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On the lead single from their ninth studio album Fading West, Grammy Award-winning alt-rock band Switchfoot look back to a time when they’d just begun to push toward their dreams of bringing their music to the world. Featuring choir-like backing vocals from the band members’ children—as well as the blend of edgy atmospherics and bright, breezy melodies that’s become a hallmark of Switchfoot’s emotionally intelligent and uplifting brand of rock—“Who We Are” embodies both a sweetly youthful spirit and the hard-won, highly impassioned joy that comes from triumphing through 17 years as a band.
Throughout Fading West—the latest addition to a catalogue that has sold 5.5 million copies worldwide, including 2003’s double-platinum breakthrough The Beautiful Letdown and 2009’s Grammy Award-winning Hello Hurricane—Switchfoot reflect on their journey while wholeheartedly exploring all the pain and wonder of the present. According to frontman Jon Foreman—who founded Switchfoot with his brother Tim and their high-school friend Chad Butler in San Diego in 1996—hitting that balance required a great deal of rediscovery on the part of the band. “The point became, ‘What are we going to do to push ourselves?’” says Foreman of the earliest stages of Fading West’s creation. “Could we take ourselves somewhere we’d never been before, yet achieve a feeling of comfort at the same time? How do we go to a new place that feels like home?”
Produced by the Foreman Brothers in collaboration with Neal Avron (whose previous work includes mixing albums by Aerosmith, Weezer, and Fitz & the Tantrums), Fading West was ultimately born on the road and in the waves. While touring in support of their 2011 album Vice Verses, the longtime surfers set out in search of songwriting inspiration by visiting several of their favorite surf breaks around the world. “The idea was to surf, write songs, play music, and see what ideas came,” explains Tim. Traveling to Jeffreys Bay and Crayfish Factory in South Africa, Bronte Beach in Australia, Raglan in New Zealand, and Uluwatu in Bali, the band threw themselves into a voyage both physical and emotional—an endeavor they chronicled in a documentary film also entitled Fading West—and soon found themselves infusing new energy, soul, and sound into their music.
Opening with the sunny and shimmering “Worth the Fight,” Fading West sees Switchfoot building off the melodic pop sensibility of their early years with bigger, bolder arrangements and heady electro effects. Soaked with soaring harmonies, the album offers up its share of heart-on-sleeve love songs, such as the guitar-powered “When We Come Alive” and the throbbing, groove-heavy “All or Nothing.” Changing gears on “Say It Like You Mean It,” Switchfoot delivers a dizzying assault that merges frenzied vocals, furious guitar, skittering beats, and world-weary lyrics (“Feels a lot like we’ve lost the goal/Lost our minds and lost the soul”)–then strips that all away to dreamy harmonies and hypnotic sitar. Then, on the stirring and slow-building “World You Want,” Fading West turns quietly intense and imparts a global message that’s cautionary but empowering (“Is this the world you want?/You're making it/Every day you're alive”).
At the heart of Fading West is a trilogy of songs that perfectly capture the soul-searching that initially inspired the album. On the sweeping, midtempo “Slipping Away,” the band turns melancholy in its tenderly poetic remembering of their younger years (“Remember coming home at four in the morning/Before the sun was up/Back when the east was a fire of gold/Just waiting for the rest of the sky to fall in love”). Next, on “BA55,” Switchfoot slides into a much darker soundscape marked by swirling distortion, majestically heavy bass, and—in the end—a sense of transcendence that’s entirely true to the song’s promise to “let my soul fly.” Finally, with the anthemic “Let It Out,” Fading West bursts open into a unabashedly joyful mood intensified by power-pop hooks, sparkling piano, handclap-driven beats, and the lyrical plea to “Breathe it in and let it out.”
For Switchfoot, the blissed-out peace that shines through songs like “Let It Out” stems largely from the band members’ redefining their relationship with home. “For a long time, home was a place of failure because it meant that we didn’t have any shows,” notes Jon. “When you drop out of college in your early ’20s and all your friends are getting jobs and you’re the guy who lives with his parents, it’s way better to be on the road. Only recently did I feel like home was a place where I could feel comfortable and content.”
Today, “home” still means the beaches of San Diego where the Foremans and Butler first connected as surfers and eventually formed the band that Jerome Fontamillas would join in September 2000, followed by Drew Shirley in 2005. Signed to re:Think Records after just 20 gigs, Switchfoot put out their debut album The Legend of Chin in 1997, signed to Columbia Records in time for their fourth album The Beautiful Letdown, and released two more albums with Sony (2005’s Nothing Is Sound and 2006’s Oh! Gravity) before going their separate ways with the company. Itching for creative freedom, Switchfoot financed the building of the studio where they recorded Hello Hurricane and Vice Verses, both of which they released on their own lowercase people records via Atlantic Records. In the midst of all that music-making and subsequent touring, in 2005 the band created the Bro-Am Foundation to benefit local children's charities that aid at-risk, homeless, and street kids in San Diego.
To form the closing segment of Fading West, Switchfoot chose two tracks that serve as love songs to the ocean: the playful yet sprawling “Salt Water,” and the huge-hearted epic “Back to the Beginning.” It’s a fitting finish to an album that was largely inspired by the sea, which Jon describes as a perfect metaphor for simultaneously experiencing reassurance and danger. “You’re comfortable out there, but it’s the unknown,” he says. “You can paddle out in South Africa and it’s exactly like home and nothing like home all at once. That’s what I’m hoping our record feels like—trying to find peace in dangerous places.”