Jon Foreman is American to the core.
But he’s never shied away from questioning or commentating on the systems that made him. Frontman of Switchfoot, an act that has quietly been one of the most successful and consistent American rock bands of the past two decades, it’s the divine art of song that has propelled them to such great heights. So when it became time for the band to record their twelfth full-length album interrobang, during what Foreman calls the “craziest year” he’s ever experienced, it makes sense that a global pandemic and chaotic election cycle would fuel, rather than douse the band’s flame.
“This album begins after you’ve disagreed,” says Foreman, “You’ve had the fight, and then realize… we’ve got a long trip ahead of us. We both disagree, and there’s no way we’re changing each other’s minds.” Which is a testament to what the band’s mission has been since they formed in the late 1990s – unity. “Maybe unity is not homogeneity,” Foreman muses, “Maybe unity is people that look and think differently.” And while its virtues are relevant more than ever, so is its sound; interrobang showcases a group that defies resting on its laurels. Produced by the legendary Tony Berg (Lorde, Phoebe Bridgers, Paul McCartney) it’s a sonically dangerous endeavor that is both punctual and transcendent, and all-in-all, it’s an art piece America needs right now.
Words and photos by Andy Gorel
Andy: You guys proudly own the title of “American rock band”, what weight do those words hold for you?
Jon: I have a theory that the best rock bands in the world come from the UK. It’s just a theory but if you think of solo artist versus rock band, you’ve got Bob Dylan, you’ve got The Stones. You’ve got Elvis, you’ve got The Beatles. You’ve got Kanye, you’ve got Radiohead. I do think there are some amazing American rock bands… Tom Petty, Nirvana, you just mentioned The Strokes a few minutes ago. There are a ton of them, but I grew up listening to all of the stuff from the UK. Until Nirvana, I really didn’t care about anything that came out in the US.
Andy: That’s interesting. I’ve always skewed towards American rock bands, but I was born post-Nirvana. Third Eye Blind, Incubus…
Jon: Yeah, Weezer is another one I would put up there.
Andy: How do you feel San Diego has been instrumental for Switchfoot? And then also being in proximity to LA. They’re very different.
Jon: I think San Diego was the dream place to grow up as a musician. The surfing community, and the musical community. They were both really supportive. Whereas two hours north, it’s much more cutthroat. In LA, it’s really funny, all the bands feel like it’s a zero sum game where they’re competing for the same job. But in San Diego, no one thinks of music as a job. It’s like “Hey, this is a blast. And of course we all have day jobs, but we go out and play these songs we believe in at night.” All the bands I grew up listening to from San Diego, they had jobs. They would tour up the coast, and then come back and work. Like Boilermaker, or Heavy Vegetable.
Andy: Well real people do. Like you’re an independent artist, but you’re a waiter too, or whatever it may be. That’s the ethos of a lot of the country. The culture in LA is just different.
Jon: It’s so different.
Andy: A lot of kids start with money. I’m not saying I grew up poor, but –
Jon: Yeah, you turn 16 and get a job. That’s just what you do. The difference for me was manifest. Every band we played with would be so different than us. We didn’t feel the need to fit in with any trend. We’d have a punk band, a ska band, a weird prog rock band on the bill. Everyone would go out and support each other, and love their differences.
Andy: Well it was the 90s too. It was a band culture.
Jon: Yeah, it was. And I feel that kinda stayed with us. The DIY work ethic, and the idea that music is something that was built to transcend our differences, rather than define them, and entrench ourselves in our own idiosyncrasies.
Andy: I wanna talk about The Beautiful Letdown a little bit. I read your label dropped you that day?
Jon: So Donnie Ienner, the head of Sony…
Andy: Was it Sony, like Sony Music, or a subsidiary?
Jon: It was Columbia. But he was head of the whole thing, so he’s calling the shots. He sees us play in New York, which is supposed to be the celebration of the record being done, “We’re signed, it’s inked, this is our party. We’re gonna play for all the big wigs in New York. We’ve never played our own show in New York City. This is it!” And the back of the record is gonna have a big Columbia label on it, just like Miles Davis, or Bob Dylan. We were just so excited about it.
We finish the set, and we’re thinking everything went pretty great. We had a great time playing. We felt like we played well. And then our manager says “I don’t know how to break this to you, but we just got dropped.” Donnie Ienner walked out of our set, halfway through the first song.
Andy: What did you open with?
Jon: I think it was “Dare You To Move”.
Andy: It happens dude, execs just bouncing like that.
Jon: Yeah, so we got dropped, and put out on basically the indie version of Sony. It was called RED.
Andy: Oh yeah, that’s still around, Sony RED. I’m not sure what it was like back then.
Jon: It was not a thing then. We were one of the first bands that actually broke from it.
So it was this realization for us. It doesn’t actually matter what the logo says on the back, and it doesn’t matter what some big wig in New York thinks about your songs. “Do you believe in it?” Which is what kind of brought us back to the DIY element of “Well, why do we do this? Are we doing this for some guy in New York?”
Andy: The industry only connects you to the ears.
Jon: Yeah, but even then, if you have some metric of success based on numbers outside of your control, then you will forever be unsuccessful. But if your metric for success is creating something meaningful and beautiful that you believe in, then that’s completely within your own hands. You can do that every day of your life. And so that kind of defined our attitude as a band.
“If you have some metric of success based on numbers outside of your control, then you will forever be unsuccessful. But if your metric for success is creating something meaningful and beautiful that you believe in, then that’s completely within your own hands. You can do that every day of your life. And so that kind of defined our attitude as a band.”
Andy: You guys did become a mainstream band after that though. Were there any defining moments where you were creeping into being a part of the Hollywood crowd, and you realized “Maybe that’s not for us”?
Jon: Yeah. We’ve had a lot of those. Just because we’re close enough to LA that we get a call every now and then. The most ironic one happened pretty early on. There’s this guy, Jason Priestly. I think he was in 90210, Beverly Hills. He was a big heartthrob guy. He was making a movie, which I don’t think ever came out, and we got called up to be the band. We were like “Oh my gosh, this is amazing. This is a big chance for our music to be heard.” We look around, and the place we were supposed to play has all these poles and cages. We were like “What’s going on here?” And he was like, “Oh, that’s for the girls. They’re gonna be dancing in these cages while you play.” We were like, “That’s not who we are. We find that kind of degrading and offensive. We should take them down.” And the director was like “No. It’s either them or you.” And we were like “Alright.” So we packed up our stuff and drove back down to San Diego. I think there have been a million of those moments where you have to choose who you are.
Andy: That’s smart. I think it could have alienated a lot of your fanbase.
Jon: Well it’s more than that. Those are moments that define you. Like who are you? Certainly they define whoever wants to listen to you as well. But there have been a million moments where you’re like, “Did we make the right call?” But I still stand by it.
Andy: You’re often labeled as a Christian band. I know you get this a million times. For whatever reason, that sometimes turns people off to music. Do you ever find that to be limiting your career arc, like is it frustrating? Or do you not really think about it?
Jon: No, I think… No band is for everybody. No one band is going to be the band that everyone agrees on. I think for anyone closed-minded enough to not listen to someone because they’re different, then maybe we’re not their band. If they’re closed-minded, then I’m fine with that. I think ultimately, I grew up making music for all my friends. And most of my friends were atheists as a kid. From high school on – I went to UCSD. I was one of the only Christians I knew. I’m not afraid of any form of discussion. I love it. It can be sad when you think someone is so closed-minded they don’t want to affiliate because of it. It feels like a missed opportunity. I love music from all disciplines and beliefs. My favorite people are the people who are open-minded enough to listen. That’s the long answer.
I think the other thing is whenever you start to sell things… when faith is sold, it loses its meaning. As honored as I am to be affiliated with the name of Christ, that’s never been a stamp we put on our music. Cause it would feel like we’re selling something that can’t be sold.
“I love music from all disciplines and beliefs. My favorite people are the people who are open-minded enough to listen.”
Andy: I’ve found, at 24 years old – I was raised Catholic, and was kinda like “What does this mean?” I didn’t like church – everyone arrives to faith on their own terms. So packaging it up, it’s not like you’re really gonna get through to people in a meaningful way anyways.
Jon: There’s this saying. “If the prophet eats at the king’s table, they’re both disqualified for their job.” It feels the same when you start to brand things with faith.
Andy: It’s dirty.
Jon: Yeah, it doesn’t feel clean.
Andy: I saw you guys play when I was a kid, and I remembered hearing you say your songs were inspired by God, Girls, and Politics.
Jon: I probably said…
Andy: Yeah fill it in, I probably butchered it.
Jon: No no (laughs), that music is a safe place. When I was a kid I had a stuttering problem, and I realized when I would sing that it went away, and songs were this place where I could sing about sex, God, politics, whatever. And I felt fine about it. I felt I could finally enunciate things that would have been hard to say otherwise.
Andy: So would that be true or not?
Jon: No, it’s absolutely true.
Andy: Ok so this is a bit of an unturned stone I feel like. God and politics are apparent in a lot of Switchfoot songs. With girls, you can hear it in a lot of your songs, but it’s not explicit. There’s not generally imagery. Is it intentional to write songs to be somewhat ambiguous or open-ended? What is the feminine influence on a lot of your songs?
Jon: We have a song “Easier Than Love where we have the line “Sex is currency”, or “fluorescent”, which I think deals with a lot of that tension. I think the funny thing with “God, girls, and politics,” these are all nebulous topics that often are best discussed with poetry. They’re also three things I will never fully understand (laughs). So for me to say, “Yeah, I’ve got girls figured out. Here’s my song about girls,” my wife would just laugh at me, “Yeah, you’ve got it figured out, sure.” So it may be opaque, but I feel that’s part of your job as a songwriter, to leave holes so people can find themselves in the song.
All my favorite songwriters are the ones that open story loops and ask questions, and the listener is deemed their own responsible free agent. I think to give the listener responsibility rather than take it away is the job of the songwriter. To say “No, here’s the song. Make of it what you want.”
“I think to give the listener responsibility rather than take it away is the job of the songwriter. To say ‘No, here’s the song. Make of it what you want.'”
Andy: Do you know the band The Wombats?
Jon: Yeah, I do.
Andy: My sister and I were chatting recently, the way he writes about women, he leaves it kind of open-ended and he gives them so much power, but he’s kind of always a comical tragic victim in the song. Like you said about God, girls, or politics being nebulous, you can give them power but acknowledge that you don’t fully get it and are just a part of the system you’re in.
Jon: Yeah, and I think the other thing I try not to do is victimize myself. It’s easy to find yourself as a victim. It’s hard to enunciate your own uncertainty, and also your own power at the same time. I find that most of my favorite songs are contradictions. They’re paradoxes, because I think that’s what life is. You are alive, and dying. You know things, and the more you know, the less you know. For me, songs are the way to pull the frayed edges of reality, and open it up to a bigger expansive understanding of what the world might be.
Andy: Switchfoot took a brief hiatus a few years ago. What prompted it, and what prompted it to end so quickly?
Jon: We just decided we loved music. It was this thing where we were like “Ok, we’re done.”
Andy: Was there uncertainty? Were you really not thinking of making another record?
Jon: Yeah. We were like, “We’re done.”
Andy: “We’ve had our say…”
Jon: Yeah. And I started sneaking back into the studio, just for fun. Then I would look around and be like “Wait a minute, someone else was in here.” Then my brother would be in there going “Hey, wait…” We were both sneaking in being like “I know we’re not supposed to be making music, but… it’s just for fun.” And then that’s how the hiatus ended. It felt like a strange occupation to not make music – to intentionally try to not make music when you really want to.
Andy: Is there – and I think about this all the time. If the music thing doesn’t work out for me, or loses its luster. Are there other avenues of your life you’d really like to get into?
Jon: I like so many things. I think we all have a million things we want to get into. This time home for me, especially this last year, we’ve all had a lot more time to think about those questions. I was really trying to celebrate what was in front of me. I found this Hemingway quote from “The Old Man and The Sea” and I painted it on this wooden board. It says “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” So I just began to dive into what there was, and really celebrate my kids, my family, my community, the people that were close to me. It was a dark season, but there were moments of beauty. I don’t know about any certain occupations coming out of it, but I would love to write a book at some point. I’ve written a couple, but I haven’t thought they were quite what I wanted to say.
Andy: The book’s on my list too, but I feel like I’m still living and making the stories.
Jon: Right?! I can write songs all day long, but a book…
Andy: How old are you?
Jon: I’m forty… three I think? Forty-four maybe? (laughs)
Andy: And I’m twenty years younger than you are. So I definitely have a lot more to live before I can write a book.
Jon: Yeah. I just feel like “Really Jon? You’re the guy who’s gonna give everyone the answers with a book? Good luck.” It feels a lot more pretentious than a three minute pop song (laughs).
Andy: Dude, I think about that all the time. I love telling stories through song. But think of undertaking a book – it’s easy to get on your high horse when writing a song. You can tell great stories so eloquently. But when you think of the actual logistics of authoring a full-length book. The amount of detail you need. It’s like, “Can you imagine doing 300 pages of this?”
Jon: Right? Yeah. I love books. I read ‘em all the time. I haven’t been brave enough to put one out yet.
Andy: Let’s get into interrobang. You guys worked with Tony Berg, who’s done Phoebe Bridgers, Lorde, so many great artists. There’s always a moment, when you’re getting ready to make a record, where you start thinking of potential producers to work with. At what point did you start to think Tony was the guy?
Jon: So we’ve made so many albums. We’ve been privileged enough to make 11 albums, and a bunch of B-sides, side projects, everything. It’s just a gift. Any one of us in the band could have produced the record, or we have friends who are really good. And we had basically an album ready to go.
Andy: Was it self-produced?
Jon: Yeah, we’re always making music. When you have a studio at your own place, it’s like “boom, here we go”. And most of our last few records have been that. Even if they’re produced by other people. It’s been our own volitional start and finish built in. But when the lockdown hit, it felt like everything was changing. We just kind of disentangled from the project we created, and were like, “Let’s just burn the canvas and start from scratch. What are we gonna make? What are we gonna say?” and “Who’s gonna make it?”
We were looking for someone who brought a danger to alternative music that feels fresh and current. A lot of the things I hear, they feel really tired.
Andy: 95% of rock is so tired right now.
Jon: It just feels really tired, and it’s not to say there aren’t incredible bands doing amazing things, and friends of mine that are just changing the game. But very few producers are really bringing that, that I hear. And Tony Berg’s name came up because my brother was all about the new Phantom Planet record. It’s so good. It felt dangerous in a way that was fresh, rather than tired.
I think his real gift, that he brought to our camp, was his understanding of chords. It’s just unreal. He’s a guy who can just envision the chord, name to you every chord that’s F#, and you’re gonna hit it on this fret, on this string, without looking at the fretboard. It’s uncanny. It’s like a different dimension. It’s a strange thing to work with that comes from him being in music for 50 years. Just being surrounded by it. He was Bette Midler’s musical director.
Andy: I don’t know who that is, sorry.
Jon: Exactly! (laughs) He was telling us all these stories and we were like “Wow, he’s worked with everybody”. It really was a treat to work with someone who truly loves music, 40 years into working with it.
Andy: I think that’s a key part and goes back to what we said about making sure you’re creating for you, creating something real. It’s easy to get jaded if you’re not. How many people do you know who a major starts looking at them, they really change their sound, next thing you know it’s like “Your first EP was awesome, what happened?”
Jon: Yes, like “What are you doing!” (laughs)
Andy: LA. I’ve seen LA change so many people.
Jon: Oh dude, yeah. “Who are you?”
Andy: It’s so frustrating.
Jon: Yeah, that’s why I don’t live in LA. Not because I hate LA, but because I know myself. I know that I would not be the same person if I lived in LA.
Andy: So it sounds like you guys shoulder a lot of the production yourselves in your own studio?
Jon: Yeah, so on this record, we spent weeks and weeks doing pre-production. Which is kind of a lost art in a day and age where the demo sounds great. The tendency is to just be like “Ok, well there’s the demo, let’s track that.” And maybe some of the parts of the demo are great. “We really love the drum sound, let’s just change the vocals,” or whatever it may be. We wanted to start from scratch with every song where we really learn it well. Orchestrate it and everything. Which inversion of the chord. Everything was all really well mapped out, and then we went into the studio and second or third take on every song we nailed it.
Andy: You’re totally right. So many times you hear a demo and then the final is like a new vocal and one added synth in the last chorus or something.
Jon: Yeah, and there’s something about people being in a room together, actually playing. Rather than being like “Here’s the drum beat I programmed on a keyboard.” You have a drummer and you’ll be like “Oh, I don’t like the programmed thing that I put in there.”
Andy: For sure, like a new fill, or picking up on a few notes.
Jon: Live music! (laughs) What we all fell in love with! Humans playing music.
Andy: How do you guys push yourselves to stay artistically relevant? You’re a band that came out of the 90s and your new stuff sounds new. Is it conscious?
Jon: Nah, it’s just the same as – what’s the saying… “Literature is the news that stays new.” I think there are two contrarian forces that are at work whenever you’re making anything that is driven by something other than converse. For me, the ideal that you’re reaching for something transcendent that would hopefully sound good three to thirty years from now. And then there’s the goal for something that feels like it is speaking to the times. I think you’re just responding, right? When I was in college I was writing for my dorm room friends. There’s a song on the first album called “Chem 6A”. It was our first single, and it was about the chemistry class I was in. I haven’t written a song about chemistry class in a long time, since I dropped out (laughs). I think that there’s something beautiful about not being able to go back. I couldn’t make the records we made back then. I wouldn’t even know how to start. But I don’t think the person who was 18 making those records could make this record.
“I think there are two contrarian forces that are at work whenever you’re making anything that is driven by something other than converse. For me, the ideal that you’re reaching for something transcendent that would hopefully sound good three to thirty years from now. And then there’s the goal for something that feels like it is speaking to the times.”
Andy: Well it’s so weird, because often by the time you get music recorded and released, you’ve passed it. People will respond to it and be like “This is so awesome,” and in your own brain you’re like “Oh man, people are listening to these lyrics?” And it’s not to say they’re not great, but you can’t go back and do it again. It’s kind of cool. You’re able to capture your own brain at the time in a phonorecord.
Jon: Yeah, it’s a snapshot. And if you look at it like that, it’s a lot better than seeing it as something negative.
Andy: Plus it helps when the songs are good.
Jon: Yeah! You got a good haircut and you can look back (laughs).
Andy: That too (laughs).
Jon: The earliest known philosopher says “you cannot step in the same river twice”. And I think that’s what music is. Any attempt to go back is failed from the start. You know? Be where you’re at. There’s no other moment.
Andy: The future and past don’t really exist.
Jon: The future is where we go to remember the past.
Andy: Being in the studio with Tony, were there a lot of creative differences?
Jon: Yes. He’s one of the only producers we’ve ever had that has challenged us lyrically. And he’s the only person I’ve ever heard utter the words “Who’s your favorite French poet?” (laughs). Like “I don’t know. I guess the only one I know is Rimbaud. I’m not sure man.”
He’s very involved in the weeds. I think the biggest creative differences we had were I am more of a platonic, transcendent, universal lyricist. That’s where I like to go, because a lot of the things I am aiming for are bigger than the moment. And he’s absolutely someone who wants the transient rather than the transcendent. He wants to know the particulars rather than the idioms of this particular place that you’re at. The splinter that you have in this one moment rather than the discomfort you have with the universe. I think that was the biggest rub that we had. And then his background and ours, we probably spent half the time making music, and half the time arguing about philosophical, religious, and political elements.
But that was the year. We’ve got this election… It was the craziest year I’ve ever been in, and we both had all this energy, and we would just go to the studio every day.
Andy: To me, the realest relationship you can have with someone is when you disagree with them, and you’re angry, then you get over it and are cool. I feel like we’re in the state we’re in because so many people disagree, and then they shun. And that’s not ok.
Jon: Yeah, totally. This album begins after you’ve disagreed. You’ve had the fight, and then realize “Oh crap, we’re still in the car. We’ve got a long trip ahead of us. We both disagree, and there’s no way we’re changing each other’s minds.” Press record. That’s literally where it starts. There’s this William Blake quote that I wrote out on a sign and gave to Tony when we did the Grammy Museum thing the other day. It says “Opposition is true friendship.” I feel like that’s what our friendship is. It’s built not in the things we hold in common, but our differences. And I feel what he brings to me is invaluable. I’ve learned lessons through him that I wouldn’t have learned from someone I agreed with. But I think the same thing is true.
So many songs, “i need you (to be wrong)”, “beloved”, “lost ‘cause”, “if i were you” – they’re all built around this tension of the other. And the funny thing is we didn’t even know we were making up this album. It’s so succinct lyrically, every single song is built around that tension, every single song.
“This album begins after you’ve disagreed. You’ve had the fight, and then realize ‘Oh crap, we’re still in the car. We’ve got a long trip ahead of us. We both disagree, and there’s no way we’re changing each other’s minds.’ Press record.”
Andy: That’s what happens when you’re running on a vibe.
Jon: But every day we would just go to the studio and fight. So I guess our fight, and love for each other, is the record.
Andy: I think too – and I think about it all the time – that growing up in an age where we have our own cars, we can stay home and use the internet every day… Back in the day, one person would have a car and everyone would ride together. Like you said, but literally, stuck in the car together. When you’re forced to deal with people, you’re able to find unity because you can move past your differences.
Jon: You have to get over your differences. There’s no way through.
Andy: You have no choice. You’d be killing each other if you didn’t. But with the internet, and whatever this era is that we’re in where everyone just stays home. It’s weird.
Jon: Yeah, it is. I think you’re right that there’s the possibility of somehow erasing someone from your day to day world online.
Andy: Easy dude, *blocked*.
Jon: It’s super easy.
Andy: I think if you hit the block button, you’re a psychopath. It’s craziness, to be so immature to not be able to get over something.
Jon: Yeah, I think you’re right. That is a danger of our time. And our record is an attempt to express that maybe unity is not homogeneity. Like maybe everyone believing, looking, and thinking the same is not unity. Maybe unity is people that look and think differently.
Andy: I was talking with my sister the other day. We were saying how the words “homogenous” and “unity” are used in polar opposite ways. Connotation wise they are completely on opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s like the same idea, but completely different meanings.
Jon: Yeah! And I think that unity is only possible with people that disagree.
Andy: True diversity.
Jon: That’s the only way you can find unity. The album was almost this experiment. Can people that disagree in a marriage, in a country, in a world… in producing a record. Can people who disagree make something beautiful together? And when we finished the record it was like “Ok, we did it. Maybe there’s hope for the rest of the country.” Maybe we have to share a planet together, and that’s fine.
Andy: You guys have written a lot of songs in the past that have been political or social commentaries. How do you feel the tenor of the conversation has changed in this country since then?
Jon: Great question… Friendship is built upon a common love. Tribalism is built upon a common hate. I fear that in our attempt to find some form of community, which is so strong – especially in this time where we all feel lonely and alone – this pseudo-community of tribalism, finding a common enemy, has replaced the true community of friendship, which is built upon love. And the danger is, it feels very similar. “I hate that… Oh, you do too? Then we’re the same!” But it’s darker, and it’s twisted. I find far less community, and far more tribalism.
There are so many clinical studies about the idea that – when we are forced into what seems to be a fight-or-flight element in our lives, the creative functionality of our brain decreases. Our ability to see a creative solution decreases. And it can happen not just with a lion or lightning striking, a fire, something like that. It can also happen with an ideology that can threaten who we are. So I feel tribalism has become this knee jerk response to anything that threatens our understanding of the world. But our understanding of the world needs to be threatened. I need to have people tell me when I’m wrong.
“Friendship is built upon a common love. Tribalism is built upon a common hate. I fear that in our attempt to find some form of community, which is so strong – especially in this time where we all feel lonely and alone – this pseudo-community of tribalism, finding a common enemy, has replaced the true community of friendship, which is built upon love. And the danger is, it feels very similar.”
Andy: That’s a huge level of personal agency you need to have to avoid going into tribal mode.
Andy: I don’t think most people have the mental capacity available to distinguish.
Jon: No, we don’t. There’s this guy who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his economic theory, which basically said every other economic theory is wrong because it presupposes man to be a rational creature. The book was called “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Humans are most of the time rational creatures, but look at our ad campaigns. Why would you buy that purse that’s $1000? Do you really need that?
So for me, I hope that music can be a place where I am confronted with differences and ideas that I need to hear. I think comedy is the same way, movies, the arts need to be pushing us to uncomfortable places where we’re confronted with our own demons. The bottom line is we need each other. Even if you don’t wanna share a nation with a person, they’re still on the planet.
Andy: And they’re still in your nation.
Jon: And they probably still live next door to you! It comes down to – how do you love your neighbor?
Andy: A few songs on interrobang caught me lyrically. “fluorescent”, speak on that metaphor. What does it mean to you?
Jon: I remember in college there was this concept in philosophy class, I think it was Socrates or Plato, some Greek philosopher, about the idea that proximity can influence your understanding of what the greater good is. Like if the sun is a million miles away, and there’s a spotlight right here in your face, you’re going to think the spotlight is brighter than the sun. I think we do that with beauty all the time. Like what’s the greater good? Living an altruistic life that serves your community and your family, or having a one night stand. Spending your life being there for your kids and your family, or spending your life on your phone being distracted by memes or whatever it is. And we all do this. This is me saying I am the protagonist that is confronted with this daily. That for me is what “fluorescent” is. This sad story of this moth that is continually obsessed with this dingy fluorescent light outside of a gas station, and will die there, trying to finally reach his dream (laughs).
Andy: It’s brilliant metaphor. There’s a sequence “The spiders and the ants and the dance goes two by two into arks of oblivion.” What does that accomplish within the song?
Jon: If there were a postmodern ark of 2021, what dark ark are we jumping on board into oblivion? It’s probably an ark of tribalism, or an ark of fear.
Andy: Another song on the record, “splinter”, the second verse caught my ear. “Don’t worry Pedro. Don’t tell me, I think I know. Cause I’m on the payroll, the cursed kaleidoscope.” I feel the amount of imagery you packed into it really helps define the song. What do that verse and song in general mean to you?
Jon: So “Pedro”, I grew up in a high school where half of my friends spoke Spanish as their first language, and English second. And the other half were surfer kids like me. Pedro for me is referencing back to that, and also to my nephew. I feel there’s this idea that now I’ve grown up. I live in the same place where my high school was, and now I’m on the payroll. I’m paying taxes. What am I doing to help with the barrio that’s right down the street. My high school is located in this part of Encinitas that used to be a barrio. “splinter” just speaks to 2020. It’s the first time I’ve ever had anxiety attacks. Just laying awake in bed, having trouble breathing. I think it was influenced by a lot of things, but certainly wasn’t helped by me staring at my phone and spinning out in questions and contradictions. That second verse kind of speaks to “well what am I doing for the next generation of hispanic kids in my own hometown?”
Andy: This next question comes from a kind of personal place. I’m afraid that one lifetime isn’t enough to make as many records as I want to. There are so many songs, so many things to explore. Being this much farther down the path, is this something you still struggle with? Do you feel you’ll be able to make every record you want to?
Jon: No. You can’t.
Andy: It’s so terrifying, isn’t it?
Jon: Yeah. And the funny thing is we’ve got hundreds of songs that no one’s ever heard. It used to frustrate and upset me. And I don’t remember where I heard this, or whether it just came to me, but God remembers what the money forgets. When you’re writing a song, in that moment, you’re actually participating in a form of creation, you’re co-signing God’s blank checks. No one else needs to be in the room for that. No one else needs to hear it. It is beauty for its own sake right there.
“God remembers what the money forgets. When you’re writing a song, in that moment, you’re actually participating in a form of creation, you’re co-signing God’s blank checks. No one else needs to be in the room for that. No one else needs to hear it. It is beauty for its own sake right there.”
Andy: There’s still wanting to share though.
Jon: You want to, but there’s something so beautiful about knowing that that song was for that moment, and no one else. It’s a tragic beauty, but it’s also just “Wow. Me and my maker were the only ones.” There’s a purity to that. But yeah, I share that feeling sometimes. There’s also something beautiful to just burning them all too. I hear of painters that will have hundreds of canvases sitting in a back room, and they’ll just burn them all. What a glorious way to go. It’s tragic, but there’s something tangibly beautiful about it as well.
Andy: Being a rock band that came up when you did, what’s your take on the industry right now? The climate for new artists.
Jon: It goes back to the last question, because it is this thing where, if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it…
Andy: And no one’s there to make a Tik Tok about it…
Jon: Right? Because we become these documenters that are really good at hyping our own thing. And if you’re not, who’s gonna do it for you? No one. Cause they’re all hyping their own thing. It’s strange. When I think of recorded music as music, it’s a tragedy. When I’m reminded that music is not recorded music. Recorded music has only existed for less than 100 years in a widely available format.
Andy: Actually insane.
Jon: 100 years!
Andy: We’re talking one track. An orchestra gathered around a shitty microphone with no low end.
Jon: Yes! 100 years ago, if your favorite song was this, a symphonic piece, or whatever. You might only hear it once. You’d be like “Yeah, I really love this one Bach cantata. I heard it this one time. It was the best.” – “Have you heard it again?” – “No. But I remember it.”
When I think of that, and these people making music in their bedrooms, and people enjoying it for the pure art of making sound, making something beautiful, conveying their emotions with the expression of music. I think it’s coming from a much purer place than it was in the 90s. Because in the 90s, even if you didn’t think that way, there was always a chance in the back of your mind, “I don’t know, maybe this song could hit. Just maybe.”
Andy: It’s almost like the hopelessness, or not even hopelessness, but the idea that you have to keep working to build something. The lack of a Cinderella element – “Maybe there’s gonna be an A&R guy who’s gonna sign us, and we’re gonna have a hit.” By not having that, you’re almost more realistic, and true in your aspirations because you’re really creating for the moment.
Jon: Totally, and I feel the art that I hear nowadays is pure.
Andy: I think we’re in the best era of music ever right now. And I love old stuff, it’s not lost on me. An era of boundless creativity.
Jon: I agree! And the music sounds so much better. When I was a kid in the 90s, all of us had demos that we would pass back and forth, and they sounded like crap.
Andy: Back to that first Strokes album. That’s only 20 years ago, and think how that sounds. I mean the production, everything was so awesome, but it’s thin on the low end.
Jon: Yeah, we didn’t have the access to all this. I do think there’s a purity and excellence right now, that is potentially unparalleled in my lifetime, in music.
Andy: I would say this goes over a lot of people’s heads who don’t understand the process of making records, but nonetheless, the essence of hearing a full frequency spectrum, from 20 to 20K is nuts. In a full production, with a ton of low end. And you can do it from your bedroom now. I think that speaks to how beautiful the era we’ve entered is. The technology really has elevated things.
Jon: Yeah. It’s made it better and worse, there’s always the paradox. But I do think demos sound a million times better than they did in the 90s, and I think there’s a purity to why people are making music, which is beautiful.
Andy: Glancing back on some of your older songs, “Hello Hurricane“, “Politicians“, “Lonely Nation“, “American Dream“, “Oh! Gravity.“, you understand the songs I’m talking about. It seems as an American rock band, your discography is kind of a chronicle of the American downfall. It’s like being on the track and watching the train coming at you, and it’s still coming. interrobang is probably the most dire entry yet. What does it feel like to look back on these old songs and see the building up to this point.
Jon: Yeah, are you talking about the demise of Western Civilization? (laughs)
Andy: Yeah (laughs), but I’m not trying to be a tin foil hat guy.
Jon: Yeah, speaking the truth is always the goal, and I see a lot that is troubling.
Andy: And I’m an optimist by the way.
Jon: Totally, me too. I’m a hopeful guy, but I think hope is only hope if it’s built on reality. Otherwise it’s lunacy. If you’re gonna be hopeful, you have to first take into account the facts of all the despair. The funny thing is, for me, music is always a vehicle to move from darkness to light. So all of the songs you mentioned start in really dark places, and sometimes just expressing the darkness is your chance to move to the light. I think to say “This ain’t my American Dream,” I still can say that with full fervor.
I feel really honored that I get to document the way I see it. Both my grandparents fought in World War II. My grandpa was a POW, shot down, and both of them passed away this last year. It’s just that everything changes. We’re all gonna pass away sometime. I think my goal, before I go, would be to sing the truth. To know that all along the way I was attempting to bring hope and light, but at the same time say it how it is.
Andy: Switchfoot as a whole is a very well-oiled machine, as any band or artist at your level is. You employ a ton of people, and so on, but you also give back a lot to charities and communities. Do you think America as a whole can find that sweet spot? Between the communal and individually motivated grounds.
Jon: We all know there’s no end in the dollar bill. The dollar bill is only good for what it can bring you. My hope would be that our culture would realize that there’s a value in love and compassion, kindness and community, that is actually higher than pleasure, comfort, or the illusion of control. I think that it might sound really pie in the sky, but I do think that there’s a tangibly, measurably better feeling when you give back than when you take. We all know that. And every Christmas we wanna lean in a little bit. I hope that that can be the place our nation comes to.
I hope the tribalism and the refusal to listen to people we disagree with slows down. There are so many things I’m hopeful about. I was hopeful this pandemic would bring people together in ways that it didn’t.
“There’s no end in the dollar bill. The dollar bill is only good for what it can bring you. My hope would be that our culture would realize that there’s a value in love and compassion, kindness and community, that is actually higher than pleasure, comfort, or the illusion of control.”
Andy: It did some, but I really was hoping it would more.
Jon: Yeah. The bottom line is even just conversations like this. Just sitting down and chatting. Like we’ve never met before, but talking, all of these connection points. If you did that with someone you hated on Twitter. If you actually were like, “Ok. we’re gonna sit these two people down,” I don’t know. I’m hopeful humanity can move past this phase. Social mediums like Twitter and Facebook, they’re so new.
Andy: We’re in the dark ages of the internet, experiencing so many growing pains. Think of what YouTube was in 2005. It was the Wild West, and we’re still kinda in it, maybe it’s just the kind of wild West now. It’s still bizarre. The internet isn’t entirely regulated yet, and it’s hard to know who should be in charge of things.
Jon: It is a wild, wild scene. So hopefully two years from now we’ll be able to say, “look how far we’ve come.” But who knows, it could be the demise of everything we know, or it could be a forum for beauty, pain, culture, and community.
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