In the eyes of the fearful and inane he is simply a mop-topped Muppet, all hair and teeth and flailing arms, a puppet of his infallible frontman, the immortal Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. But among those of us who know, those of us with more ears than eyes, more mettle than mistrust, more faith than fear, Taylor Hawkins is so much more. He's a drummer in a rock band.
HE'S A DRUMMER IN A ROCK BAND A rock band that was once an afterthought and has now sold over 20 million albums worldwide as one of the top-grossing touring bands in the industry. A rock band that can play to 85,000 screaming, adulating, quivering, note-for-note fans, and then turn around and play a quasi-symphonic acoustic tour drenched in detail and musicianship. A rock band that may be, quite possibly, the only real rock band today's pop/hop charts have to offer. A rock band called Foo Fighters.
And Taylor Hawkins is the drummer. The drummer with enough power and precision to back such a stalwart squad — possessing enough creativity to progress and enough humility to succeed. He is also a walking encyclopedia of classic rock, able to articulate the nuances of the genre's top (and most obscure) performers. He's a new dad to his baby boy. He's friendly but wisely guarded. He's casual and confident, although his admittedly newfound confidence can waver. And yes, he does boast those big glossy teeth and that long, SoCal blond hair as he bashes away atop the trembling drum riser.
And that, my friends, is okay.
"I think, in a rock band, it's important to have a drummer who is fun to watch," Hawkins reveals with a mellow but vibrant, beachy delivery. "But at the same time, if that's all you have going and you're a crappy drummer, then you're a crappy drummer. That's probably how I was when I was 18 or 19 years old, more of a showboat than a good drummer. My whole theory when I was a kid was: Play as fast and as busy as you can, all the time.
"I don't really consider myself a showman though, I really don't. A lot of the drummers I like were always intense drummers. Stewart Copeland is so intense live. He looks like he might kill you. And Steve Perkins, especially when Jane's Addiction was at their height, he was so on fire. And he was my favorite drummer for years, the last drummer I consciously emulated. If you go back and watch me play with Alanis [Morissette], it was very obvious. Perkins wasn't a showman but he was showy. He had a lot of vibe live and he was fun to watch."
Now 35 years old and with plenty of proven, if underrated, ability and success in his pocket, Hawkins still cringes slightly at the occasional misguided perceptions about his live performances.
"I sometimes get a bit insecure about it because I feel like some people think of me as just the guy with the teeth spazzing out behind the drums - like nobody's even listening. Oh he's the spaz who drums for the Foo Fighters: you should watch him play."
Any insecurity he might have is clicked to oblivion as he counts in the opener of each show. Yet even now, after hundreds of shows for millions of people, no amount of experience and preparation can shake die pre-show jitters from Hawkins' head. "I never took lessons and I'm sure I play the drums completely improperly, so it's just do-or-die every time I get on stage. It probably comes from my stage fright. Every time I get on stage it's like, Oh my God. But I can say one thing for myself: I don't think you'll ever watch me play and say, 'Oh, he was just phoning that one in."'
ONE SINGLE THRONE Its impossible to profile Taylor Hawkins without addressing that other guy in the rock band. Dave Grohl came to fame as the wickedly talented drummer for Nirvana and, when not leading the Foos with his ferocious frontman skills, he continues to lay sick skins for bands like Queens Of The Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails, and Garbage. Any time two high-caliber musicians such as Hawkins and Grohl converge on one small stage or studio, there are inevitably whispers of conflicting ego and musical manipulation.
Many publications, including this one, have gone so far as to doubt the validity of album liner notes and publicly wonder if Hawkins is actually the Poos' studio drummer or just a hairy/toothy pet puppet on the end of Grohl's golden arm. Hawkins is reluctant to address the subject because he's humble and shy and doesn't want to be presented in a look-what-I-did fashion. But after a little prodding, he not only explains exactly who played what when, but also reveals the true nature of the relationship between the two drummers.
"There Is Nothing Left To Lose  was the first Foos record I played drums on. I did about half the drums and Dave did the other half. We didn't put [in the liner notes] who played what and that was Dave's choice. I think it was important to him that I played some of the drums on that record because I was having a hard time in the studio. It was when I was still messing around with drugs and I remember just wanting Dave to play the drums on everything. And he wouldn't allow it. He really pushed me and pushed me to finish it and do the work. It's good that he did that because it really gave me confidence in the end. I was really lacking experience at that time, and I had no confidence being 'Dave's drummer'. Since that record, I've played all the drums [except for In Your Honor's "Cold Day In The Sun," where Hawkins sings]. And I think you can tell. We're really different drummers."
Not only did Grohl stand by his drummer through the tumultuous drug years, he also encouraged him - sometimes seemingly forced him - to step up and take control of the drum throne. That's a pretty real friend, and that's an insightful musician who recognized the talent hidden in Hawkins' then-unsure hands. In reality, the two share a very open personal and musical relationship that benefits all.
"I think I've learned more from Dave than he's learned from me because Dave's been at it a long time," reflects Hawkins. "So I've learned a lot from Dave, period. I don't necessarily learn drum licks from him, but I've learned ways to make myself better. And I've learned a lot about songwriting from him. And yeah, sure, there are moments when you wish you were the only drummer in the room, because everyone has their ego and their pride. But you have to realize at the end of the day that Dave knows what's best for the Foo Fighters.
"I think we're all finally comfortable with what the band is: Dave's band. It's Dave's band, his concept, his final word. I don't get the final word on anything really, unless he signs off on it. And I think it kind of makes things more clear, with a lot less gray area. Rarely does a band - or anything for that matter - work as a complete democracy. We all know where we stand, and there's comfort in that. When there's one person with the final word, it gets rid of a lot of the chaos. We don't have to sit around and argue for two weeks over a T-shirt design."
GOOD TO BE KING? After a decade of dentin' heads for the Foos ("Has it really been ten years? Jesus Christ, when do I get my watch?!") Hawkins is able to take a long look back at the many great/platinum/sold-out times his band has experienced, as well as the few troubled times, including one particularly ugly stretch where it looked like it all might come to a sad, sad end.
"We had a seven-year itch as a band. Right before One By One [2001-ish], I was really messed up on drugs and not really helping the band at all. They all stuck by me - Dave especially, I think he thought I was smart enough to eventually straighten myself up. But that was a tough time.
"When we first tried to record that record, we tried to make it perfect. Pro Tools, all that stuff. It was too much, and it ended up sounding really boring, really clean and boring. And Dave was off drumming with Queens Of The Stone Age, having a good time with that while the rest of us were finding the Foo Fighter stuff to be kind of boring and a drag. The vibe was somber and crappy. We were trying to mix this record, and I think we all knew it wasn't that great. So we just put a halt to it and took a couple months off.
"Then we were rehearsing for the Coachella festival and arguing a lot and just not getting along. There were some major arguments. I remember saying to Dave at one point. 'Well this is it. Let's finish this record and then I'm done. This isn't fun and nobody likes it anymore. This sucks.'"
Despite the horrible vibes, the Foos were committed to appear at Coachella. And in a funny way, the gig saved the band. "We did the show and the show was good — really good," Hawkins says. "Dave was great and we were really tight and the audience just went completely nuts. And after that show, if I remember correctly, Dave and I went for a little walk and he said, 'Let's just try and finish this record and then see where we stand.' Because I think we both realized after that show that if we let this go, it would be sad because there was a lot of life still left in this band. It was just a matter of finding a way to work together again."
With that sense of renewal, the two bandmates decided to take advantage of a three-week break in their schedules to head back into the studio and finish recording backing tracks. "We were just going to record two or three little songs that we had demos of, and it went quick," Hawkins says. "We recorded 'Times Like These' the night I got there, then a song called 'Low.' Then we decided to rerecord All My Life" because we knew it would be the single, but the original recording was real clean and boring. And next thing we knew I ended up redoing all the drum tracks for the whole album in like four or five days, hitting three or four a day and moving quickly and having fun. I think 'Halo' was a first-take song. Great!
"Because, the thing is, with rock and roll there has to be some level of energy in the room while you're recording it to make it good. It cannot be just dead and boring. So within a week we rerecorded the whole record, plus a couple more songs, and it was basically done. And we knew we had a good record with a lot of energy and excitement. We scrapped the entire first version of that record, which we dubbed the Million Dollar Demos. And that record ended up bringing us to a new level, especially in Europe and Australia, and we haven't looked back since."
In the final analysis, Hawkins had redefined his role in the band. "I think we found a new way to work. A lot of it was just letting Dave lead the band. I learned not to argue with him on much stuff, because it's his baby. So for the most part we just follow his lead, and it works. And out of that we got better and stronger. Sometimes you just have to go through these things. I don't want to sound corny, but it's all a part of the journey. And I don't really see an end for us, because this band is like a family now.
"But before we did that record it looked like the band might not be around anymore. It seemed like Dave was sick of having this on his shoulders, having to come up with songs and be the leader. He was enjoying kind of sitting back and playing drums in Queens. It's a lot more comfortable in a way. There's a bigger reward for him in this band, and he still loves just being a drummer in friends' bands, but he's a great songwriter and a great frontman.
"This is a lot of responsibility for Dave. We have a lot of people that work for us. Every time Dave puts a pen to paper or picks up the guitar, it's a big deal. I don't think he thinks about it like that, but every time we're due for a new Foo Fighters record it's like, 'Okay, Dave, what do you got?'"
ECHOES, SILENCE, PATIENCE AND GRACE.
The old, "Hey, I'm just the drummer" line often serves as a warm blanket protecting us whackers from the harsh pressures of leading a band. And while Hawkins finds comfort behind the kit, don't be fooled into thinking he's sitting idly by as Grohl and the boys march on. At least one member of the Foos credits him for "saving the band" with his insistence on excellence regarding the band's live performance, and Hawkins is an integral part of the songwriting process.
For their sixth studio album, Echoes, Silence, Patience And Grace, the Foo Fighters found themselves in the difficult situation of having to outdo their previous work, the multiplatinum epic double-disc In Your Honor, which features both their hardest hitting and most delicate acoustic work to date. "The only philosophy that Dave had for this record was anything goes" says Hawkins. "After playing that acoustic [Skin And Bones] tour we shed some of the fear of incorporating mellower stuff with the heavy stuff, so the songs on this album are very dynamic songs. And this is definitely the most pristine record we've made in a long time. It's very I don't want to say slick, but it's just pristine, a Steely Dan version of the Foo Fighters."
For the initial writing sessions, the band members used the process that experience has taught them works best: The frontman and his drummer hit the studio to hash it out, together. "It's not like everyone brings in their own demos," he laughs. "That never happens, because they would just have to leave them in their car. No, Dave and I go into the studio and I kind ot work as Dave's drum machine while we do demos. Then Nate [Mendel, bass] and Chris [Shiflett, guitar] come in and we round out the songs and really rehearse."
Acting as Grohl's "drum machine" is a demure and gross understatement. Hawkins brings to the writing table his vast knowledge of the rock genre and is undoubtedly an invaluable resource for crafting songs with an ageless, classic feel. Writing the drum parts is usually a collaboration between Hawkins, Grohl, and the producer (for this record, The Color And The Shapes Gil Norton).
"Gil is an ass-buster, and when he showed up, that's when the real work began. We basically played each of these songs 100 different times, trying every little thing every different way. With him we took each song down to the studs and remodeled it completely. And sometimes - more times than not, actually - we'd find in the end that the original idea is what we went with. But Gil's whole philosophy is to stretch things out as far and wide as possible to see where these songs could go.
"This is the first time [since The Color And The Shape] that Dave had to deal with someone in the room questioning all his ideas. We did the last few records with our buddy Nick Raskulinecz, who is one of our best friends. And he was a big part of those records, but I think it's a little harder for your friend to tell you you're wrong.
"Gil is very organized, so tracking went fairly quickly. I think I did the drums in a week and a half or two weeks, something like that. And that was literally playing every song 30 or 50 times, just to get the best performance possible. And a lot of the time they're, you know, two or three performances stuck together. But we worked hard and very efficiently."
The extensive, meticulous recording process made it a challenge for Hawkins to perpetuate that live, bloodthirsty energy that he deems so critical for a successful rock album. But he lived up to the challenge. Echoes is an eclectic blend of the Foos' tastes - sort of a hyper-condensed version of In Your Honor — with bone-shaking highs and chilling lows, often within each individual song.
"I think there can be greatness in both ways of working," he allows. "The way we recorded this ended up working really well. And sometimes going in and bashing it out and capturing that real exciting original idea, even though it may not be as precise and craftsman-like, there's something to that as well."
It's difficult to imagine the lovable Muppet locked away in the studio drum room bashing wildly yet skillfully through take after take, 30 to 50 times per song, reaching for perfection without compromising his energy.
"I think I really only know one way of playing, especially when it's hard rock music. I always go into the studio thinking I'm going to be mellower and conserve my energy and try to be more precise and just kind of chill out, but I never do. I am a musician, but drumming for me has always been physical. I have dynamics and can do that when I need to, but when it's a song that's balls out, I'm hitting just as hard in the studio as I would be playing it live, flailing my arms around like a spaz.
"That's just how I hit the drums. I just play like I play."
TOP OF THE BEAT - Nate Mendel on his bandmate Taylor Hawkins.
Taylor is a phenomenal drummer with a ton of energy," exudes Foo Fighters' bass player Nate Mendel of his rhythm section accomplice Taylor Hawkins. "He's so passionate about the drums, it makes it a really incredible experience playing with him. He's very creative and every night is going to be different. You sort of never know what he's going to play, which I like. It keeps you on your toes and keeps things interesting."
Interesting... and challenging. Hawkins plays a driving style that pushes the rock and could easily fluster a less-seasoned bass player. "I had to change my style to play with Taylor," says Mendel. "It's been tough for me to figure out how to play on top of the beat like that. It still doesn't really feel natural. I'll play just a little bit ahead of what feels right to me and that usually ends up being right where the beat is with this band. It's tough to get used to but it ends up being better, and it brings a great level of energy to the music."
Mendel is an original member of the band and has stood witness to Hawkins' growth through his first decade as a Foo. "Taylor has a lot more confidence now, that's the first thing that comes to mind.
When we recorded There's Nothing Left To Lose [in 1999], Taylor was kind of terrified. He hadn't had a lot of studio experience and it's Dave's band and Dave has this reputation as this great drummer, so I think there was a lot of pressure on him. Then after that record he gained some confidence and really started asserting himself, especially with what we were doing live, and I think that may have saved the band.
"Up to that point, we were kind of just a punk band sloshing our way through the songs. And Taylor has this great background of basically studying all the masters who came before us in classic rock. He said we had to improve our live show and he became the guy that pushed everybody to improve. From that he gained even more confidence.
"And he still takes the shows really seriously. He has to get his rest and get his head together. He prepares more than anyone."