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.
[laughs] Well if we’re talking in the fantastic, I would hope that it had something from King David on it.
What about modern music?
I think there would be some Johnny Cash on there. I think there’s some Bob Marley and I hope that there’s a little Stevie Wonder. It’s all music that has moved me in a deep way.
I would have bet $5 that you’d mention a U2 song.
Oh yeah! I’d hope there would be some U2 on there.
What’s your favorite U2 song?
I’d probably say, “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
What’s something that would surprise your fans to know about you?
I went through a period where I didn’t listen to too much music. [Only] over the last two years, since I’ve had an iPod, have I rediscovered the joy of listening to music. As a musician you can really easily crave silence because you’re surrounded by so much noise.
Were you just too focused on making your own music?
[I was] just sort of sick of the noise. For me, it was a surprise because I never thought I’d get like that.
Do you mean “sick of the noise” as in you were frustrated with what was on the radio and released as music today?
Yeah, and just not putting the effort to sit and discover new music—especially when you’re playing shows and touring all the time and you’re surrounded by loud music all day and you just want to tune it out. But recently I have been discovering great music again. It’s just a great time to be playing music. There’s just a lot of great bands and great artists that have come out in the last couple of years.
Who are some of your favorites?
Sufjan Stevens, Death Cab for Cutie, Kanye West, and this band Pinback from San Diego. Just really unique stuff.
Switchfoot is a surfing term. I know you’re into surfing. Do you find it meditative?
At times. I think there’s nothing better then being out as the sun is setting. Sometimes I’ll surf alone and just be out there with God and the dolphins. Those are amazing experiences. Surfing falls between sport and art—somewhere in the middle there. Waves are essentially blank canvases and I think there’s definitely an amazing connection between art, nature, and sport and that doesn’t happen very often. It’s a very special thing.
So you paint your canvas as you ride the waves?
Right. But we don’t take it that seriously. Most of my experiences revolves around going surfing with the guys in a group and just having a good time. It’s not always the super meditative moment. Those are very few and far between—when all the elements align [laughs].
What do you think the biggest problem is facing young people today?
Well, in Southern California, my reality as a young person has just been apathy. There are larger problems in different parts of the world, but for American suburban youth, myself included, I’d say apathy. It’s just so easy and so comfortable to not be aware of what’s going on in the world and to just put life on cruise control.
We’ve had a chance to get down to South Africa this last year, and the reality that faces so many of the kids [is] that [they] are orphaned by AIDS and poverty down there.
Are you guys working with Bono’s organization, DATA—Debt AIDS Trade Africa?
We’ve done some work with DATA, largely just to raise awareness for what’s going on in South Africa, but when we went there it was more of a journey, sort of a spiritual quest, just to see it for ourselves. We didn’t actually work with DATA. We had some contacts through the organization to actually get down there and visit, firsthand. DATA is more a way for us to tell people here in the States how they can get involved, how to become educated in five minutes by checking out that website and signing a letter to the president to follow through with money.
Tell me about your organization "lowercase people"?
It’s an online magazine for arts, music, and social justice. It’s basically a way for us to shine a spotlight on people who are under the radar of the mainstream and to create awareness for communities around the world that are experiencing hardship. The first issue that’s up right now tells the story of our trip to South Africa.
We have a fund set up, the lowercase people justice fund, to benefit the communities that we highlight. We were able to record a CD of these kids singing down in South Africa, a children’s choir called the Kuyasa Kids. Most of these kids are AIDS orphans and this is a way for them to raise support for their education. All the money from the CD goes to scholarship funds for them.
What’s your favorite song on the new record?
I’d say “Shadow Proves the Sunshine.” It came out as a creative response to what we were experiencing in South Africa. The hope that we saw in the kids down there was unprecedented, unexpected. We thought we’d go down there and help them and bring something to them and we left with so much more than what we could ever give them.
The situations that those kids are in and yet they have this brilliant joy is something we didn’t expect. And that song is just a real reminder of that hope that we saw there.
In your hit “Meant to Live” Jon asks the question, “Have we lost ourselves?” Have you ever felt like you lost yourself and if so, what have you done to find yourself?
I definitely felt that way. I think we all have—the minute that you begin to feel too comfortable and not be real with yourself. For most of my life I’ve struggled with that identity and not allowing my identity to be in what I’m involved in at the time, but to be in something deeper and in something lasting. It’s a process and that’s something that gives me hope. I don’t have to have it all figured out right now—it’s a work in progress.