Taylor Hawkins steps into the spotlight with a dazzling solo record and his customary blazing chops
As Foo Fighters' longest-serving drummer, we've long been used to Taylor Hawkins' razor-sharp skills with two sticks. From their third album onwards, he's powered some of rock's biggest tunes with huge, muscular grooves and deft, tasteful flourishes. And rewards have come thick and fast. As well as being admired as one of rock's greatest drummers, he's gone on to sell millions of records, pack out stadiums and headline festivals across the globe. If Taylor were now more intent on resting on his not inconsiderable laurels, few would blame him. After all, what else does he have to prove? As we catch up with him backstage at this year's Download Festival, however, it becomes abundantly clear that his continued motivation has nothing to do with proving anything to anyone. Nor has it ever been. From his rise to fame as Alanis Morissette's drummer, through to his continued tenure with Foo Fighters, and now as a solo artist, it's been about one thing, and one thing only: the music.
A NORMAL LIFE
Touring second album Red Light Fever under the Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders moniker, we caught up with the iconic drummer in Doningtons backstage compound. The fantastic record is a whistle-stop tour through glam, 70s rock, prog and the Foo Fighters knack of crafting a hefty tune. In short, it's a ripping listen. Despite donning the hat of songwriter and frontman for the album, he hasn't neglected the traps either. Red Light Lever, predictably enough, also showcases some blinding stick work. Watching Taylor hog the limelight on Downloads Red Bull stage is a real joy. Fronting a band from behind the drums is rare enough, but seeing someone pull it off with such aplomb is incredibly inspiring. On top of that, it sees him touring another strong album that bears his name - an incredible achievement for a man who's racked up plenty already. Here at Drummer it gave us enough of a reason - not that it was really needed - to get him back on our front cover. As one of drumming's greatest ambassadors, it would have been rude not to, right?
Excuse us for stating the obvious for a minute, but Taylor Hawkins has largely come to the wider-world's attention as Foo Fighters drummer... Foo Fighters' ridiculously brilliant drummer, if we were to be specific. Surprisingly however, the perception of him as an all-conquering rock icon isn't something the modest drummer is particularly comfortable with.
"I don't really see myself like that. You could say I'm revered, that I've won 'best rock drummer' in some poll or whatever. In reality I'm just a good rock 'n' roll drummer. I've leanings towards a few proggy elements, I enjoy what I do and I think that I entertain people. I know that there are guys that can play circles around me and I'm not worried about that. I'm really not worried about being the best drummer in the world. I mean, I thought I was the best drummer in the world when I was I2 but I now know differently. I also know that I'm never gonna be Buddy Rich and that I'm only really gonna be me.
"Don't get me wrong, I do practise when it's time to go on tour, and I love to keep trying to move forward as a musician and as a drummer. But polls or popularity contests? It's all bullshit! It's so subjective and it's just like critics - you really can't live vour life by them. I didn't set out to be a big rock star and I don't live my life like that. I live a normal life - I go to the grocery store and I take care of the kids. I don't go to Hollywood parties, and my cellphone address book isn't filled with movie stars and rock stars. All that stuff to me is an illusion. If it helps get more people to the shows, then it's good, but it's what other people see. It's not what I see."
A MUSICIAN - PERIOD!
It's an attitude that's certainly given Taylor the wherewithal to continually challenge himself and, right now, to take on the responsibility of fronting his own band. When we ask him how he sees himself instead, the answer shoots back in a millisecond. "As a musician, period. Dave [Grohl] doesn't just think in drums either. He's a musician, which really makes him a better drummer. I don't think anyone considers Dave to be just a regular rock drummer, now, do they? In some ways he's like my mentor or my older brother. He doesn't give me lessons or anything like that, I just learn by watching him. It's like I'm the younger brother who plays drums in his older brother's band."
So is the Coattail Riders an attempt, in the age-old tradition, to outdo your sibling?
"Ha! No. I'm not going to try and compete with Dave, I'll lose! I wouldn't want to either. He's one of my best friends. All these things that we do on the side are good for us. We'll be back to the Foo Fighters next year, where all the experiences that we've had in the meantime will bring strength to the band, mentally and artistically."
Rather than trying to upstage Mr Grohl, Taylor insists that the inspiration behind the Coattail Riders is purely musical.
"Absolutely. I don't think, oh, I need to go and show the world that I can do this, or I need to get that out of my system. It's not really like that. I enjoy making and producing records. it's great to have done that on my own. It's completely different process than when I'm with the Foos, where I'm in more of a supportive roll. I'm there to support the songs and support Dave's vision and what he hears. With the Coatail Riders it's my record and it's my project. That said, it is a band rather than a solo project, even though my name's on the top. To be honest I didn t even want my name at the top. I just used to call it the Coattail Riders, but the record company said I had to put my name on because more people would be interested.
Putting all of that stuff to one side, it all boils down to the fact I really enjoy making music. I dont just think in terms of drums, I think in terms of melody. I even play more guitar at home than drums. I also play piano too. If I just played drums, I probably wouldn't have the same kind of passion for music. If I just saw music as drums, and that was the only thing I was interested in, it would be very one-dimensional. I like music, I've always liked music and melodies are just as important to me as rhythms."
It's a trait that shines through on Red Light Fever. With a chance to indulge his love for the records that shaped his life, he took to making the album with impressive gusto. And as the world's biggest Queen fan, one of the first things you'll notice on the record is his multi-tracked vocals.
"A lot of people ask about the layered vocals, and it's something that snowballed. I started tracking vocals here and there, and suddenly the album began to take on that sort of feel. A lot of my favourite music is from that era, as you can probably tell - The Sweet, David Bowie, Queen - but there are other things that informed that sort of character too. I love Abba, I love the Bee Gees, and they're also artists known for their harmonics. Obviously I like hard rock and proggy stuff, so that's in there too. But yeah, the vocals did take on an early-70s/glammy vibe, but it just kind of happened like that.
"The only thing that we did which harks back to that period is be a little more traditional with the recording. The album was recorded on Pro Tools, but we didn't fix any vocals, there's no auto-tune and no gridding of the drums. We still punched in and out, but you could do that in the 70s with tape too. I can honestly say that Pro Tools was only used as a recording device, rather than as a means to enhance or fix anything."
Juggling the roles of drummer and singer in the studio was easy, admits Taylor. Combining both for the live show, however, has proven to be a little trickier.
"I probably should have considered the live show when I recorded, for sure. I pay the price for it sometimes because there are definitely some songs that are difficult to play and sing. I make a few concessions here and there, either with the singing or the drumming, but for the most part I play what I played in the studio, or sing what's on the record. I like to think of the two things separately, and think of the studio as an instrument too. I didn't want to cut back while I was recording, and I really strove to capture what I heard for each song. Dealing with that live is definitely a challenge, but it's something I've just had to live with."
SOMEONE ELSE'S ILLUSION
Taylor admits that assuming the mantle of frontman has required a mental shift. Being in a 'supportive role' for the Foo Fighters is one thing, but having to play drums and sing tor the Coattail Riders has been a different ball game entirely.
"Oh yeah, it's a completely different headspace. For me, there have been two main differences. The first is actually worrying whether I still have a voice when I wake up. You don't think like that as a drummer, you just get on stage and do it. As the singer, you have to take care of your voice, get enough sleep, make sure you're hydrated - it's a different beast altogrther. The second thing is being the focal point at shows. Even though I'm sitting behind the drums, it's down to me to keep the show going and address the audience. It's also something you have to do naturally - you can't be mechanical like your reading from cuecards. There have been times in the Foo Fighters when Dave's turned around to me am' said, 'Come on! Go! Go!' At the time I thought 'Whoa! Why does he care so much?' Now I understand - it's up to the frontman to set the pace for the show."
Having set the pace beautifully at the band's show at Download, as well as a few other European festivals along the way, Taylor returns to the Foos later this year as a more mature musician. The musical learning curve is one of the greatest parts of the job, he says, but he reminds us finally that it is only 'just a job.
"As I said before, because of the life that I lead, people see me as a 'revered drummer' or a 'rock star,' and I hate that term more than any other. I'm a musician, that's what I do. A 'rock star' is someone else's illusion. 'The most important thing I've learnt over the years is to stay humble. As a kid, I remember dreaming about playing Wembley Stadium and riding around on tour buses. At the end of the day, that doesn't make you a different person, and that's why a lot of guys take drugs and why I used to take a lot of drugs. When I finally got to a certain level, I thought, 'OK, well, I still don't feel any different, I leel like I did when I was I6!' And that's the lesson - it's just a job. It's a great job, I'm lucky to have it and I'm well paid, but the rest of it - the rock star bullshit - that's just an illusion."