Ryley Walker & Switchfoot
Photos (L-R): Jordi Vidal/Redferns via Getty Images, Erik Frost
Ryley Walker Finally Gets To Interview Switchfoot About New Album 'Interrobang': "I Want To Say For The Record That I'm A Huge Head"
Ryley Walker is a singer/songwriter and label owner with a bizarre, hilarious Twitter account and a cult following in the "indie jam" scene. This week, he's in Vermont making music he describes as "bald-ponytail spirituals" for an audience of "Wookiees"—his term for "somebody who wears a Shure microphone shirt." This is not a conventional consumer of mid-2000s Christian radio-rock.
Switchfoot are a wildly successful, GRAMMY-winning rock band nominally in that market, whose songs were inescapable if you went to youth group in the George W. Bush years. In those days, their introspective singles "Dare You to Move" and "Meant to Live" dominated the airwaves. Their polished hits are as far from fried Drag City-style noise jams as you can get.
But upon joining a Zoom call between Walker and Switchfoot's founding brothers Jon and Tim Foreman, the three are instantly all smiles, as if Walker is their long-lost sibling. Walker's very public love for Switchfoot isn't ironic or provocative: He genuinely loves them from the hits to the deep cuts—far more than even some foundational figures like Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt.
The Foremans get a huge kick out of his lowbrow humor, business savvy and encylopedic knowledge of music. They don't flinch when Walker—who's "three years clean and serene" recounts a tale about listening to Nothing Is Sound "30 times in a row" while smoking crack. "I was in a bad state of mind at the time, but that record f***ing lifted me out of some weird stuff," Walker tells them.
He's also here to celebrate their new album, interrobang, which was released on August 20. After carefully studying its tunes, like "fluorescent, "i need you (to be wrong)" and "backwards in time" from beneath the roar of a weed-whacker, he comes loaded with thoughtful questions for the band.
Though no journalist, Walker is perhaps more accredited for this task than anyone with a staff job—if only because no one else would ask Switchfoot if they're "John Fahey heads" or advise them to monitor their digestion on the road if they tend to "put the hurt on the cheese" backstage.
"I've never stopped enjoying them," Walker expresses to GRAMMY.com afterward. "Obviously, they're a big part of Christian youth groups and stuff, and that's how I got to know them. But my filter for what's cool or what's not cool has never been switched on. I've always proudly enjoyed the things I enjoy."
To mark the release of interrobang, GRAMMY.com moderated an interview between Ryley Walker and Switchfoot about Mexican food, open tunings, cheese platters and the book of Ecclesiastes—a meeting of the minds the singer/songwriter genuinely calls "a dream come true."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ryley Walker: I want to say for the record that I'm a huge head. I came to your music like most other people. When I was a kid growing up, I heard it on the radio and everything. But for years and years, maybe I didn't keep up with you guys. But about seven years ago, I got way into your record Nothing Is Sound. It's one of the most far-out experiences I've ever had.
OK, this is a funny story. I was on a crack binge with this dude. I'm three years clean and serene, by the way. I'm smoking crack with this dude and we're like, "This is one of the most sick anti-war records! It's, like, so anti-war!" We listened to it 30 times in a row. I was in a bad state of mind at the time, but that record f***ing lifted me out of some weird stuff. I really celebrate that record a lot.
And I was wondering: Do you still play those songs live? I haven't seen you guys in a long time.
Jon Foreman: That's a wild story, man! Beautiful! I love that!
Ryley: Don't smoke crack, by the way.
Jon: Hey, Ryley. Say hi to Chad. This is our drummer.
Ryley: Really nice to meet you! Hi!
Jon: Chad's just been feasting on the cheese platter that we talked about earlier.
Ryley: Yeah, you putting the hurt on the cheese? It's gonna make you need to take a poop. You've got to do it twice a day on tour in order to keep your sanity. That's what I've learned.
Jon: You've got to.
Nothing Is Sound was a really dark season for me, which is ironic because as far as numbers are concerned, we were playing for more people and selling more things than we had ever done before. And yet I was really dissatisfied. My marriage was in a bad spot. I think Tim and I were fighting all the time. Tim's my brother, so…
Tim Foreman: We're good at fighting each other.
Jon: We've done it for a long time, but this was a dark season of that. So, when I listen to that album or songs from that period, I definitely feel like there's this desperation and longing and yearning. Hope is a yearning of sorts, but there's a darkness in that album that kind of pervades the music to me when I think back on that season.
Ryley: I really like your voice and lyrics on that record. It's such a different path. I'm not trying to live in the past with you guys, because I really like your new record too, a whole lot. Everything you've done since then.
But was that record kind of an F-you to people who wanted to hear the big singles and stuff? There's nothing wrong with that; that's amazing that people connected with those big, big songs you had on the radio 15, 16 years ago or whatever. But it seemed like that record was kind of in defiance of that. It's way darker and way weirder.
Jon: Yeah. I mean, it wasn't done to piss people off, but it was almost the other side of the teeter-totter. The yin-yang element where we were like, "OK, we've really hit this drum hard. We also need to make sure that we're telling the full truth of the human experience."
There's this book, Ecclesiastes, that says "Meaningless, meaningless, everything's meaningless." That, to me, feels like what Nothing Is Sound is attempting to speak into and sing into. "What is the worth any of this?" is where my head was at.
Ryley: Yeah, yeah. That record just rips so hard. I listen to it pretty much three times a week. I covered that song "The Shadow Proves the Sunshine" for this compilation thing.
Tim: [Genuinely surprised.] Wow!
Ryley: That's your headiest tune, I think. That's the most deep, deep, heady [one]. I love your lyrics on there so much and where you guys were going.
Anyways, I listened to your new record interrobang a bunch while I was weed-whacking. It's like a weed-whacking-in-Vermont anthem.
Jon: That's it! People wonder why we made the album and that was what we were thinking of!
Tim: That's the target demo, yeah.
Ryley: People like me who weed-whack in Vermont in the high days of summer. We buy records, man.
So, I wanted to ask: I'm sure you get a lot of questions, like, [Self-serious affectation] "Did you make it in COVID? What was it like recording in COVID?" It's kind of a bummer because people ask me all the time, "What was it like to lay low in COVID as a musician?" But are you guys feeling good staying at home because you've been on the road for a bajillion years?
Tim: You know, I think it would have been a little easier to feel good about staying at home if it was on our terms, you know? We did that once three years ago. We had a hiatus where we took a year off of touring. That felt a little less scary because it was our idea. At any moment, we could be like, "But now we can go on tour again!"
I think it's just the unknown of "Are we going to be able to provide for our families and keep everyone employed?" Just those small-business-owner headaches, and not feeling like you know what's at the other end of it all, there's that kind of underlying stress that was driving a lot of the thought at the time. I think that kind of stress did drive us to a different sort of creative headspace.
Jon: We just wanted to meet the moment, you know? A lot of people were coming up to me in my neighborhood and saying "We just need happy music to pull us out of this season." I was like, "OK! Maybe we need that! Or maybe we need songs that speak to this uncertainty in the moment that we're all feeling."
That's kind of what drove us into the studio. It just felt like there's this really important moment happening that is filled with uncertainty and unknown, and I think that's great fodder for asking questions in songs, which is, I think, what we do best.
Ryley: That's a really wonderful answer. Did you just stay hunkered down in San Diego the whole time while you were there?
Jon: Oddly enough, no.
Ryley: Where were you?
Tim: I think because we were home for the last year straight, hunkering down outside of San Diego was actually a possibility. So, we went up to L.A. at Sound City…
Ryley: SoCal! Salt life, baby!
[Jon and Tim laugh long and hard.]
Ryley: Dude, I mean, sick, congratulations, that's amazing. I'm from the Midwest. You said you were in Boston for a minute there. Was your locker outside in high school? I remember watching Disney movies when I was a kid and they'd be based in Southern California, and I'm like, "Holy s***! Their locker is outside and they're rollerblading to class!
Tim: Everything is outside. There's no indoor hallways. It's all outside.
Ryley: [Astonished.] You ate lunch outside?
Jon: OK, so here's the weirdest one. I moved from the East Coast to the West Coast freshman year. This will tell you everything. It starts raining and all the kids are freaking out. They ask the teacher, "Hey, can we go outside and watch the rain?" And she's like [Relenting voice] "Alright, sure. Go outside."
Ryley: It was a big, special day!
Jon: I remember being like, "This place is a little different than the East Coast! We're going outside to watch the rain! OK!"
Ryley: Man, it's so much cooler than where I grew up! I'm so upset! Do you ever go to the Casbah in downtown San Diego?
Jon and Tim: Yes!
Ryley: That's where I play the most. You see the airplanes landing the whole time. I'm a San Diego head. I like it more than L.A. It's super far-out. There's the really nice, beautiful beaches, obviously, and there's a fast-food place that's vegan that I always get out there. I'm sure you've been by there. I can't remember the name. The Casbah is so sick!
Jon: There's another flight every five minutes!
Ryley: Yeah, you're looking at a budget Southwest flight from Kansas City or something. I've played Soda Bar and Casbah. Those are the only two spots I've played. The little dinky clubs over there.
Actually, the first time I ever played San Diego—I'm 32 now, I must have been 19 years old—I was in a terrible noise rock band. We went nowhere. We had nowhere to sleep, so we just slept on the beach, man. That was the first time I'd ever been to California. And then we woke up and got fish tacos and I was like, "OK. We saw San Diego." We were homeless on the beach and got their local cuisine.
Jon: That's it. That's the dream right there.
Ryley: No, it's really not. It was actually one of the lowest points of my life.
[Jon and Tim sputter a response.]
Ryley: I'm just kidding, dude! It's all good! Dude, beyond that, I just wanted to say thank you for indulging me in some weird, fried conversation.
Switchfoot. Photo: Erik Frost
Jon: I love it, man. Next time you're in San Diego, let's go surfing.
Ryley: I can't surf for my life. You guys are going to have to save me.
Jon: We'll teach you.
Ryley: That would be great. I'll hold your hand the whole time. Have a really good gig tonight. Please don't eat too much cheese. I hope you guys can have a really nice non-cheese-blocked dump every day on tour.
GRAMMY.com: Ryley, did you have any questions about the new record?
Ryley: Oh! For the GRAMMY readers.
OK, real quick. Tony Berg produced a bunch of weird, fried records from back in the day, like Public Image Ltd. stuff. I don't know how that somehow through the years ends up with him producing Phoebe Bridgers and Switchfoot. This guy's got some weird, far-out… I remember him working with Keith Lavene and Jah Wobble from Public Image or whatever. So, what made you work with Tony Berg?
Jon: We had pretty much an entire album that felt close to being ready, and then when everything happened in 2020, it felt like it didn't fit any of what we were feeling. We just scrapped it and wanted someone who would actually push us. Tony was the only name that really came to the list. We felt like this guy, in many different ways, has this musical lexicon that can take us places we'd never been.
Tim: We were big fans of the Phoebe record, obviously, but actually… do you remember that band Phantom Planet?
Ryley: I do. Hell yeah. Big fan.
Tim: They came out with a record in early 2020. I love it; it's really great.
Ryley: And he produced that?
Tim: Yeah. We read an interview with them where they were talking about Tony being the only guy who could have made that record. That's kind of what started us down that path. We've been doing this a long time, so it's amazing to work with someone who's been doing this almost twice as long as us.
Jon: And bigger than that, someone who's been in it that long and is still passionate. Exuberantly passionate about music.
Tim: We'll play songs for each other and have tears in our eyes and love it, right? But you rarely meet people who have that type of passion. His favorite thing to do is to sit in the studio and play songs—old Beach Boys songs, whatever—and he'll turn around. It's a song I know he's listened to 50 or 6500 times and he'll have tears in his eyes playing these songs. I love seeing that kind of passion because you rarely find that.
Jon: So, we basically just spent two months playing songs for each other and arguing about politics and religion and an election year. It started out really awkward and tense and then it turned into this beautiful friendship. I love Tony. I'm sure he feels the same way. We're almost living proof that different people with different ideologies, different understandings of the world, can actually come together and create something beautiful, which gives me hope for America at large.
Ryley: Whoa. That's pretty heady.
I can't listen to my own vocals in the studio. Are you a comp-head or do you just rage through vocals in one take? I have to comp vocals so hard. I'm such a liar and a faker. I have imposter syndrome when I do vocals. But you're a much more talented singer than me, so I'm sure you crush it.
Jon: No, no. It's upending the space-time continuum when you're listening to your own voice singing back to you, so you're not alone in feeling like it's awkward. It is! It's weird, in and of itself! Vocals are strange. You want to present your soul in ones and zeroes on a compact disc or on Spotify or something.
Tim: We didn't do a lot of comping of his voice on this record. The whole approach for this record was that we wanted it to sound as transparent as possible—that it's just five guys in a room. We did a lot of pre-production, and when do bands do pre-production nowadays? That doesn't happen. We did a full month of pre-production, so when we went into the studio, we played the songs two or three times and were like, "OK. That's the take."
I think there's this beautiful, rough-around-the-edges imperfection that flows throughout the album.
Ryley: Right. And the last question I have that sort of goes to your whole career is that I'm a big open-tuning head and you use a lot of cool open tunings in your music. I'm wondering where that sort of influence came into your guitar playing.
Jon: That's a great question. I love Joni Mitchell, but I think the funny thing is that I'm not the type of guy who learns other peoples' songs. I don't know what people are doing. Even Kaki King or someone like that, I know it's got to be open tuning—there's slide involved sometimes—but I just kind of enjoy it and think "How can I reappropriate some feeling that I got there?"
Tim: Jeremy Enigk did a lot of open tuning on [1996's Return of] The Frog Queen. That's when you started doing a lot of that, when you were into that record.
Jon: A friend of mine, she kind of showed me, "Hey, that same guitar you have—if you tune the keys open, then suddenly you've got a new instrument." It was actually around Nothing Is Sound. I think "Daisy" is the first song we ever did that was open tuning. It's a beautiful thing.
I think another feeling that I had on this record was "Here's an instrument I've had for my whole life and, suddenly, it sounds completely different." Have you tried rubber-bridge guitars?
Ryley: I've never tried a rubber-bridge guitar.
Jon: They're so fun.
Tim: You'll fall in love. It's incredible.
Ryley: It sounds like a hillbilly manifestation. Like a comedown off some weird prescription drug.
Jon: It might be that as well.
Tim: There's no sustain. It's like the most dead guitar you've ever played.
Jon: On this new album, "i need you (to be wrong)" and "the bones of us" have what sounds like a broken acoustic guitar.
Tim: It sounds like a kalimba, almost.
Ryley Walker in 2016. Photo: Jordi Vidal/Redferns via Getty Images
Ryley: Right on. And you put the record out yourself.
Jon: Yeah, we partnered up with Concord.
Ryley: Dude! Hell yeah! Independent for life! That's what I'm saying, dude! Dude, get that money! Don't split that 50 percent! Get paid! Yeah, dude! The kids gotta hear, man!
Nah, there's good people at the labels, but sending out records on your own is one of the great joys of this biz. I think it's more important than ever to keep your art close to you. Too many cooks in the kitchen can be a bummer sometimes.
Jon: Yeah, that's one of the things that COVID actually helped with. No one was allowed in the studio. Band, producer, done.
Ryley: In your big, big major-label days, did you have 30 people running around the studio working the faders?
Tim: We had a couple of goofy moments for sure.
Jon: The main thing that was the weirdest was when people wanted to do co-writes. We were like, "We'll let you in the studio—you can give opinions and all that—but we're going to write the songs. Let us do that. Let us play the instruments and write the songs and you can twist all the knobs you want later."
Ryley: Yeah, man. All of us Footheads know it comes from the heart. Anybody else messing with that recipe is just going to mess it up.