'Honest Music for Thinking People'
Switchfoot's drummer talks about his music and faith heritage and what's playing on Jesus' iPod.
BY: Interview by Dena Ross
Music from Switchfoot's New Album "Oh! Gravity"
Watch the Music Video for the Single "Oh! Gravity"
Chad Butler has music in his blood. His father, Chuck, was the lead singer and songwriter for the 70s band "Parable" and has been called a "Christian rock pioneer." Butler's band, Switchfoot, has become one of the most popular acts around--selling out shows across the country--and has been one of only a handful of groups to enjoy both mainstream and Christian radio play. Switchfoot's 2003 album, "The Beautiful Letdown," was certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), received four Dove awards in 2004 and sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide due to hits, "Dare You to Move" and "Meant to Live." Their 2005 album, "Nothing Is Sound," was certified gold and peaked at number three on the The Billboard 200 chart.
In 2005, Bulter spoke to Beliefnet about his faith, spirituality in mainstream music, and how surfing can be meditative. Beliefnet is reposting the interview with a music video from Switchfoot's new album, "Oh! Gravity."
How do you define your spiritual life now?
I would definitely call myself a follower of Christ. I grew up in a Christian household. My father is a pastor in a nondenominational [church], Calvary Chapel [in San Marcos, California.] And he’s a musician. [He was the lead singer/songwriter for the bands, "Parable" and "The Chuck Butler Band"].
Does he play for his church?
Yeah. He’s been a worship leader since before I was born. I think that had a great influence on me. He had a love for God and a love for music that was contagious. I actually grew up on the road in the back of a 15-passenger van on tour with his rock band. I remember sitting on the seat in the back of the van with guitars all around me, traveling around the world.
Was it a Christian rock band?
In the '70s, during the hippy Jesus movement—the hippy revival—I don’t think there was a Christian-rock genre; it was just very honest, real, heartfelt music about the most important thing in his life, which at the time was Jesus Christ. So a lot of the songs were reflecting his experience of conversion.
It’s an interesting thing now looking at my life and seeing myself on the road with my kids—many times in a 15-passenger van with guitars all around us—and feeling like I have just an amazing heritage of faith. My dad definitely influenced me in my spiritual journey.
Some people consider Switchfoot mainstream rock, while others think of you as the coolest Christian band out there. Do you consider the label, “Christian rock” a curse?
I think that labels are a necessary evil. It’s how my brain functions when I describe music to my friends. I use the same categories that I hate. When I compare music to another band, it’s really not fair to the music I’m describing, but it’s the best I can do. What’s strange for me though, is when you get to the Christian rock label, it’s really describing the audience more than the band. I think that’s a problem because what you’re doing is describing who the music is made for as opposed to what the music is really about.
And what would be the problem with that?
You’re boxing it in. I would like to think that the music that I make is best with claws and teeth, instead of being locked up in a cage. As a band we’ve always been very deliberate in making music for everyone. And we’ve never changed that. If we’re going to define our music it would just be honest music for thinking people. We’ve always called ourselves a rock band and tried to stay away from anything that would limit our audience. For me, my faith is a really personal, important part of my life, and it’s much bigger to me than a musical genre.
Do you think talking about spirituality in music is becoming more popular and accepted in mainstream music?
I look at a lot of great musicians who are telling the story of their spiritual journey or [asking] very honest questions about spirituality or existence in music today. I look at everything from [hip-hop/soul artist] Lauryn Hill to even references in [pop band] Bright Eyes' songs where I’m like, “Wow, that’s a really honest question, or that’s a really honest depiction of their spiritual journey.” I think that’s great. It’s an amazing thing that I’d like to think is becoming more accepted—to have a spiritual dialogue in pop culture like that. I guess I’ve always felt like it was there.
I grew up in a house where we listened to a lot of Bob Dylan. He’s put out different albums [that have] been landmarks of his spiritual journey over his life. You look at an album from the '70s like “Slow Train Coming” or “Saved” and those are pretty forthright records in terms of his experience with Christianity. I listened to those a lot as a little kid.
I also listened to Stevie Wonder, who has gone through lots of different stages in his beliefs, and on his records talks about it. I guess it’s always been there. I think if we’re going through a season right now in music history where it’s becoming more accepted and more talked about, it’s an exciting time to be making music.
As you know, Jars of Clay had much mainstream success with their single “Flood’ but later were labeled a Christian band. And, after a while, they were relegated to Christian radio. Are you nervous about something like that happening with Switchfoot?
You know, I think I’d drive myself crazy if I worried about that kind of thing. We’ve never been a band about the numbers. You can’t live by that. It’s such a manic reality to go from playing in front of lots of people and selling lots of records to walking offstage and all of a sudden you’re all alone in a city far from home and you don’t know anyone. I think that reminds us that we’re still the same guys who enjoyed playing for 50 people 10 years ago. I think we’ll remain that.
The goal has always just been to make honest music, and that’s what we’ll continue to do no matter who’s playing it, no matter who is listening. We never set out to make a record for any radio format.
Does the band ever get criticized for not being Christian enough?
Oh yeah. You’re always going to get the people who are going to criticize you no matter what.
How do you respond to those people?
I don’t really get a chance to talk to many people face-to-face who have criticized me for that. You always hear about it secondhand. I really don’t let it affect me one way or the other. We just try to keep doing what we know best.
On the new album I really like the song, “Lonely Nation.” I know that singer Jon Foreman wrote it in response to his feeling that we’re living in this age of communication when young people still feel so alone. Do you feel like we’re a lonely nation?
I feel like we’re a lonely generation. And, it’s a global thing. It’s not necessarily America. [The song] is a heartfelt cry—not necessarily to someone else, [but] to recognizing our own situation. I feel like it’s very easy to become disconnected in the middle of such a connected, mobile society.