Foo For Thought
Despite label and lineup changes Foo Fighters prove they can still deliver the rock.
Taylor Hawkins: "Did you hear that Rush drum lick? That was a fucking rock ending!"
Dave Grohl: "Oh, yeah! That was a fucking rock ending!"
Critical analysis: We have a fucking rock ending. And if Foo Fighters know anything, it's a fucking rock ending.
It's a Wednesday afternoon in September, and the band is onstage at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, a small rock club
in Providence, Rhode Island. Drummer Hawkins' Neil Peart homage signals the end of a sound check for a semi-secret show at the club later that night. Though the Foos are in town to play a concert two days later that kicks off Gravity Games - a made-for-NBC extreme-sports competition - the divey, er, intimate Lupo's gig is the one the guys seem to relish.
"Our rhythm guitarist joined the band two weeks ago," says bassist Nate Mendel. "It just seemed smart to practice in front of a smaller audience where people aren't paying 20 bucks to see us."
The Foo Fighters are nothing if not devoted to delivering proper rock value - even if it means ripping off a Rush drum lick. And on their latest album, 'There Is NothIng Left to Lose', Grohl and crew return to carrying the banner for four-chord, melody-heavy, bob-your-head pop-punk, otherwise better known as The Rock. Eight years after
leaving the Washington, D.C., hardcore bare Scream to be Nirvana's drummer, and four years after playing all the music on the Foos' self-titled debut, Grohl, now 30, has evolved into a pied piper of the stuff.
His band's latest falls somewhere in between it's exuberant debut and 1997's more intricate but spotty follow-up, 'The Colour and the Shape'. "On the last record we had most of the songs written and arranged before we recorded," Grohl says. "On the new one we were totally unprepared. But it's not fucking rocket science. You can tell when a song has gotten to that good place." This happens to be true. New songs like 'Breakout' and the first single, 'Learn to Fly' are obvious examples - as WB-friendly as anything the band has ever done. Even the album's brief forays into more complex and layered offerings - like the meandering sneaker-gazer 'Aurora' can't help but blossom into driving, hooky mini-anthems. One track, 'Ain't It the Life,' could even be described as the Beach Boys meets the Eagles.
"That's what happens when you listen to too much mellow '70s gold, Fleetwood Mac-type stuff while recording," Grohl says. It's the morning after the Lupo's gig, and he and Mendel are sipping coffee in the hotel's restaurant. Enter Taylor Hawkins:
"Dude, you didn't wake me up."
"Dude, you didn't wake up," Grohl says.
With his native Southern California surfer drawl, habit of not wearing a shirt, tendency to date fine actresses (Minnie Driver), and propensity to hit his drums as hard as he can, Hawkins (who replaced the Foos' original touring drummer, William Goldsmith) is 100 percent pure grade-A rock drummer. He provides the perfect complement to Grohl's musical aesthetic, to say nothing of being good enough to play behind Nirvana's Ringo. Hawkins and Grohl also share an offstage rapport - highlights of which include speaking in fake British-rocker accents and a mutual affection for Japanese Queen cover bands - that feeds off itself, adding to the impression that despite a semi-revolving door of players (which is probably the result of Grohl's obviously very firm grip on the group), the Foos are evermore an actual band, and not just Grohl and supporting cast. Simply put, Hawkins makes Grohl laugh. To wit, the following exchange:
Grohl on what he did after the last tour: "I had to go to India, find a guru, take a spiritual journey."
Hawkins: "With his personal assistant."
Grohl: "Then it was three weeks at the Four Seasons, just meditating."
Hawkins: "Yeah, at the only Four Seasons in Morocco. Wait, is Morocco in India? Shit. Dumb drummer. Bad."
However, the biggest change to the group this time around is the absence of everyone's favorite cross-dressing punk, guitarist Pat Smear, who amicably announced his departure live during the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. In Smear's place now stands 28-year-old Chris Shiflett, formerly of the San Francisco punk bands No Use for a Name and 22 Jacks. Shiflett, who replaced Franz Stahl (who replaced Smear), didn't play on the new record. The others recorded it (with Grohl playing all the guitar parts) at a studio Grohl built in the house he recently bought in a Virginia suburb, near where he grew up. "I had to get out of L.A," he says. "It's gross."
The band decamped in Virginia, though they had no recording contract. The deal Grohl originally signed with Capitol Records in 1994 allowed him to leave if then-president Gary Gersh ever left. Hence when Gersh left last year, so did Grohl. After a brief courting period that involved several labels, the Foos chose RCA. "It was interesting to see how much more fucked-up the business has gotten since 1991," Grohl says. "Now, the first thing you have to ask is: 'When is everyone getting fired? Has Seagram bought you yet?' That's the biggest difference, that and now everyone wears fucking Prada."
The band's Prada-less new A&R rep, Bruce Flohr, happily describes RCA's feelings about scoring the Foos:
"Can I tell you how psyched the whole company is about this band? It's almost too much for words." He proved it at the Lupo's show, jostling with teenaged fans for position directly in front of Grohl, singing along, loudly, to every song, and throwing his fist up intermittently in rock salute. Even Grohl was taken aback, at one point addressing Flohr from the stage: "Bruce, you're scaring me."
With a new label and album squared away, next came the search for a new touring guitarist. Auditions were held in, uh, Los Angeles. "We didn't know most of them," Grohl says. "I'd ask, 'Hi, are you from L.A.?' And they'd be like, 'No, Indiana. I heard about this on the radio!'"
"What sucked most is that they'd sacrificed a shitload to get out there," Hawkins says. "All you had to do was take one look at them to know there was no way in hell."
"For the first week I was walking people out to their cars, consoling them with my arm around them," Grohl says. "It got ugly." The band finally settled on Shiflett, because, as Grohl puts it, "He was just· better than everyone else. And he was funny." Shiflett, too, was pleased: "I felt like I fucking won the lottery."
The foursome first assembled on the final day of the "Learn to Fly" video shoot, which Grohl modestly describes as "the absolutely most retarded, funniest video ever made." The plot: The band is on an airplane, and drug smugglers, played by Tenacious D, have spiked the coffee. Everyone gets dosed except the Foos, so they must land the plane. One more thing: The band members play all the other characters.
"I'm a gay flight attendant," Grohl explains. "Taylor is a fat chick with huge prosthetic boobs. Nate is a baby whose head turns into a cheeseburger." Directed by ex-Lemonhead Jesse Peretz, the clip was shot in, again, Los Angeles, a fact that brings Grohl back to riffing on the troublesome nature of the City of Angels.
"People there are trying to relive the whole '80s GN'R thing, which I hate even more now than I did in 1991. I met all these people who were trying to 'save rock'n'roll' because they were superhero rock stars who record in the house where the ghost of Errol Flynn lives. But the music they made sucked shit. You know shit is wrong when you see people you know walking down a red carpet at the Emmys talking to Joan Rivers."
Mendel sums it up best: "I just don't like anyplace where it's cool for 50-year-old men to wear sandals. That's just wrong."
Words: Zev Borow
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