Synths and Surfing with Switchfoot

by Robbie Gennet In the world of journalism, hanging with bands is usually confined to backstage areas, green rooms, and if you’re lucky, studio settings. Occasionally a meal may go down, but all too often our time is brief, and

by Robbie Gennet

In the world of journalism, hanging with bands is usually confined to backstage areas, green rooms, and if you’re lucky, studio settings. Occasionally a meal may go down, but all too often our time is brief, and though we ask all the requisite questions, we don't always get a great sense for the real people behind the rock star facade. So when I got the opportunity to go check out Switchfoot in the band’s secret studio down in southern California, I took a chance and asked if the guys would be interested in paddling out and catching some waves, knowing that most of them are lifelong surfers from the San Diego area. In fact, the word "switchfoot" is a surfing term that refers to being able to ride in both left and right stances. Plus, the band holds a yearly charity event called the Bro-Am, which brings together the music and surf worlds for great causes such as StandUp for Kids, a charity that helps homeless and street kids across the country. Find out more at

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So I found myself suiting up down in San Diego to paddle out with bassist Tim Foreman and drummer Chad Butler to catch some waves before heading into the studio (keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas is not a surfer, though we'd be meeting up later in the studio to watch him cut some tracks). My good friend Manny Vargas was there with watercam in hand to document the event, and although the waves weren't huge, we had a sweet session and a chance to chat out in the water. Chad and Tim showed themselves to be more than competent surfers and really nice individuals. Their love of surf rivals their love of music, and they're truly humble about their success. The Bro-Am event is in its seventh year, and has raised both money and awareness for homeless children. It also presents an opportunity for the band to give back to their hometown and community with this fantastic beach party every June.

Switchfoot started out with a Best New Artist win at the 1997 San Diego Music awards and ASCAP awards and have racked up a host of GMA Dove awards, including 2005 Artist of the Year. And this year (2011), the band won their first ever Grammy in the Best Rock Gospel Album category for their latest album, Hello Hurricane. Though the band’s lyrics aren't overly religious, they were originally marketed as a Christian rock band during a time singer/guitarist Jon Foreman describes as when "half of who we were was lost." No matter the categorization, winning a Grammy is a solid validation of the band's popularity and musical maturation. Though they're excited by the win, they seem even more driven to keep evolving as a band and as musicians. And lucky for them, they can fit in a few surf sessions along the way both here and on the road worldwide.

After a few hours in the water, it was time to head to the studio to meet up with the rest of the band. After drying off and changing, we followed the guys to their übersecret studio and entered through a nondescript door to find ourselves in an amazing facility where an overdubbing session was in full swing. The multilevel studio was chock full of gear and instruments, and we went to the upstairs lounge to have a post-surf espresso or two. Soon keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas arrived, and we got to talking about his role in the band, both live and in studio, which you'll soon read about in a full magazine feature. Suffice to say, he was a gracious dude who was all too stoked to show us around. The main studio housed a Minimoog Voyager and an old Rhodes Mark I suitcase electric piano, along with a beat-up Korg Triton and an Arturia Analog Experience "Player" controller/software combo.

With Switchfoot's modern-rock sound, Fontamillas finds the Voyager coming into play quite often when creating layered parts to bolster the guitar parts. When playing live, the band doesn't run tracks, a fact they always consider when recording so that they can pull off the songs live. Fontamillas loves the Korg family of keyboards for his live setup, especially the Korg M3. He creates samples from the Moog, and because they are time-sensitive, he trusts the Korgs and their RPPR technology for triggering samples on the beat in real time. (RPPR stands for Realtime Pattern Play and Record.) While we were in the studio, Fontamillas cut a quick part on the Rhodes, and we got to check out some of the pedals that they use to run the keys through. Fontamillas’ favorites are the Roland Space Echo, the Lovetone Big Cheese pedal, and the Malekko B:Assmaster pedal. It looked like a super-fun place to get a lot of work done, and the rocking results will surely speak for themselves, as they did on Hello Hurricane, which was also recorded here.

After a while, we said our goodbyes, knowing the band had work to do and needed to focus. We look forward to hearing the new album when it's done--the snippets we heard were sounding really good, and the band was excited about the new material. Look for Switchfoot on the road worldwide in April and at the Bro-Am in San Diego in June, and keep your ears open for the band’s forthcoming new album, currently titled Vice Verses. And if you're lucky, you may get to share a few waves and smiles with Chad and Tim along the way.

Check out Switchfoot on the web at

Robbie Gennet is a musician, writer, and hardcore body-boarder who just released a music instruction book/DVD called The Key of One, which aims to make learning music enjoyable for the sheet-music-phobic. Get it at

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