Switchfoot is preparing to release their eighth studio album on September 27th. The iconic rock band has always lived in both the secular and the Christian worlds, making statements that are as deep as they are relevant. 'Vice Verses' builds upon that legacy, crafting anthemic sounds through big guitars and roaring drum and bass patterns. The band calls it their “most soulful record to date,” and they can't wait for their fans to experience it. Fans will get their first chance to hear five of the songs, as well as see the video for single "Dark Horses," on ESPN this Saturday night.
I caught up with band members Drew Shirley and Jerome Fontamillas while they were playing a festival in Mesquite, Michigan. We talked 'Vice Verses', songwriting, faith, and music. As an interviewer I have to say, these are some of the nicest guys in the business, and the new album is going to be well worth your time. Pre-order it here and check out the interview below!
An interview with Drew Shirley
What is Vice Verses to you?
Wow. Vice Verses to me? Let’s see. It was a very special album for me. Personally, I feel like I’m coming into my own on this record and I think the band is really on a… search for greatness really. This is our most soulful album to date. I think it is our most introspective but [also] our most listener friendly album. I think this batch of songs was one of the most honest batch of songs we’ve had, and then we committed to things musically early on and we were focused on recording something that had a concise statement. So we picked the songs we were going to record at the top of the recording and then hit 14 songs and picked 12, which is pretty slim for a band like us. A lot of times we’ll record 80 and pick 12. So, in that respect, it’s much more focused and I think we’re learning what songs we sing best.
A producer once asked us, you know, “what are the songs that only Switchfoot can sing?” I think we’re honing in on those songs on this record more than any other record that we’ve ever done. Musically, it’s got a focus on the drum and bass that we’ve never pushed for but that we’ve got. So there are some songs that you will hear that are new from us. It’s like we’ve gone into our experimental cave and what felt right for us this time around was less guitars right up front and a focus on the rhythm section. There are even a couple songs where Jon does like a free form talking vocal lyric which is cool and different for us. It’s fun to push the envelope. It’s fun to find new boundaries and this record does all of that.
Explain what you mean about this being the most soulful record to date.
“Dark Horses” is the first single which people are hearing now. It’s charged with like unity for the underdog type of spirit and it has a lot to do with the homeless kids that we’ve been in contact with through the Center for Kids San Diego, that we give money to. There are songs like, gosh, the last song on the album, “Where I Belong” it’s called. That song brings me to tears sometimes. It’s very much a song about who we are as people and about finding our place in not just the musical world but in the actual world that we live in as men.
There’s a longing in this record which I think Switchfoot is known for. We’re known for that sense of sort of longing, asking questions that make people think. We’re very much a band that asks more questions than gives answers. Songs like “Where I Belong” and “Restless”, those two to me are very much kind of worship songs, they have like that spirit in them of worship where it’s a longing or reaching, a seeking. “Selling the News” has a lot of social commentary which is another kind of song that Switchfoot does very well. And then “The War Inside” is an honest song about struggling to live out what you believe on the inside and that has a lot to do with our soul. When I say it’s the most soulful album, I guess that’s kind of what I’m thinking. Our struggles, our personal struggles are out in the open on this record.
How involved do you get in kind of the writing process?
Well, a typical song on a record, John will write it on an acoustic guitar, bring it to the band in a rough format and say “look at this.” We’ll all listen and take thoughts in, we’ve been a band for awhile so no one is precious about their stuff and Jon isn’t precious about his writing. He’ll allow quite a bit of input. The lyrics are mostly, you know, Jon writes and Tim will jump in sometimes as an editor. Then the music is more of the full collaboration and I guess that’s where I come into play. I think I do a lot more inputting on the music; the guitar sounds, the parts, the arrangement, the how to express those words in sounds.
It feels like you’re very connected to the lyrics that Jon writes. Is that always the case?
Yeah. A lot of the songs that he writes are out of discussions that we have, stuff that we talk about on the road. If we’re in a car for a long time chances are there will be a song that comes out of that. If there’s an interview that we do sometimes with you guys, it will get us thinking about stuff and then we’ll continue a conversation. After that, a lot of our songs come from struggling with life at two in the morning and Jon will come the next day and be like, “Guys, you know, I got this song last night I wrote in my hotel room, what do you guys think?” And we’ll talk about it. So I mean chances are we’ve talked about every song as a band before it goes on the record. So yeah, I’m connected to the songs personally.
That’s really cool. Has it always kind of been that way or is that something that’s progressed since you joined?
Yeah, I mean we’re all friends before we we’re musicians and business guys together. So when we sit down as a band and have a meeting or something, the first question is “how are you guys all doing? What’s going on with everybody? It’s not “hey, do we need to discuss about these songs?” It’s very much a brotherhood type of band. So the songs just seem to be a part of that brotherhood. So I don’t know. I mean I owe so much to this group of guys because they really are my team, my brothers, my family on the road. These songs are the things we hang around and work on together but that’s not all there is to the band.
That definitely comes through in the music and always has to me as a listener.
Yeah, you can tell as a listener. I think you know what bands are really friends that love playing music together. I can tell when I watch bands like “man, those guys don’t even seem to really like each other at all.” At a show I saw recently I saw the lead singer turn to the drummer and shake his head and be like “only three more songs and then we’re done.” It was just like, man that sucks.
That’s really awful. So who do you like to listen to?
You know, I’m a closet pop fan. I really like Michael Jackson and I am a child of the 80s and 90s so I like INXS and I like The Police. I like all that. My main and album and vibe is Led Zeppelin. I mean I always go with Zeppelin because they are so diverse in their musical styles. They’ll do country, pop, reggae, rock and roll, metal, you know, they do everything. They’re great. They don’t stick to one thing – and then I love kind of noisy music sometimes like Chemical Brothers and I like Depeche Mode because I grew up with that era and The Cure and of course The Beatles are huge. I’ll put them on every day or so. What was I just listening to? Foster the People. That record got its hooks in me.
Jerome mentions that record too.
I told him about that record. That guy stole my line. When I see him I’m going to get you for that, Jerome! Yeah, they’re good guys. I went and saw him and hung out with the band and I got to know them a bit. I listen to their record. I love it. Our video went out with them in East London. But yeah, so much music so little time.
Yeah, definitely. What are your favorite early Switchfoot songs to perform?
Yeah, my gosh, well, my favorite Switchfoot song of all time is “Learning to Breathe.” Personally, that song will forever hold first place. I also love “Concrete Girl.” I love the vibe of that song and what it says and just like how quirky it is.
When was the last time that one was performed live?
Man, I wish we did it more. We probably haven’t done it in like two years. Maybe three.
Have you seen anything that has kind of changed with the band from the earlier records to now?
That’s a big question. I’ve got a lot of things that come to mind. The band has honed in an authentic sound. I think we’ve kind of grown out of the quirky type songs like “Chem 6A” and “Company Car” which I still love. We’ve gone into more of these speaking to the masses, big questions, important songs that feel important and honest. I think we’ve found a very quizzical approach in a lot of our music that has been a part of our calling and that has been a part of our voice in society.
I also think we have been one of the bands that has crossed lines drawn by Christian music and secular music critics. I think that when we started there was a lot of separation and now there’s been a lot more bridges built across this river that was separating these things and a lot of bands have been carried across over our backs so to speak and done great things which is I think is awesome. The band hasn’t changed in our security of who we are. How do I say it, you get to a place where you realize that the great artists are ones who don’t care what people think as much but just stick to what they know they’re supposed to do and I think that’s been one of the changes. I think we’ve decided that we’ll let the critics critique and we’ll just do what we know we’re supposed to do and continue pushing ahead in that.
That’s awesome. I think that’s a great message to younger bands too who are just getting going.
So tell me a bit about your religious background.
Grew up in a Baptist church. My dad was a chaplain for the Navy so I moved around a lot. He was a Southern Baptist pastor chaplain so we went to Southern Baptist churches quite a bit. Grew up singing hymns, singing in the choir, doing youth choir shows like “Music Machine” and “Down by the Boondocks” or whatever it is currently. I went to college at a school that was also a Baptist school because my youth pastor went there and I thought it would be cool because he was cool. I had to find out things for myself there so I went through a couple of years of finding myself and then had a revelation, I would call it almost a revolution, in my life during college and I’ve been a slave to that ever since and in a good way.
You know, I think it’s a journey that I’m still on in a lot of ways because I look back over my life and I see times of happiness and sorrow. I see times of joy and sorrow. I mean for prolonged periods of time I think I would go through a season of a dark night of the soul, if that makes any sense. There’s a book that I read about that called The Dark Night of the Soul. Then times of just new life and rebirth and grace. So I think my journey right now is at a place of where I feel like I’m in my prime as a person more than I have ever felt before I guess and I’m wanting to be moving and shaking and alive and kicking right now.
That’s great. I get that feeling from this record actually. That’s really neat.
Yeah, I mean if I can reference the song “Dark Horses,” I think that’s us. We wrote it about these homeless kids and it definitely captures that but it’s also us. I feel like we are the dark horses. We are the ones who are running in sub currents of culture and spreading a good infection, if you know what I mean.
An interview with Jerome Fontamillas
Tell me a bit about Vice Verses.
Well, the title of the album came from a song that we recorded during the previous recording session for Hello Hurricane. We knew that the next album was going to be called Vice Verses. So we already had an idea for this album Vice Verses and so after a couple years, we started recording Vice Verses and it actually came in pretty fast. I mean it fell into place really well. We recorded like 15 songs and we did it in a two or three month span and we’re real excited about the outcome.
Is any more of this material from the last album or is it all brand new?
For the last album we recorded 90 songs and there were a lot of songs that we wanted to put in Vice Verses. [In the end] I think only maybe a couple songs made it into Vice Verses. Jon, he’s a writing machine so he just writes, and those songs are ones we’re really excited about. Vice Verses actually was one of the songs from the Hello Hurricane sessions that made it to this which is interesting because that’s the title of the album.
That’s interesting. I’m a musician and I can’t imagine recording 90 songs. What is that like?
The great thing is we built our own studio in San Diego during that time so it was a lot easier to just go in and just lay it all out there. We didn’t have any time constraints so we didn’t have pressure from anyone. We could just go in there and start recording and that’s the idea – to just go in there and record whatever is on your mind. Record whatever is in your heart, whatever, and all of sudden, you know, you have a collection of about 90 songs.
I know you’ve been in several different groups. How is the process of writing an album different in Switchfoot than in other groups?
I was in a couple bands before Switchfoot and those other bands stylistically were totally different from Switchfoot. I was in a band called Mortal that was like industrial Goth. Very electronic and Switchfoot is more of a rock band, but performing and writing with Switchfoot has been incredible because they said, when they asked me to join them, “you know, we really like the added element of what you bring and the skies the limit.” Whatever you think is great, or good musically, that’s what we want. They gave me free reign.
How involved are you in the writing process?
There are five guys in the band and I’m one fifth of the involvement in writing. I mean Jon writes the songs on his acoustic guitar and he presents it to us and then all of us will go in there and say “okay this song needs this.” So I mean it’s an involved process but all of us get really involved in it. There are songs where it’s like “okay this is a keyboard based song, we want more keyboards in this song” or “this song is more guitar.” It all depends.
Do you have any desire to go back to doing more industrial music?
You know, that’s funny. Right before I flew out to Michigan I looked in my garage and there are two-inch tapes of Mortal and I was looking at it going man, you know, I should remix some of these songs. Music has always been changing and for me I always want to do music that’s challenging and pushing me further as a musician. So whether it’s maybe doing an industrial album in the future who knows. But I’m totally open to it.
I want to hear the industrial Switchfoot album.
Oh I know! Well, I think there’s an album that I did with Mortal. It’s like a greatest hits album where I had Jon sing. So if you could find it somewhere, it’s there. It’s an industrial song and I had Jon come in and sing it. It was pretty neat.
I didn’t hear quite as much of that in the new album. What kind of led to that or is that just kind of in the moment?
Because the songs were pretty straightforward. When you start adding all these different elements, a lot of times you got to be careful that it doesn’t take away from the song itself. So I was very careful in choosing variants and for a lot of these songs I wanted a lot of space, and with that idea you have to hold back a little bit. There’s a song called “Thrive” where there’s a lot of electronics on there. That one, that’s a great song too. It’s a good song to vibe to.
What is your favorite old school Switchfoot song to perform with the band?
Well, okay, I’ve been in the band for a little over 10 years. I joined them right after Learning to Breathe came out. I didn’t record on that album. I love the song “Learning to Breathe” itself. That’s a fantastic song to play live.
How much of the older stuff do you all get to play now?
Oh man, it’s hard because now there’s getting to be more and more new songs, you know, you have to take out a few here and take out a few there just to even fit in the timeframe. We’re really excited playing the new songs so we try to sneak those in. So it’s harder to play the older songs when you’re trying to sneak in all these new songs to play. But we still try to, maybe one or two of the older, older songs like “Company Car.” We always will try to sneak it in maybe in between a new song or two.
How has the reaction been to this album so far on the road?
We are playing like a couple of the songs in there and so far it has been really good. It’s always weird when the album is not out yet to play your songs to people who have never really heard it but when we play it, people really get excited about it. It’s hard to tell because they’re listening. They’re not just singing out to you. They’re listening to it because they want to hear it and so you’re thinking oh man they might not like it but really they’re like just really listening to the song.
So who do you listen to?
Well, I listen to a lot. A band that I just heard on my iPod, shuffle was Sigur Ros from Iceland. Another one that just shuffled in my iPod recently was the latest Radiohead which was really interesting to me.
What did you think about that album?
It’s just like wow. That’s out there. But I like it. I mean I love music where it’s musically it really like pushes you, you know. Wow. Awesome. But then you always go back. I have Sergeant Peppers on vinyl. I always would like put it on my record player at least once a month. The Beatles, it’s just awesome.
Is there anyone new that you’ve enjoyed listening to?
Let’s see, what just came out? Oh, a band called Foster the People, their music just started hitting radio and I really like that. I really like what’s happening there. I’m not sure other than that.
How do you feel like the band has changed since you joined?
Well they didn’t have a keyboard player before. (laughs)
When I joined them, they liked me bringing in the keyboard element, you know, whether it’s electronica or adding strings, just pushing the song. It’s really cool that you have that range, that openness with the band where they’re like “yeah, do whatever you need to do. Add keyboards here.”
Has there been anything that has changed spiritually in the band or is it the same way Switchfoot has always been?
Well, I mean, you know, there’s always a growth pattern, especially lyrically when you’ve been with a band for so long. You’re always striving, searching spiritually and that always translates in music as well. The common element that I feel like we’ve always had is that element of just hope, of longing for better, if not here, then beyond. We’ve always had that element in our music of just giving, pushing for hope, pushing for something that may not be here but in our next life.
What is your religious background?
My parents were actually missionaries in the Philippines, so I was born in the Philippines. So I grew up in a missionary home. It has been a great journey. I’m glad that my parents brought me up in a Christian home so that later on in life when I was searching for what I believed in, that foundation was there.
Definitely. How do you maintain your spiritual life while on tour?
The great thing is that all of us are Christians. All of us are believers and we understand that we are accountable to each other. It’s important, especially because we not only play in Christian festivals but we play at like mainstream festivals. We go out there in pretty dark places and if you don’t have that strong bond of accountability with [your] band members, it’s really difficult and it could really bring you down especially when you play in front of a dark audience. I’m just really glad and blessed that the guys in the band are in the same journey as me and that our beliefs are in something bigger than the band. As believers, we join together and it’s important that we’re accountable to each other since we’re going out there. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s pretty awesome.
Outside of the music was that one of the things that I guess attracted you to Switchfoot?
Oh yes. Well I was friends with them before. My other band, we would play with them in California. So I knew them for awhile before and we just became really good friends and because of that they were like, “Hey, why don’t you join us?”
That’s cool. Sometimes it just makes sense like that.
Yeah, it’s crazy that the door just opened and they needed a keyboard player. What’s a really funny story is that I was working at a 9 to 5 job. It was my second day on the job and my job was in data entry and I really hated life. I just was not feeling it so during my lunch break I called Jon up and said, “Hey, do you still need a keyboard player because I really don’t like my job.” He’s like, “Yeah, sure, come on down.” So right after I got off the phone with them I quit and haven’t stopped since.
That is great. Now do you have a family?
I have a one and a half year old boy and it’s awesome. One of the best things in life is having a family.
How often do you get to see them?
As often as I can. You know, being on the road is difficult but nowadays they have video chat. You can communicate with them that way. It’s just awesome to be able to communicate with your family while you’re gone.
Yeah. I imagine that has changed things somewhat.
Yeah, it’s so helpful. It’s so helpful to be able to get in touch with your family especially with my little boy.