"I love 'side projects.' I don't find anything even remotely negative in that term, because it's often in the side projects that we make space to experiment and to explore. Often, we end up creating something that exists simply because we're passionate about it. There is great freedom in working on something that doesn't have to exist. Sean Watkins, Jon Foreman, Tyler Chester, and Aaron Redfield make space and take time away from their other quite successful projects to write and record as Fiction Family and I, for one, am thankful for the resulting music that comes from a group of guys experimenting with the craft.
I sat down with Jon Foreman and Sean Watkins to talk about the origins of the project, breaking a song apart for a live show, and how songwriting is a bit like archaeology…"
-Ryan Booth, Creator/Director
RB: I would love to hear how this whole Fiction Family thing happened - especially for a bunch of musicians that had their own things going before this came together.
SW: Our bands were playing one right after each other at a gig in San Diego, and we introduced ourselves to each other and said we should get together and write some time. It was the kind of thing you say to people but you never actually follow through with, except this time, we actually did. We wrote one song, then decided to do a couple more, and then decided to make an EP. It just kept going and before we knew it we had a full record. We decided to put it out, then realized we would need a band to play the record live, so Tyler and Aaron came on at bass and drums, respectively. We really became the band we are now on that first tour.
RB: What do you think kind of made it move past a casual "Hey man, we should hang out sometime?”
SW: I love meeting people and trying out new musical situations, but obviously, I don't form bands with people all the time. We have a mutual respect for each other and this happened to turn into something much bigger.
I think the great thing about music is that it comes alongside the real elements that are going on in your life and can be a way to document your experience on the planet. The songs that you write and the songs you hear, they are the soundtrack to the real thing.
RB: Would you define Fiction Family as a side project? Or does that term have a negative connotation to you?
JF: I think as you get older, you realize that everything is somewhat of a side project to the project of living, whatever that entails: being good to your girlfriend, your wife, your kids. Whatever your family situation is, all of that has to come before music. So for me, all of music is a side project to some extent and I don't see any negative connotation with that. I think the great thing about music is that it comes alongside the real elements that are going on in your life and can be a way to document your experience on the planet. The songs that you write and the songs you hear, they are the soundtrack to the real thing. Switchfoot is a side project in that light, as is Fiction Family, and my solo stuff. It's all just coming alongside of the real thing.
RB:So if Fiction Family is a particular way to document the real thing, what flavor does that capture for you?
JF: The beauty of Fiction Family is that it really doesn't have to exist. It's not paying bills, it's not anything other than enjoying time spent with friends playing music. I think one of the things I love about the name of the band is that it rings true. A lot of the songs on the record are, for me, almost like I’m singing from a different person. It's ironic, but fiction can actually tell the truth better than some sort of a diary can, because when you're singing in the third person, it’s often easier to talk about what's actually going on. I love that element about Fiction Family. I love the fact that the dynamics of who is in the band are captured on the record. I really feel like you can hear Aaron and his personality in the drums, I feel like you can hear Tyler's musical prowess in a lot of the arrangements, some of the more left-of-center chord changes and instrumentation, I think Sean of and his incredible playing... So for me, when I listen to the record, it makes me smile because I can hear my friends shining through.
RB:At what point, when you're writing, do you think that a song begins to take the shape of a Fiction Family song? Do you sit down and say "Alright, I'm going to write some songs for Fiction Family now" or does it materializes as the components comes together, a process of discovery of sorts. What is that process for you?
SW: A lot of times, we'll sit down and one of us will write a song that would obviously be a great fit for Fiction Family and we'll send it to the other one. We both write a lot and we're always throwing things out there. It’s like throwing spaghetti against the wall. The ones that stick, stick.
JF: There are certain songs that were written specifically for this record. 'Avalon,' 'Up Against The Wall,' and a couple others were written specifically for the record, but 'Gimme Back My Girl' and 'Just Rob Me', are songs that once they were written, just felt like they belonged on the record. So I guess it's a little bit of both.
One of the things I love about the name of the band is that it rings true. It's ironic, but fiction can actually tell the truth better than some sort of a diary can, because when you're singing in the third person, it’s often easier to talk about what's actually going on.
RB: Does the time you guys spend apart really contribute to evolving the Fiction Family sound when you get back together?
SW: I think it does. I think it can't help but change when you're apart from someone, you're going to be playing with other people and listening to music, so you're going to come back with new ideas. But, we really don't worry about that. When we get together, we just want to sound better.
RB: What's your definition of sounding better?
SW: Playing better, having better songs, being more tight as a band, being more in tune with each other. That's all we worry about when we’re together. From the first record to second record, the sound changed a lot because we added Tyler and Aaron into the mix, but I think the time we’re apart now contributes to subtle changes in the sound.
RB:Do you think that Fiction Family could have existed at a previous point in your careers? Or do you think this wouldn't have come together if you guys hadn't had your other bands and other experiences?
JF: Earlier on, you’re off trying to conquer the world and define who you are, musically. Maybe you're not as excited about just meeting up with someone who's doing something else so you think you don't have the time for it. So, I’d say it came along at the right time for us.
RB:Talk about the actual process of recording these songs together. When you were in with us, you mentioned that you tracked them all live together. Do you think that's an essential part of the sound and process for you guys?
JF: The first record was completely different. I was in my garage, and Sean was in his garage working on them at separate points in time, completely independent of each other. Aaron and Tyler weren't a part of the first record. They toured on that album, and that's where the joy of playing as a four piece came together. So for this record, it was approached differently. It was actually all four of us in a room with Sean and I singing vocals as Aaron played the drums and Tyler played the bass. The only thing we overdubbed was the pianos. Everything else was done in the same room, at the same time: lead vocals, backup vocals, everything. For me, that was a beautiful thing, because a lot of the takes that you hear on the record were literally the fourth or fifth time that we'd ever played the song as a band. For instance, 'Up Against The Wall', was the fourth time we played that song together, period. And yet that's what you hear on the record. So for me, part of the story was capturing the joy of learning something. I wanted to hear that on the record.
RB: Are you glad you didn't have the time to go back and do a bunch of overdubs?
JF: I'm proud of every single song that's on the record. I don't think there was ever an issue where we thought quality would be compromised by that kind of approach. If there was ever a point where we thought that we could do it better, we’d just re-track the whole thing.
I'm not opposed to changing chord progressions, changing lyrics, changing melodies. Whatever serves the shared experience of a song that is helped along the way, then it's worth it. Nothing about the song is sacred, it’s the experience that is sacred.
RB: Talk about translating these songs live. You guys learn the songs together in the studio, I would imagine when you take them out into a live show that the songs would likely morph and change as you are able to play them in front of people. Do you enjoy that process of translating the songs live? Or is it a pretty direct correlation for you - the way that you tracked it is the way that you play it? Talk about the process of going from studio to concert.
SW: It's exciting because we learned these songs in the studio, we weren't playing them live first. To me, it’s really fun to get out there and figure out how to play them for people. You have to adjust night to night and figure out what works. Sometimes things that work on the record don't translate live, and you have to be flexible and figure out what translates in different environments.
JF: I adopt the idea that you don't have to replicate the record every night, unless that's the best presentation of the song. But even then, you still have to mix it up night to night. I will equate the live show - it's almost like a magic show that you, the performer, still wants to be amazed by the magic too. And when the magic wears off for you onstage, then it's time to change it up and find new ways to be amazed and new ways to be filled with wonder. For me, as a musician, the reason why I love music is that it fills me with wonder. It widens my eyes. It brings me through life and feels like this experience of awe, that's shared with all these people. When that wears off on you, you have to find new ways to reignite that wonder. For me, that's what we try to do live.
RB:How does that happen specifically in the FF context? What do you mean by "change it up"? What would happen?
JF: For example, we may take the drums completely out of 'God Badge' and play it with just the harmonium and vocals and acoustic. That's a completely different arrangement that is trying to capture the heartbeat of the song, but from a different perspective, a different angle. I'm not opposed to changing chord progressions, changing lyrics, changing melodies. Whatever serves the shared experience of a song that is helped along the way, then it's worth it. Nothing about the song is sacred, it’s the experience that is sacred. You can change the song to enhance the experience because the journey is what’s sacred.
RB: It seems like all the guys in the band must be a particular kind of musician to be willing to break the songs apart and reassemble them in front of people on a night-to-night basis. It seems like a unique thing that you would end up with all these different projects with all these different people who kind of believe the same things. Do you feel like that's a component of why you guys click in all your different iterations and your different projects?
JF: Sean and Tyler and Aaron are incredibly mature musicians who are not precious about anything, so the ego isn't involved to the extent that it sometimes can be with younger musicians. You're not thinking "Aw man, but this was my one moment, this is my thing, this is my..." It's much more of a gregarious spirit that says, "what's best for everyone?" With that in mind, I'm fortunate enough to be around people that are excited about making the evening the best it can be, rather than just making that one moment exactly like the record.
There's a famous African musician named Fela Kuti that would, once a song was recorded, never play it again because he felt like that song already lives on perpetually. It's going to be around a long time, so let's do something new tonight. A lot of my favorite guitar players - Blake Mills is a great example - someone who just seems like when he picks up the instrument he could care less about what he played before, he's interested in playing what matters right then.
I always equate any creative endeavor to archeology - every day you wake up and you dig and you don't know what you're going to discover.
RB: From a songwriting standpoint, do you feel like writing is a discipline for you? Is it an inspiration thing? Does it kind of depend on the day? What's your songwriting process?
SW: Songwriting, for me, is following the path of least resistance. Meaning, if an obstacle is in your way, move around it. Don't get stuck on one word or one idea, especially don't get bogged down trying to get all the little things right. I like getting things right, but I like doing that after the song has already taken shape. I'll get a structure and an idea of what I want the lyrics to be about, then I'll sort of fine tune after that.
RB: Has that always been your process or do you feel like that's something you've had to learn over time?
SW: I've definitely had to learn how to do that. And in the past I've gotten pretty stuck. Certain aspects of writing cause me to not be as productive and I've learned to move quickly around them in a sort of broad strokes way.
JF: We’re actually writing for the next Switchfoot record right now, so it's a good thing to talk about. I'd say it's a little bit of both. Sometimes it's a tempo or a subject that you're chasing down. Other times it just comes to you. You could be out surfing or on a walk in a strange town somewhere and a song jumps out at you. I always equate any creative endeavor to archeology - every day you wake up and you dig and you don't know what you're going to discover. Some days all you find is a bunch of dirt. But other days you dig and you find this lost city that was buried down there somewhere. Those are the best songs, where it feels like you didn't actually create anything, but you discovered it, like it was already there before you even started digging.
RB: When you find something like that, do you feel like there's any sense of ownership? Especially with music, you make something, you write it, you put it together, you send it out, and ultimately, for the vast majority of people who interact with your music, they're interacting with it in this context that's outside of the one you created it in. Do you still feel like, after you've put the song out there, that you have a sense of ownership over it? Or is it like you totally turn it over and it kind of becomes other people's?
JF: I guess I'm not really concerned with ownership at that point. I mean, that's why I love cover songs. Because when you're singing it, it's your song. You have to own it. You have to sing it from first person. You may be coming from a radically different view point, yet finding so much in common with the song. Commonality is what I'm concerned about finding. I think once you write a song and play it for someone, it enters the common shared space that exists between all of us and it's no longer yours. It can be covered, it can be imitated, it can be mocked...
RB:How has that process changed for you over time? Has writing always felt like digging for you? Do you have a good idea where to start?
JF: I think the places you dig are different, and maybe you get better at defining the process, but I don't think you get better at it. It's just different. I look back at songs I wrote early on and I couldn't have written them now, but songs that I'm writing now, I couldn't have written when I was younger. I mean, that's the thing about writing an honest song; you're writing from your own subjective experience, which is absolutely changing from moment to moment.
I look back at songs I wrote early on and I couldn't have written them now, but songs that I'm writing now, I couldn't have written when I was younger. I mean, that's the thing about writing an honest song; you're writing from your own subjective experience, which is absolutely changing from moment to moment.
RB:How does experience play a role in that process?
JF: Experience changes your subjective perspective in the process, for better or worse. And the more songs you've written, the more familiar you are with the process of writing. But the great thing about songwriting is that you can change every step of the process. So, whatever rut you're in, change the instrument you're writing on, the subject matter, the location, and whatever else you want to change and suddenly you've created a completely new experience. That's the beauty about a song; you won't write the same song the next day, no matter how hard you try.
RB: As someone who makes things for a living, I've been thinking quite a bit about how that's going to work itself out over time. It’s just an interesting idea to me that over the long term, you could have all the same tools but create many different kinds of things. It's a comforting idea, really, that the well doesn't necessarily run dry if you just keep digging.
JF: That's the beauty of it, you know? Music can be among the most expressive outlets you could ever hope for because you can sing without words, you can sing without a voice. If you get bored with the guitar, there's a piano next to it, there's the drums next to that. For me, it's a comforting thought that the well doesn't run dry.
RB: Do you feel like it's dangerous to have an agenda when you're writing? If songwriting's kind of discovering or digging, is it okay to ever have something you're trying to say?
JF: No, I think that there are times where you set out from home on a specific journey and you're trying to accomplish something. Not every song has to be some sort of meandering, soul-searching quest. There are times when you need to get something off your chest. You need to utilize the communicative elements of song to tell a story that you need to tell. There is a mystery to songs, to art in general, that will always shock us and awe us. I think that there is a holy reverence with which I approach songwriting, but you still have to eat breakfast and brush your teeth and do normal things. So for me, the song is a holy vehicle to get places, but I'm still just using it to get around.
RB: Does the songwriting portion of playing music and the performing portion of playing music - are those two sides of the same coin? Or do they feel like different people in your mind: the performer version of you and the songwriting version of you?
JF: They're different. They're related, but they're definitely different.
RB: How so?
JF: I had to learn how to perform. I had to learn how to communicate these songs to people. I'm not naturally a very good performer. I used to hate performing because I always felt like the song would communicate itself better if I just put it down on my four track and played the cassette for somebody. But slowly, I realized that there's joy in the broken string, there's joy in the bad notes, there's joy in the things that go wrong onstage. Ultimately, there's joy in the fact that that moment will never happen again. I try to embrace the view that the song is a vehicle to get somewhere honest with people during the evening. That’s what allows me to enjoy the process. When I'm singing a song that I just wrote, and thinking it through just as a songwriter, you skip all of those steps because it's you and God and no one else is in the room, so you don't have to worry about that kind of communication.
There's joy in the broken string, there's joy in the bad notes, there's joy in the things that go wrong onstage. Ultimately, there's joy in the fact that that moment will never happen again.
RB: What do you hope that someone who comes and has a Fiction Family record and comes to see you guys play, what do you hope someone takes away from bumping into you guys' music?
SW: Anytime I play music, I want people to be excited about music - inspired both musically and personally. But I'm not trying to make people happy and I don't have a message. I know when I leave a show that I really like, I'm just buzzing. It makes me want to create and write my own songs. So hopefully, we strike people in that same way.
JF: I would hope that the musical prowess of Sean and Aaron and Tyler, is showcased throughout the evening. It's a little bit of wonder coming through in just the sheer ability of what people are hearing. That's my goal. Every time we get together as a band, I'm wanting to showcase how incredible these guys are at what they do. But I think beyond that, I want the evening to be a journey and for people to walk out having done a little bit of time travel. Music is my favorite form of time travel - you enter the song and exit the song as different people.