Chad Butler: Switchfoot Seeks Hope In The Face Of Adversity

It’s 1986 in the sun-drenched suburbs of San Diego where the cookie-cutter tract homes sit too close together, just five feet to the neighboring fence, and an occasional swaying palm tree acts as the sleepy neighborhood’s lone disturbance. But one house in particular stands out. There’s commotion over there.

Someone is pounding on the garage door. It’s an angry kind of pounding and it sounds like there’s shouting too. Can’t make out the words. But they’re not nice words. The pounding is getting louder, more determined, more irritated. And oddly enough, it’s all going unnoticed. Inside the garage little 12-year-old Chad Butler innocently continues about his business, happily grooving away on his drum kit as his faithful Walkman blasts Stevie Wonder tracks through oversized headphones.

Eventually, Mom Butler singles out the sound of the garage door from the rest of the banging and heads outside to calm the upset neighbor. It’s not her fault these walls are so thin, these houses so close. She’s sorry for the disturbance – again. It won’t happen again – again. And her plea works for now. As she raises the garage door her son finally breaks his groove and it takes only one look from mom for him to know: too loud. Again? Dang. He was just getting started.

A Room With No View

Nearly a quarter-century later, Chad Butler finally has his own practice space where he’s free to play as loud as he wants whenever he wants. But as the drummer for multiplatinum guitar-rock band Switchfoot, the opportunities to sit down and woodshed are few and far between. Lucky for Butler he’s used to learning on the job because, as all drummers can attest, finding the time and space to practice is always a challenge.

“It was frustrating, because when I was young I couldn’t find a way to do what I loved to do without bugging everybody in my neighborhood,” recalls Butler in an expressive voice, less surfer than you’d think. “Then, years later, I’m a professional musician, and I come off the road to my wife in our tiny apartment. I couldn’t even set up my drums in there, let alone play them. So really the only time I ever rehearsed was during sound check, if we got one, or during the show. So we tried to play as many shows as we could, just to have a chance to rehearse the songs and get better.

“I’ve talked to a lot of drummers who have been through that same cycle. It’s frustrating because you have this loud instrument and nowhere to play it. I dreamed of buying a V-Drums kit and I researched all kinds of soundproofing material, but that stuff just never worked. I could never find a way or afford a way to woodshed and rehearse. I think it limited my growth as a musician incredibly. I could hear things in my head that I wanted to play, but I couldn’t find the time to work out the kinks. Then we get to the show and it’s too late. It was definitely an issue.”

Band On The Run

An even bigger issue for Butler was the lack of time available to sit down and write songs with his band. Switchfoot’s incredibly demanding touring/recording schedule and the absence of any real rehearsal space meant writing sessions were held on the road – in hotel rooms, dressing rooms, and buses – where it’s easy to whip out an acoustic guitar but impossible to play a drum set. This process eventually culminates to form the perfect storm: sound-check writing sessions.

“Yeah, we wrote the last two records on the road. I hated it,” Butler says. “We’d load in as fast as possible to get as much sound-check time as possible. The house sound guy is grumpy, he doesn’t want to be there. The sound system is unpredictable at best. All these people are there watching you play and you’re trying to be creative and learn these new songs. You can’t give yourself the liberty to screw up. The opening band, or bands, are on the side of the stage holding their instruments hoping we’ll get off so they get a chance to sound check. I’m feeling that pressure and we’re up there trying to come up with parts to new songs because we have a producer lined up for the studio next month.

“That is the worst environment to try to create art. So I would end up just trying to hold down 2 and 4 and get through the song because if I tried to get creative I might screw up the song and we’d have to start it over and everyone’s bummed. Then I show up at the studio where we’re paying by the hour and the producer is only there for a certain amount of time and it’s my day to track the song that I never got the chance to flesh out. I hated it.”

Too Many Choices

Well, the days of Butler learning to swim in a shark tank are over. After Switchfoot’s hugely successful Oh! Gravity the band decided to do something they’d never done: take a break. But the idle time didn’t last long as they were soon back to work. After parting ways with their Sony label, Switchfoot went indie, built their own studio, and began a journey of self-evaluation that would take them to places they never thought possible.

Having their own studio was a huge step for the band, and a tremendous leap for the drummer. Butler now had – finally – a place to play. A place where volume is not only tolerated but encouraged, where there is no distinction between night and day, where he’s free to do what he loves to do – play drums.

“I can’t tell you enough how freeing it is to be able to play 24 hours a day on a full kit! I can come in by myself late at night, early in the morning. It is incredible. And we did this record completely on our own time and on our own dime. The freedom was amazing and I think it was really good for the art – being able to take things in any direction the songs wanted to go.”

Artistic freedom can be both a blessing and a curse. Without a big label breathing down their necks, the members of Switchfoot were left to their own devices. No creative confines, no contractual constraints, and, perhaps most importantly, no deadlines.

“We spent about a year tracking 80 different songs,” Butler sighs. “We’d bring in different engineers, different producers, trying to see what was going to fit. Eventually it got to a place where we had all these recordings of complete songs – this massive pile, a list that covered one wall of the studio that seemed never-ending – and it was pretty overwhelming and kind of discouraging. We started to question the whole process and wonder what we got ourselves into.

“All of us have different musical influences that we bring to the band so we really experimented with stuff all over the map. Living the dream of having our own studio space with unlimited time allowed us to go in all different directions. Some were very electronic, some very orchestral – we even tried kind of a jam-band approach. It was fun and we sort of got all that out of our system, to a point where we had no direction anymore. We’ve made very homogenous records over the years. If you listen back over our six records there definitely tends to be a sound, a guitar-driven rock sound that Switchfoot is known for.”

Switchfoot Refined

The more the band experimented the further they found themselves from their own sound, to the point where not only were they lost, but they’d burned the map. For a band that has been known to track a record in as little as two weeks, getting into the two-year territory was flat-out frightening. So they turned to, of all places, the world of hip-hop, where producer Mike Elizondo (of Dr. Dre and Eminem fame) stepped up as their unlikely savior.

“He was a great reminder of what we’re good at. He made us find the songs that only Switchfoot can deliver. And those are really wise words for any band. Ultimately, I think working with Mike reminded us of who we are. He’s a songsmith. All the production work he’s known for in the past is very urban, but what it really comes down to is his incredible musical sensibility.”

Elizondo helped them ask a simple but poignant question of themselves, one that would eventually act as a sieve between their 80-some demos and a final, cohesive record: What are the songs that you want to play for the rest of your life?

“That’s an important question because ultimately we’re a live band and we spend so much of our time touring these songs. I think Dolly Parton said, ’If you ain’t cryin’, why you singin’ it?’ And that kind of reflects the gravity in picking songs for this album, because we really believe that this band is much bigger than five dudes from San Diego playing their instruments. There’s a communication that happens. For me, music is a two-way dialogue that can lead to some incredible moments.”

Butler’s New Sound

Butler and his band’s two-year effort is now officially considered time well spent. The result, Hello Hurricane, is a carefully crafted monster of an album that dances along that magical line between signature sound and forward progress. For a band that can sometimes come off as over-polished and over-produced, Switchfoot makes a welcome turn to simplicity with these 12 tracks.

“On the last few records I’ve gone for big rock drums to match the big guitar riffs. On this record we went for a much darker, simpler, more lo-fi approach. We went with much smaller rooms, a much more contained sound, letting the drums come across much more subtlety – dishtowels on drums, blankets around the kit – real dry and intimate. That was a very different approach for us.

“This was more about the part and less about the gloss and polish. At one point I found myself in the vocal booth with just a kick, hi-hat, and snare. There was a dishtowel over the snare, the kick was stuffed with towels, and there was a towel between the hi-hats. It was like playing a sleeping bag.”

Butler’s drum parts won’t jump out and punch you in the face. They won’t bowl you over with complex syncopations or speedy riffs. But the one thing they always do is fit. And on Hurricane they fit better than ever, certainly a result of the liberated creative process. Given this extra room to run, Butler took full advantage. Every stroke is a careful consideration that brings strength to the song.

“My approach as a drummer has always been to listen to the vocal and cue everything off of that. When we’re learning songs I’m always charting them out and writing in vocal cues for myself. I try to be very conscious of playing around different vocal moments without stepping on them or accenting them too much. In my live monitors on stage the loudest thing in my ears is lead vocals and click. Ultimately I think that’s why I’m in the band.” [laughs]

Road Test. Touring is a big part of Switchfoot’s operation, just as it is for nearly all multiplatinum rock bands. But it’s not all about ticket sales, sponsors, and merch booths. For Butler, playing live is a time to connect with his audience, as well as a great opportunity to re-evaluate new material.

“It’s amazing how playing a song live in front of actual people changes your perspective on a song,” he says. “We may have been working on a song for months, or years even, and then we play it live and I hear it differently and decide to go back in and re-track different parts. It really refreshes the creative process to be able to step outside and get on a real stage. It’s vital for a band like us. If we locked ourselves away in the studio it would suffer from not living and breathing on stage. If the music is born completely in the dark I think it would be difficult to translate out on the road.”

One aspect that can definitely be difficult to translate is the incorporation of electronic sensibilities into guitar-driven rock music. Of those who try, more have failed than succeeded, but it’s something that Switchfoot has always managed to pull off. Among drummers there can sometimes be ill feelings, even disrespect, toward the implementation of programmed sounds. Many discredit the player as relying too heavy on the computer.

“I’ve definitely felt that [sentiment] in the past, especially early on when I was working with producers who wanted to bring in a loop. A lot of the times the things they use are too stock or too stiff for my tastes. But working with Mike was different. I played these sampled sounds that are just chopped really short, EQ’d to cut differently than the acoustic drums. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a challenge.

“I remember being in my garage in junior high with headphones on trying to play to A Tribe Called Quest and just wishing my drums could sound like that. I was trying to play basically like a machine. I didn’t understand how they did that and how that music was created. It was frustrating for me and I’d work and work at it. Then later on, after working in studios and working with electronic music, I realized how they did it.”

Musical DNA

A lot of what Butler does simply comes naturally for him. Being in a band like Switchfoot and obtaining that kind of success, well, that can change many people for the worse. But in Butler’s case, all of it – everything that comes with the so-called rock-star package – is unaffecting.

“My dad was a musician, and some of my earliest memories are being in the tour van with the trailer behind us, surrounded by guitars in the backseat, my little brother in diapers next to me. I think that love of traveling and playing music stayed with me. When we first started the band I would’ve never believed that I could make music a career and support a family playing drums.

“It took several years of tours, growing bigger, getting more attention, and at some point we all looked at each other and someone said, ’Are we professional musicians?’ It’s really amazing and humbling that I get to do this for a living because I know many way more talented drummers in the San Diego scene alone who are still unable to play music as a career. It sort of feels like the world’s upside down a little bit and I shake my head every morning and say, ’Wow.’”

And like so many other success stories in the world of music, everything boils down to two basic essentials: work hard and don’t be a jerk. If you find a handful of people willing to do both and they all get along with each other, you have something special.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be in another band. It’s such a unique circumstance to have five guys that get along as well as we do and believe in the music as much as we do to work this hard at it. We make some incredible sacrifices with our family.”

Behind The Lyrics

Something Butler hasn’t had to sacrifice is his faith. Switchfoot was labeled a Christian rock band pretty much out of the gate, due mostly to its affiliation with Sparrow Records. And the band doesn’t shy too far away from that notion, even if they find the whole idea of categorizing their music a bit painful.

“I’ve always just called us a rock band. I’ve never been much for categories or labels, but it’s a necessary thing because our culture and vocabulary like to put things in boxes. But music is best outside of the cage with its claws and its teeth. When you box it up and label it, it looses that innate quality.”

There’s a common unfortunate practice with a lot of “Christian” artists. It seems many of them use their faith-based music to achieve a certain level of success, then campaign rigorously to separate themselves from the religious tag in order to reach more people (i.e., sell more records) until it comes time to swoop in and collect their armful of Dove awards. But Butler and his bandmates take a different, higher road.

“I’m a believer and I’m honored to be associated with the name of Christ. But to call ourselves a Christian band puts up a wall and makes people feel uninvited to the party. I look out at our audience and I see people of all different ethnicities and religions singing the same song, and to me that’s the beauty of music. It’s transcendent. Music can take you places that you can’t go in everyday conversation. Honesty is the goal for good music. Music can give you the capacity to talk about things that you wouldn’t even say to your best friend. There’s somehow a license to be vulnerable and be honest about the struggle, the journey that you’re on.

“It’s important to me to be in a band that is trying to write music that is thought provoking. Everyone has a belief system of some kind, and when explaining my own, the first thing I tell people is I don’t have it all figured out. I don’t have life figured out. I’m on a journey and I want to make music that is a dialogue, not a finished forgone conclusion about life.

“This album is about hope in the face of adversity. I look around at the world and it’s often pretty hopeless. So to find hope in light of the storms that we all face, that’s something worth singing about.”