When Switchfoot guitarist Drew Shirley takes Mixdown’s call, he and his bandmates are holed up in their rehearsal space making sure they’re ready to go once they hit the road in 2019 for the foreseeable future. They’re intending the New Year to be an equal and opposite reaction to the one just past – in which they did, for all intents and purposes, nothing at all.
“We used most of the year to take a hiatus from Switchfoot stuff,” Shirley explains. “We kept the shows to a minimum, and we didn’t tour at all – which is highly unusual in this band. I mean, we’ve been touring for 15 years, that’s a long time to be doing anything. I think it was the right time for the five of us to just press pause for a second there. Instead, we pushed play on our family lives. It was something that we needed to do.”
Out of this well-deserved time off came Native Tongue, the band’s 11th studio album, which is set for release this month. Written in the band’s hometown of San Diego, the record is a radical reinvention of Switchfoot’s established sound. According to Shirley, this was contextually a greater response to the question of how to keep a band like theirs relevant to not only their listeners, but themselves. “This band’s been going a long time,” he says. “It’s outlived the shelf-life of your average rock band by a mile.
“When we found ourselves back in the studio after some time off, it was a different kind of vibe. We felt reinvigorated. It was exciting, but it was also kind of terrifying – like, have we made too many albums? Will anyone care if we make another one? Will this mean anything? We decided to shake things up. We knew if we were going to keep going, it had to be something different.” It was with this in mind that Shirley and co. opened up a dialogue with pop-rock band OneRepublic.
You probably remember their 2000s chart-buster with Timbaland, ‘Apologize,’ but you might not be aware that frontman Ryan Tedder is also a sought-after songwriter for the likes of Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson and Shawn Mendes. If anyone was going to know how to give Switchfoot a big pop edge, it was surely these guys. “We started sending tracks over almost as soon as they said yes,” Shirley recalls.
“We wanted to know how they would have done them. This wasn’t so we’d have something nice to tell people about, or so we’d be cool by association. We consider those guys our peers – they’ve been out here making records almost as long as we have. We wanted an outside perspective to see how it would challenge us as a band.”
The end result is certainly right up OneRepublic’s alley – a polished, sharply-conducted and pristine pop album, the likes of which Switchfoot has never really focused an entire record’s worth of songs on. It does, however, present a curious prospect – three of the five members of Switchfoot play guitar, and there’s barely a riff or lick to be heard among Native Tongue’s tracklist. When asked if he was at all concerned with being sidelined in the same way as, say, Maroon 5 or Imagine Dragons’ guitar players, Shirley expounds on the idea of being a team player.
“I get why it might be cause for concern,” he says. “To me, as far as Switchfoot is concerned, the song itself is king. The five of us are never playing for ourselves – we’re playing for the song. If it sounds good with guitar, we chase that. If it sounds good without guitar, that’s okay too. That’s how we’ve worked for a while. Take a record like [ninth album, 2014’s] Fading West, for instance. A lot of songs on that record were intentionally written without guitars in mind, and even if they were added we tried not to double-track it and layer it on. That particular card of a wall of guitars has been played a lot by us in the past – it got old. Native Tongue is about something new.”
Native Tongue is out now via Fantasy Records/Caroline Australia.