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Switchfoot guitarist Drew Shirley talks college, California, Christianity

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Switchfoot was born out of the San Diego waves and cinema. After initial success as a Christian rock group, the band converted isolated hits into mainstream successes after their songs were featured in 2002’s “A Walk to Remember” and the family-friendly flick “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.” With lyrics that are positive and wholesome, simultaneously steeped in allusions to philosophy and literature, the band has remained an eccentric fixture of the alternative rock scene. A decade later, the band is approaching their 20-year anniversary and their 10th album. Currently on the Tour de Compadres with Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, Colony House and Needtobreathe, Switchfoot recently performed in the Bay area.

The Daily spoke with guitarist Drew Shirley about everything from the band’s beginnings to its uncertain future.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): You just came back from a world tour; what’s the difference between performing overseas and performing in the United States?

Drew Shirley (DS): Just recently we’ve been to Europe, India, Australia and they’re all different. It’s neat to see how other people in different cities work. But to be honest, people are people and music [is] almost like a universal language. We’ll travel to India and people are singing our songs the same way they would in [our hometown of] San Diego.

TSD: You’re approaching 20 years as a band; what has changed since you formed it, and what has remained constant?

DS: Lots of things have changed: The industry has changed, record sales have dramatically changed, our audience has changed somewhat over the years. Our love for music has stayed the same. You gotta love what you do. Once we hit the stage and we’re actually playing music, that’s the best part of the day for us. Some bands kind of hate their songs because they don’t relate to them anymore but that’s not us. We honestly still love playing the songs we play every show, like “Dare You to Move” and “Meant to Live.” We still really enjoy playing those songs.

DS: Another thing that hasn’t changed — our band is all original members. We started off as three, and then we added four and five and it’s only been those five people the whole time.

TSD: Your next album will be your 10th. In what direction do you see this album heading? How will it relate to the rest of your body of work?

DS: This will be a milestone for us, just because it’s the number 10. Ten albums is a lot. We want it to be songs we believe in, something that we can say that no one else can. We’re kind of deep thinkers. At times, our songs come out of books or conversations we’ve had. We think of our audience as a thinking listener and hope that our 10th album embodies all those things.

TSD: The band’s career launched with “A Walk to Remember,” and, since then, you guys have worked in film and television with songs like “This is Home” and “Out of Control.” Is there anything different about writing and recording for film and TV?

DS: Yes, there is. They all happen in different ways. Some of those songs were written for an album, and a producer heard it and said they’d like to use it. That’s easy, that’s just licensing. But a song like “This is Home” was written specifically for “The Chronicles of Narnia.” We bounced the sounds and form of the song off of the music supervisors. Even the director had input in the sound of the song and how it flowed because he wanted it to fit a certain theme. We wrote music for our own film, “Fading West.” We wanted to make music for a film, and we thought, why don’t we make our own film. It was a blast, we got to write more cinematic type music.

TSD: What was your intention in making the movie? It initially seems odd to make a film about yourselves. Was it to showcase a different musical style or emphasize surfing?

DS: The intention behind the movie was to let people have a behind-the-scenes look at the band, and it was also to find inspiration for the album. To be honest, when you’ve been a band for a long time, you have to continue to find inspiration. We thought, let’s travel the world, find our favorite surf spots and sit there and write music.

TSD: Your charity Bro-Am gives back through music education. Why did you guys choose to emphasize the arts in your charity?

DS: Music kept us out of a lot of trouble growing up, and it’s become our career. We’ve found that schools were not teaching music as much anymore. Music programs are getting cut, and we thought, let’s put our money where our mouth is and open our own non-profit music school, and hopefully raise the next generation of bands that are gonna take our place when we’re done playing live.

TSD: Bro-Am is focused in San Diego, which has a pretty distinct sound. How has San Diego shaped you as a band?

DS: It’s home. It’s where my parents raised me and same with [band members] Jon and Tim, Chad and Jerome. San Diego is very chill, there’s not a lot of industry. It’s way south from L.A. L.A. has a huge entertainment industry, and San Diego is like the little brother of L.A. We sorta hide out. I don’t hang out in a Hollywood environment. Just normal, chill beach communities keep us grounded.

TSD: Half of the band members attended and graduated college, while the other half didn’t graduate or didn’t attend. In your opinion, do you think that, for someone interested in a career in the arts, a liberal arts education has value?

DS: It’s just up to the individual. Jon [Foreman] dropped out, and he’s our main songwriter. He grew up on the school of music and on the road. But I’ll tell you this: He reads more and studies more than me, who did go to college (laughs). It really depends on how you’re driven as a person.

TSD: What experiences did you have in college that helped you?

DS: I learned a lot in college, and some of it was in the classes. I learned about who I was, what my own personal disciplines were, how I thought about things. Some of that happens in a classroom, but sometimes that happens just because you’re out on your own. For me, I learned the basics of music, but what it means to be a musician, I learned more on the road than in the classroom.

TSD: You’ve mentioned that you don’t identify as a Christian band, but you’ve had success in that genre, and you’ve won a Grammy in that genre. How do you guys define yourself with regard to religion in your music?

DS: I see Christianity as a faith and not a genre of music. It’s a personal belief and a heart and music and art is something that we do and express and make. I would say that my faith in God is much bigger than my music. Much bigger. It’s way bigger. It’s something that affects everything I do. Faith is what you’re being and music is just what you’re doing. I sum it up in a simple statement: Christianity is a faith, not a genre.

TSD: In the same vein, you’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you are fans of author C.S. Lewis, and you wrote “This is Home” for “Narnia.” What kind of parallels do you see between yourselves and Lewis as Christian artists?

DS: He works in an allegory setting, as a story. You can teach a lot more than just a simple statement of truth or fact if it involves imagination, and that’s what we do. We don’t like to say things plainly; it’s too obvious that way. Music has a way of getting past the watchful eye of religion and music can take words where mere words couldn’t go by themselves. I actually think those two quotes are C.S. Lewis and he operated that way. We definitely are in that same way of thinking.

Contact Alina Abidi at alinafabidi ‘at’ gmail.com.