Last year, while touring for 2011 album "Vice Verses," Switchfoot visited famous surfing locales in New Zealand, Indonesia and South Africa, looking to inspire a new album and document how the Southern California Christian rock band's passions for waves and soundwaves collide.
"There's a freedom music and surfing both share," drummer Chad Butler says. "There's a sense of awe and wonder when you're out in the ocean looking at the infinite horizon and feeling surrounded by the rhythm of waves and tides. That's often where I find myself falling in love with music again."
The tour was captured in a new documentary about the band, directed by Matt Katsolis, that follows Switchfoot as it began crafting ninth album "Fading West," due Jan. 14 on Atlantic. The documentary, which arrives on iTunes on Dec. 10, shares the album's title and artwork. The film is part of the same promotional push by the label and the band's team at Red Light Management, though it's a separate product and Atlantic doesn't own any rights to it. The film was partially funded by several brands Switchfoot has partnered with through the years -- Hurley, Ultimate Ears, Macbeth and Journeys.
"The real impetus was that we all release records. In this competitive climate, how do you cut above the white noise?" Bruce Flohr, Switchfoot's co-manager at RLM, says of the film. "We felt like it was time to tell the story of Switchfoot. The movie is laying a foundation of what's to come from the record."
For the band members, both the album and film are an opportunity to re-evaluate the way they create music -- and hopefully have their story reach a bigger audience along the way. Their breakout came with 2003's "The Beautiful Letdown," which reached No. 16 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 2.7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But the band, which has often been pigeonholed as Christian rock, has struggled to match that crossover since: "Vice Verses" sold just 188,000 after bowing at No. 8 on the Billboard 200.
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"The movie certainly positions the band -- and the album positions them musically -- to become a much more mainstream band than they've been on the last couple records," Atlantic senior VP of rock marketing Anthony Delia says. "It feels like it could reach a bigger audience. We look at the movie as a very valuable promotional tool for the album and a really amazing personality piece for the band."
Switchfoot began working with producer Neal Avron at the band's San Diego studio in early 2013. Looking to channel new ideas, the group set aside its signature guitars for as long as possible. "That was an exercise in tying our hands behind our backs and trying to push ourselves to new sonic space," Butler says. "And I think it worked."
The album has been preceded by two radio singles, both released the same day to different formats. "Who We Are" rises 23-22 on the Alternative chart, and according to the label, "Love Alone Is Worth the Fight" recently became the first single played in its debut week by all 55 Christian adult contemporary stations that report to Nielsen BDS. The tracks are receiving equal promotion, and the label hopes "Who We Are" will cross over to top 40 formats next year.
But Flohr says this campaign isn't reliant on radio. He's more focused on how the film and album can promote each other. Already, he says, the band is getting opportunities, including festival and tour offers, it might not have previously. "We've done a lot of things that are outside the norm of just promoting a song to radio," Flohr says. "People are looking at 'Fading West' as a campaign rather than an album cycle."
Switchfoot released the three-song 'Fading West' EP on Sept. 17, leading into a U.S. headlining run that included a screening of the film and a Q&A with the band. The group will embark on another domestic tour in March and play festivals stateside and abroad in the summer, leading into the 10th edition of its annual charity festival, Bro-Am. Atlantic is exploring promotional events in January that will engage the surfing communities in California and New York, and the act will also perform a live-streamed concert during release week.
"It's an exciting experiment for us -- an invigorating moment in our career where suddenly I think we're more comfortable than ever being Switchfoot," Butler says. "Here we are as surfers trying to explain ourselves as musicians, and finally our story is being told."