Midnight Madness

Guitar World, April 2021

Foo Fighters’ guitar triumvirate DAVE GROHL, CHRIS SHIFLETT& PAT SMEAR unleash their inner early-Eighties David Bowie (and SRV), bust out the ABBA beats and get decidedly “weird” — just in time for their 10th album, MEDICINE AT MIDNIGHT

“IT WAS THE FOO FIGHTERS’ 25TH ANNIVERSARY, SO IT was going to be a big year,” he says. “We thought, it’d be great to make an album, our 10th studio album, and I started planning around that — ‘Let’s circle the planet! Let’s release this documentary thing that we’ve made! Let’s do these van tours! We’ll play the same cities 25 years to the date that we did on our first-ever tour… and in the same van we did the tour in!’ Just all this shit, you know? Basically coming up with this world-domination-celebration thing.”

Spoiler alert: 2020 did not work out the way anyone — Grohl and the Foo Fighters included — had planned. Which is why the singer and guitarist, rather than telling this story to Guitar World from the back of a beat-up van in some far-flung locale (that van tour, scheduled to begin last April, was cancelled as the world went into COVID-19 shutdown) is, like everyone else, at home, talking about his aborted world domination plot over — what else? — Zoom.

And when our narrative is enriched with brand new anecdotes courtesy of Dave’s Foo Fighters co-guitarist, Chris Shiflett? That interview takes place over Zoom as well, with Shiflett safely confined in his home.

The final piece of the Foos guitar triumvirate, Pat Smear, meanwhile, is clearly not taking any chances. He speaks with GW via a crackly cellphone connection from the east coast of Canada, where he’s holed up, he reports, “in the snow in a little cabin deep in the woods, with no mail delivery or garbage pickup.”

“He’s turned into a Canadian frontiersman,” Shiflett says with a laugh. 2020, to say the least, was weird.

But while the Foos didn’t get to spend the year circling the planet delighting fans, they did manage to get some real work done. For starters, Grohl finished his documentary, What Drives Us, which finds him exploring the psychology behind why musicians drop everything to spend their lives traveling in, yes, a van, to bring their music to people. And the Foo Fighters — which is rounded out by drummer Taylor Hawkins, bassist Nate Mendel and keyboardist Rami Jaffee — recorded that celebratory 10th studio album. It’s called Medicine at Midnight, and it’s a killer.

It’s also unlike anything you’ve heard from the band before. Sure, there are all the Foos trademarks — indelible riff-rockers (“Cloudspotter,” “Holding Poison”), tightly coiled ragers (“No Son of Mine”), soaring ballads (“Waiting on a War”) and hooks (“Making a Fire”) upon hooks (“Medicine at Midnight”) upon hooks (“Love Dies Young”). But there’s also something else going on: an adherence to groove and atmosphere — and a very particular sort of early-Eighties-pop-rock-new-wave-dance groove and atmosphere — that lays out a fresh sonic and stylistic launching pad for these songs. You hear it in the slinky, heavily syncopated rhythms of the album’s first single, “Shame Shame,” and you hear it even more in the bubbly, synthy riffs that power “Love Dies Young.” And you hear it maybe the most in the sultry, heated funk of the title track, which nods heavily to David Bowie’s 1983 pop-exotica classic “Let’s Dance” in sound and style — and even the guitar solo, which finds Shiflett paying tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s bluesy work in the Bowie original.

“I’m sort of aping Albert King through the lens of Stevie Ray,” Shiflett says of his lead work on “Medicine at Midnight.” “I even said to our producer, Greg Kurstin, ‘We might want to mix these licks up a bit, because it’s really a homage.” He laughs. “But, hey, that’s rock ‘n’ roll!”

Shiflett approached the “Medicine at Midnight” solo not only from a unique perspective playing-wise, but also in his choice of guitar. “The Foo Fighters are generally a hum-bucker kind of group,” he says.

“I remember a few years ago I showed up at something we were doing with a Strat and Dave looked at me and said, ‘Now there’s something I never thought I’d see in my band!’ Because we don’t really do the single-coil thing. But for ‘Medicine at Midnight’ that’s where we wanted to go. So I grabbed one of my Strats and worked out the solo stuff and it was really fun. And I love that about our band — that we still have these moments of getting to jump into things we’ve never tried before.”

Grohl lays it out in more general terms. “After 25 years, and now we’re making our 10th record, I wanted to be sure we didn’t make ‘Learn to Fly’ again. Or ‘Best of You’ again. Or ‘My Hero” again. We’ve done those already. If we want to be a band for another 25 years, then we have to be able to find something new. So the greatest reference I had for this record was everything we’ve done in the past. And it was, ‘Let’s not do that.’ ”

Or, as Smear puts it, “We just said, ‘Fuck it, let’s get weird on this one.’ ”

That weirdness began, in a way, much like past Foo Fighters records have begun — although that process is somewhat weird in and of itself. After coming off a 16-month world tour in support of their 2017 album, Concrete and Gold, the idea was, as it often is with the Foo Fighters, to take a break. “We kind of work this cycle where we’ll go into the studio and make a record, then we run around playing clubs and doing promo for a couple of months, and then we release the record and tour for a year and a half,” Grohl says. “By the time we’re finished with that cycle, we’re all exhausted and we promise ourselves we’ll never put each other through that fucking hell ever again.” He laughs. “I say it every fucking time. You should ask my wife. She’s like, ‘I hear it every time — I’m exhausted. I’m never doing this again. This is the last record, blah, blah, blah.’ ”

“We always claim we’re going to take this break and then… we miss it,” Smear says. “We miss each other, we miss making music together.”

“So within two and a half weeks, I’m demoing shit and sending it to the band,” Grohl continues.

Smear concurs. “It’s never more than a few months after we’re home that we’ll get a group text from Dave saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been writing songs…’ Then it’s on.”

The Foos began recording Medicine at Midnight before the pandemic hit. But whereas in the past they’ve tracked at various facilities, including the band’s own Studio 606 and, for Concrete and Gold, EastWest, located in the heart of Hollywood, this time they took a different approach, taking up residence in a 1940s-era home in Encino, California, not far from Grohl’s own house.

“The weird thing is, I actually lived in that house 10 years ago,” Grohl says. “I was going through a remodel at the time and needed a place close by to move into while my house was completely bulldozed. This place looks kind of like an old mansion, with these big iron gates out front. It sounds beautiful, but really it’s a dilapidated, rundown, spooky old house in the middle of Encino. Amazing neighborhood, though — you can jump some fences and go be in Slash’s yard, or walk six houses up and there’s Steve Vai’s place. Within, like, 75 yards, there’s all this guitar-hero wizardry. It’s insane.”

As for how the non-traditional environment affected the recording process, Shiflett says, “it was a really different vibe than Concrete and Gold. That record was made at a beautiful, classic studio with multiple rooms, so you have that thing where, you know, one day you walk in and Lady Gaga is sitting on the couch in the lounge or whatever. But this time, because you’re in a house, you remove all the sort of Hollywood entertainment elements of it. Which was great. You’d show up in the morning and, depending on where we were in the recording process, you might be working or you might just be hanging out in the kitchen, drinking coffee and shooting the shit. It was real laid back.”

But if the band members themselves were relaxed, the house itself had a fair amount of activity happening. “I started demoing things there by myself around June of 2019, and it felt creepy,” Grohl says. “But I thought, well, you can creep yourself out if you’re alone in an old house at night recording rock songs. But then as we moved in, weird little things would happen here and there, whether it was guitars being detuned, settings moving around on the board or shit happening in the Pro Tools session that wasn’t supposed to happen.”

“It was a bit of an oddball house,” Shiflett acknowledges. “It has that look that’s sort of like it’s being reclaimed by the mountainside, and everything’s cracked and the pool is nasty and there’s vines everywhere. It had a vibe.”

“Beyond that, there was this feeling that you were either being followed or being watched all the time,” Grohl goes on. “And when more than one person is feeling that way but they don’t tell each other, and then all of a sudden everyone starts confessing, ‘Oh, this room in the house? This room is fucked up.’ Or, ‘That stairway? That stairway’s fucked up.’ When it all starts coming out you’re just like, ‘Oh my God…’ ”

Even Smear, who asserts that he “doesn’t really believe in magic and that kind of stuff,” admits, when pressed, that “there was a lot of odd and creepy goings-on happening.”

“So we recorded nine songs and got the fuck outta there!” Grohl says with a laugh.

In fact, at just nine songs and 37 minutes, Medicine at Midnight is the Foo Fighters’ most concise full-length to date. But not because they were trying to flee from supernatural forces. Rather, Grohl says, “we intended on making a record that was short and sweet, because it’s inspired by a certain type of album that we all loved when we were young. Like an Eighties Bowie record — tight, full of grooves, lots of melodies, that’s it. Let’s go.”

While the band ultimately traveled a very specific stylistic road, that intention wasn’t set in stone right from the beginning. “There were a few things that got recorded that didn’t see the light of day,” Shiflett confirms.

“It was a bunch of songs and they were all great and they were all very ‘Foo Fighters,’ ” Smear says. But then, he continues, “we did ‘Shame Shame,’ and that just changed the direction of the whole process.”

Indeed, “Shame Shame,” built on a stark, repeating five-note figure that is adorned with handclaps, keyboard accents and other sonic ephemera, is among the biggest stylistic departures on Medicine at Midnight, and maybe even within the entire Foo Fighters catalog.

“It was the first left turn,” Grohl says. “And it’s such a simple riff. When I did the demo I had that rhythm, and then I overdubbed this hand-clapping thing over it. Then we put the drums in a stairway, which sounded so fucking killer. Did more overdubs. Now all of a sudden it was a groove that we had never done before. And not only that, it had this tone and dynamic that we had never really gotten into. That really inspired us to start loosening the reins and just let shit fucking happen.”

This change in attitude and approach resulted in songs such as the closing track, “Love Dies Young,” which, according to Grohl, started out as a “strummy sort of song we’ve done a million times.”

But that’s not where it wound up.

“Taylor [Hawkins] was like, ‘What drum beat should we do? How about a 16th-note thing?’ ” Grohl recalls. “And I went, ‘Fuck that! What about an Abba side-high-hat-disco thing? We’ve never messed with that before!’ And then the guitar riff turned into a ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ type of thing.”

Of course, one man’s Queen is another man’s… um, Survivor?

“The galloping rhythm part that I did in that song, it’s like ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ ” Shiflett says, bringing the musical references back around to the early Eighties. “It was almost like a joke. But we listened back to it and we were like, ‘Hmm… that actually sounds pretty good!’ ”

That wasn’t the only Eighties guitar reference Shiflett brought to the song. “I was also hearing General Public,” he says. “You remember the guitar sound in ‘Tenderness’? That twang? Well, I went for that same sort of Gretsch-y thing.”

“Each instrument we put on, we were just sitting on the couch laughing because we’re doing the things we’re not supposed to do,” Grohl says. “We’re not supposed to do the galloping flange guitar! We’re not supposed to do the Abba beat! But we’re just like, ‘Fuck, load it up, man!’ And then at the end of the day, we had something we’d never done before.”

But no matter where a song ultimately ended up, for Grohl it generally always started in the same place — with the rhythm. “I basically wrote all of these songs on an acoustic guitar,” he says. “As a drummer, when you’re jamming with someone, you watch their hand and the accent of the way they strum their guitar. And what I do is I base the groove on the way a person strums a guitar — if the ‘up’ is harder than the ‘down,’ if the ‘down’ is harder than the ‘up,’ if there’s focus on the lower strings… I don’t read music so I don’t know the proper terms for any of this shit, but I watch someone’s feel on the guitar and I base what I’m doing on the drums from that.

“So if I’m sitting on the couch doing this whole thing by myself,” he continues, “I’m already clicking my teeth when I’m playing and I know, ‘Okay, here’s the groove of the song and here’s the accent. And this is the feel.’ So a lot of the songs began with a specific feel more than a specific riff. It’d start with a kind of rhythmic foundation and then I’d go from there.”

As for that other key component of the Foo Fighters sound — the melody?

“To me, that’s the most important part of a song,” Grohl says. “And that comes from growing up with Beatles records and sitting down with a chord book, trying to understand why those harmonies do what they do and why the melody moves the way it does and why the composition and arrangement is like this. That’s the Rubik’s Cube, right? Screaming bloody murder and playing as many notes as you can, that’s fun. But to me, the complicated puzzle of braiding those things together in a way that seems simple is the greatest challenge. It’s like, ‘Okay, great, I’ve got a groove — that’s cool. I’ve got riffs — that’s cool. But none of it’s going to work unless there’s a fucking melody.’ And then you realize nobody’s going to care about any of it unless you’ve got a lyric. So now you add your words. It’s like baking a cake backwards.”

To continue a metaphor, that cake also requires a few additional ingredients — chief among them, gear. And on Medicine at Midnight, the guys used a lot of gear. “As is usually the case with making a Foo Fighters record, everybody brings in their special stuff,” Shiflett says. “So we had a room full of our favorite guitars and everybody’s favorite amps.” In Shiflett’s case, that meant several Master Built versions of his signature Fender Telecaster Deluxe, as well as various Strats and Teles and a ’57 Les Paul Gold Top with “old PAFs.”

Amplifiers, he says, included a vintage tweed Fender Champ and Vibrolux, the latter loaded with a Celestion Greenback speaker, as well as a recent hand-wired Vox AC15 that he calls his “magic, go-to” amp. “And then one of our crew dudes brought some old Marshalls, an old Park head,” Shiflett adds. “And there was also some really weird stuff that I wasn’t even familiar with, like a kooky, regional amp that was made for harmonica players.

“I’d be lying if I tried to say what amp went on what song, because you’re just kind of putting stuff together and trying different sounds and trying to add to things that are on the track already,” he continues. “A big part of it is just finding something that sits where it needs to sit. And that’s going to be through combinations of different guitars, different amps, different pedals. Like, I remember we used Greg’s old space echo a lot, which I loved. It was like instant Clash when you plugged that in.”

Adds Grohl, “There was a bedroom full of these things and it just came down to us deciding where we wanted to go sonically. And then we would blend different amps together — my guitar tech, Ali, brought in a lot of cool shit that we had over at [Studio] 606. As for guitars, for the most part I relied on my Trinis [his Gibson Trini Lopez models] — I had my number one, which is an old red one, and then a Pelham Blue one. I prefer Trinis because I feel they’re more dynamic than most guitars. And a lot of it has to do with that tailpiece that almost rings like a snare — it gives the guitar a percussive element that, depending on what you do with your hands, you can bring it up and down almost as if it were a drum.”

He continues, “But, you know, I also had an old ’73 Tele that I was using. Because it’s all just a process — ‘How do you hear the sound? What do you think it should be?’ And you say, ‘I think I need something that cuts, and has a little top end to it.’ Okay, cool. My tech runs off, he comes back, puts the Tele in my lap and we’re off.”

As for Smear?

“I tended to just play whatever guitar I felt like playing that day,” he says simply.

“Pat collects guitars — don’t be fooled!” Grohl says with a laugh. “That dude has hundreds of fucking guitars!”

Indeed, Smear acknowledges that he’s “more of a guitar guy than I am an amp guy, so I kind of don’t really pay attention too much to amps. I’ll say, ‘Oh, I like the way this guitar sounds with that amp. By the way… what was that amp?’ ”

As far as his guitars on Medicine at Midnight, Smear will at least acknowledge that there was a “wobbly” Gibson SG in the mix. “You know how SGs can have a tendency to be very wobbly?” he asks. “Well, I have this one SG that’s particularly wobbly, and I put light strings on so it would be extra, super wobbly. I remember putting that on a couple of things because I wanted that warble. But other than that, it was just, ‘I feel like using this here.’ Or somebody would say, ‘Hey, play something with P-90s there.’ We’re not that organized, it’s just kind of, ‘That’s right there. Let’s use it.’ ”

At the end of the day, all three guitarists affirm it’s all about just getting a good sound and then going for it.

“Nobody’s a real technical diva in this band,” Grohl says. “To this day, we’re perfectly comfortable just grabbing a bunch of combos and putting them in the back of a truck and taking them to a pizza place and plugging them in and playing. We still operate on the level of, like, a weekend fucking keg party band.”

That said, in 2020 there were, of course, no weekend keg parties — or, for that matter, 50,000-fan-strong stadium rock spectacles — to be had. Which certainly put a dent in the Foo Fighters’ plans as far as releasing and touring behind what Smear characterizes as a “happy, fun party record.”

Says Grohl, “As time went by, I wondered not only when, but how we would release the album, knowing that a big part of the Foo Fighters world, the touring and the shows, was taken away.”

And in fact, Medicine at Midnight was delayed from its original release date, which was scheduled earlier in 2020.

“Everything ground to a halt,” Shiflett says, “and plans kept getting pushed further and further back. But then at a certain point I remember Dave just kind of putting his foot down and saying, ‘No, we have to get this record out and start doing stuff.’ ”

“I was like, ‘Okay… I guess we’re just going to release a new record,’ ” Grohl says. “Because it became clear that there was no use waiting for things to go back to normal. It just wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.”

Interestingly, after an extended period apart (“I went seven months without seeing Taylor Hawkins — that has just never happened in 20-whatever years!” Grohl says with mock outrage), when the band got back together, “we were really learning the new songs for the first time,” Shiflett says. “Because we didn’t do any pre-production or anything going into the record. But it was cool to come back to it with fresh ears and be like, ‘It still sounds really good!’ ”

That said, adds Smear, “From the first rehearsals for the livestream show [in November the Foo Fighters performed a benefit concert, sans audience, from the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood], it was immediately ‘home.’ And I’ll tell you, even the livestream — which, before we did it, it seemed like, ‘Oh, this is so weird, we’re gonna play a concert for roadies and cameramen?’ — I can’t tell you what a fun show it was. I don’t remember the last time I had that much fun playing!”

Despite how much they enjoyed jumping around on a stage for a few cameramen and roadies, the Foos are steadfast in their determination to eventually bring Medicine at Midnight’s considerable grooves to life onstage, in front of thousands of sweaty, dancing fans. “As soon as we get the green light, we’ll hit it,” Shiflett says.

Until then? Well, the idea of unleashing a “party” record during a pandemic maybe isn’t as incongruous as it might sound.

“To be honest, one of the things that really inspired me was this drum battle that I was having with this 10-year-old girl in England [Grohl and the 10-year-old, Nandi Bushell, struck up a competitive friendship that went viral on social media],” he says. “What I realized during this funny exchange, which we were posting online, was that it was making people happy in a time when you open up your computer and you’re just waiting for the bad news. Or you pick up your phone and someone’s texting you and you’re just waiting for the bad news. But this thing that was happening with Nandi served one purpose, which was to bring people joy and happiness at a time when there’s a great shortage of joy and happiness. And at some point I thought, okay, well, isn’t that what music is supposed to do? So what are we waiting for? We wrote this music for people to hear — they should hear it if they want to.”

Grohl laughs. “And sure, when we made it I imagined a stadium full of people bouncing around and dancing their asses off to it. Now maybe it’s one person in their living room with a bottle of Crown Royal on a fucking Thursday night. So what? It’s time!”


Dave Grohl looks back on 25 (OK, 26!) years of Foo Fighters

“There's a famous old joke: what was the last thing the drummer said before they kicked him out of the band? ‘Hey guys, I got a new song I just wrote!’ ”

Dave Grohl told this oldie-but-goodie to Guitar World back in 1997 to describe his mindset during the Nirvana days, when he was not only, yes, the drummer, but also the drummer in a band that had already been through six of ’em previously (“and when you’re the seventh drummer, it would be pretty big-headed of you to imagine yourself being the final drummer,” he acknowledged). What’s more, Kurt Cobain, the guy who was up front singing and playing guitar and writing Nirvana’s songs? He also happened to be one of the greatest — if not the greatest, in many people’s eyes — songwriters of his generation.

All of which meant that Grohl was happily resigned to bashing away behind the kit with Nirvana, which he did — rather excellently, we might add – from 1990 to 1994.

Of course, we all know what happened next — even if, at the time, the future wasn’t very clear for Grohl. Following Cobain’s death in April 1994 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Grohl initially dropped out of the public eye, traveling, spending time with his family and friends and generally just staying away from music. Eventually he picked up the drums again, recording the soundtrack to the fictionalized Beatles movie Backbeat as part of an all-star band, and also playing with Tom Petty, who went so far as to offer Grohl the drumming gig in the Heartbreakers. “It was such an honor,” Grohl told Rolling Stone in 1995. “But I figured that I was 26 years old and didn’t want to become a drummer for hire at the age of 26.”

There was also another factor in his decision to pass on Petty. Beyond not wanting to be a mere hired gun, Grohl, musty old drummer jokes aside, also had songs.

Some of these dated back to the Nirvana days — one of them, a gentle tune titled “Color Pictures of a Marigold” (a. k. a. “Marigold”), with Grohl on vocals, drums and guitar, was even released as a B-side on Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” single (a version also appeared on a 1992 album, Pocketwatch, that Grohl released under the pseudonym Late!). Another song, a grunge-pop rager titled “Alone + Easy Target,” Grohl has played in demo form for Cobain during a break between Nevermind tours in 1991. Cobain, he recalled to Mojo, “was sitting in the bathtub with a Walkman on, listening to the song, and when the tape ended he took the headphones off and kissed me and said, ‘Oh, finally, now I don’t have to be the only songwriter in the band!’ I said, ‘No, no, no, I think we’re doing just fine with your songs.’ ”

Which was truly how he felt. And which was also why, when Grohl, now band-less, entered Robert Lang Studios in Seattle in October 1994 to record some of his own songs — playing all the instruments himself, no less — he wasn’t thinking much beyond making a demo mostly to hand out to friends. “I kind of just pulled myself up and thought, ‘Okay, I’ve always loved playing music and I’ve always loved writing and recording songs for myself, so I feel like I need to do that just for myself,” he told Apple Music earlier this year.

As for why he credited the collection, recorded in under a week, to the “band” Foo Fighters? “I wanted people to think that it was a group,” he explained, adding, “Had I actually considered this to be a career, I probably would have called it something else, because it’s the stupidest fucking band name in the world.”

Stupid or not, the name stuck. The demo, which featured now-classic Foo Fighters songs like “This Is a Call,” the aforementioned “Alone + Easy Target” and the buoyant, sticky-sweet “Big Me,” demonstrated that, like Cobain, Grohl’s songwriting managed to wrangle all the disparate music he loved — punk and hardcore like Bad Brains and Hüsker Dü; sludgy art-damaged metal like the Melvins; power-pop like Cheap Trick and the Bay City Rollers; as well as a healthy dose of Eighties alt and indie sounds and straight-ahead Seventies riff-rock — into insanely catchy and often uniquely arranged modern aggro-rock anthems. “I loved the Beatles when I was a kid, but I loved the Bad Brains too,” Grohl told Guitar World. “And there were a lot of bands in the early to mid Eighties that were a perfect blend of those things. Hüsker Dü had a searing guitar sound and breakneck speeds, but they’d do that as they were covering the Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High.’ It was just beautiful and powerful. I think that’s probably where it all comes from. It’s not necessarily blueprinted or calculated.”

Not surprisingly, Grohl’s modest demo wound up making its way around the industry; before he knew it, he had plenty of label interest.

What he didn’t have was a band. While Grohl had spoken with former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic about coming on board, they eventually determined it would have loaded down the nascent project with too much baggage and expectation. Instead, Grohl recruited bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, both of recently defunct Seattle emo act Sunny Day Real Estate, as well as In Utero-era Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear, and hit the road.

With Grohl still press-shy in the wake of Cobain’s tragic death, the Foo Fighters had a deliberately low-key launch. They played a few intimate club dates, and then piled into a van to tour small clubs as the support act (and also backing band) for one of Grohl’s heroes, former Minuteman Mike Watt; it is the routing for this series of spring 1995 shows that the Foos had planned to reenact for their 2020 “van tour” celebrating their 25th anniversary.

“That was a fun tour,” Smear tells Guitar World today. “It was a real adventure. Plus we got to play twice every night!”

Of course, things didn’t stay low key in the Foos world for long: In the spring of 1995 Capitol Records (via Grohl’s own Roswell Records imprint) released Foo Fighters, and the album hit big. By the summer the band was playing the Reading Festival to tens of thousands of fans, and in less than a year Foo Fighters went platinum, with the videos for “I’ll Stick Around” and “Big Me” in constant rotation on MTV.

The Foos’ early years, however, weren’t all smooth sailing. Their next album, 1997’s The Colour and the Shape, was the first recorded as a full band, but during its recording drummer Goldsmith exited acrimoniously, after Grohl replaced the majority of his drum tracks with his own playing (later on, during the tour in support of the album, Smear, citing exhaustion, left the band as well, replaced for a short period by Grohl’s childhood friend Franz Stahl). The album’s subject matter, meanwhile, dealt largely with Grohl’s recent divorce from his first wife, photographer Jennifer Youngblood.

At the same time, The Colour and the Shape signaled several landmark moments in the Foos’ career. For starters, Goldsmith’s exit opened the door for former Alanis Morrisette touring drummer Taylor Hawkins, a monster musician who not only remains a key Foo to this day, but also serves as Grohl’s onstage foil and, often, comedic counterpart in interviews and music videos.

Furthermore, The Colour and the Shape, which saw Grohl move from the lo-fi grunge of the debut album toward a more hard-hitting and direct rock sound, was a massive success, launching three hit singles — the raging “Monkey Wrench,” the swelling “My Hero” and the indelible “Everlong” — and selling more than two million copies in the process.

With the success of The Colour and the Shape, the Foo Fighters were firmly established as one of the major rock acts of the late Nineties, with Grohl now recognized as much for his singing, songwriting and guitar playing with his own band as for his previous drumming work with Nirvana.

And while the Foos would remain incredibly consistent both in the studio and on the road, they didn’t rest on their laurels. Their next album, 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose, saw the trio of Grohl, Mendel and Hawkins (Stahl had by this time departed) exploring a softer, more melodic sound. “At the time, music was going through this nü-metal shift, and it was all screaming choruses with distortion pedals and creepy, quiet verses,” Grohl told Guitar World. “It was all really in-your-face and brash. So we made that third album intentionally mellow by our standards, because it had become boring and all too easy to scream and step on your distortion pedal.” The effort launched the band’s then highest-charting single to date, the textured and chiming “Learn to Fly,” and also nabbed a Grammy award — their first, but hardly their last — for Best Rock Album.

From there, the Foos continued to explore. Their next record, One by One, was the first to feature current guitarist Chris Shiflett, who brought a harsher, punkier edge to tracks like lead single “All My Life.” Following that came the double album In Your Honor, which hosted one record of electric rockers (including the anthemic “Best of You,” which Prince famously covered during his 2007 rain-soaked Super Bowl halftime performance — “my proudest musical achievement,” Grohl has said) and one of mellower acoustic songs (among them “Friend of a Friend,” a re-recording of a track from Grohl’s 1992 Pocketwatch album). Regarding the acoustic side of the double album, Grohl told Guitar World, “One of my favorite albums of all time is Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas. So I envisioned finding a project that I could turn into my own version of Paris, Texas. After about a month of writing I thought, wait a second, this could be a killer Foo Fighters record.”

2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, meanwhile, brought the electric and acoustic personalities of the band into more direct contrast, alternating lighter fare like “Long Road to Ruin” and the pastoral “Stranger Things Have Happened” with angular and abrasive tracks like “Erase/Replace” and the crushing “The Pretender,” and imbuing the whole thing with an adventurous, at times almost proggy approach to structure and arrangements. “There’s four-piece rock band shit,” Grohl told Billboard about the album, “but then there are songs where the middle sections turn into this mass orchestrated swarm and ridiculous time signatures.”

By the time of 2010’s Wasting Light (which also saw the return of Smear as a full-time member), the band had shifted focus once again, opting to record a back-to-basics rock record on fully analog equipment… in Grohl’s garage. Also along for the ride was producer Butch Vig, who had famously produced Nirvana’s Nevermind almost 20 years earlier. “Our last few records were really focused on exploring new musical ground,” Grohl told Guitar World. “As you keep making records, you want to excite yourself. You want to prove the band’s musicality, diversify and not make the same album every time. But inevitably you start to crave that feeling that you had when you made the first or second record. You go so far away from that to explore new and different things that, after a while, you miss the simplicity of plugging in, turning up to ten and screaming your balls off.”

Not surprisingly, the Foos did a complete 180 for their next record, 2014’s Sonic Highways, trading in simplicity in favor of crafting what is arguably their most ambitious outing to date. For the album (which was also paired with an HBO documentary miniseries of the same name), the band recorded each song in a different U.S. studio, joined each time by guests — ranging from Gary Clark, Jr. and Joe Walsh to Zac Brown and Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen — with ties to the particular city they were in. “The scope of this thing,” Grohl said to Britain’s NME, “was fucking crazy.”

By that point, however, Grohl, both with and without the Foos, had been on a crazy run of his own, from teaming up with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones in the side project Them Crooked Vultures, to producing the 2013 documentary Sound City, chronicling the history of the fabled L.A. studio where artists like Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Neil Young and, yes, Nirvana, had recorded landmark albums. He also put together the Sound City Players supergroup — featuring his Foo Fighters band mates and others alongside revolving guests like Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks and Trent Reznor — to perform select live shows around the release of the film.

As for the Foo Fighters, there’s been little down time ever since, with more tours and recordings, including 2015’s Saint Cecilia EP and 2017’s Concrete and Gold full-length, as well as the brand-new Medicine at Midnight.

And while Grohl tells us that “if this were the last record, we would be happy with what we’ve done,” it’s clear that, a solid quarter-century in, he has no intention of Medicine at Midnight being the final Foo Fighters statement.

“The foundation of the band is funny because originally it was just a demo tape I made,” Grohl says. “And then we all decided that we’d get together and have a band and use these songs to jump in the van and go have fun. We did that, and then we looked at each other and said, ‘Okay… do you want to do it again?’ Some of us did and some of us didn’t, but we kept the band going and we did it one more time. And then we looked at each other after that and said, ‘Again?’ So we did it again. And again. It was that way for maybe the first 12 years, and then it sort of turned into something else where we were like, ‘Okay, well, we can’t stop now!’ ”

Grohl laughs. “So I always say that the idea of this band ending is like the idea of seeing your grandparents get a divorce — it’s just not going to fucking happen!”

Words: Richard Bienstock

Back to Top