The drum legend is back behind the kit with Them Crooked Vultures. Louise King caught up with the man himself to talk about the album's recording process, locking in with Led Zep's bass player John Paul Jones, his drumming style and the future of Fighters...
A few years ago, in a magazine interview, you talked about this dream line up of you on drums, John Paul Jones on bass and Josh Homme on guitar. How did that dream turn into a reality?
"At the time I was totally kidding - I never imagined it to be at all possible. I just thought it would be fun. Josh and I had talked about jamming together for years. After recording Songs For The Deaf with Queens and after touring with them, I realised that I had made a musical connection that I didn't have with anyone else. Josh and I fit together so perfectly - his sound, riffs and sense of melody go together so well with the way that I play the drums. For whatever reason we are just compatible, and it's almost effortless for us to sit down and create something that sounds alright. Even though we both had our own projects, I think we were always looking for an excuse to do something together again."
And when the Foo Fighters took a break from the road after headlining two sold out shows at Wembley in 2008, you felt that the time was right?
"Each person in the Foo Fighters has their escape route - these pressure valves that can be released when the band gets too much. With Nate (Mendel, bass), it's Sunny Day Real Estate, with Taylor (Hawkins, drums), it's The Coattail Riders and with Chris (Shiflett, guitar), it's Jackson United. Those escape trap doors are important, because the longevity of the Foo Fighters is based on the theory that we don't have to be doing this and we should never take it for granted. So when you see it get to the level that it did at Wembley, the first thing I thought was not, 'Gosh, we are the biggest, greatest band in the world,' it was, 'We have to stop this before it disappears.' It felt like it had got to a dangerous level - only because I didn't want to see the band eat its own head.
"The Wembley shows themselves were surreal - it's hard to even remember all of it because I was so totally terrified. I really didn't know if I was going to be able to pull it off and it was such an emotional couple of nights because we had our families and friends there, we had Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones there, and we had thousands of people who have seen us from day one at that first Reading Festival show there...
"I knew that we needed to take a long break, because we never have; we were always afraid that if we stepped out of the game people would forget about us. Not to mention the fact that we love each other and really enjoy what we do. So when we were winding down I called Josh and I thought we'd stay at home, make a cool record, not go on tour and have a sweet little side project that we could show off whenever we pleased."
Before joining you on stage at Wembley, John Paul Jones had played on two tracks on the acoustic record of the Foo Fighters' double album, In Your Honour, and he also conducted the orchestra that accompanied the band on 'The Pretender' at the Grammys in 2008. Your love of Led Zeppelin is legendary, but how did you first get to meet John?
"I have been a fan of Zeppelin ever since I was a kid - I suppose I would call myself a fanatic. When we were writing the acoustic record for In Your Honour, 1 thought it would be a good idea to collaborate with people that we respected and admired. So we made this big wish list and John was on it because there were a few songs that I had imagined mellotron, mandolin, or piano on. Word came back that he was available and we talked on the phone. What I didn't realise at the time is that he hates mellotron, but he was polite enough not to mention that!"
When he walked into the studio, didn't you just want to jump behind the drums and launch into a Led Zep track??
"Yeah, it was so funny because I wanted his mandolin, piano and mellotron on the album, but more than anything I wanted there to be a song where the two of us were jamming together, and I wanted to be on the drums. I remember leaning over to Taylor and saying, 'Dude, I have another song. Is it okay if I play drums on this one with John?' And Taylor said, 'Absolutely man, it's John Paul Jones!' So I told John I had another idea, and I think at this point he was like, 'Oh God, not another one!' He'd already been on three songs by this point... And so we went out there and I showed him the riff and we started playing. I was absolutely terrified - there I was, on my drumset, playing with John Paul Jones. I remember at one point I threw in a little Bonham kick triplet. It was ridiculous, but the song had some swing and I threw it in. John just looked ata me and went, 'None of that now...' It's so funny because the one thing I look forward to all day long now is those moments on stage with Josh and John where nobody knows what is going to happen next. John and I have come a long way since that first day that we jammed..."
How did you approach John about collaborating with you and Josh?
"I was presenting Zeppelin with an award in London and I think by then my nerves had gone away, and I realised I could consider him a friend. I rang Josh from the airport and said, 'Hey man, I'm going to ask John Paul Jones if he'll jam with us.'
"John has such a cool history; he had two careers even before he was in Led Zeppelin. He was a touring musician at 17 and then he became one of the hottest studio musicians in London. And then he joined Led Zeppelin. He is a tireless musician and it doesn't matter if it's heavy rock or avant-garde, experimental, improvisational, or bluegrass. He just wants to jam. So because of all of those things I thought maybe he would say yes. When I saw him he gave me a hug, and it was a real hug you know? That's when I thought, 'We are friends, this is cool,' and I asked him. I think at the time the Zeppelin guys were trying to figure out whether they were going to do anything else after the 02 show, but John wrote back to say that he was interested."
And how was that Zeppelin reunion show at the 02 Arena in London?
"Oh man, I was so excited. I was with Chad Smith and Steve Gorman and we were awestruck. We were just drooling at Jason Bonham all night, thinking he was the luckiest man in the world..."
To put it mildly, news that you, John and Josh were collaborating together would have caused a bit of a stir, so you took the decision to keep the project secret, didn't you?
"We used Josh's studio [Pink Duck], which helped to keep things quiet. We knew that the three of us making an album together could generate chaos, and we didn't want business or publicity to pollute what we were doing. We had this wonderful opportunity and we didn't want to see it tarnished by anything from the outside. It meant that there wasn't any external pressure - the only pressure was coming from the three of us, because we would just consider ourselves total failures if we couldn't make something beautiful together."
So did you just get in the room and start jamming?
"Yeah, and right out of the gate it sounded good. I sat down and started playing, John locked in, Josh joined in and that was it - we knew that we had something. John is an incredible bass player, but he also has this ability to adhere to your groove that instantly creates a rhythm section. He and I started passing things back and forth within 30 seconds of playing together."
Did you feel under any pressure?
"I relieved myself of the pressure of playing with John by thinking, 'Okay, obviously I am not going to be the best drummer he has ever played with; I'm not even going to try to be!' So it was easy that way and honestly, while we were recording or jamming, I just wanted to entertain the other guys and do something that might make them laugh, might make their jaws drop, or might take them by surprise. "Many of the projects that I have played drums on in the past, I would go in with a certain mindset. Like playing on the Nine Inch Nails record; I kind of knew what I was going to do - like I did with Tenacious D and Garbage. Killing Joke was exciting because I wasn't entirely sure what was going to happen, but with Them Crooked Vultures there were absolutely no boundaries or rules. Just three people who are multi-instrumentalists, who have all written, recorded and produced albums of their own. We've all had successful careers and the only reason you have for doing it is the pure love, joy and thrill of collaborating with the other people in the room. Because of that I wanted to do some crazy stuff that I'd never done before. And also playing with John... I've never really played with a bass player who is totally groove-oriented. He has written some really heavy stuff in his time but his sense of groove, feel, funk and rhythm is deep, and we would sit down and shamelessly lock into James Brown grooves that might not have applied to any of the music that we were recording, but just felt really good."
In the past, John himself has spoken about how proud he is of the fact that people danced to Led Zep, because as a band they had that swing and groove in addition to all those rock credentials.
"Absolutely, and I think that's the thread that ties the three of us in the Vultures together - whether it's my love of disco drumming and Tony Thompson, The Gap Band and Cameo, John's love of '60s soul, funk and Motown, or Josh's love of Eagles Of Death Metal boogie. It's nice when it's heavy, and it's nice when it's dark, but it's really nice when people can dance. It makes it uplifting."
How did the album begin to take shape?
"The very first thing that we recorded was a piece that I had written. It was an arpeggiated acoustic guitar line; me on guitar, Josh on guitar and John on mandolin. That's what broke the ice. It wasn't a jam, it wasn't a Josh song - it was something where the three of us were doing things that we didn't expect to do. But when it was right you just knew, and if everyone wasn't 100 percent into it then we didn't use it. I haven't started a new band in 15 years and it's a funny thing when you walk into a room with two other people and start from scratch. It's exciting because nobody has any idea what is going to happen, or what direction it's going to take. You just let it develop on its own and the process is entirely natural, organic and real. I think it was easy for people to be suspicious though, because of the three bands that we are associated with and because there are a lot of 'Supergroups' out there..."
How do you feel about that inevitable tag?
"Every time we get in front of a microphone we hear that word. I understand it, I get it, but I think it's lazy. I see this band's beginnings the same as I do my band Dain Bramage that I was in when I was 16 years old. We hadn't sold millions of records, but we were mutual friends and we got together and started writing songs. And that's exactly what happened with this band. When we went into the studio, the outside world did not apply - it was about the three of us and what we were capable of making together, and we settled into a dynamic pretty quickly. The band balanced like a see-saw; you had me on one end, Josh on the other end and the joint in the middle was John. It was great."
Tell us a bit about the recording set-up for the Them Crooked Vultures album.
"Well, Alan Moulder recorded the record and he did a great job - he's a wicked producer and an awesome engineer. And Josh had a big hand in production too - he is really good in the studio and his recordings are really distinctive. My priority was just to have a great sound, I didn't want the drums to be too effected, or too mechanical. There was a smaller room with an old red Ludwig in, that the three of us would cram ourselves into, and then there was a larger room, with a bigger '80s Gretsch. After we'd written a song we would jam and arrange something, and then decide which room and drum sound suited it. Sometimes we would do the opposite, sometimes we would do both. The basic tracking for drums, bass and guitar on all the songs is live performance - it's the three of us playing off each other. There's no click, no gridding or stuff like that. I knew that we would be a good live band after the first week because of the way we were recording. We'd just hit the red button and go, and if we made a mistake we'd go back in and do it again."
Did you learn anything new from recording this album?
"After playing drums for 30 years, one thing I'm still learning is that there is no substitute for feel. Each drummer has this fingerprint, and just as no one fingerprint is better than the other, each player's individual feel is their strongest weapon. Everything about the person that you are - your sense of humour, your generosity, bravado and ego - comes out in your drumming; or at least it should. I don't think I'm the greatest drummer in the world, but I'm good at what I'm here for. And all I'm here to do is play like I do. "Honestly, it is the blemishes and the imperfections that set one player apart from the next. I totally respect, appreciate and understand the technical side of drumming and the rudimental side of drumming, but I don't want to go out and see a comedian tell me jokes that I've already heard. I want to go see them do something that I've never seen before. So, it was really cool recording this record, feeling like you could do no wrong. I don't like hearing people say a drummer sucks, you know? Would I love to have perfect time? Absolutely! Who wouldn't? Would I love to be able to play like Mike Portnoy or Jeff Porcaro or Danny Carey? Absolutely! They are all awesome drummers. But that's not who I am and when kids ask me for advice - whether it be about drumming, or songwriting - the best advice I can give them is to do your own thing. Do it like you do, not like somebody else does."
You've never been someone who enjoys playing drums by themselves have you?
"No, I don't ever play drums by myself. I never sit down in a room and practise, I never try to learn new things and I never play alone. I learn more about drums from jamming with other people because I have to feel it in order to do it, and I don't like people telling me how to do something. I've never taken drum lessons and I'm happy for that because I play the drums the way I want to play the drums, and there is no right or wrong in what I do - it's just the way I do it and I really don't know any better."
Tell us about that first gig that the Vultures played at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago...
"The reason people came is because I'm in the Foo Fighters, Josh is from Queens and John was in Led Zeppelin. But nobody had heard any of the music, not a note. Everyone had these huge expectations because of our reputations, but they didn't know what to expect; we had managed to protect the project and we gave people a unique experience. For that hour and a half those people just sat, watched and listened... When we first started this I wasn't sure where it would go, but it has turned into a band and after that first gig, I just wanted to do it again."
Do you get nervous when you go out to play?
"I don't actually. I'm kind of like, 'Okay I'm playing the drums, that's easy, let's go!' But with the Foo Fighters it's like 'What? I'm the lead guitarist and singer?' I'm terrified every time we do it!"
And physically, with the way that you play, how are you coping with the demands of touring this time around?
"I haven't really played a full set on the drums with a band for years -1 think since Queens Of The Stone Age. And when I went out with Queens in 2002 it was the first time that I had played drums seriously with anyone since Nirvana. My biggest concern with Queens wasn't actually my playing; it was being able to make my way through a whole set without fainting, because of the way I play and because of the way the music is.
"With the Vultures we jammed every day for two weeks so that I'd be ready to go out and blow doors, but then I went on holiday for 10 days and sat on a beach and ate pizza and ice cream. After that first show i was exhausted - it was summertime in Chicago and the humidity was insane. I think it was only the adrenaline and the release of this project actually coming to life that got me through the set. But I'm tireless right now - I could play as hard as I want for hours and hours on end and I feel great. It was tough at first, though, the muscles I use in the Foo Fighters are not the muscles I use in this band!"
And what is the situation with the Foo Fighters at the moment?
"Touring with the Vultures has begun to get me really excited about the next Foo Fighters' record. The music that we are making together inspires me, the energy of what we are doing together inspires me, and everything about this project leads me back to the Foo Fighters. I love playing with the Vultures but I miss Taylor - he's my best friend and an incredible drummer. I don't think the Vultures are going to end with this album, I think we'll keep playing and touring. I don't know how or when, but I don't want to ever stop, who wouldn't want to be in this band? it's a true pleasure. That said though, I am really looking forward to making another Foo Fighters record and I can almost see it in my head already."
When the Foo Fighters Greatest Hits was release last year, you were having to juggle both bands...
"Yeah - there was a crazy time for about a month when I was spending the day at the Foo Fighters' studio, the night at the Vultures' studio, and also getting up early with the kids at home. I was only getting about three hours sleep a night and I was exhausted. I ended up at the hospital with chest pains... They ran all these tests on me, did X-rays, ar then finally turned round and told me that I needed to stop drinking so much coffee!"
Do you think you'll be able to juggle both bands?
"There's no question, my family and my kids are the most important thing in my life. Then there is the music, and if I can be in two bands at the same time then I will be in two bands. If I can be the Vultures' drummer and the Foo Fighters' singer for the rest of my life, that would be great. I just have to figure out how to do it without ending up in the hospital for drinking too much coffee... But, believe me, I've had worse problems to figure out than that!"
Words: Louise King
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