|photo by Chris Burkard|
A shorter version of my interview originally appeared in the February/March issue of Riverside Magazine. See it here: riversidethemag.com/issues/pdfs/feb_mar_14.pdf
For Switchfoot, life is all about the journey. With that in mind, the San Diego-based alternative rock band embarked on the most ambitious adventure of its nearly two-decade career.
Seeking fresh inspiration, the five musicians routed a 2012 concert trek around some of the world’s best surf breaks in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Bali. They gave the big waves a spin, visited locals and documented everything on camera. Champion pro boarders Tom Curren and Rob Machado even joined them in certain locales.
The results are documented in absorbing new film “Fading West” and the accompanying album. To help build anticipation, the movie served as opening act during Switchfoot’s acoustic tour last fall.
“It worked out great and was really successful,” said guitarist and former Riverside resident Drew Shirley, in a recent phone interview.
“That was our way to do a movie premiere event in every city, get people connected to the movie personally and be there to see the reaction. We answered questions and [helped them] understand where we’re coming from.”
During some scenes, lead singer/guitarist Jon Foreman lays everything on the line emotionally.
“The fans feel they know us more now because we’ve revealed the inner workings of our lives on the road and our lives as a band,” explained Shirley, 39. “They really listen with their hearts to our songs, so it’s cool to be able to share that.”
Switchfoot was started by Foreman, bassist brother Tim and drummer Chad Butler in 1996. The guys (who competed in national surfing contests) released three indie albums, made major inroads at Christian rock radio and added keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas in 2000.
Major label breakthrough “The Beautiful Letdown” arrived three years later and went double platinum. Since then, the quintet has amassed another gold record, eight top 20 alternative radio hits (plus several adult and Christian rock charters), a Grammy and 11 Dove Awards.
Shirley joined Switchfoot in 2005. Before that, he played in All Together Separate. The Dove-nominated Christian funk/rock group from Riverside was comprised of fellow Cal Baptist students during the late ‘90s/early ‘00s.
The Puerto Rico-born guitarist studied fine arts and music at the university.
“I was real involved in plays and drama,” recalled Shirley. “I was sort of a drama nerd. Had a great experience there, just learning to find my identity.”
Some of his fondest Riverside memories include going to Mt. Rubidoux, the Old Spaghetti Factory downtown, hanging out and performing live with ATS at the neighboring Coffee Depot (which closed in 2000) on Mission Inn Avenue.
“I lived in a rented early 1900s house in the orange groves off Victoria Avenue for a little while. I just loved driving down Victoria and smelling the oranges. So awesome.”
Following graduation, Shirley worked with local high school students as a Campus Life director.
The pop-oriented album “Fading West” debuted at #6 on the Billboard 200 chart. Throughout, Switchfoot utilizes vintage keyboards, synthesizers, vibraphone, an African tin gas can guitar (heard on soaring latest single “Love Alone is Worth the Fight”), all of which led the musicians to change their usual creative approach.
“We stepped pretty far out of our comfort zone,” Shirley explained. “As guitar players, Jon and I decided to put guitars on last, only if they were needed. That was one of our rules and it dictated the sound would change quite a bit for a guitar-driven rock band. It’s also a soundtrack, so you have a liberty there that you might not have otherwise.”
One memorable “Fading West” film segment finds Switchfoot reunited with African teens in the Kayamandi township they had first met several years before. Everyone performs together at a gig and on the new tune, “The World You Want.”
“They ran up, gave us huge hugs and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this moment,’” said Shirley. “They were just so ecstatic to see us again. A lot of them had grown up quite a bit. It was a fun, beautiful moment and something that’s definitely burned into my memory.”