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Jon Foreman Interview
Over the last eighteen months, this publication has exhibited plenty of enthusiasm for the various projects from the Switchfoot stable, as they wind up with Sony/Columbia and start their own label. The major label has issued two versions of The Best Yet and singer/writer Jon Foreman has released 4-EP's worth of songs based around the seasons, already gathered up into their own best-of collection, Limbs and Branches. Even without wondering dreamily about what the next Switchfoot album will be like, as it is being polished up for a Spring launch, there seemed plenty to chat with Foreman about.
The Switchfoot collection has been a good chance to reflect on the last decade, where the band grew from a small college band to a millions-selling and influential success story. Not for the first time, Foreman refused to equate success with numbers.
"I think it's all relative," he commented. "I'm just thankful that other people care about the songs that we're singing. I don't know that I think about it very often."
Somewhere in that growth curve, there had to be a point where it was as clear to the band as it was to the fans that Switchfoot had something special? Foreman looked back: "I remember specifically the first record we made was written and recorded primarily for myself and my best friends. It became evident when we did our first tour overseas that a lot of people were going to hear it. But I still had this concept that it was a passing part in my life; that I would go back to college, get a real job and the music would always be something I am passionate about, but might not make a living off of. Maybe somewhere around The Beautiful Letdown, I thought that we might be able to do this and pay rent."
He particularly remembered how walking out for a Christmas show at Madison Square Gardens brought home the impact that the band were making on the street.
There was certainly no form of letdown in their breakthrough disc. Creatively, it was a high point, with a set of songs that reached different generations and not only withstood repeated plays, but made the disc something of a prolonged enjoyable habit for its hearers. It pleased the accountants, too. Switchfoot had already cracked the half-million sales mark with their previous and second disc, Learning to Breathe, but Letdown was certified platinum, reaching number sixteen in the Billboard Top 200 and setting the momentum for their follow-up, Nothing is Sound, to debut in the American chart at number three. By the time that the following release, Oh! Gravity, had run its course, they had sold over four million albums.
The success was down to more than just some melodic, catchy indie rock. Foreman's lyrics consistently questioned his hearers' contentment quotient. He has regularly spelled out the pointlessness of consumerist, godless living, and urged listeners to look for something or someone who can put purpose back into life, from the constructively provocative "Dare You to Move" to "Lonely Nation," where he pointed out the new clothes dressing Emperor Western Lifestyle:
We are the target market,So would I be wrong to suggest that his solo Seasons EPs were more spiritual than Switchfoot? "I think that the solo EPs were easier to find the spiritual pulse on because of the form," Foreman suggested. "It can be a little bit of a hypocritical thing to dive into brokenness when you've got a vast Marshall half-stack behind you, a set of drums and a light show. It feels like the two don't quite mix, like oil and water; whereas I wanted this experience to be much more like playing songs for a friend in a front living room, much more confessional in nature."
A "really homespun" feel certainly permeated the work. Foreman painted the EP covers, while his wife did the artwork for the eventual compilation CD, and it is his neatly scribbled writing inside. The rough-hewn production had the casual air of Sufjan Stevens polished up, surely, by executive producer and creative mentor, Charlie Peacock? Not necessarily so. "I think the biggest influence on those EPs was Nick Drake and Sun Kil Moon." He then added, laughing, "The goal with the acoustic thing is to be intimate and yet juxtaposed against that, not put anyone to sleep, right?"
For those who have ears to hear it, and a nose for sniffing out exactly what piece of woodwind they are hearing at a given time, there was plenty of other instrumentation to keep those hairs twitching. "Bass clarinet or French horn or cello were employed in a lot of these songs to evoke a kind of scenery around the central story, so it's not distracting, but actually enhancing the imagination, drawing the landscape in a little bit." And he didn't even mention that exotic Japanese plinky-plonk instrument...
It is not every day that musicians simultaneously have band and solo compilations released. The difference between the track selections on the two projects was that, unlike with Switchfoot, the fans selected his acoustic material and maybe came up with different titles to those that Foreman would have chosen.
With the Switchfoot, Tim and Chad chose most of those songs with pretty much no label involvement. "That was really enjoyable, to have a walk down memory lane and have a look at all those songs. I think that the whole Limbs and Branches record was a bit of a consolation for the people who didn't understand the EP concept."
So it's more than just the track selection he is not happy with. "I did change "Your Love is Strong" a little bit I think I like the second version better but other than that I preferred the seasonal concept. It gave them (the songs) a little bit more of a definitive home."
The informal, living room approach with the solo material gave rise to some very personal songs, not least the tragic and moving "Somebody's Baby."
"That was inspired by a late night walk that I had down by the beach," Foreman recalled. "In the camp grounds there was this woman brushing her teeth in the middle of the night. I remember thinking about the determination that that took and the concept that 'these are teeth that I'm going to hold onto, they're worth keeping'. The storyline came from that moment."
With the compilations putting a cliff-hanger at the end of the Sony chapter of their story, a new page turns for the Lower Case People section. That is the record company where they are bosses as well as artists. Whether with the band or solo, Foreman has written songs about time being a thief, and the idea is a motif of his writing. Now that the buck stops with the band I wondered whether he would be able to manage his time any better.
"We've always said that every solution is a new set of problems for the band. Time will tell whether time is a thief or not. I think if anything, we have been exceptionally hard on ourselves, because when it's your dime, and you alone are the backing behind the music, you are much more aware of how great it's got to be. There's no excuses. If there's somebody else putting up the money, you think, 'Yeah, that's a great single spend a million dollars'. But when it's your money ..."
Time will also tell whether going independent will prove to be the best way of going forward, but the biggest clue will be the sound that they create for the new CD. It will also be interesting to see whether the acoustic project was a release valve for that side of Foreman's creativity, or whether it is becoming central enough to his sonic vision to get integrated into the whole band sound.
He ended our conversation by allowing us a vague but tantalising glimpse of what we might hear: "I want a lot more space in the songs than we've had before. So the juxtaposition will be the tonality as the landscape and the space. That's my concept: the tonality of the record."
Spring is not far away ...