With its play on words, Vice Verses, the title of Switchfoot's new album, coherently suggests the album's theme: everything has two sides. "Every blessing comes with a set of curses," singer-guitarist Jon Foreman sings on the title track, all the while wondering if "there's a meaning to it all." That theme runs through the album's 12 songs and is even reflected in the album's black and white cover.
"The whole thing is about polarity," says Foreman. "We wanted to write about the polarity of what it means to be human, the lights and darks. I'm always intrigued by the tension that exists between life and death. When making Hello Hurricane, there was a graveyard right by the hotel we were staying at while we were mixing it, and I spent a little bit of time there each morning walking through and sorting it outâ€¦really Vice Verses started there. This record is as much about loss as it is about what we still have while we're living."
One example of that quest for meaning includes the Foo Fighters-like "Afterlife", in which Foreman contemplates mortality. There are plenty of other good examples, too. In the ballad "Thrive", he muses, "Am I myself, or am I dreaming?" Foreman starts the hard-rocking, anthem-to-be "Dark Horses", by admitting, "I've made my mistakes." And in "Souvenirs", he practically channels U2's Bono as he croons, "Nothing lasts forever." But the one track that will really throw fans for a loop is "Selling the News", a Beck-like song with a hip-hop beat that finds Foreman performing spoken word.
"I think the song is inspired by a lot of different things," Foreman says of "Selling the News". "We are bombarded by a lot of talking heads and salespersons in terms of billboards and televisions. I began to ponder the idea that these enormous media machines are fed by advertisers, and they are happy when there's something sensational going on in the world. This is a new paradigm that we haven't seen before. There's this onslaught of information. The idea that we are raising generations that are completely accustomed to watching wars on TV is a little bit frightening to me."
"People will be surprised when they hear it," says drummer Chad Butler. "Jon's rhythmic delivery is amazing. I often feel like Jon is a drummer locked in a singer-guitarist's body. He's incredibly aware of beats and how they interplay with the vocals. The song is definitely influenced by the hip-hop we grew up listening to, whether it's A Tribe Called Quest or Beastie Boys."
When Switchfoot released Hello Hurricane in 2009, it symbolized a rebirth of sorts. After a good run with Columbia Records, the band self-financed the building of its own studio and the recording of the album and released it on lowercase people via Atlantic Records.
If 2009's Hello Hurricane suggested a new chapter in the musical book that is Switchfoot, consider Vice Verses to be a sequel of sorts. Foreman says the album is "a brand new chapter, but would not exist without Hello Hurricane" and refers to it as a "surgical procedure where everything is clean-cut." Like Hello Hurricane, it was recorded at the band's own studio, where the comfort level is now much higher since the guys have been able to work out all of the space's kinks.
"The making of Hello Hurricane was really difficult for us," says Butler. "We were on a journey where we didn't know what the destination was. This time was much easier, and I attribute that to knowing exactly what the songs were that we were going to work on, and knowing that we were going to emphasize the rhythm section. That put us in a position of strength this time. The process of recording was more enjoyable and much more focused."
"This is the second record we've made in our studio space, and it's amazing how we felt completely at home," adds Foreman. "It allowed us to focus and take chances."
The album's title track was actually one of the last songs the band wrote for Hello Hurricane. But it wasn't quite right for Hello Hurricane, so it was left on the cutting room floor.
"I was reluctant to put it on Hello Hurricane because it didn't really fit with the other material," Foreman says of the song. "So we shelved it and saved it for another record. We decided then that it would be the title for the next record, whatever it would look like. Well before Hello Hurricane came out, Vice Verses was well under way."
When it came time to actually record the song, the band tinkered with it to whip it into shape. "We tried a version where the guitar melody was actually played on the bass," explains Foreman. "We came back to the acoustic guitar and even though that was one of the first songs written for Vice Verses, it was the last song recorded because we kept striking out. It was hard to present the song so that not only was it clear in what it was trying to say, but also so that it was in keeping with this collection of other songs. Once we got the instrumentation right, it fit in really nicely."
Vice Verses also expands the band's sonic palette by experimenting with a variety of sounds. There's a great rhythm to songs such as the groove-oriented "The Original" and "Blinding Light", which benefit from a hip-hop backbeat. "The War Inside" really puts the rhythm section up front and the snappy "Rise Above It" recalls the Chili Peppers punk-funk.
"It's funny because for us, we're usually holding back," Foreman says. "On this record we let a little bit more out. "We grew up listening to soul music and Motown," says Butler. "We took that influence and made sure a song like 'Restless' has an emotional element to it."
The San Diego band first formed in 1996 when Foreman and his brother Tim put the group together. Butler says the band members were all friends from their days together at high school. At the time, the San Diego indie rock scene was thriving as bands such as Rocket from the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu had just started to gain national attention.
In keeping true to its San Diego roots, the band annually hosts Switchfoot Bro-Am, an event that benefits the San Diego-based StandUp for Kids, a national non-profit helping homeless and at risk youth. The Bro-Am includes a surf contest, charity auction, and festival concert. The event has raised over $500,000 (all figures U.S.) to date, and this year's event attracted 10,000 people.
"San Diego has given us so much," Foreman says. "Bro-Am is the most rewarding week of our lives. I've been given so much, it's natural for me to give back to these kids who have been dealt a tricky hand. These are amazing kids who are dealing with all sorts of issues."
In addition to his role in Switchfoot, Foreman still finds time for Fiction Family, the acoustic outfit that he fronts alongside Nickel Creek's Sean Watkins. He has also become a columnist for the Huffington Post and writes about topics as wide-ranging as his backyard garden and inspirational civil rights leaders.
"We love music and playing together," he says. "We thrive on the communal aspect of song and the stories that are invested within. We've been through a lot togetherâ€¦ Incredible, wonderful moments and also really destructive, painful moments. You can feel that weight in some of the songs. It's an incredible dream-come-true to say, 'It's time for a new Switchfoot record' and to be able to go into the studio and make the album exactly how we want to make it."