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For Jon Foreman and the rest of Switchfoot, there is no point in doing things the easy way. Easy would be trying to carve out a rock 'n' roll career for themselves in either the mainstream or Christian scenes, rather than both. Easy would be taking their lifelong love of surfing and somehow finding a way to do that for a living instead of touring constantly. Easy would even be just going on the road, instead of bringing along a film crew to document the joys, pains, struggles, and excitement of being in a rock band.
But easy has never been Switchfoot's M.O., and as its documentary, Fading West — which will screen at the start of its upcoming show at Grand Canyon University Arena — attests, life on the road is anything but easy. This film captures the struggles that Foreman and his bandmates go through on a daily basis, reconciling their faith with difficult situations, finding inspiration to keep making music after 17 years as a band, working to be good fathers and husbands despite being half a world away sometimes — and it pulls no punches. The process was uncomfortably revealing for Foreman.
"It was a humbling process," Foreman says, laughing. "Quite frankly, there are many moments we left in [where] I wish I were somebody else, but we wanted the film to be honest. We can't change the past. One thing I learned through the documentary is that we don't have a lot of answers. We're still wrestling through, and that's tough."
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Foreman and his bandmates are among the best-known Christians in pop, so hearing them admit they don't have a lot of the answers might be surprising to some. But anyone who's familiar with Switchfoot's discography, including its last full-length album, 2011's Vice Verses, knows Foreman always has been one to wrestle with deep issues. For Foreman, his faith and his personal life are part of an ongoing process.
"As human beings, we're never static; we're always changing," he says. "My daughter's a different person than when we started making this film, and likewise for myself. So trying to find balance is probably better than trying to find some form of static homeostasis. And I think within that there has to be the ability to say, 'I don't know.' The movie's pretty open-ended like that, and I'm glad that it leaves it up to the viewer to come up with their own opinion."
Over the course of 80 minutes, Fading West chronicles the band's 2012 world tour to Australia, New Zealand, Bali, and South Africa. Along the way, there's fun surfing in exotic locations, with legendary surfers Rob Machado and Tom Curren, and a reunion with village children from Kayamandi, South Africa, who inspired the 2005 song "The Shadow Proves the Sunshine," but there are struggles as well. Being away from their families for extended periods of time never gets easier, and in Foreman's case, he has to leave early at one point and come back home to be with his daughter when she needs emergency medical attention.
Such difficulties lead to some hard questions about how to be good fathers and husbands, and even whether the rock 'n' roll life is worth it. It's not all fun and games on the road, and the questioning and soul-searching is sometimes more than Foreman would like to deal with, especially in public, but by the end of the documentary, they seem to be beneficial. They way Foreman sees it, such tension can be good, especially since he has the outlet of songwriting at his disposal to help him explore the dynamics of that tension.
"God doesn't need a lawyer, so I figure the sooner I can express my doubts, fears, anger, and frustration about the way the world is, and find a healthy outlet for this tension that I have," Foreman says, "then that feels like a great use of my time as a songwriter."
Foreman's thesis about people changing also can be applied to the band musically. Strung through Fading West, for example, one can see the diverse palette the band employed during the creative and recording process for its forthcoming album — also called Fading West — which is due out in January. The band is known for its gritty guitar riffs and catchy pop rock melodies, but segments of the film are scored with ambient noise and highly organic instrumentation rather than crunchy electric guitars. Whether these songs will actually make it onto the album is unknown, but the exploration was intentional.
"We really pushed ourselves and viewed the film as an avenue to explore different parts of music that we've never really fleshed out as a band," he says. "You can get caught up in routines, and that's one of the most dangerous places to be if you're involved in some sort of creative pursuit, because if you're not creative then you're just rehashing the things you've done before.
"I think that's been a challenge for us with every record — how do we approach these same melodies and even the same subject matter you're wrestling with, with fresh eyes? So with this record, the goal was to try and step out of our comfort zone."
And therein lies the duality that permeates the very fabric of Switchfoot's existence: In seeking to step outside the comfort zone and do things differently each time, the band is in a sense, doing the exact same thing every time. It is not easy constantly trying to refine yourself as a musician and a person, and it is not easy to refine your beliefs as you go through life, but Foreman and the rest of Switchfoot are constantly making the attempt, however difficult. Part of the reason is simple: They know their fans are just as invested in this group as they are. Foreman feels that pressure acutely.
"The moment you figure out that people other than your best friends might actually hear the song that you're writing, it influences your writing style as well, for better and for worse," he admits. "Sometimes it forces you to get out of your headspace, your comfort zone, and write about some larger subject matter, but other times I think you begin to second-guess yourself in some ways that aren't healthy. Those are the things that I wrestle with, trying to find a way to use a song to grapple with big issues without chickening out. Speaking truth is the hardest thing to do."
As Fading West shows, anything worth doing is bound to be hard at times. You leave family, friends, and your regular life behind, and the actual doing can be a grind. But early in the film, Foreman makes a statement that perfectly encapsulates the ongoing joys and struggles the band has to deal with.
"If you're leaving your family behind," Foreman begins, "you'd better believe in what you're singing."
Foreman believes in the band's songs, and so do his fans. Life on the road might not be easy, but for Foreman, it sure as hell is worth it.