What is true happiness? asks Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman. Is it a comfortable four-door sedan with tinted windows? Does it mean I have 2.3 children and a beautiful wife and live in a great neighborhood? Everyone has their own version of what happiness means, but many of the things were going for, and I include myself in this, are absurd. Theres this moment in Jewish scripture, in Ecclesiastes, where it says, Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless. Thats the place where our new record starts.
The San Diego alt-rock bands new record, Nothing is Sound, once again finds Foreman questioning everything, as he did on the bands two and a half-million selling breakout album The Beautiful Letdown. Thats pretty much where our music naturally goes, he says. I ask myself questions and sing about it. A lot of these songs are like an oyster. A bit of sand gets in and its abrasive and troublesome. The oyster starts working on it and a few years later you open it up and theres pearl in there. Thats what I do in my songschew on the more abrasive parts of my life.
Switchfoots non-stop touring schedulethey performed 400 shows over the last two yearsgave Foreman plenty of time to gnaw. In fact, Nothing is Sound was recorded on the road. The band was so busy that they didnt have time to take a break to make a record. So they set up their instruments and recording equipment in the dressing room every night and would lay down tracks in between interviews and soundcheck.
That was one advantage we had on this record, says Foreman. Wed been playing some of the songs, like Daisy and Politicians, off and on for a while. We got to road test them, check the tires, and switch things up before we ever pressed the record button. The audiences determined which songs were selected and how they turned out. The trickiest part is trying to capture what we do live and bottle it up into the 1s and 0s on a CD. It helped to play these songs live, feel that energy, and say, Okay, this is what we have to match.
Switchfoot did go into a proper studio to cut drums and other parts. They produced the album themselves with the aid of Letdown producer John Fields, whom Foreman praises as quick and passionate about music. Thats a great combination.
Foreman describes the groups unorthodox approach to recording as a blend of professional with bro-fessional, combining the skillfully engineered sounds you get from a proper studio with the more raw noise that you get from my garage, he says. Both are necessary in making a record. You want it to be honest and raw, but it has to be also listenable.
Its Switchfoots raw honesty that has continued to inspire the groups hordes of loyal fans, and Nothing is Sound does not disappoint in that area. It retains Foremans signature thoughtful, questioning lyrics and bathes them in huge hooks and crashing guitars. The albums centerpiece is Happy is a Yuppie Word that takes its title from a 1991 interview Bob Dylan gave to Rolling Stone in which Dylan was asked, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, if he was happy. Dylan replied, Those are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. Its not happiness or unhappiness, its blessed or unblessed.
For me, Happy is a Yuppie Word is the heart of the record pumping blood out to the limbs and mouth, Foreman says. Its that existential urban/suburban moment of thinking, Wow, all this happiness that Ive been trying to achieve is really just the yuppie version.
From there, its a seamless jump to Easier Than Love, in which Foreman bemoans corporate product branding and marketing. We are the target market / We set the corporate target, he sings. That song is about how one of the most beautiful intimate moments in a humans life is used to sell a can of beer or auto parts. Sex is easier than love.
Along the same theme is the opening track Lonely Nation, which Foreman wrote in 2004 when Switchfoot performed a long stretch of rock radio shows. Id walk around near the back and just breathe in the lonelinessmasses of scared kids, he says. I remember thinking how ironic it is that you have this generation of kids connected through Instant Messaging and text messages, yet people grow more and more lonely every day.
Another track, The Blues, is the next step from The Beautiful Letdown both musically and lyrically. It references New Years Day and was written on January 1, 2004. I tend to write some of my favorite songs on significant days in my life, Foreman says. This one means a lot to me, its like a modern day Psalm of sortsa long meandering song about how the end of the world might actually be a beautiful day.
These kind of personal moments infuse Nothing is Sound. Another example is The Shadow Proves the Sunshine, which was inspired by a fact-finding trip Switchfoot took to South Africa in January 2005 to see for themselves the impact that poverty and disease has had on the region. For the last few years, the band has been active in Bonos charity organization DATA, which promotes AIDS awareness and debt relief for developing nations, but Foreman describes the trip to South Africa, and meeting children orphaned by AIDS, as a turning point in his life. You realize how poor we are as Americans, he says. We might have a nice SUV, but nothing to show for our humanity.
The song grapples with the idea that South Africa, which has endured many years of oppression and poverty, is a place where Ive never seen so much light or joy or happiness, he says. So I may write about how everything is meaningless, but its a very hopeful thing for me to be proven wrong.