Jon Foreman has heard enough about his band's faith and Christian-rock underpinnings. The Switchfoot front man says that to really understand him as a musician, critics and fans should know that, at his core, he's a devoted follower of JC.

We're not talking Mel Gibson's Hollywood savior here. It's that other troublesome demagogue: Johnny Cash.

"In an interview once, Cash responded to a question about what kind of music he played: Was it Christian, country or rock and roll? He said, 'I'm just writing songs. You call it what you want,' " says Foreman. "It's kind of absurd, really, when people decide you must only be able to do one thing -- it's like when the label 'emo' came along. I mean, who is to say that other types of music are less emotional?"

Foreman's band not only broke out of San Diego with the late 2003 release of its fourth CD, The Beautiful Letdown, and its monstrous modern rock single "Meant to Live," but it also clawed its way out of the Christian music ghetto, where the band had dwelled since forming in 1996.

Foreman, a photogenic dude with a scruffy blond Owen Wilson-ish coif, hardly dismisses his religious music background. After all, who would dare dismiss such rich rewards as a 2001 Grammy nomination in the Best Rock Gospel category, three 2004 Dove Awards and a gold-selling soundtrack for Mandy Moore's teen weeper flick A Walk to Remember? But the music Switchfoot creates is not church-driven. Instead, he says, it's more faith-based, more along the lines of Creed, Live and Joshua Tree-vintage U2.

"The way my music comes from me is that it's scattered all over the place," he says. "The songs [on Letdown] were written over a couple of years, more like a diary. And we've been very open about how we believe in our faith from the very beginning. So it's a shame to see so many close-minded people put you in some kind of box."

Still, we don't think Foreman is losing too much sleep over any pigeonholing of his band, considering it was the group's success within the Christian music box that landed it on the doorstep of Columbia Records. How many bands sign with a major and are allowed to do all their own preproduction without the label suits standing over them and shaking their heads in disagreement over the record's direction?

And if you can get beyond the by-the-numbers, supersize lead-off single and the relentlessly optimistic lyrics, you'll find some intriguing elements at work. "This Is Your Life" has cool electronica underpinnings. And the acoustic-guitar-meets-minor-key "More Than Fine" is the best single Chris Martin never wrote; it seems destined to be one of Clear Channel's surefire "relief records" -- one of those soft songs they sprinkle in amid the heavier stuff. Then there's the dreamy title track, in which the bass line carries the melody, and the band's spiritual "On Fire," which has the most direct references to a higher power, not to mention a sense of conviction that summons up U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." As the Columbia suits might say, this record has some Texas-size legs, with at least five crossover singles to mine.

Foreman's upbringing seems as upbeat and cheerful as his lyrics. In typical Californian style, he was into both music and surfing growing up. From an early age, Jon and younger brother Tim, the band's bassist, surfed before and after school at Sunset Beach and banged on guitars and keyboards around the house. While they were in junior high, the brothers jammed Bad Religion and Dead Kennedys while riding out to the beach and its 12-foot deep blue Pacific breakers. Years later, Jon Foreman made the surfing team at the University of California-San Diego, but he noticed how few of his buddies got to turn pro, so music won out in the end.

But given all that, don't expect to hear any Link Wray-ish guitar antics. The band is named after a surfing trick, but today that's its only real connection to the sport. The members do still love to find surf where they can on the road -- during a European tour they once hopped a train to the south of France to find some waves -- but Foreman isn't exactly stoked about the chance to rip Galveston's brown rinky-dink waves.

Surfing aside, these guys aren't Spicoli-esque slackers. The members of Switchfoot have been overachievers from the beginning -- they've never turned down a gig, be it at a party, church supper or crappy club. And though Foreman is juiced up about getting to hear his songs on radio stations across the country on the current headlining tour -- hey, maybe there's some other 13-year-olds listening to his stuff before they try to catch some air -- Foreman says staying humble is paramount.

"It all kind of feels like I'm on the outside, watching all of this happen," he says. "I was reading an interesting article about Wilco; I really admire those guys. They said nobody wants to be the next U2 or some huge band, how if you stay small, you're more credible."

Well, Jon, good luck keeping it real now that your audiences are growing and chicks are trying to sneak into your hotel room. We may not know too much about your religion, but we damn sure admire your faith.

Switchfoot headlines Sunday, July 25, at the Houston Press Music Awards Showcase at Verizon Wireless Theater, 520 Texas Avenue, 713-225-8551.


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