Behind SWITCHFOOT: The UC San Diego Stories

This is Chad Butler ’97, drummer for the band, SWITCHFOOT.

Yes, the Grammy award-winning band SWITCHFOOT, which began here at UC San Diego!

Chad Butler (center) with fellow SWITCHFOOT members Jon (left) and Tim Foreman, as students!

It all started when Butler heard former student Jon Foreman strumming a song in his room at Revelle.

I remember Jon playing me our first single on his guitar—he was sitting on the floor of his dorm with his acoustic guitar and he played me this song about a chemistry class. This was in fall of ’96, I think his freshman year. It had this cool guitar hook, and I thought it was so funny that he wrote a song about this freshman chemistry class. We put that song on our first album.

That song was Chem 6A, written about—you guessed it—Chem 6A.

The radio station, 91X, had a local band showcase late on Sunday nights—that was the first time we’d ever been played on the radio. I remember when we got back to campus and people were like, “What? You wrote a song about a chemistry class?” Even now when we’re touring, I’ll run into other UCSD alumni at our shows. They’ll come and introduce themselves and say, “I know what that song’s about. I took that class.”

The band grew from there, playing big-time venues like… the Price Center!

They would have bands every Friday or something. It was one of the first times we got booked to play on a stage like that, and it was a big deal for me because I’d gone to concerts at the Price Center starting from when I was in high school. So to get to play on that stage as a UCSD student, in front of probably 50 people, I was like, “Wow, this is big time.”

It did not look like this: 

A bit more like this:

If you don’t recall it, maybe it’s because they once went by a different name.

At first we were called Chin Up, but about six months in we decided to change our name. I remember sitting in the coffee shop at the Price Center, where we wrote down all the band names we could come up with. We finally decided and we had a concert the next day at the Pub where we announced it: “Hey, thanks for coming out to see us. Until now we’ve been called Chin Up, but tonight, we’re changing our name to… SWITCHFOOT!” And it was just crickets. People were like, “What? What’s a switchfoot?”

(It’s a term from surfing—standing opposite your natural position on a board.)

It’s an awkward stance—kind of funny, you know? Something you’d do if you were clowning around with your friends. But for us, it was great. We thought, let’s go with this name that reminds us of surfing. Now, 20 years later, we’re still called that. I love it.

You can actually trace the band even further down those surfing roots.

Jon and I knew each other a little bit in high school from surfing local contests. But my sophomore year I was in my dorm, the Marshall lowers, when I got a call from Jon’s dad. He said, “Hey, I’m a friend of your dad’s. My son is interested in going to UCSD next year. Would you mind showing him around? And few days later this kid shows up at my door, surfboard under his arm. I was the surf team captain then so I had a key to the gate to drive down—it was a very coveted thing. So we drove his little Volkswagen Beetle down there and went surfing.

They ripped up some tasty waves…

Chad Butler surfs Black’s Beach, circa 1995. Kinda empty out there, ya think?

But there was a bit of a snag…

By the time we got back, it was dark and we realized Jon had locked the keys in the car. There were no lights down there—we had to hit that little Volkswagen triangle window in the back just right so it would open. Finally we did, and we got back. That was my first time hanging out with Jon. And of course, he ended up going here, too.

But what if Jon hadn’t gone here? What if they’d never met? Maybe Butler would have been a doctor?

I started off as a bio major, premed. My mom was a nurse practitioner and I thought I wanted to be a pediatrician. I kind of struggled through that path, taking all the science and math and realizing after several years—Wow, this is not working out. Organic Chemistry was the turning point. I got to O-Chem and said, I don’t know if I’m cut out for this. I was taking more music and art classes by then too and I realized I wasn’t in the right major. If I had to do it all over again, I think I would have allowed myself a little bit more freedom to change majors sooner.

Or maybe he’d have stuck with the easiest job in the world…

I worked at RIMAC when it was first built. It may have even been under construction when we moved in there. And I had the easiest job—I would just go in there and sit in a little information booth window and it was always pretty early in the morning, when people would go in and just workout and nobody ever came to talk to me. So I’d just do my homework, on these nice, quiet, easy mornings.

Or been a surf teacher…

My job as a surf instructor through Rec Classes was so great. Even now, seeing the joy of somebody else experience what I’ve grown to love is more fulfilling actually than doing it myself. One of the best parts of that teaching job was all the international students—they came from all over the world to San Diego and they’d want to learn to surf. That was their goal, you know? The main thing they wanted to do here. I loved being a kind of ambassador for the sport. It gave me a lot of fulfillment.

(It also gave him the love of his life.)

True story—I taught my wife in one of my surfing classes through Rec. That’s how I met her. I taught her to surf and then we ended up getting married a couple of years later. It sounds creepy—marrying your student—but I’m only a year older than her.

I mean, is that guy on the left not husband material? 

No diss intended to you, guy on the right…

Or maybe he’d have been a camp counselor…

Then I got a job in the summer as a counselor at Knock Around Camp (Rec’s summer day camp for kids of students, staff and faculty.) Jon Foreman and I were counselors together for a couple summers. That was a blast—just playing with kids, swimming at the natatorium. We’d throw kids off the diving board and then tear it up outside playing soccer with them. That was a great summer job. The whole Rec department crew was so much fun. It was just like a family.

Or he’d have combined camp and surfing together…

At that point in my life, my dream was to create a kid’s camp all about the ocean and surfing and science—the perfect blend of the things that I love to do. I even wrote up a proposal for it. The fact that Laurel at Rec even gave me the time of day to pitch it, that was a huge confidence boost for me. It was right at the time a record label eventually signed us, but had that not happened, I was totally looking forward to pursuing that idea of a kid’s camp about surfing and science.

(You’d just have to keep him away from the kid’s food.)

One time we got in trouble. Jon and I were reprimanded because a parent had complained that we were eating their kid’s lunch. [laughs] But the truth was, they were throwing away so much food! And I hated to see them waste that food. So I’m like, Oh, you’re gonna throw that away? I’ll eat that pack of Oreos or Cheez-Its or whatever it was. I guess somebody told their parents: “My counselor is eating my food.” So we got busted. But you know, when you’re a college student, free food is great.

But really, that camp is where they found their purpose.

That Knock Around experience really gave me an appreciation for how you can have a tangible influence on kids. I hadn’t really worked with kids at all at that point, but I found that teaching them to swim and play sports, it becomes so much more than that. They become more confident by learning things they didn’t think they could do. Like doing a flip off the diving board or scoring a goal on the soccer field—it builds their self-worth and you can really see that happening. It really shaped my appreciation for investing in the lives of the next generation. That’s been our focus as a band with our charity efforts—the Bro-Am surf contest we put on and what we do for youth charities here in San Diego, it’s all about supporting the next generation who is going to carry the world.

Talk about Triton spirit, right?!

It just starts with gratitude for what we were given. Growing up in San Diego, experiencing surfing and music—I mean, those two things kept me out of trouble. And with all of us in the band, we all have a desire to give back because we’ve been given so much—the support, education, and the community we have here. From high school into college and beyond, we’re really rooted here in San Diego. All of us in the band live here, record here, we see each other every day. Even as we travel around the globe to a lot of great places, the more I’m absolutely sure that I’ll never leave San Diego.

Which is why we’re stoked they played a concert just for Tritons at Homecoming@Home!

Rock on Triton! And view more photos all the Homecoming@Home fun here!