By Cynthia Gross
It all started with scales. Lots and lots of piano scales. Jerome Fontamillas of San Diego-based rock band Switchfoot has a distinct memory of his beginnings in music. Fast forward to the present, and the Grammy Award-winning keyboardist and guitarist now plays sold-out shows around the world, spreading hope and light with timeless, life-affirming songs that explore what it means to be human.
Learn more about Jerome Fontamillas’ inspiring story with contributing writer Cynthia Gross, including his advice for aspiring musicians, highlights from Switchfoot’s D.C. area shows over the years, and his favorite memory of the Philippines in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
At 5 or 6 years old, Fontamillas’ parents enrolled him in piano lessons, which he responded to with an air of recalcitrance. After discovering pop music, specifically The Beatles, Fontamillas told his parents, “I want to play like them,” to which they replied that he should continue to learn piano. “I remember thinking fondly, I love what they’re doing, and I want to be able to emulate them on keyboard,” he reflected.
Jerome Fontamillas, who hails from a musical family, acquired an 8-track cassette with some of his favorite pop tunes and would secretly transcribe songs from guitar to piano. It was not until his grand-uncle took over teaching duties, however, that he began to flourish. His appreciation for music expanded to a range of genres, including jazz, rock, funk, and classical, and he felt inspired to fine-tune his craft.
Behind every success story, there is a larger narrative. From the early to late 90s, Fontamillas played in several bands in the Southern California local circuit. One of these bands opened for Switchfoot regularly, and Fontamillas became friends with Jon Foreman, Tim Foreman, and Chad Butler, who formed Switchfoot’s initial trio. After successive years struggling to make ends meet, reality set in. Fontamillas decided that he needed to start working full-time in a role that would allow him to become independent.
“I got a job in filing, faxing, and data entry at the tallest building in L.A.,” Fontamillas shared. “I thought it was my ticket to financial freedom, but come the second day on the job, I am hating life. I just hated it.” A mere day and a half into his new career track, Fontamillas went to the parking lot on his lunch break and called Jon Foreman, lead singer and rhythm guitarist of Switchfoot, to ask if the band needed a keyboard player. Upon confirming that he would be able to audition for the band, Fontamillas mustered up the courage to go to his boss and say, “Sorry, I quit.”
To aspiring artists who may be grappling with uncertainty, Fontamillas said, “You really have to love what you’re doing and believe in what you’re doing regardless of the cost.” He admits it was a scary, emotional time, but Fontamillas realized he was willing to put everything on the line.
“I thought, ‘how much do I love music, and how much is it worth to me?’ I’ll live off of Top Ramen and cheese sandwiches so I can do something I love. I was willing to sacrifice that.” This was a bold move for Fontamillas, considering Switchfoot was not yet the acclaimed band that they are today, and things could have gone either way. Fontamillas aced his audition and joined Switchfoot in time to record The Beautiful Letdown, named a Billboard 200 Album of the Decade, launching the band into mainstream stardom. The 2003 album features fan favorites “Meant to Live” and “Dare You to Move.”
The D.C. area holds a special place in Switchfoot’s history. HFStival, which was the largest yearly music festival on the East Coast during its run from 1990 to 2006, provided a platform for Switchfoot’s first-ever big festival as a band. Switchfoot shared the RFK Stadium stage with other then-rising acts, including Jane’s Addiction and Good Charlotte. Fontamillas cites the 9:30 Club, the Fillmore, and The Anthem among his favorite DMV venues. Typically, Switchfoot’s D.C. area tour dates fall in the winter, and Fontamillas is always amazed when so many fans come out, braving the frigid temperatures to wait in long lines.
Frequent lineup changes are a norm in the music industry, and yet, Switchfoot has managed to stay together throughout its 26 years in the making. Fontamillas describes Switchfoot as friends who became family in an encompassing way that goes beyond the fact that there are two brothers in the band. When asked for the quality that he brings to Switchfoot’s dynamic personally, Fontamillas noted that the band looks up to him based on his experience and perspective since he’s a few years older than the other members.
“It’s not always happy-go-lucky,” he explained. “There’s a struggle, as in all families, but there’s always a great connection. The bottom line is that we love each other, we’re family, and we work through it. No one is trying to be better than anyone else. As a group, we’re trying to lift each other up so all of us can be the best we can be.”
It was through Switchfoot that Jerome Fontamillas reconnected with his homeland. Fontamillas was born in Pasay, Philippines, and his parents immigrated to the United States when he was 3 years old, so he doesn’t have many childhood memories of the country. His homecoming occurred years later when Switchfoot traveled to the Philippines for a show a mile from the very spot in which he was born. Fontamillas put out a call for his relatives to meet him at the concert for free, and a lot of them showed up.
“I was able to connect with a group of family members I had never met before. I didn’t know if they were actually all my family members, but most of them were, for sure,” he laughed. “I connected with generations of people – old to young, and they embraced me as one of their own.”
“I love the type of people Filipinos are,” he added. “They will give you whatever they have even if it’s nothing. I hope I can continue to be that type of Filipino here in the U.S., where I embrace community and embrace people.” I’d say that he’s doing just that. It takes only a few minutes in Jerome Fontamillas’ presence to realize he is as kind and genuine as they come, a rare talent who has not let fame change the person he knows himself to be – and never will.
Looking for a summer getaway? Purchase tickets for Switchfoot’s BRO-AM, an annual fundraiser and beach festival that raises money for homeless, at-risk, and disadvantaged youth in San Diego. You can also donate here. Catch Switchfoot live this summer at one of their D.C. area tour stops with support from Collective Soul.
Maryland-based singer-songwriter Cynthia Gross seeks to inspire an awakening to all we are and all we can become. With a passion for language in all of its forms and more than a decade of experience as a professional ghostwriter, she is a light seeker who understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.
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