March 27, 2014 Interview – Drew Shirley of Switchfoot
Music is one of the most captivating forms of art known to humanity. When you combine a love for creating rock-n-roll with good intentions you give birth to something amazing. Southern Californians Switchfoot have made the most of their mainstream success with series of chart-peaking albums, worldwide touring, and charitable giving. Over the years the band’s dynamic blend of melodic guitar-driven songs has lead them as one of alternative rocks more exploratory acts.
Expanding their horizons once again, Switchfoot filmed a visually and emotionally moving documentary titled Fading West, along with an 11-track album by the same name. Recently we sat down with lead guitarist Drew Shirley for a closer look at the drive by the band, the inspiration of the film and music of Fading West, learning from other cultures, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – Switchfoot has been together now eighteen years. In that time the band has released an impressive nine studio albums and become one of the most well-known rock bands in the world. You joined up with the band back in 2003 shortly after the release of the breakthrough album The Beautiful Letdown. What was it like being submerged into the whirl-wind of success right from the get go with the band?
Drew Shirley – It was pretty awesome. Things did not kick off until I joined the band (laughs). I just say that as a joke, because the guys were working hard well before I joined the band. It was a whirl-wind. Those years were definitely crazy. That was a time in the music industry before downloading started becoming a thing. The music industry was much different and to use a shameless surf analogy, we caught the last big wave of the record industry with that album, The Beautiful Letdown.
CrypticRock.com – Times were different, it has been a crazy ride for the band. Over that time the band has sold over 5.5 million albums and toured all over the world. Most of all, you have been very active in raising money to aid homeless kids through your Bro-Am Foundation. To be able to create music and be successful at it is surreal within itself, but to be able to make a physical difference in lives is magical. You will now be approaching the tenth anniversary of the foundation, what ignited the band’s idea of starting this?
Drew Shirley – As a band we want to do things that last and impact the communities that we tour in. When you sing a song it is a great night, everyone is unified around that song and that concert, then it is over; you leave the city and people have a memory and picture on their Instagram. We wanted to try and leave more than that with the people that we play for, and with the career that we have and the platform we have been given. It is really just something that sprung out of who we are as people, we are all into that sort of philanthropy and charity-giving already just as people. It was just a natural thing to say, “Well, what can we do as a band to help other people”. When you stop and think about it everyone has a responsibility to take care of the people around. Every day of your life you change the world, which is one of the lyrics of our song “The World You Want”. That song asked the question, is this the world you want? You are making it every day you are alive. We realized that as a band and thought let us do our part, so we are just trying to do our part.
CrypticRock.com – It is really special that you use that platform that you have been given to do great things like that. The band’s sound has progressed over the years from album to album. The music has always been extremely guitar driven and rhythmical, but constantly expanding the boundaries. What has inspired the band as songwriters to continue pushing the limits of your sound?
Drew Shirley – As a band you are always looking for a new inspiration. You cannot keep singing the same songs, they will get old and you will move on. That was the motivation behind filming Fading West, to looking for inspiration for a new sound, a new batch of songs, a new set of memories, and a new inspiration. So we chased songs, we chased waves around the world, filmed it, and put it out as a documentary. That essentially is what motivated and started the film.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like an amazing experience and exciting way to look for new inspiration. Your most recent album Fading West goes along with the film and was recently released in January. Tell me about the concept behind the music and the writing and recording process?
Drew Shirley – In the writing and recording of the album we did a few things different. We picked up a lot of instruments from around the world along with a lot of sounds and vibes. We thought the guitar is such a California instrument; it is such an American rock band instrument. John and I, being the guitar players, decided at the beginning of the recording that we were going to put guitar on the songs last and only if they needed it. So we did not start any song with the recording of a guitar riff, we held back on that, that really changed the sounds in the studio. The songs start to evolve and get filled in with other sounds, whether it be drums and bass, or vocal layers, or keyboard layers. It was a fun process, being that it was sort of a soundtrack to the film we gave ourselves a lot of liberty there to say, “Let’s just make this album be what it wants to be and not worry about anything that has come before it or will come after it”.
CrypticRock.com – That is very interesting and seems to have worked well for the band. The album is fresh sounding and clearly has a different approach for the band. To some less open listeners, this album could appear as a risky experiment, but the band has never really constricted themselves to a genre. As songwriters, did you at all fear the reaction of fans or did you relish in the idea that you would catch people off guard with something new and different?
Drew Shirley – We did, that is what you want bands to do right? Push the envelope and do something different. If artists are not taking chances then who is, and who should be? I think it is artists and the musicians following that muse and inspiration, looking to express and finding new sounds and new ways of seeing what they are feeling. The best song is the most honest song, if you write from your heart chances are someone else will understand that and connect with it. It will resonate with people.
CrypticRock.com – I totally agree with you. It has to be honest and from the heart. The film Fading West was released digitally in December of 2013. The film is available directly through the band right now. Will physical copies be distributed through retail outlets in the future?
Drew Shirley – Yes, I think it will be at the end of this year around Christmas time when we will put out physical copies of the DVD. We decided to release it online first and then license it with DirecTV, Fuel, Fuse, and Time-Warner cable. Then we will actually put the DVD out for physical sale.
CrypticRock.com – That will be exciting for fans to have a physical copy and add it to their collection. The movie is filmed beautifully in many locations around the world with amazing production quality. What was the making of the film like?
Drew Shirley – The camera guys did such great work. They were like the Steven Spielberg of the water out there. Those guys were pulling out five cameras at a time filming the surfing, catching all different angles, and underwater shots. The locations we were in were just out of this world beautiful, and they captured it. We wanted people to feel like they were there, wanted to go there, and experience it with us. At times it was really annoying, just feeling like get this camera out of here (laughs). You became used to it after a little while though, to where you could start relaxing and being yourself a little more. That is where the good stuff starts to happen, where you could relax, be yourself, not worry about the camera, and whatever they catch is fine.
CrypticRock.com – This film really captures some great moments. Another great aspect of the filming was there were no special effects; this was all really and not touched-up in post production to make it look perfect.
Drew Shirley – That is right, there were no touch-ups at all. We actually surfed the waves, I did not actually, but my band mates did. It was a lot work to get all those shots. It gave us a new appreciation for making movies. It probably also made us realize we probably will not make another movie like that (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – It is a lot of work but as you stated gives you a good appreciation of the art of film-making. The band has spent a lot of time on the road in their career within North America and abroad. Seeing different cultures and how others live is an amazing experience. What have you learned most in your years seeing the world and performing to different cultures?
Drew Shirley – That is a good question, I have learned a lot of things. I learned that the way that America does things is not the only way to do things. We live in a bubble; we live in a culture with things around us that we are used to. When you travel you realize there are a lot ways to do things that can work. Just one example is parking and cars, you go to Indonesia and the cars and mopeds are just everywhere. You can just flow with the traffic and it is this crazy roller coaster living organism type thing where people are just cutting in front of people and parking mopeds wherever they want. The first thing as an American, you go there and think I am going to die; this is crazy, someone needs to change this system. Then you realize they are all doing it just fine. They are all driving, getting where they need to go quickly, and they are all letting each other pass. That is just what they do, it works for them. They will have babies, a mirror, and two adults on one moped, and holding groceries at the same time, getting home fine. That is just an analogy, America tends to think that it has everything right and we do everything the best. While we have a lot of blessings and a lot of amazing attributes to where we live, those same attributes exist in other cultures. In South Africa they take care of the children, there will be orphans, but they do not want to call them orphans, because they are not. Their extended families will take care of them. It is not uncommon if your parents are not able to take care of you to be raised by your aunt, uncle, or grandma. The family surrounds people and they grow up with whatever family members can take care of them. There is a lot of beauty to that and a lot of ingenuity. There is a lot beauty to other cultures I realized while traveling around the world.
CrypticRock.com – Traveling the world can be very enlightening. There are a lot of interesting things to learn and a lot you can take away from traveling and apply it to your own life. Just because you live in one culture does not mean you have to conform to everything around you. Traveling makes you realize there is such a big world out there.
Drew Shirley- It is a big world, traveling will make you appreciate what you have and also learn from other things you do not have.
CrypticRock.com – That is extremely true. What are some of your personal musical influences?
Drew Shirley – I would have to say Led Zeppelin is a big musical influence for me. Jimmy Page is probably my favorite musician, just because he plays with such a freedom. Not with just guitar parts, but he plays keyboard parts, horn parts, string parts, and orchestra parts, and he played them all on the guitar. That is what I like to do, to make my guitar be part of a song, not just a guitar trying to be a guitar. I also am influenced by pop music around me. I grew up listening to everything from The Cure, to Guns N’ Roses, to ZZ Top, to choir music, to musicals. I am really a mess when it comes to listening to music (laughs). I just skip around and enjoy so much. I just look for good songs and vibes in whatever genre it is, and I do not even care what it is.
CrypticRock.com – That is the best way to look at music. Why limit yourself to one form of music. If it is good music it is good music. My last question for you is regarding films. Crypticrock.com is a music and horror news publication, so we like to focus on all genres. Are you a fan of horror films and if so what are some of your favorite horror films?
Drew Shirley – I have seen a few horror films. Our keyboard player Jerome loves horror films. He is always watching horror films on his day off (laughs). I probably remember two films the most. I remember The Exorcist (1973), because my brother made me watch it when I was little. It scared me so bad it burned into my memory. I also liked The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), because it is just a crazy musical ride of a horror film.
CrypticRock.com – Those are two dynamically different films, but classics. The Exorcist really is a frightening film which still holds up today.
Drew Shirley – It is, they really tapped into something that is a core fear inside the human spirit in that film. Just thinking about it now I am scared (laughs).