Foo Fighters’ leading brand of alt-rock retains longevity
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of MeanStreet Magazine
Enduring thirteen years in the modern era music industry is an impressive feat, but the Foo Fighters’ uncanny ability to adapt with the times and remain relevant is an anomaly in and of itself. Sure, the band had the jump start from Dave Grohl’s seminal status, but the former beat keeper and his boys earned stripes the proper way- cutting their teeth on the club circuit, cranking out tunes with garage derived insistency and steadily ascending the ladder to arena rock royalty. As the group gears up to tour in support of its sixth studio CD Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (RCA), the evolution through the ages is particularly apparent, prompting the group’s veteran drummer Taylor Hawkins to ponder the group’s unceasing productivity streak.
“The main thing that’s kept us going is the songs,” the skin slapper suggests via phone from a backstage breather in Orlando. “Dave always manages to come up with a couple tunes that connect with radio listeners- whether it be modern, alternative rock or whatever bullshit term you want to give to rock n’ roll- and that’s one of the reasons this hasn’t dried up yet. We’ve just stayed together and marched on through a lot of the fads. We made it through nu-metal and electronica and lots of other periods when people said rock was dead. We stuck to what we do, but changed within ourselves.”
Such sentiments are immediately apparent after an initial scanning through the latest CD, from the scorching introductory anthem “The Pretender” to the momentum escalating “Long Road To Ruin,” the acoustic turned aggressive fake out “But, Honestly” and the surf-inspired sandy glow of “Summer’s End.” Though the diverse swath of instant sing-a-longs is the proper follow-up to 2005’s In Your Honor, these current strides are perhaps most reminiscent to 1997’s cornerstone collection The Colour and the Shape. And those parallels aren’t just a coincidence, since the Foos reunited with that latter project’s producer Gil Norton (The Pixies, Echo & the Bunnymen) and have thus far found similar fanfare at radio, including “The Pretender” topping the charts- Billboard’s Alternative/Modern Rock faction to be exact- for an unprecedented eighteen weeks, followed by five 2008 Grammy nominations (including “Record of the Year” and “Album of the Year”).
“We had just come off a double record where one side was primarily rock songs and the other one was primarily acoustic based with mellower songs,” he observes. “I think that all bets were off on this one and it wasn’t a question of being a hard rock or mellower record, but to cover it all and end up with the best songs. The results touch a bit on [The Colour and the Shape] to a certain degree, but mostly in production style, which is wrapped around a lot of arranging. Songs like ‘The Pretender’ and ‘Long Road to Ruin’ are a throwback of sorts, but a song like ‘Summer’s End’ is a totally new area for us that’s very California and has a Neil Young vibe to it.”
Follow the leader
While the Foo Fighters have switched personnel on several occasions throughout its tenure thus far, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace comes under the core collective of Grohl and Hawkins, plus original bassist Nate Mendel and guitarist Chris Shiflett (who’s been on board since 1999). The foursome’s chemistry is apparent on the album, but according to Hawkins, it wasn’t always this cohesive or collected.
“I used to liken the Foo Fighters to being like a child star because everybody knew who this band was, especially because Dave was coming out of Nirvana,” he examines. “But people saw this as a really shaky band because the [original] drummer [William Goldsmith] quit after the first record, then [guitarist] Pat [Smear] left and [guitarist] Franz [Stahl] didn’t last very long. It looked like a mess then, but this is the line-up and I think we’ve been able to look pretty far past being the cool, hip, new band and see the bigger picture.”
A major component in the complex puzzle is Grohl’s ability to steer the assertive quintet during its studio sessions. But rather than laying down the law as a diva-like dictator, the singer casts creative visions with the utmost tact, similar to the aforementioned Young corralling his longtime backers Crazy Horse.
“Another one of the main reasons we’ve stayed in the game so long is the fact that Dave is just a good leader,” Hawkins confirms. “He knows how to lead without really seeming like a leader and knows how to get what he wants out of everybody without having to ask. We’re all involved to a certain extent and I’ll come up with my own drum stuff, but if for some reason he’s not feeling it, he’ll push in another direction without being too heavy handed. I don’t think any band can ever be a true democracy even if they say they are. I don’t think U2 is- sure everybody has a different role, but you know Bono and The Edge run the way they want the music to go. You have to have someone with vision.”
Alive and kicking
Regardless of the philosophies, the Foo Fighters are currently criss-crossing the country to show fans its winning formula firsthand. In keeping with its studio tradition, the gang’s stage show also escalated with emotion (and explosions) throughout the years, which Hawkins will be the first to admit wasn’t nearly as tight a decade ago as it is now.
“When I first joined the band, we were fucking awful in my standards,” he muses in dead pan tone, but then lets out a hearty laugh. “We were rough and were still a club band, but when we started playing arenas and stadiums, we needed to rise to that level. When you’re playing in front of such huge crowds, you can’t jump and scream without some sort of professionalism, which is part of the reason Dave is such a great front man as well. I think we’re as good as we can be live at this very moment, but we’re always striving to be better.”
While the band frequently sells out the largest sports complexes throughout Europe (including a 2006 gig at London’s Hyde Park in front of 85,000 people), the States have been a slightly slower build. Large theatres and clubs have never been a problem, but headlining arenas to a major extent is a first on this tour.
“It’s just now in America where we can really headline with confidence and not have to go out with Weezer,” Hawkins notices. “We can sell tickets on our own- like in Orlando we’re about to play in front of 10,000 people- and it’s going way beyond last tour. I’d say we have enough radio songs to fill our set and we play almost all of them. If you’re playing such a big place, people want to hear the songs they know and not the b-sides nobody knows. We play the hits for the most part, some of which we play roughly how they are on the record and some of which take on lives of their own. I learned ‘Monkey Wrench’ a whole different way when I started and it’s gone through phases where it’s stretched more, plus we throw in a couple of other surprises.”
With the bulk of 2007 in the studio, followed by a holiday hiatus, Hawkins admits to having a hard time loading up the bus for the first time in 08. Outside of his rock n’ roll lifestyle, he’s a happy husband and father who’s more likely to be caught at Babies “R” Us than a trendy club, while most of his family’s friends are outside the music industry.
“One thing is my job and one is my family,” he says of the seemingly opposite existences. “I really do keep them separate and it only affects me the day I leave and the day I come home. The day I leave is hard for awhile and you have to switch into the mode of being on stage and around tons of people every night. It’s funny when I get home from a tour because there’s no day sheet under the door telling me what I’m doing every second and it’s back to putting the baby to sleep and going to the store for groceries. It’s a good job with a lot of perks, but you’ve got to look at it as just a job and not the illusion or the bull shit that goes along with being a musician or a so called ‘rock star.’”
Even with that humble approach, the switch hitter still has a few untapped artistic bones in his body, most overtly, a sophomore CD for his rollicking alt-rock side project Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders. “I’m going to do another one for sure, because for better or worse, I’m a songwriter,” he adds. “There’s not much room for an extra songwriter in the Foo Fighters- though I did have one on the last record- because it’s Dave’s baby and I don’t foresee that changing. I like to play and sing and express myself in other ways and it’s pretty different than the Foos.”
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