happened necessarily if we were just writing a studio record in the traditional way. It definitely wouldn’t have been as exciting to watch.

It’s been 10 years since Beautiful Letdown has come out, and that was a really big release for you guys at the time. And now, 10 years later, you guys record this new record, Fading West. How does it feel to look back 10 years ago and look at those songs and then look at these songs now and how you guys have progressed as musicians and as people with this faith that you guys have? How does looking back feel?
That’s a good question. I think the goal for us when we started the band was to communicate hope through the songs. And our goal was to make honest music. And I think that goal remains the same today. But the opportunities that we’ve been given are something that I don’t take for granted. I mean, we’ve been able to live so many of our dreams — to travel the world and play music that we believe in every night — it’s a gift, and it’s something that I’m so thankful for. Really, the joy of playing music is the motivator that has kept our band going. Basically, each record we’ve come home from touring the world and work up the band and look at each other and ask, “What are we going to do next? What do we have to say? What’s worth leaving home for?” Those questions were no different for this album. And really, after eight records together, we took a good hard look in the mirror and said, “Is this worth it?” It’s a difficult process to go tour the world. It’s something that’s very fulfilling for us because I still think the goal of communicating hope and playing music we believe in is always there. That passion is still there. This record was a dream-come-true on many levels. The opportunity to make a film and the soundtrack for the film at the same time would not have happened 10 years ago. So it’s incredible. We’ve always been very open and honest about our faith. As a believer, I think it’s an amazing opportunity to be singing songs that are communicating truth and hope in a way that acknowledges the other side: the pain and the joy, the doubt and the faith, wrestling together. We don’t have life figured out. We’re trying to use songs as vehicles to explore the world together and to open up conversations and dialogues with our audience about deeper things. In the film, I think that that’s addressed as well when Jon talks about C.S. Lewis saying that fiction has a way of getting past the watchful dragons of religion. And I think that approach that we’ve always taken to communicating about these deeper spiritual truths is within the heart. And I think these songs give you a license to do that – talk about things that are very personal and almost uncomfortable in everyday conversations. But in the context of a song, you have the freedom.

You guys have been able to have a Christian market presence and a secular market presence at the same time. And I think that C.S. Lewis quote really encapsulates your heart. As a band, you guys are able to be in both markets and have both fans: those that are believers, as well as those that don’t believe but are encouraged by “Dare You to Move” and all the other songs that you guys have written that helped people get through.
I appreciate all that. I think it’s nothing that we have masterminded in any way. I think we just tried to be true to who we are in our unique place in the world. I think that there are so many bands out there doing very different things than us that I applaud, that I think are doing amazing work. There are bands that are communicating their faith in very unique ways. On both sides, I see bands within the Church and bands outside the Church that are doing things that are changing culture and ministering to people where they’re at. I’m just grateful that we have our unique faith and ways to go about doing what we do.

How has fatherhood for you guys shaped your faith and shaped your writing a record this time? Because in the movie, we see that your children actually were a part of this record singing back-up vocals.
(Laughs) Yeah, that was amazing! I think as we were making the film and making the decisions to keep certain scenes in the film, we became more comfortable opening up that door to our family life. And that scene at the end of the film when my kids are coming to the studio and singing the song “Who We Are” was something that we wouldn’t have done a year prior. I think that we’re learning to be more comfortable and open about that aspect of our life. When we started this band, I never dreamed that I would be a dad and have three kids, and be a touring musician in a rock band. So, this is new territory; this is beyond what I thought my life would look like at this point. And I hope that by opening up this tension of finding balance as fathers and musicians at the same time, that will help someone else. I hope that this transparency somehow sheds light on the situation and is able to encourage someone else who might be going through something similar. I’m not speaking specifically about musicians as family men, but anyone trying to find balance in their work life and home life, you know?

The movie ends with your Switchfoot Bro-Am. I actually had no idea that you guys did this. In the movie I think it said that it was your eighth one that you guys have done?
Yeah, and actually, we’re up on our 10th next year. This 2014 will be our 10th year.

Can you tell me how that whole idea came about, and why you guys do the Bro-Am, like what the purpose is?
The Switchfoot Bro-Am is my favorite day of the year. It combines music and surfing for the benefit of homeless kids in San Diego. It’s an incredible community event where people come out and donate their time to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s a wonderful day where we have a music festival on the beach. We’ve had everybody from Jason Mraz, and Jon Rzeznik from the Goo Goo Dolls, and Chris Shiflett from Foo Fighters and Young the Giant – all kinds of bands perform. And everyone’s donating their time to raise awareness and funds for the kids that are living on the street. … I think to see these kids being loved for a day, given a chance to pick up a guitar and learn some chords or grab a surfboard and ride a wave for the first time; they’re opportunities that they don’t get afforded very often. And the organization, Switchfoot Bro-Am Foundation, helps kids in our local area and also nationwide. We’ve been given so much growing up in San Diego and had so much support from the community. It is a privilege to be able to give back. And the events become so much bigger than Switchfoot. It’s really amazing to see people fly in from all over the world, as far away as Japan, Australia and Brazil, just to be a part of the event.

Switchfoot was posted on January 6, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .