Guitar One 1999
Donít get Dave Grohl started on the state of rock 'n' roll today. "Lately," says Grohl, "so many people are talking about the need to save rock 'n' roll. But all the talk is about fashion, awards shows, and everything but the music," The Foo Fighters frontman won't have any of it. For Grohl, the focus hasn't shifted one bit. "We recorded our new album our own way. We did it in my basement, without a record label, and without anyone telling us what to do. It's exactly what we wanted to do, and it's exactly what we sound like."
Today, the Foo Fighters have a new guitarist, a new album about to hit the streets, and a new label, RCA. With all the uncertainty of the past two years behind him, Dave Grohl was more than happy to sit down with GuitarOne and retrace the creative steps that helped forge the Foos' latest hard-rock offering.
You've been Involved In some Interesting projects since the last Foo Fighters record, The Colour and the shape, for Instance, you played on the remix of "All About the Benjamins' with Puff Daddy and contributed to the Godzilla soundtrack. What were those projects like?
Well, the Puffy thing was interesting because I had heard the original version of that song and thought it was cool. It was probably my favorite song of his because it was all his music--there weren't any samples of songs from the '80s in there. He called and asked if I would do a remix, but I had never done a remix and didn't know what one was. I didn't know if I should go in and "remix" it, or if I should add instrumentation to it, I had no idea what to do. So they sent me another rock remix they had done with Tommy Stinson from the Replacements] and some other people, and I listened to that--it had "real" drums, guitars, and bass. I guess he just wanted to take another stab at it and have someone else do one, too. It's hard to write a new-sounding song to a song that's already been written. So I just went in and did something that I thought wound up sounding like Rage Against the Machine, in a weird way. It just took one night, and it went pretty well. Puffy wound up using my remix and Tommy Stinson's in the same song; he kind of put it together. My thing comes in towards the end when Biggie Smalls and Li'l Kim start rapping. It was a really wild thing; I'd never done anything like it. And Puffy was really nice. He was super-professional and just wanted to make something that was going to be accepted by a lot of people, which, as a producer, he's proven himself to be pretty successful at.
As far as the Godzilla thing,we'd been asked to do that soundtrack and the X-Files soundtrack at the same time. For the X-Files soundtrack, we did a remake of a song that was on The Colour and the Shape called "Walking After You." We just went in and re-recorded it. And for the Godzilla soundtrack, we were writing the song 'A320" at soundchecks while we were on tour--in Japan, ironically enough. And at every soundcheck, the song just got bigger and weirder. It's one of my favorite things we've ever recorded, just because it's so off-the-wall. We never really performed it live much, but we did give it to the guitarists who were auditioning for us [after Franz Stahl's departure]. We gave them "A320" because it's kind of tricky--it has a lot weird chords, and there are four guitar parts going on at the same time. I wanted to see who was capable of creating some sort of composite arrangement to compensate for all of the parts. So, instead of just choosing one part and playing it all the way through, I wanted to see which guitar players would pick out the most significant guitar parts and meld them. It was interesting.
Enter Chris Shiflett, your new "touring" guitarist. What was he doing before you guys hooked up?
He was in a band called No Use For A Name. Before that, he was also in 22 Jacks, and Me First & The Gimme Gimmes. In fact, back in 1987, the first time I ever went on tour, his band actually opened for my band, Scream, in Santa Barbara. Plus we have a lot of mutual friends, so it's funny that we've been running in the same circles for a long time but haven't bumped into each other.
Nirvana went through something like seven drummers before you entered the picture right before Nevermind. Nave you ever felt like you're going through the same thing, only with guitar players?
Kind of, and we'd been talking about that. In all the press that we've been doing lately, people ask Chris Shiflett, "Well, don't you feel disposable?" Or "Do you feel like you're a member of the band?" Or "Do you feel like you've assimilated?" And 'Are you comfortable?" And he's only been in the band for about three weeks now! In his defense, I always say, "You know, the whole time I was in Nirvana I really thought that I was going to be fired or replaced because of the long line of drummers before me." And it's a weird feeling when you come into a situation like ours, where Taylor [Hawkins, drums], Nate [Mendel, bass], and I are best friends; we're very, very close. It's hard to immediately make your way into that tight of a relationship, and it's twice as hard when you feel like there have been two people before you who have done the same thing. But the thing about Chris is that--and this is no lie---he is the best guitarist and the best vocalist that we've had in the band yet. He's enthusiastic, excited, and genuinely stoked to be in the band. Last night we played in a place that holds about 10,000 people, and I don't know if he'd ever done that before. He just seemed really, really excited, and it's great. It makes us all excited; it makes us all feel like we're starting over again. We expect a lot from each member of the band, and we've all devoted our lives to this thing, so we want someone that will do the same.
There are tons of guitars on your new record. It's no wonder that having a second guitarist is so important to the Foo Fighters' lineup--especially live.
Yeah, there are a lot of guitar parts on this record--each song has three or four different things going on with the guitars, and there are effects all over the place. That's one of the reasons we needed to find someone who could not only pull all of those guitar parts off but sing background vocals as well. It makes everything sound fuller. There's nothing worse than recording a song you think is the most beautiful thing you've ever done in your life and then trying to perform it and realizing that you'd outdone yourself in the studio.
What's it like being on RCA now?
RCA is great. We were fortunate enough to have been in the position to release ourselves from our contract with Capitol Records if we wanted to: We had a "key man" clause. Gary Gersh, who was the guy responsible for signing Nirvana to Geffen, was the president of Capitol at the time. So we signed to Capitol because of him, but we put this clause in our contract that said if he left, we were free to go, too. The record [The Colour and the Shape had been out for a year and a half, and it had done everything it was going to do, and Gary decided to split. So we thought, "Okay. Well, why don't we just get out of our contract, build a studio, and make a record ourselves. Once we're done making the record, we'll go shopping for another label." So we went shopping for a label as if we were a new band, and it was great.
It was a little scary, though, because of the state of disrepair that the music industry is in today. A lot of the labels that we went to were in some sort of corporate turmoil because of the whole [Unigram] merger thing. When we were talking to labels, one of the first questions we would usually ask was, "Okay How fucked up is your label now?" Because everybody's label was going through a massive reworking--hiring and firing staff, dropping 20 bands, or they had just been bought by some huge fucking tobacco company. Everyone seemed a little shaky. There were many labels that had been solid and doing the same thing for years and years, and there were a lot of new labels that were trying to make their way up. Then there were labels that had huge rock rosters, with many of the biggest bands in rock. And it would've made the most sense for us to say, "Well, since we're a rock band in the age of hip-hop, hip-hop/metal, and hip-hop/rock, maybe we should probably go to the place that has the biggest 'rock department'".
But then we looked over at RCA, which didn't have much of a rock roster, and they were telling us, "We really want to work with you guys. We really need you guys to come here." And what better place to be than somewhere we can go and work with them? I don't believe in bands that just make records and hand 'em to a record company to do all the work. I don't think that's right. I donít think a record company should take the tapes from the band, put them in a machine, and distribute it like fuckin' machine-gun shrapnel all over the place. I think that the band should have just as much to do with the marketing and the planning of the release of a record as the label does. So that's why we chose RCA. We knew that they would want to work with us and we would want to work with them.
So you could be more "hands on"?
Yeah, which is important, so you don't end up doing things like the "MTV Hot Tub Party" or some TV commercial promoting jeans, cars, or something like that. It's just trying to protect yourself from what rock music is becoming: more of a "commodity," more of a product than music. So much focus has been placed on celebrity, glamour, and commerce that you're getting a lot more rock stars and glamorous rock life--the point is starting to blur. I thought the point was the music, not the way you cut your hair or the product that you endorse. I'm not against promoting a band, but the focus seems to have shifted from the music to something else--to the fucking cartoon. And that's the one thing that you can protect yourself from, if you're "hands on" with the people that you're working with. All you have to do is say, "No."
I don't need any more attention. I don't need any more money. I just need to be able to play music. I feel so fortunate that people like our band. I feel blessed. I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world--that we can make an album and go out and play in front of a couple thousand people who know the words to our songs and sing them while I'm singing them. It's the best feeling in the world.
But that has so much to do with this album--like going back to Virginia, not being on a record label, going into my basement, and not having anyone tell us what to do. And, at the end of the day, I think our record is cool.
That must have given you a lot of freedom, recording the entire record at your home studio.
Yeah, man. There was no clock ticking, no phone ringing off the hook, nothing. It was just us living in the same house in Virginia for four months. It was great. We could do as many versions of a song as we wanted. It was absolutely glorious.
Once you wrote the songs, how did you, Taylor, and Nate flesh them out for the record?
I wrote all the songs on an acoustic guitar, like the last record. I'd sit around with an acoustic guitar and come up with a melody, and then they'd wind up sounding like train wrecks [laughs]! Then, the three of us would sit down with the basic structure of the song and say, "Okay, which way are we going to fuck this song up?" We wanted to see how far away from our original notion we could get. The most obvious and natural thing for us to do would be to put down a distortion pedal, have the pedal off during the verses, click it on during the choruses, play a little bit faster, and really bash it out. But we thought, "What happens if we have a song where the dynamics don't go from quiet to loud? What happens if the riff in the verse is the same as the chorus, but we just turn it into something else when it hits the chorus? Tom Petty does it all the time, and it seems to work for him." So maybe we would try to create contrast between a verse and a chorus by adding another guitar that complements the riff that runs through the whole song. "Learn to Fly" is a good example of that: From the verse to the chorus, it's sort of the same thing. Or maybe Nate would come up with a bass line that would change the sound of the part--Nate's so good with bass lines that he can turn an ordinary riff into something far more beautiful and unexpected.
And I never sing the songs for the guys before we learn them, so they always begin as instrumentals. I can hear what I'm gonna sing in my head, but they have no idea--they're trusting me to be able to throw it together towards the end. Once we get a song together, Taylor and I will come up with a good drum arrangement. After we put the drums down, I'll put down a couple rhythm guitars. After that, Nate records his bass, and I start doing a couple guitar overdubs here and there. Then, I'll start on the vocals. Once I get a vocal track done, then I'll sort of "pepper" it with a few other little doodads---maybe a little percussion or another guitar overdub. And then it's done. It really only takes us about a day and a half to record a song, once we've got everything together. And we had four months, so you can imagine how many times we re-recorded songs. We would record a song and think, "Wow! That's kind of cool!" Then, a month later, we would think, "Let's take another stab at it; I wanna change this one part," and do it again. Or, we'd go in to mix it and think, "You know what? Let's just record this one more time," and then spend another day and a half re-recording and mixing it.
Do you find, being a drummer and a guitar player, that the guitar parts you create are often more percussive in nature?
Definitely. One of the problems that we've had in trying to find guitar players is that the timing of the strumming is a little different than just your regular 4/4 "chop" kind of thing. It's not terribly difficult, but it's a little more syncopated. And I think every drummer should know how to play guitar, and vice versa, because the relationship has to be so close. If you're playing rock music, and you're coming up with riffs, you have to have some understanding of rhythm. And as a drummer, you have to have some understanding of riffs in order to complement them. Listen to someone like Dave Matthews. He's got good rhythm when it comes to strumming, man. He's pretty quick with his hand. And that's one of the big hooks to their songs: Everything is percussive, whether it's the bass or the acoustic guitars. It's really rhythmic.
I heard you were actually able to play Kurt Cobain's left Handed guitars by flipping it over and playing them right handed, How did you manage that?
Yeah (laughs). Well, all the guitars in the house were left-handed, so I had to learn. It's not that difficult; you get used to it after the first 15 minutes. It's like going to England and learning to drive on the left side of the road.
What kinds of things did you pick up from playing with Kurt for so long?
Just the simplicity of writing, and how the challenge is to strip it down so it's as bare as it can be while still being interesting and challenging. That's what always blew me away about Kurt: He wasn't the most accomplished guitarist in the world. He played chords that everyone else had played a thousand times, over and over again. But somehow, he did it differently without making it any more complicated. It had more to do with his heart and his soul than it did his fingers. It was cool.
I understand New Line Cinema Is putting together some kind of Kurt Cobain or Nirvana documentary called A Leonard Cohen Afterworld--a film that you, Krist Novoselic [Nirvana's bassist], and Kurt Cobain's estate do not endorse.
Right. They're making a movie about two kids who drive up to Seattle for the memorial at the Seattle Center after Kurt died. And to see someone try to reenact something like that takes away from the beauty and the meaning of the real memorial. Because that was something that kids wanted to do and felt like they had to do--it wasn't choreographed or contrived. It was a completely beautiful, real, spontaneous, organic gathering. Maybe it means something different to me than it does to other people. Maybe other people just see it as something like the Kennedy assassination or just another event along the timeline. But, to me, it's more than that. It feels strange to see the death of your friend being reenacted. It makes you feel a little weird.
Can you talk a bit about some of the gear you used on this new record?
Most of the record was done with a Vox AC-30, with effects pedals like a Uni-Vibe or a Memory Man, or old BOSS delay pedals, Rat distortion pedals, Electro-Harmonix pedals, or Octave Fuzzes. I used a Talk Box on "Generator." Guitar-wise, I used my Gibson Trini Lopez, a Fender Telecaster, a Gretsch Duo-Jet, some Les Pauls, Explorers, and RD Artists. We used a Fender twin and a Marshall JCM 900 for some stuff. We also used a MESA/Boogie Maverick--it's a little head. But we tried to stay away from the MESA/Boogie Dual or Triple Rectifier sound because we did that on the last record a lot.
Are you playing the main riff in 'Stacked Actors' with a distorted bass, or are you using your Octave Fuzz?
No. I actually tuned my low E string down to A, so it was flopping all over the place. That's the Rat pedal through the Vox. [Engineer} Adam Kaspar recorded the last Soundgarden record, and he had worked with R.E.M., so he was good with those Vox and Maverick amps--I had never used them before. So we were all really into the Vox AC-30 with the Rat pedal because it sounded badass. It sounded warm and kind of fucked up, not like the razor-sharp distortion of a Rectifier. It was something a little fatter, a little warmer, and a little more believable.
The main riff in riff in "Live-in Skin" kills me. It almost has a Genesis-type, progressive rock vibe.
(Laughs) Thanks. I guess it does kind of have that "Abacab" sort of vibe to it. That one was weird. We were already finished recording and had a couple days off before mixing, and I came up with this riff. I just thought, "Fuck it. Let's record this." So we recorded it in a day and a half while we were mixing. I guess that's just an example of my love for "the riff." I love guitar riffs because they're fun to play, and they remind me of drum rolls, or drum riffs: They begin in one place (e.g., snare drum), go all the way down the neck (e.g., floor tom), and then come back to the beginning.
Are you using Drop D tuning on that track?
Where did you first learn of Drop D tuning?
That's a good question. I don't know, but probably from the Melvins. The first Melvins LP, Gluey Porch Treatments, changed my life. For drums and guitar, and just music in general, that album completely flipped my whole understanding of music on its side, and I just fell in love with it. I thought, "This is the craziest thing I've ever heard in my life!" So I suppose that's probably where I got it from, but I don't really remember.
Most rock composers write musical sections in their songs with a duration that is a multiple of four measures. Three or four tunas on this disc have repeating sections that are three bars in length, Are you conscious of things tike that?
Not really. I think it's a little more important to have a section that begins and ends naturally. If it feels okay, then you can do it. One of my favorite songwriters is Frank Black (Pixies frontman), and he's famous for doing that. Rarely will his sections go four bars, four bars, four bars, four bars. They're all over the place. But it works because the song moves. And I think that's important when writing and arranging a song: that it goes from one point to the next without making any U-turns. I think it's important to make songs that have direction. Things don't necessarily have to be chopped up in four-measure increments for people to understand them. And as long as it's a catchy melody or a strong hook, sometimes it's even more interesting when it's not in groups of four. It's almost more memorable when things are moving in an unconventional fashion.
In "Ain't It the Life," are you playing a guitar equipped with a Bigsby tremolo during the intro?
It's the Gretsch Duo-let. That's the first time I've ever used one of those in my life.
A whammy bar?
Yeah. I never knew what to do with it, but that song just seemed like it had to have it.
There's a great guitar solo on that track--you're playing the chord changes with pentatonics, almost like Joe Walsh.
That one was pretty funny. I'd sing it to Taylor, and he'd go, "Oh man! That's gonna be great! It's gonna sound like the Eagles!" And I'd be like, "Fuck it! I hate the Eagles!" But I like Joe Walsh and the James Gang shit; I thought that stuff was really cool. We wanted to take that one as far as we could go with it. We said, "Let's make it sound as 'old-school' as we can." I split the lead in it--I played slide on a Tele for the first half of the lead, and then the acoustic finishes it off. It turns into some Jimmy Buffet song (laughs). We were laughing hysterically, just because it's so cliche, in a way. But it worked.
When you're playing over chord changes, ore you playing strictly by ear, or do you hove ∑ music theory background?
I just go by ear. I don't know how to read music at all, so I just kind of listen to hear what works. I don't know scales--I know what the notes are called, but I don't know how they work in relation to other scales. I don't know any of that stuff. I just go by what I think sounds good. It's just like writing a vocal line, to me: It's just another way of adding to the melody of the song. Whatever works, works.
How do you develop your lead chops?
Oh, I don't have any lead chops, man.
I beg to differ.
I beg to differ you (laughs)! I mean, lead guitar is something that I've never really been too concerned with because we don't really have leads in our songs. But there are some places where it can work in our songs. There's a lead in "Stacked Actors," but it's so hack-4t's supposed to sound like some garage band from the '60s. 'Ain't It the Life" contains another lead on the record, and it's kind of funny. I mean, it's almost tongue-in-cheek just because it's the kind of song where you say, "Oh. Here's the 'lead' section. This is where I should do a 'lead.'"
I don't have fast fingers at all, man. But that, to me, is the least important thing when doing a guitar lead. Perfect, blazing guitarar leads don't really do much for me although I do have a lot of favorite guitar players who can play amazing stuff. Warren Haynes (of Gov't Mule) is my favorite guitar player right now. He's totally amazing. I love Gov't Mule. What he's doing with guitars, I don't hear much from anyone else right now. Stevie Ray Vaughan was fuckin' great. His heart was in his guitar, man. That guy was living and breathing through his guitar man; it was amazing. And I think Warren Haynes is doing the same thing: that guy is a guitar hero. then there's Jimmy Page. I love him too, but it's not something I'd ever be able to do (laughs).
Words: Dale Turner
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