The guys in Switchfoot have seen a lot of the world-and all they want is to get back to North County.
The Encinitas-based foursome has paid its dues. They've frozen their asses off in Canada, slept on the mean streets of London to save money to surf Biaritz, played from Alaska to Hawaii, dined with Toad the Wet Sprocket in Philly and seen more of the U.S. through a bus window than John Madden.
With the release of their fourth album, The Beautiful Letdown , current airtime on national radio, a new spot on major label Columbia Records and their first headlining tour, the band may have the opportunity to move to a market a little larger than Carlsbad.
Not so fast , says frontman Jon Foreman.
"I definitely want to stay in North County," he says. "I've seen a lot of the country and the world, and it's like, for me, North County's it. There are a lot of beautiful places out there, but none of them feel like home."
After seven years of incessant touring (100-150 shows a year), Foreman's attitude is fresh and unjaded, as it should be. The band was signed to Columbia last summer; their album Learning to Breathe was nominated for a 2001 Grammy and Beautiful Letdown debuted at No. 85 on Billboard's Top 200.
In other words, things are moving up.
The group is in the throes of its first headlining national tour-and it's selling out shows across the country. Foreman credits the Internet, devoted fans, national airplay and their four songs on the soundtrack to the film, A Walk to Remember (which also includes a duet between Foreman and the film's star, pop singer Mandy Moore). He's refreshingly realistic about recent successes and national exposure.
"There are a lot of easier jobs out there that pay a whole lot better," he says. "If we weren't passionate about the music we wouldn't be here. I think sometimes the reason we're still a band... I feel humbled to have these other guys on board, because it's a very stable crew. They've got good heads on their shoulders. There are a lot of things that come your way out on the road and if you don't have that unity, that common ground, it can fall apart."
The heads on those other shoulders-Foreman's brother Tim on bass, Chad Butler on drums and Jerome Fontamillas on keyboard-have been around long enough to earn the "stable" descriptive. Butler's been with Switchfoot from the beginning and Fontamilla, an old friend, joined the group two years ago.
Tim and Jon have played together for longer than they can remember.
"If you count the Led Zeppelin cover band," Jon recounts, "this is the fourth or fifth band we've played in together."
He describes Beautiful Letdown as both a new journey and the continuation of his exploration of the world through music-a personal diary of sorts.
"We're dealing with questions of why we're here and what we're doing on the planet," he explains. "Life's short and we're just trying to figure it out."
An erudite lyricist, Foreman cites names from T.S. Eliot to Søren Kierkegaard in explaining influences on his material. He and his brother collaborated for the first time on Beautiful Letdown. The album's 11 songs treat everything from the loss of innocence to the modern need for self-action; and they do it with a catchy chord selection, pop hooks and a few twists.
"This is Your Life," a track with a Radiohead feel, is a sign of the band's evolution and a probable winner for radio programmers looking for the right mesh of pop and electronica.
"Gone," the album's most viable tune in terms of hook-appeal, shows how the band's Christian roots are exposed in shadows and glimpses without being overplayed. The song details those things already lost in the life of the 26-year-old songwriter-relationships, school, innocence-but ends with the line, "Hey Bono/ I'm glad you asked/ Life is still worth living/ life is more than we are."
That final sentiment-the realization of hope and beauty in the starkness of reality-is typical of Foreman, who just might be the nicest guy in rock 'n' roll. For instance, when the band played the Pontiac Club in Phillie, the weather was raw. Visible-breath cold air and slushy streets-a scene far removed from Carlsbad-didn't stop fans from filling the club. More than 100 waiting in line were turned away. Hearing the bad news, Foreman grabbed an acoustic guitar, braved the Northeastern cold and played a street-side set for the frustrated faithful.
"It definitely puts you in the good-guy position," he says of the episode. "The people in line started getting into it, cheering and clapping, and then people across the street joined in. Cars were beeping. It was pretty incredible. I should have put a hat out and we could have eaten better that night."
The band takes a swing through Texas and the Southwest before finishing the current tour in April. They're ready to be back in North County, to be off the bus, to be on the water. Two things Foreman says the group has learned in seven years of hard touring and decades of musical experimentation.
No. 1: there aren't too many places to surf across the U.S.
And No. 2: Plant and Page are best left doing their own songs.