If I won a Grammy Award, I think I'd display it prominently. Not Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, the Christian rock band that won music's top prize earlier this year for its last album, Hello Hurricane. When we asked Foreman where he'd put his statuette, he had to think about it … until finally revealing that it was "in a box in the corner."
Foreman says that he and his bandmates are still making music for the same reasons they started making it in the first place: They simply love it.
That's evident on their new album, Vice Verses (lowercase people/Atlantic), which releases today. We recently chatted with Foreman about that Grammy, the new record, songwriting, and what "making a living" really means.
This is the first time we've talked since you guys won a Grammy. Congratulations!
Thank you. It was really interesting. Winning the Grammy kind of cemented everything that I really thought—the idea that there's no award that can be greater than the reward of simply playing music night after night. It's an honor to win it, but hearing somebody say that a song changed their life is much more encouraging.
So where is your Grammy now?
It's in the studio somewhere in a box, I think.
It's in a box? Not up on a shelf prominently displayed?
No. I mean, we're thankful for it. But what do you do? I can almost give it to my parents and leave it at their house probably better than putting it somewhere around mine.
I read your essay in the Huff Post. When did the definition of "making a living" change from something financial to something less tangible for you?
I don't know that it's ever changed for me. Being in Switchfoot, we never expected actually to make money for music. That was never the point. And so for me, to be able to do what I love with my life is the definition of making a living. Existence has to be more than about a bank account and a full stomach.
So even as teenagers, you guys didn't say, "Hey, won't it be cool when we become big rock stars someday?"
When you guys started hitting it really big in the mid-2000s and making good money, did that change things at all?
It was a huge surprise that we would actually pay rent with a song. In one way it didn't change anything; we were still night after night playing the same songs we'd been playing for years. But in other ways it changed a lot of things. There were actually people coming to the shows. So, the financial aspect becomes an element of, well, how do you deal with what the world would define as success? Do you let that dictate your own definition? Do you continue to try and uphold the things that you believe in?
Fame and money brings temptation along with that. Have you wrestled with that?
No, no. We're all super human.
Of course we have. But the misunderstanding is the idea that somehow you're afforded more temptation with what the world defines as success. I don't think that that's true. I think it's just different flavors. This is America. There's tons of different flavors of anything you want. You've got choices. If you want to sell out, there's always a million ways to do that. You want to give up, there's a million ways to do it. I think the danger is thinking that because it's under the category of religion or it's within the walls of a church that somehow it's safe. I don't think that that's ever the case. I think that more things have been done in the name of religion that have been miles away from what Christ would have wanted outside the walls. All to say, absolutely, there's a million ways to fall, but a lot of them are inside the church as well.
You guys have been doing this for more than fifteen years. Are you getting tired?
Man, I love what I do. I've got another Fiction Family record already recorded and ready to put out. And I've got another 50 or 60 songs I'm going to whittle down for some form of a solo project. I'm not tired. I love what I do, and it gives me a lot of energy to be able to sing along with people that believe these songs.
I love the play on words in the new album title, Vice Verses. In the press release, you say it's a record of tension and release, an attempt to describe the polarity of the human experience, the sunlight and the shadow. But haven't you been saying that about the last few albums? Haven't you been writing about life's tensions all along?
Well, Hello Hurricane (2009) was about leaning directly into the storm, trying to rise above the situation that we had been in, the situation our country had been in. It wasn't really singing about the darkness, but singing through the darkness. Vice Verses is an attempt to expand on that—lyrically, musically, in every way. Musically, it's pushing the boundaries of what we've done as Switchfoot, whether it's the song "Selling the News" or lyrically trying to delve a little deeper into the darks, and also into the lights as well.
Is Vice Verses darker or lighter than Hello Hurricane?
Really? When Hello Hurricane was released, you said it had followed the four toughest years of you life.
Yeah. Hello Hurricane gave us the platform to be able to talk about these issues. We had a stable environment that had given us newfound freedom to be able to create, to have more understanding of what we can do and where we would reach for those colors. That's been really good. I don't think that we could have made Vice Verses without first doing Hello Hurricane. That they definitely build on top of each other.
Two years ago, you said, "The past four years of my life have been among the darkest times I've ever been through." You wouldn't elaborate on the details at the time. Now that some times has passed, can you?
My private life is going to still stay private. But the last two years have been much better. I've had an amazing experience. Joy is not always there for us, and it is certainly something that I'm looking for a lot in songs, sometimes elsewhere. But I'm always thankful for it when it arrives.
Does that mean you're trying to be more intentional about finding joy?
Yeah. That could be the first track of the new record ("Afterlife"). So often, I see people thinking that tomorrow or heaven will be this place where things begin to turn around. But what if the kingdom of heaven is here at hand? What if it begins with us today? What if the kingdom of heaven is within you? That's not really talked about.
In that song, you write, "Why would I wait till I die to come alive?" What does that look like in your life? What does it mean to intentionally pursue the kingdom now?
Man, I am forever a student in these matters. But for me, it comes down to thought life lived out through actions. Even today, I've been thinking about the bipolar nature of our partisan politics that paralyze our nation. I feel like the church is in the same position—that we love the politicians that think and act and look like we do, and everyone else we're trying to tolerate, at best. For me, it comes down to love—the idea that if you say you love America, let's start by loving Americans. If you say you love the church and yet you're gossiping and trash talking about the church next door, how can that be the gospel of light? How can that be something that I want to be a part of? We're guilty of all these things, but they begin in the heart.
The new song "Selling the News" is almost your first venture into rap. How would you describe it?
I've always loved the Dylan songs and Johnny Cash tunes that where spoken word is an integral part of the song, and so this is my first venture into that.
It's a bit of an angry song. You've written a few of those over the years.
The beauty of song is that you can tell the truth, and sometimes you get fed up with the way it is. If you're well adjusted to injustice, then it's time to become maladjusted. One of the beautiful things about art of any kind is that it's a great outlet to vent these frustrations and maybe try and change things for the better.
In the old days, whether it was Dylan or Lennon or Joan Baez, they called them protest songs. Is this the same type of thing today?
Bob Dylan didn't like the term "protest songs." But yeah, there is something to be said for standing up and saying, "This isn't correct. This isn't right. This isn't true. This isn't beautiful. This isn't honoring to your fellow man." And I don't have any other way to express these things in an eloquent way, so it's going to come out in song.
You express yourself very eloquently in your songs. You're such a good lyricist. Where does that come from? Are you a voracious reader?
I like reading. It allows me into other worlds. I don't feel like my lyricism really has much to do with me. I'm convinced that most of my best stuff is the stuff that I don't really see my fingerprints on. I think that when you love what you do, you become better at it. If you love gardening, you begin to have a relationship with the plants, as funny as that sounds, and you're truly invested in them. Time. Energy. Money. Water. Day after day. These songs feel like a part of me. And there's another part of it that has nothing to do with me. The sunshine hopefully comes and the plants hopefully grow. That it really isn't dependent on me at all, when you look at it that way.
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