Switchfoot goes surfing to chart new course

"Fading West," set for release in January, is Switchfoot's ninth album in a 17-year career. Al Pereira/WireImage

When Switchfoot needed ideas and a fresh perspective for its ninth album, the band headed to the beach and sought inspiration in the waves.

The plan was ambitious. They would visit surfing hotspots in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Bali while touring. They would try to step back from their guitar-driven sound and let the ocean environment and the experience influence the music.

"Putting ourselves into these landscapes, the four different countries that we traveled to ... they're very beautiful places, so wide-open," drummer Chad Butler said during the band's recent visit to ESPN's campus in Bristol, Conn. "We were really looking for inspiration for a different sonic picture. To really find that, you have to get outside your everyday (surroundings) and explore."

What emerged from the adventure fills a documentary film and a forthcoming album, both titled "Fading West." The album is due out Jan. 14, while the band is currently screening the film for audiences on tour and plans to release it on digital formats on Dec. 10. A three-song EP of music from the project is already available.

Filming started in 2012, followed by 10 months of editing the film and recording the songs the band wrote along the way.

"We've never worked harder on a project. We wrote probably somewhere around 100 tunes for this album and you hear 11 on the record," said Jon Foreman, the band's singer and principal songwriter. "We're very, very proud of the results."

Switchfoot named itself for the term for switching stance on a surfboard. Its core members -- Butler, singer and guitarist Jon Foreman and his brother, bassist Tim Foreman -- first met at surfing competitions in San Diego. Surfing icon Rob Machado lived on the same street as the Foreman brothers in San Diego and was Jon's assistant high school soccer coach. Newer members Jerome Fontamillas (keyboards, guitar) and Drew Shirley (lead guitar) are occasional surfers as well.

"You know, sitting in the water -- 90 percent of surfing is staring at this infinite horizon waiting for what's next," Butler explained. "That's a pretty inspiring place to be."

While Switchfoot never hid its connections to surfing, it hasn't been the band's identity. It's calling card has been songs about life's big questions and big issues -- faith, social justice, longing for meaning -- and setting them to crunchy guitars, heavy drums and anthemic choruses, as in their 2005 breakout hit "Meant To Live." They've also been a fixture for the past few college football seasons on ESPN, where their music has been featured on the network's college football programming.

But over time, Tim Foreman explained, Switchfoot realized the water was already part of its musical identity and decided "You know what, let's really lean into it with this project and really embrace the ocean and surfing as part of the inspiration."

The band also felt like it had found a way to convey its love of the sport with honesty and respect, Jon Foreman added.

"We've always been very reticent ... to try and use surfing for a gimmick, because surfing means a lot to us," he said. "We don't want to just use it to try and pretend and gain fans through some kind of ulterior motive."

The truth is that music shares many characteristics with the ocean.

"The beauty of the ocean is that there's a rhythm to it," Jon Foreman said. "The waves coming in and out, the tide coming in and out. There's tension. There's release. There's struggling for air from time to time. There's a feeling that you're not totally in control. And all of these things have a parallel with the studio and the stage."

As seen in a few excerpts from the "Fading West" documentary, chaos can come at you when you're not expecting it.

The first hint of choppy seas comes during Switchfoot's visit to Australia, the first stop in the band's adventure. Things start unraveling at a music festival where many of paying customers neither know nor care who they are. At first, the scene borders on the absurd, thanks to a technical glitch worthy of "This Is Spinal Tap." But things turn serious when Jon Foreman is called home -- a 30-hour flight back to San Diego -- for a family medical emergency.

The stakes are raised again when the band heads to Crayfish Factory, a world-class surfing hole near Cape Town, South Africa, and realizes they're in over their heads. The music inspired by this surf session accompanies the footage and tells the story: Monster waves soar and crash amid the growing musical tension and guitar noise as Jon Foreman sings about not being afraid of death. Drums signal the potential danger of great white sharks nearby.

The scene culminates as they emerge from the water to find a wave has snapped Jon Foreman's 10-foot board in half. "It was the most humbling experience of my life," he says.

Later, Switchfoot finds calmer waters and a blissful moment in Bali, where they paddle out with Machado and fellow pro Rizal Tanjung. Here, the music inspired by the experience includes Polynesian instruments and strikes a tranquil, soothing tone befitting an island paradise. The music isn't the only contribution to a Zen-like atmosphere: The band members and Tanjung are fine surfers, but Machado makes every move on the waves seem positively effortless. He doesn't surf the waves as much as glide among them.

While being on a wave you can't control can be unnerving, but giving in to the tidal force is essential to the experience -- as a surfer or a touring rock musician.

"For me, it took me a long time to embrace the chaos of the stage," Jon Foreman said. "That everything can go wrong and it will eventually. And I think the ocean is good preparation for chaos."

"You know, I used to see music as a way to get everything perfect. You tune your guitar, you practice, you get it just right. Everything's just right on the CD. And then I would hate playing live because humidity would affect the guitars, straps break, strings break, the power goes out, everything fails, you know?" he added. "It took me a long time to embrace the idea that those failures are actually opportunities. As a band that's what makes every night unique. It's those adversities that are actually allowing you to rise above them and bring the music to a new place."