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Hurricane Katrina inspiration for Switchfoot's new CD
Switchfoot, the five-man, alternative-rock band, will be releasing its new CD, "Hello Hurricane," next week. - photo by Photo courtesy of Day 19
Few multimillion-selling rock bands can match Switchfoot when it comes to having no public image to speak of and maintaining a low profile. But that is  exactly the way this veteran San Diego band — whose seventh album, "Hello Hurricane," is released Tuesday — likes it.
"To be honest, a big reason for that is San Diego and how accepting people here were of any form of musical expression, which — when you're in high school — is really rare," said Jon Foreman, 33, the band's lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter.
"When we were at San Dieguito High School, we'd play gigs with jam bands and punk bands, and it was all accepted. I feel like that's been carried on in Switchfoot, and it gives you a confidence that you don't have to be something you're not. We've often talked about how so many bands are so connected with an image, like ska or whatever current musical fad is passing through, and when that fad goes away then the band goes away, too."
The five-man band, which early on was inspired by such seminal San Diego bands as Rocket from the Crypt and Three Mile Pilot, is now in its 13th year, which is almost an eternity by modern rock standards.
With the release of "Hello Hurricane," its first album for Atlantic Records after three for Columbia (and several previous indie label releases), Switchfoot has taken a bold step forward, sonically and lyrically, a partial reinvention.
A dozen songs strong and inspired in part by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the album rocks with a newfound ferocity on songs that at times match the anthem-like qualities of U2 in its prime. The heavier moments are offset by several finely textured ballads, which are infused with a melancholic sense of longing for meaning in these troubled times.
Loud or soft, powerful or delicate, the music that results has an unmistakable sense of commitment that sounds almost bigger than life.
"I think it's a Dolly Parton quote — 'If you ain't crying, why (are) you singing it?' — that became the benchmark for this album," Foreman said.
"And many songs that move me have that anthemic quality, where the subject matter is bigger than yourself and has some sort of transcendent air about it. I've heard that good poetry leaves a lot of holes in it that let transcendence shine through. So, maybe that anthemic quality is part of that. One intention we had was that we would 'see the horizon' with every song."
Switchfoot, which began as a Christian rock band co-founded by Foreman and his bass-playing brother, Tim, uses its listener-friendly songs to look at the big picture and to address spiritual concerns. But it does so without sounding preachy or espousing a specific religious doctrine.
"It's hard to write a direct song about nebulous subject matter," said Foreman, who years ago rejected the "Christian rock" tag as confining, if not misleading. "And most of the things that interest me are the things I don't understand.
The first nine songs on "Hello Hurricane," which include such galvanizing selections as "Bullet Soul," "Needle and Haystack Life" and the raging "Mess of Me" are carefully constructed to build dynamic tension. The final three songs — "Yet," "Sing it Out" and the celeste-tinged "Red Eyes" — are heartfelt ballads designed to provide release and a cautiously hopeful resolution.
"That's pretty accurate; we did want there to be an arc," Foreman said. "The goal for us was almost like a hurricane approaching, a hurricane present and a hurricane leaving. That was the thought behind it. We also wanted to structure it in terms of two sets of songs, a side A and a side B."
"Kind of like a cassette tape or a vinyl album," interjected Switchfoot keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas, also 33.
"These days, many people only listen to one or two songs. So, to listen to an album as a whole, we wanted to plan this so you'll hear the emotional highs, lows and the dramatic arc of the whole thing."
Switchfoot, which also includes drummer Chad Butler and guitarist Drew Shirley, has never rocked harder than it does on "Hello Hurricane." Some of the credit for the album's velocity goes to producer Mike Elizondo, who has worked with hip-hop icons Eminem and Dr. Dre, as well as singer-songwriters Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor.
The amped-up sound Elizondo helps Switchfoot achieve is a surprisingly natural fit for him and the band, whose past success has stemmed largely from the band's melody rich brand of sleek alternative-rock. Melodies aren't played down on "Hello Hurricane," but the guitars rage with fresh fury and Butler's enormous drum sound at times approaches Led Zeppelin's John Bonham for sheer wallop.
Foreman met Elizondo early this year when he and former Nickel Creek guitarist-singer Sean Watkins, Foreman's partner in the folk-rock band Fiction Family, were playing a show at Largo in Los Angeles. Elizondo, who sat in on upright bass, ended up with them at a late-night jam session.
This in turn led to Foreman and Elizondo co-writing a song. Foreman was so pleased by the outcome he called the rest of Switchfoot to come join them in L.A. as soon as possible.
"There was a really great feeling of trust with Mike," Foreman said. "And the biggest thing you're looking for, in terms of production, is trust. We ended up sending him 80 songs we'd (recorded) in our North County studio and another 40 that were more rough. He got back to us a month later and we started making a game plan. He was very decisive, even on songs he didn't produce directly, in helping us decide what songs made the album."
Fontamillas is also quick to sing Elizondo's praises.
"It was hard to imagine him making all those rap albums, because he was so good working with us to make a rock album," the dark-haired keyboardist said. "It felt like it just came natural to him."
Foreman is a former University of California, San Diego computer-music student, who left school to devote all his time to Switchfoot. While he is proud of the palpable aural impact of his band's new album, he admits to writing nearly every song on it using either acoustic guitar or piano.
"When you write with a guitar, many times you can picture a different sound. The tone is just a placeholder for the note and you hear the rest of it (in your head)," Foreman said with a laugh.
"It can be really discouraging when you play a (bare bones) song for someone the first time and they don't hear all these extra things in their head. It just sounds OK to them."
The music on "Hello Hurricane" sounds a lot better than OK. But the album was the result of a lot of woodshedding, experimentation and stops and starts that had Switchfoot's members wondering if all their efforts would ever bear fruit.
"We recorded so many styles, some very electronic, some acoustic, some a mix of both," Fontamillas said. "The hardest part was to figure out who we were as Switchfoot."
Ultimately, the answer to that question became evident to the band, which regards "Hello Hurricane" as the start of a vital new chapter.
"That was the moment that defined the record," Foreman said. "These are songs we want to bask in, songs we want to sing for the next 10 years."