In the beginning1996 A.D.Switchfoot was not a big rock 'n' roll band. As part of the contemporary Christian music scene, or CCM, the San Diego group released three albums through the independent Christian music label Re:think Records: 1997's The Legend of Chin, 1999's New Way to be Human and 2000's Learning to Breathe. The musicians scored praise in the Christian music category from Billboard and Learning to Breathe was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Gospel Album. Four of Switchfoot's songs were on the soundtrack of the 2002 Mandy Moore film A Walk to Remember. The band was popular, but still within the confines of what is often called the "Christian music ghetto," a family-safe world where the music is supposed to appeal to youth groups and church-going soccer moms, and contains what seems like a prerequisite number of Jesus bombs.
But then, in 2003, Switchfoot's anthemic single, "Meant to Live," hit the airwaves. Columbia Records signed the band and the album, The Beautiful Letdown, catapulted it into that ever-blurring area between the CCM and mainstream music worlds, along with bands like P.O.D., Flyleaf, Mute Math, Anberlin and MxPx.
The transition wasn't easy. Switchfoot was criticized in some corners of the CCM world for crossing over. Some fans were angry that Switchfoot went mainstream, or "secular." Others worried they were being seduced by the proverbial Dark Side. But Switchfoot's frontman, Jon Foreman, admitted the band had never wanted to be categorized as CCM only. Their music was meant for everybody, criticisms be damned.
"I wrote a piece in The Huffington Post about how from the start we've played bars, churches, picnics, bar mitzvahs, whatever," Foreman says in an interview with the Independent. "For us [there wasn't] a huge delineation between playing a church and a bar. Ultimately what you have in both places are beautiful, wonderful, hurting people that are looking for answers."
Foreman's desire to talk about everything from faith to family to surfing is brought to the forefront in the new documentary, Fading West, which chronicles the band's 2012 world tour and will screen in Missoula at the start of their upcoming concert at the Dennison Theatre. In addition to candid moments with the band, there are appearances from heavy-hitters including Goo Goo Dolls' Johnny Rzeznik, Blink-182's Tom DeLonge, Foo Fighters' Chris Shiflett and Bad Religion's Greg Graffin. Switchfoot, it seems, has not only crossed over to the mainstream rock world, but has made some unlikely allies within it.
Graffin is a particularly unlikely guest given his critiques of religion in songs like "American Jesus" and "Voice of God is Government." During an interview Foreman conducted with Graffin for the film, Graffin says, "The goal of any artist is to find some universal sentiment in their art that appeals to everyone. What I hope is it provokes them to ask questions. Doesn't matter what genre you come from, all that matters is that it provokes something valuable to our society."
And it's that sentiment that Foreman says gives him a connection to Graffin and other mainstream artists.
"I grew up listening to Bad Religion," says Foreman, "and I know there's probably disagreements we would have. But on the other hand, there are many things we have in common. Those commonalities as songwriters are what draw me in, those broader questions: 'Why am I here? Why is there suffering? Why is God silent on this issue?' We ask these questions in our songs, and for me that's the beauty of it. The moment you are no longer allowed to ask questions, that's an unhealthy place to exist."
One of the hallmarks of Switchfoot's discography is wrestling with social issues, not just salvation issues. The musicians tackle media manipulation and the pitfalls of a consumerist culture in "Selling the News" and the isolationism of technology in "Lonely Nation." In "Adding to the Noise" the band has even encouraged people to turn off their music if it isn't adding anything to their lives, and "Restless" offers a "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" vibe. Foreman insists that the life of a Christian can be just as messy as anyone else's.
"It can be unhealthy when you surround yourself with people that think the exact same way you do," he says. "I need the challenge. I need to be involved in the real world. I don't feel like there's anything to be afraid of. The sooner the dialogue can be opened, then the less likely we're going to be in some form of religious war."
Switchfoot often still finds itself a fish out of water. One sequence in Fading West shows interviews with random fans at the Soundwave Festival in Sydney, Australia, saying they have never heard of Switchfoot. And since the vast majority of the bands at the festival are heavy metal, it is easy to wonder how the band got itself into that situation. But that tension of being in an environment where you aren't surrounded by screaming fans, where you have to prove yourself to the audience night-in and night-out, is something Switchfoot appears to thrives on.
"We bring the songs that we believe in to uncomfortable places," Foreman says at one point in the film, "because we feel like that's where they need to be heard."
Switchfoot plays a concert after a screening of Fading West at the Dennison Theatre Mon., Nov. 18, at 7 PM. $35–$45/$30–$40 advance. Discounts for groups of 10 or more.