The K! Interview

Kerrang!, July 2019

On an overcast day in Mayfair, London, Chris Shiflett is talking about the old times. He's stayed in some dives in the past, he says, and remembers one joint in particular, in which "I went to brush my teeth and there was the imprint of a human face in the mirror." On another occasion, while on the road with his first proper band, the punk rock group No Use For A Name, their bass player was allotted sleeping quarters "that had caught on fire; I mean, the whole room had burnt out."
The K Interview   The exercise is one of compare and contrast. On this Monday afternoon on the first day of July, the guitarist with the Foo Fighters is ensconced in the luxury of the Connaught Hotel, a five-star establishment that offers digs of such splendour that they threaten to suffocate. Despite it being many years since the 48-year-old high school dropout stayed in places where the swimming pool had a body floating in it, his dress-down appearance of vintage shirt and tattoos is a commendably awkward fit amid the opulence that envelops him today. You can take the punk rock out of the boy... Well, actually, no, you can't.
  Chris finds himself in town for little more than 24 hours. Later this evening he's off out for dinner with his wife, before catching a flight home to Los Angeles in the morning. Before this, he makes time for a career and life-spanning chat with Kerrang!. There's also the matter of his newly released solo album, Hard Lessons a convincing and authentic collection of song-based Americana, of which he is rightly proud.
  It's funny, though: Chris Shiflett is often described as 'the quiet one' of the Foo Fighters. But it turns out that he's nothing of the sort.

You never graduated high school, but it all worked out pretty well for you, eh?
"I know, right! I've actually just been invited to my high school's 30-year reunion, but unfortunately I'm gonna miss it. I did go to the 20th anniversary, though, which was a lot of fun You don't actually realise how many people you've lost touch with until you see them again, all in one place. And because the people who go to those kinds of things tend to be in a good place in their lives, they're usually happy occasions. I had a great time."

What were your musical awakenings?
"I was lucky because I had older brothers who had record collections. So my older brother Mike would play The Beatles and the Stones, and in the mid '70s I started getting into KISS, and then Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Iron Maiden and the Scorpions. So that's what I grew up listening to. But oddly, the big one for me was [Finnish rockers] Hanoi Rocks, who I actually think I heard about in Kerrang!. They were the game-changer."

So you were a suburban heavy: metal-parking-lot kind of kid?
"Oh, definitely. One hundred per cent."

How did punk rock make its way into the mix?
"Well, punk rock came my way in junior high. I started hanging out with a different group of kids, some of whom I'm still pretty good friends with. We started skateboarding and I remember hearing Black Flag's My War at my buddy Luke's house. To a rock kid like me, this seemed pretty exotic. And from that I got turned on to Social Distortion, JFA [Jodie Foster's Army], the Descendents, Agent Orange. But at the time it seemed like punk rock was this thing that I'd missed, because until Bad Religion released Suffer [in 1988] the scene was kind of dead. So I was never really a 'punk', as such."

And yet punk rock was the first type of music for which you were known...
"Yeah. It's funny 'cause NOFX actually used to live in Santa Barbara for a while, and the first time I played in a club was with this band Legion Of Doom that I was in. The bill also included Rat Pack, another local punk band, NOFX - who weren't even headlining - and a Venice band called Excel. And I had a great time during those years. We would go down to LA all the time and see all these bands who would become famous but hadn't yet even got record deals." It's been reported that around this time you faced the choice of either music or playing football. Is this actually true? "Not at all! I don't know who started the rumour that I could have been a professional soccer player, but it's simply not true. I'm such a shit footballer. I mean, I love to play, but anyone who's seen me in action would laugh out loud at the idea that I could have been a professional player. But I did get to play with [Iron Maiden bassist] Steve Harris, and he is great."

The first 'proper' band you joined was No Use For A Name. How did that come about?
"After school I moved to LA and found that the rock'n'roll scene had fucking died. At a certain point a friend of mine helped me get a job at [punk label] Fat Wreck Chords, which is owned by [NOFX's] Fat Mike. So I'd been working there for a few weeks when No Use For A Name walked in, talking about how their guitar player had quit. They were literally going on tour the next week. They were asking if anyone knew a guitar player, and I bit my tongue because I didn't want Fatty to get mad at me. I'd only just got the job there. But when they left, he came over and told me that I should go play with them. So I learned a bunch of their songs and went and auditioned. It was actually very similar to when I joined the Foo Fighters - I played with them and then more or less immediately left to go on tour."

What are your memories of touring at the DIY end of the market?
"For years, I'd heard about punk rock squats from bands that had toured in Europe, so I knew how great the scene was. But my first tour with No Use For A Name came after they'd kind of had a small radio hit. This was the beginning of 1995 when major labels were signing punk rock bands because of the success of Green Day and The Offspring. So their success was what got me my job, and then I was on the road with them. But the tour was a month of dates, half of which were radio festivals; so we'd be playing at noon in these 20-seat sheds that only had a couple of hundred people in them at the time that we were onstage. And then in between those we'd play a club date. We were touring in a van, a Ford Econoline, which they actually don't make anymore. But I remember I brought along, like, three pairs of shoes, several jackets and a ton of stuff. I quickly realised that you've got to pack light. There's not a lot of room in a van."

Not exactly two nights at Wembley Stadium with the Foo Fighters, then?
"No! And then the second tour I did was the first Warped Tour, which was a disaster. It was so badly organised and no-one came. But we were on a tour bus, so that was a change. But we shared it with L7 and a bunch of skaters. Every inch of space was occupied, but I loved those early tours because everyone is so open. I was, like, 'Hey, I can't believe I'm in Buffalo! This is amazing!"

When you were playing in No Use For A Name, did you always have your eyes on a bigger prize?
"No, not at all. For one thing, we didn't run like a normal band. Tony [Sly], the singer, who is dead now, had a severe fear of flying, so we didn't go to all of the countries that we could have done. We'd get off tour and he wouldn't want to do anything for the next six months. So when I ran out of money, I'd have to get a job delivering pizzas. I also enrolled in city college 'cause I hadn't graduated high school, which was something I wanted to do. Punk rock was changing and our scene was kind of fizzling out, so I thought that maybe my time in music had come to an end. I'd made a couple of records and I'd been to Buffalo - what more could I want? So when the Foo Fighters came along, it really did come up out of the blue."

How, exactly?
"In the summer of '99 I had a conversation with a buddy of mine who was connected, about how the guitarist in the Foo Fighters had quit. I asked him if he could get me an audition, 'cause he knows everyone. So a couple of months go by and I get a phone call from our tour manager, who's still our tour manager, saying, 'Hey, this is Gus from the Foo Fighters. We're having auditions in LA, why don't you come down and try out?' And I'm, like, 'Excuse me?' Despite having just made a new record with No Use For A Name, of course I jumped at the chance. I went home and for a week straight I woodshedded Foo Fighters songs in my bedroom, before I went and auditioned. I was living in San Francisco at the time, so I went back and played the songs for another week, and then I went back and played with them for a second time, and I got the gig. I then went home for, like, a day, grabbed my clothes and headed out on tour."

Was that as big a change as it seems from the outside looking in?
"Yeah, totally; it was completely radical. It was such a different level, and such a radically different organisation. It was a really well-oiled machine. Everything about it was so different. Plus, I didn't know the guys. They were just about to put out the third record [1999's There Is Nothing Left To Lose], which of course I hadn't played on, so I joined for what we lovingly refer to as a promo tour, where you do interviews all day long. And I had nothing to add because I was brand new. So I sat there and listened to those guys talk in hotel rooms all over the world for a month. And then we'd play weird little club shows, but that was all. This went on for quite a while. Every single night I'd be going out for dinner with important people from the record label, staying in a much nicer class of hotel, and flying in a much nicer style - everything was different. Not only that; at shows I'd hand my guitar to this guy [a technician] and I didn't have to tune it, or set my amp up. It was fucking nuts. But I was the guy in No Use For A Name who was the de facto tour manager, so I had a level of responsibility in that band that kept me somewhat on the straight and narrow. When I joined the Foo Fighters it took me a little while to get my bearings. I got a little crazy for a while there!"

Was it a long adjustment period?
"There was a learning curve, for sure. I think it did take me a while to find my feet, and in some ways it took me a really long time. For one thing, it took a few years for me to actually play on a record. Thinking back, those years are actually kind of fuzzy. But I did enjoy them." The K Interview

Foo Fighters are one of the few rock bands that can play stadiums the world over. What's the secret of the band's appeal?
"I don't know that it's any specific one thing, but I think you have to credit a lot of it to Dave [Grohl] and his personality. People love that dude. I think he represents something to a lot of people out there. He has that gift that means he can make 80,000 people feel like they're his best friend. He has that kind of magic, that x-factor thing. I don't know how you define that, or explain that. On top of that, we've consistently put out records every couple of years. There's never been a point where we've taken 10 years off because we all fucking hate each other and have broken up. Or we've all gone off and made reggae records, or whatever. We go out on the road and we play. There's never been a huge diversion from consistently doing the work. And for people of a certain age when Nevermind came out, our band triggers an emotion in them. And now they bring their kids to the shows."

Is it true that Foo Fighters earnings are split equally between band members?
"(Laughs) I can't get into that too much, but it is beyond fair."

Foo Fighters' line-up is uncommonly consistent. How do you manage to keep things sweet?
"It's easy with the Foo Fighters because it's Dave's band. He's gonna make the decision about whatever and everybody goes into it knowing that without really questioning it. You have to give him credit because it works. It also removes that whole thing of people sitting down, having a vote and arguing about shit. That doesn't happen. In that sense it's easier than getting five or six people on the same page. That would be difficult."

Tell us about your album, Hard Lessons.
"It's funny for me because it gets presented as 'the guy from the Foo Fighters makes a country record,' and I really don't think of it that way. When compared to the other solo stuff that I've done, the new record is more representative of a lot of the stuff that I like. Country music is certainly a huge influence -I love the instrumentation, the pedal steel guitar and all that stuff - but to me, Hard Lessons is more a mish-mash of the Stones and The Replacements and Social Distortion and Merle Haggard. All of that stuff. I don't want people to think that I think that it's a country record, because I don't."

As part of an enormous band, do you care about your solo work escaping that shadow?
"I do have goals for it, but they're much smaller. I did a tour a couple of months ago, which was fucking perfect. It was 200 to 400-capacity rooms and whatever room I'm playing, I want to be able to sell the tickets; to be self-sufficient. I want there to be enough people who give a shit about it for me to make records and play shows. I don't want it to be some kind of vanity thing."

When you're playing these clubs, are you touring in a bus or a van?
"In a van."

Crikey!
"Let me tell you, that UK tour we did broke my band up, I swear to God! Things were heading that way anyway, because when we went to [the music convention] South By Southwest [in Austin] things were starting to go awry. There was a lot of complaining going on. And then on the heels of that we came over here and did what was hands down the best solo tour I've ever done, but it was also a grind. It was late nights, early mornings, a lot of long drives and a lot of flying. And things unravelled. It's my thing, so endure that shit and enjoy it. But everybody else who's doing it for $200 a night is possibly getting a lot less out of it. And to be honest, I understand that. I don't want to throw anyone under the bus, but that unit no longer exists."

What's the hardest lesson you've ever learned?
"Getting my ass chewed out by my band in Austin! I sucked up a lot of shit, because I was thinking that if I told them all to go fuck themselves it would fuck up the shows that we had booked to play. So I had to be an adult and bite my tongue to get through it. For me that's the hardest thing in the world."

You should try complaining more in the Foo Fighters, to see how that works out for you...
"I know, right! Put it this way, I think I have quite a lot to learn about being a band leader!"

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