I think when you dig to the heart of anything beautiful, you end up hitting the hard reality of paradox: two seemingly opposed ends that somehow make up a whole truth.
You can’t love until you let go, and you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, and you grow from pain – that kind of stuff. Clichés get this idea across, but I feel it most clearly when I think about listening to a song my brother had written play over the slideshow during my grandparents’ funeral, or when I remember how loved I felt when my friend made fun of the kid who’d been making fun of me.
Tension and paradox are prerequisites for beauty.
Maybe this is old wisdom, but in a time that seems more divided than any I’ve lived through, it feels particularly relevant. More than ever, I want to believe that opposites can be reconciled.
Switchfoot is particularly good at holding onto this kind of hope.
The band has always had an inclination toward contradiction. Their name suggests it; “switchfoot” is a surf term that means to take a new stance facing the opposite direction. Their genre begs it; they’re a Christian band, but, actually, they’re not. Their music thrives on it; arguably their biggest hit, “Dare You to Move” (from the paradoxically titled Beautiful Letdown), stretches with tension:
Between who you are and who you could be
Between how it is and how it should be
So it’s unsurprising that their newest album, interrobang, is built on the same stuff. Named after a non-standard punctuation mark (‽) that indicates “a question expressed in an exclamatory manner,” the 11-track record plays out as a dichotomy between Switchfoot’s past and present.
About half of the tracks on the record were pulled from the archives of unreleased songs.
Written over the last decade and a half, they resurfaced as the band stumbled on old file drives cleaning out their studio. The other half of the songs were created over the last year.
Sonically, the songs feel strangely cohesive. That’s not to say that they feel cookie-cutter – the opposite, actually. There’s a consistent eccentricity to the work, some common thread that ties the group’s garage-band eagerness on The Legend of Chin with a new willingness to take risks.
Chromatic chord walk-ups abound, moody strings add interesting layers of dark ambience, and distorted guitars wink in and out, occasionally shrouded in effects that evoke producer Tony Berg’s recent work with Phoebe Bridgers. Jon Foreman’s distinctive rasp brings a consistent earnestness to every track – even, albeit more softly, on “wolves,” which is especially captivating because the vocal take was recorded years ago on a laptop in Berlin.
The bottom line is that this feels like Switchfoot at its most musically creative, and maybe the most “Switchfoot” that Switchfoot has been in years.
Lyrically, the dichotomy between the old and the new tracks is more obvious, if only because many of the newer songs hold clear markers of 2020’s mayhem:
But there’s no one but myself to blame lately
I’m staring and despairing on the screen
Turning everything that’s real into a meme
But the feeds that I read don’t feed me what I need
“if i were you” is even more time-specific, with a biting opening verse that announces:
‘Cause we bicker over Listerine
With Twitter as our liturgy
What a crummy legacy
That song is one of the standouts from the record; it’s got a good music video, for one thing, and it’s buoyed by a sly sense of fun, for another, even as it berates our cultural appetite for division.
And really, that’s the formula that exemplifies the core beauty of Switchfoot: a raucous, hopeful energy balanced against a desperation for things to be better. A paradox.
As Jon Foreman sings on “the hard way”, “there’s no beauty without pain.”
In 2021, that’s a remarkably hopeful statement. On interrobang, it’s a return to a tension that works.
For more of the story behind interrobang, check out our interview with Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman below.
Jon! Thanks for taking the time to talk through interrobang with us. So, I’ve heard this album represents a new direction for Switchfoot. Do you feel like that’s true?
Jon Foreman: Yeah, I do feel like this is a distinct different approach to an album. From a songwriting perspective, it’s really interesting, because some of these songs are 15 years old. Maybe, instead of being a deliberately different approach to songwriting, I think it’s a deliberately different approach to what we show the world of ourselves.
Why did you decide to dig into the archives?
Basically, we had a lot of time at home this year. We were cleaning different parts of the studio and we’d stumble across a hard drive, and there’s just hundreds of songs that we had written, recorded, forgotten about.
It’s interesting because songs have a way of being autonomous, almost; they can have their own independent story that changes. You hear a song differently during quarantine than you do when you’re at the beach or something. So, as we were picking songs that belonged on the record, the criteria was, what are the songs that represent the feelings that we have, the tension that we feel?
And with that in mind, I think some of these songs that we found on hard drives felt much more appropriate now than they did even when we wrote them.
Did you rewrite them as you were discovering them? Or did you leave them pretty much in place?
Some of them we would tweak with. But the song that was written the earliest on the record was “wolves”. It was written the first time I ever went to Berlin, which has got to be 15 years ago, and I sang the vocal that night, 3AM in the morning, into my laptop. And that is the vocal that we used.
Yeah. It feels like you have the chance to resurrect the ghost, or have this ghost of who you were singing into the present. It felt like that was the right approach for that song.
But yeah, every song was different. Some songs were written right there in the studio. Of course, you’re going to be inspired. But I think we had a really expansive understanding of what we wanted to accomplish on this album. And we wanted to reach in every direction – past, present, future.
What did you want to accomplish on this album? What was the goal?
Originally, the goal was education. We wanted to arrive at a new place that we had never been before musically. We wanted a producer that would challenge us. We wanted to learn.
I think it’s crazy, but 12 albums in, I still love music. I still have a passion for songs. I love the process. I love the joy of uncovering a new chord that you’ve never used in a song before. And so with Tony, he has that same passion and drive. Also, I think he’s one of the few people in the world who’s willing to fight with us and just argue and get it right.
(Editor’s note: “Tony” is Tony Berg, LA-based producer with recent credits including Andrew Bird and Phoebe Bridgers.)
The second goal was to make an album that’s completely unique to ourselves – to make the record that no one else could possibly make. We didn’t want to sound like anything on any Spotify playlist, where you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that song a million times in different ways.”
And then as it developed, I think the third goal was to have an album that lyrically represented the dichotomy of our times. I think in every way, you have these we-they differences. I’ve never lived through a moment with more tension politically, racially, economically.
Maybe it’s just going to continue to escalate in this way. But I wanted to respond to all of these binary choices that are thrust before us every day, and to basically sing into that me-thou relationship. And that’s what frames the album.
What do you think is the response– as a person and as a songwriter – to that “we-they” dichotomy?
Well, I think embrace is the only correct response.
I think you can brace or embrace in any situation. The brace is some form of denial, some form of an attempt to deny the truth or the humanity of the other experience. But the embrace is to say, no, I completely disagree with you, but let’s figure out life together. And I think that that was the story of the album.
Tony’s coming from a totally different place in life. He’s an older guy that is very convicted in his ways. His belief system is totally different than mine. And yet, I wanted to create something beautiful with him.
That felt like it was the story of the album. Two people totally disagreeing, creating something beautiful. And that’s my hope for America and the world, that unity would not mean some homogenous people group where everyone looks and thinks and believes the same. But diversity exemplified within love and respect.
I think the idea of maintaining relationship as opposed to cutting off is key to that.
Totally. And coming to the table knowing that you have something to learn and something to offer.
This is also interesting in the context of the album. You’re educating yourselves, and to educate yourself, you’re going back to the old you.
Yeah, and it’s wild because there are things that old you knew better than you know now. In the same way that you’re approaching someone who disagrees with you, you’re approaching your older self with that same grace and compassion.
You’re saying, “Oh, this guy’s a moron, but he does have a couple things right.”
It’s a great mindset to bring that empathy for yourself to your current relationships.
Yeah. And I do think that there is something about that that is really necessary. If you enter into a conversation knowing that in five years, you will look back on yourself now and think of all the things that you were an idiot about, then maybe you’ll have the humility to enter into a conversation and think, “Maybe I could learn something here.”
As you look back on songs that are 15 years old and then at the songs you’ve written in the last year, what do you feel like are the biggest ways you’ve changed as a songwriter?
It’s interesting. My first thought is I haven’t really changed as a writer. I think I’m still just responding to the world around me. I think the world around me has changed dramatically.
I’m thinking back to that night in Berlin writing that song. I’m married, but I don’t have any kids. All I have is time and I’m ready to make a bunch of mistakes. Nowadays, time is this precious commodity that I can never find. And so songwriting becomes something that I do almost like a luxury.
I know it’s an occupation, but it’s almost like surfing, where when you’re young, you’re like, “Yeah, I go on surf trips. My life is revolving around this thing that I enjoy.”
And as you get older, songwriting becomes that thing where I crave it. I cannot wait to spend some time and write songs. So I think I have a different appreciation for the vehicle that it is, that it can move me to places that I couldn’t get to any other way.
Where do you hope to go as a songwriter? I mean, Switchfoot’s 12 albums in. Where are you guys hoping to go as a band in the future? What is even left?
Yeah, it’s funny… most bands break up because they hate each other. Or they’re just together for the money. They still hate each other. We love each other. Genuinely.
Somehow these guys have been patient enough to stick with me. I’m honored to call them friends, let alone bandmates. These are some of the most incredible people I know. And so I don’t know… that’s a rare thing. It’s almost like every album, we break up, sit in a room, and say, “Okay, do we want to keep doing it? All hands up if we want to.”
And every time, we just think, man, this is such a gift to be able to express feelings that we couldn’t really talk about any other way. And even this past year, I feel like that’s been reemphasized.
Music is a glue for society. It is a rare place where two people from completely different backgrounds – who look different, who dress different, who believe different, who vote different – will, fist in the air, sing the same song. And this past year, that was a big, intentional moment for us as a band, where we thought: live music and people attending sports are removed. When that happened, I feel like you see society just crumble, and in crazy ways.
And I feel like there’s got to be a correlation. I’m not saying that to self aggrandize the silliness of playing rock and roll. But just to say that there’s something beautiful about play. About playing music, about playing sports…
I think the world needs those shared experiences.
Yes. And so that was our goal: hey, we can’t even be in the same room, but let’s bring people together. That was a big, intentional moment for us, was to put together those live streams. We did all these live streams.
And that idea became a goal for us as a band. Moving forward, we felt like, okay, we have a job description, even if we can’t play shows. Let’s do that. So I don’t know what the future would hold for albums, but I do think that we had a specific role this year.
So, if music is a shared context for people to come together, what is the core of Switchfoot that draws people together? I think this is interesting in the context of this album, because this album is new stuff, and then it’s the 13-year-old stuff, too. But it’s all Switchfoot.
So what is that core – that thing people have been drawn to over those years?
I do think there’s an honesty that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
I think at some point, we just came to the conclusion we’re going to be ourselves, and it doesn’t really matter if people understand that or not. We have to be true to that. I think that we’ve been so fortunate to have this incredible bunch of people that want to be themselves with us.
Our first show back, we played a show on the East Coast, and we got pumped by the crowd, because somebody put signs all over without us or our crew knowing. So on the last song, everyone in the crowd held up these signs that said, “Together Now, 2021.”
It looked like a tattoo. It was beautiful. And it felt like it was this beautiful moment where thousands of these signs are in the air and you’re thinking that it is a community.
And I guess I don’t know where that came from. That’s not us. You can’t say, we’re going to make community. It just happens.
Yeah. That’s special, for sure. All right. Last question. What’s your best/favorite advice for other songwriters?
The best advice I’ve received? This is my big name drop moment. I got a chance to meet Bono once…
Well, whatever he says is going to sound good.
It sounds amazing, right?
So, the long story is I snuck into a U2 show in London years ago, when I was 20 or something. And Bono was coming to Nashville and I knew that I might meet him. So I borrowed money from my mom because I didn’t have any money. I was living at home. I gave Bono $40 and said, “Hey, that’s for sneaking into your show.”
What event was that? How did you meet him?
It was this event where he was promoting the ONE Campaign and DATA and those things – trying to raise awareness for the AIDS crisis in Africa. It was that in Nashville, for songwriters and people in that community. And I was the friend of a friend, the plus one, that somehow got in… But anyways, he gave me my $40 back. He was like, “I feel well compensated. Here’s your money back.”
And then, on songwriting – the advice he gave me was, “God doesn’t need a lawyer. Your job is to be honest.”
And I felt like that was good advice.
I think that if I were to add to it, with a much less impressive accent, I would say something along the lines of – you should find your worth outside of accolades, outside of whatever numbers might be affiliated with the song, with ticket sales or Spotify plays, or if anyone still sells records or CDs, with those things.
Those are all metrics that people determine success by. But those things aren’t it.
I just heard a song that floored me… It’s a song that’s coming out this fall by my friend, Noah Gundersen. And it was one those things where I heard it and I was like, oh my gosh, this is it. I have no idea if that song is going to be a hit or whatever it is. But that song moved me.
And for any songwriter out there, I think that’s got to be the metric of your success: Does the song move you? You’re the only person in the room when you write the song. Don’t second guess what somebody else is going to say.
It’s like Dolly Parton says: “If you’re not crying, why sing it?”
Does the emotion change over time?
Yeah. Yeah. But it’s funny because I don’t want to write a song when I write a song. I want to stop time. I want to see people levitate. I want to see their limbs explode. I want to see people fall in love and start floating in the air and having families. I want it to change the atmosphere of the room. I don’t know.
As you finish the song, you think, “Oh my gosh, this one might work.”
They’re going to levitate on this one.
Yeah. And it hasn’t happened yet, but then you’re like, okay, maybe we’ll go back, we’ll write another one.
I would also say, to enunciate one other theory I have: In your head, you have the critic and the child. And the critic is always nitpicking and saying, “Oh, that sounds like the Beatles. That sucks. That’s a horrible topic for a song.”
And the child is full of this wide-eyed wonder that thinks, “Let’s write a song about surfboards. Oh my gosh! Peanut butter and jelly is awesome. Let’s write a song about it!”
And I think that you have to be able to present yourself to both of them as you’re writing the song. That conversation is where good songs come from.
I feel like that’s just another dichotomy – one of those tensions that leads to beauty.
Yeah. You don’t have guitar strings vibrating without tension. You don’t have pianos without tension. Drums need tension.
We hate it. I hate tension. But the only thing that’s going to solve the tension, I feel, is death. And so let’s play music on the strings while we got them.