Foo Fighters' Skin Walloper Comes Out Swinging

Taylor Hawkins

Taylor Hawkins is everybody’s best bro’. He’s a perpetually chilled out dude who thankfully is without the glamour-puss personal baggage that accompanies most rockers of his exalted, million selling–album position. A warm, generous, and surprisingly self-deprecating musician, Hawkins’ mellow demeanor masks his extroverted and increasingly overheated drumming style. And for lo these many years, first as a member of Alanis Morissette’s band and currently with The Foo Fighters, Hawkins has harbored a deep dark secret. We’re not talking about his ongoing battle with stage fright, his love of obscure Fleetwood Mac albums, or his obsession with Queen singer Freddie Mercury (whose velvet portrait adorns one wall in Hawkins’ home). What the world at large doesn’t know about Taylor Hawkins is that not only is he a frenetic, kinetic drummer, but this Topanga Canyon resident is one of the best unsung songwriters in southern California.

Perhaps the skinniest drummer in showbiz, with an immense set of gleaming molars that is only matched by the ever flashing choppers of head Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, Hawkins lets it all hang out on his first solo album, Taylor Hawkins & The Coattail Riders. Matching a rhythmic sensibility that recalls Michael Shrieve-era Santana—as well as Phil Collins with Brand X and vintage Stewart Copeland—with low-slung folk pop wonders like The Eagles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Jackson Browne (whew!), Taylor Hawkins & The Coattail Riders is both a prog rock feast and a folkie slacker fantasy.
  “I know some people will think the album sucks,” Taylor offers, in trying to explain the album’s diversity. “But it’s the music I love. A lot of people do think it harkens back to the ’70s. The Eagles is comfort-food music. I like vocal harmonies. I love Deep Purple. And I have to admit, I’m in a prog phase. I love early Genesis, like Trick Of The Tail and Seconds Out, with Phil Collins, Chester Thompson, and Bill Bruford on drums. Actually Seconds Out is one of my drum bibles. It’s one of my favorite-sounding drum records too.”
  Ask Taylor for an inch and he’ll give you a mile. That’s just part of this drummer’s big-hearted nature. “I was into Yes’s Relayer,” he continues, “Tales From Topographic Oceans, Fragile, and Close To The Edge, too. And of course, Neil Young, Zeppelin, and The Beatles. I also like Dennis Wilson’s songs on the Beach Boys albums Friends, Surf’s Up, and 20/20, and his record Pacific Ocean Blue. And Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees and Future Games are, for lack of a better word, so stony. I don’t smoke pot and I don’t endorse it, but those tunes do have that nice soft ’70s sound.”
  “A nice soft ’70s sound” smashed into shape by 6/4 and 7/4 meters in arrangements that give the manic prog of The Mars Volta a run for its money, Hawkins’s debut also reveals a novel side of his drumming. Sure, his work on now-classic Foo Fighters albums like There Is Nothing Left To Lose, One By One, and the recent In Your Honor show Taylor’s wild-armed, wide-eyed drumming in all its majesty. The Foo Fighters’ recent live DVD, Everywhere But Home, reveals Taylor in non-stop motion, his arms flailing like wings as he slams the drums like a true force of nature. It’s simply impossible to imagine any other drummer in The Foo Fighters. And while the band shares one of the world’s great drummers in Dave Grohl, frankly, Hawkins plays things that Dave just couldn’t muster, beginning with a standard press roll.
  Coattail Riders, Hawkins’ band that features bassist Chris Chaney and guitarist Gannon, enables the drummer to give full expression to the prog and Latin rock symphonies that have filled his head for years. Like throwing Stewart Copeland, Aynsley Dunbar, and Jon Theodore samples into a ’70s soft-rock cocktail, Taylor Hawkins’ debut signals the arrival of a drummer that we all thought we knew.
  Find a seat—or a water bed—and tighten your safety belt: The Coattail Riders are about to launch into super stellar space.

MD: You’ve been known to keep many drumsets at your home in Topanga Canyon, but what set did you use for The Coattail Riders record?
Taylor: I used a mixed four-piece of a bunch of different kinds of drums, though I endorse Tama Starclassic. But we started this record almost unintentionally. We were just messing around, doing demos. I did three or four songs in about three days and then realized we were making a record. It may not sound perfect—it’s not Steely Dan and it may not sound like The Foo Fighters—but it’s a fun little record.
  I was having so much fun, feeling so creative, and I felt like we were getting good results on the songs that I didn’t really think about what drums I was using. There was a drumset in the studio and I just played it.
MD: Some of the arrangements are very complex. Did Pro Tools editing software aid in their construction?
Taylor: The songs are, for the most part, one drum take all the way through. I might have dropped in a beat here or there if I made a mistake. The way we tracked is, I would show up to my friend’s studio at nine in the morning, and I would find a tempo for a song I might have in my head. I would pick up a guitar and do a scratch track so I could follow something while I was playing drums. And then I would just sit in the drum room and play the drums to my awful guitar track just to get the arrangement. Then we might edit here and there, perhaps move a bridge around.
  For instance, we did edit “Walking Away.” It starts with a busy intro, which is also in the middle of the song. When we first tracked that song, it didn’t have that at the beginning. It was just straight chords. I remember thinking, I wish I had started the tune with that more insane part. So we just moved that to the front of the song.
  “Running In Place,” the really long song that has all the changes in it, was a bitch. We set the click for each section and Pro Tooled the clicks together. Then I did a trash guitar track and then played a drum track to it. We almost got that in one take. I would just have to think about what the click was doing when I got to a certain part.
MD: The track “Louise” is like hyper-fast, steroid-filled Santana. What is the basic pattern?
Taylor: The pattern is in six. I kind of ripped it off from Genesis’s “Wot Gorilla?” from their Wind & Wuthering record. I wrote the song on the guitar and didn’t think about the groove. Then I was listening to that Genesis record. I loved the way Phil Collins’ groove is so hyper there. I was also into Mahavishnu Orchestra and Tony Williams’ Lifetime at the time. My whole trip is, I write simple pop songs. But I use challenging rhythms to make them sound interesting. I want every song to have a different rhythm. I make sure that each one has a signature of its own.
Taylor Hawkins MD: “Running In Place” opens like an acoustic Led Zeppelin track, goes into a twangy Youngbloods guitar section, and then into an uptempo Latin prog part. Is there more than one meter there?
Taylor: It’s in seven. That’s the tune where we set all the tempos on the click track and Pro Tooled them together.
MD: “Get Up I Want To Get Down” reminds me of 7/4 punk Frank Zappa.
Taylor: Dave thought it sounded like Devo meets Led Zeppelin. It reminds me of a Roger Taylor song called “More Of That Jazz,” from Queen’s Jazz record. It almost gets disco there for a second. And the title is a play on silliness, but it’s also a phrase, one of the working titles for the last Foo Fighters album.
  Dave was living with us here in Topanga at the time, and everyone was going through some stuff. Dave is a real caretaker. He’s always making sure everybody is okay. He just really loves taking care of people he loves. And at that time we were all going through these crazy personal changes. And I said to him, “Sometimes, Dave, you’ve got to let somebody take care of you. You’ve got to get down every once in a while.” So the working title for the record was Get Up I Want To Get Down. I thought it sounded snappy.
MD: When you’re playing what I think of as Latin prog fills, are you thinking of Stewart Copeland or Neil Peart?
Taylor: Yes. And Buddy Rich, I wish! Billy Cobham, Neil Peart, Phil Collins, Roger Taylor—I rip off all of them. It’s a big garage sale to me. My whole record collection is a garage sale of drum licks.
MD: On one hand this is a pop album with great songs. But it's definitely a drummers album too.
Taylor: I made a conscious effort to make sure that the rhythms were interesting. My songs tend to be very similar. Why not make an interesting rhythmic record? There isn't a lot of 4/4 on the album. Most of it is in six, even though I tend to play four over six a lot.
MD: Did you play with bands in school?
Taylor: Yeah, I played in cover bands and funny make-up bands with my friends. I had all the Police and Genesis tapes in the garage and I played along to Stewart Copeland and Phil Collins - I tried to, anyway. Thankfully, I could pick things up pretty easily on drums. I thought I was hot stuff when I was thirteen!
MD: Were you?
Taylor: Well, I thought so! Maybe I was for a kid. I was a natural drummer, for sure. But I see these younger guys now, like Tony Royster Jr, and I'm knocked out.
MD: Your first professional gig was with singer Sass Jordan?
Taylor: Yes. They gave me five hundred bucks a week to go on the road. This was back in 1994. I had been working in a music store, and a guy there knew her, so I auditioned. I figured it was my only chance to go on the road.
  I knew that this was a tough business. I figured that my future would involve managing a music store and playing in cover bands on the side. Then, through Sass Jordan, I met Alanis Morissette's manager, who asked me to go on tour with her. That worked out. A couple of months after I joined, her career took off like crazy.
MD: What did that feel like, that instant super stardom?
Taylor: I was just part of her band. But to be in a world like that, all of a sudden, and when you're twenty-four, is exciting. I was getting good money and seeing the world.
MD: It wasn't scary as well? I understand you suffer from stage fright.
Taylor: I still do; it's awful. There are nights when I don't feel comfortable. It's like I'm fighting the whole night. Thankfully, most of the time nobody can tell. I'll come off stage feeling awful and Dave will say, "I don't know what you're talking about. You sounded great." It's just because I don't feel comfortable. I love playing the drums and I play all of the time. But I do suffer serious stage fright. Nothing helps: I warm up. take deep breaths. I just get up there and jump off the cliff.
MD: What was your audition for The Foo Fighters?
Taylor: Dave and I jammed on "Monkey Wrench" and maybe "Everlong." I had a drum room up in my house at the time, and Dave came over, we talked, and I played a little bit for him. We got along so well it was more about that than the drumming, at least in the beginning. He knew I could do it, but it really did take me a while to get comfortable playing Faa Fighters music. I had been doing a more groove-based thing with Alanis. In general with Dave, it's fast-tempo rock, and all of the songs are connected. We don't take a break.
MD: Let's talk about recording. Dave likes to use analog tape for the drums?
Taylor: We get the drum track on analog and then dump it into Pro Tools so we can put everything else on top of it. Dave likes that fat sound.
MD: Do you like to do multiple takes?
Taylor: I really don't like to spend time on too many takes on my own stuff. I have to do so many takes on The Foo Fighters records.
MD: Why is that?
Taylor: Dave is more of a perfectionist - not in the "hitting each drum perfectly" way, but in the way of, "Should you be playing the bell of the ride cymbal there, the hi-hat, or the crash-ride? Or maybe you should do a fill right there?" We really map out those drum tracks. On my record I didn't map out a damn thing.
Taylor Hawkins MD: Your personality and feel really come through on Taylor Hawkins & The Coattail Riders. It makes it apparent that you and Dave are really opposite drummers in many ways. Maybe that's why the relationship works. You are loose and jazzy, like a young Michael Shrieve, and Dave is the ultimate headbanger.
Taylor: Right. He is very powerful. I always say that he's like Bonham and I'm like Stewart Copeland. I'm an on-top player and Dave is a behind-the-beat player. Dave is a solid 2 and 4, though I wouldn't say meat-and-potatoes, because he has serious skills. But he likes to play very simply for the most part. I tend to like to throw in a lot of off-beats.
MD: Do you and Dave work out your drum parts together?
Taylor: On One By One. he did a lot of demos at his house, drums and everything. He had the basic ideas for a lot of the songs. But thinking back to "All My Life," Dave and I put that together. He had the riff and we just built it. I turned the beat around in the middle section. And Dave had a lot of ideas of what he wanted on In Your Honor. So I would come in and try to mess it up as much as possible. [laughs]
MD: What about all of the single-stroke rolls in "In Your Honor"?
Taylor: Dave had that totally mapped out. He knew exactly what he wanted. It was just a matter of me playing what he wanted and putting my own flair on it.
  The second song, "No Way Back," is one that came up out of nowhere, and we arranged that together. We stole that groove idea from "Stand Up And Shout" by Dio. Vinnie Appice is an amazing drummer, the bounce in his feel is great. I'm also trying to stick in the little drum solos at the end of songs. At the end of "Best Of You," I get four bars to go nuts. And the end of "No Way Back" I do a tight little drum thing. There's an acoustic side to the record as well, and "Cold Day In The Sun" is mine. Dave plays drums on it and I'm singing.
MD: What's the most demanding Foo Fighters song for you to play?
Taylor: "In Your Honor" is a demanding song. "Everlong" is really demanding, too with all the fast 16ths on the hi-hat. I'd say all of the songs are demanding to a certain degree. I want the feel to be right on all them.
MD: It does seem odd that you and Dave think of time in such a different way.
Taylor: Speaking of that, we were on tour recently with Oasis, and Zak Starkey was playing drums for them. He has such a great feel. And Dave kept going on, "Oh, he is great. I just love him. I love watching that guy play drums. He's one of my favorites. He is so behind the beat." After Dave kept harping on how great Zak is, I said, "Well damn dude, why did you pick me to play your band? You picked the most on-top drummer in the world." "No, you don't understand," Dave said. "That's what Foo Fighters need. The music has got to drive has to be on top. I like watching Zak for a whole other type of thing."
MD: But I would love to hear you on Starkey's main gig, with The Who.
Taylor: Dude, I would give anything to play with The Who. You just tell Pete that I want to do it. [laughs] I'm just sloppy enough to be the right guy for the gig! But there was definitely a method to Moon's madness. He was a huge influence on my drumming, too.
MD: What does the name of your band, The Coattail Riders, actually mean?
Taylor: I have a good friend, Tim Clahussey who introduced me to my wife. He was always backstage at our gigs stealing beer and he would say, "Coattail Ridin'." I just liked the expression and thought it was funny. And obviously, more people will hear about this record because I'm in The Foo Fighters than if I was Joe Blow from Wisconsin. So I'm kind of coattail riding too!
MD: What are the plans for The Coattail Riders? Will you tour as a trio?
Taylor: Oh, yeah. We're still working on covers to add to our set list. I will sing from the drums, but we'll also jam a lot. It really is about the music and stretching. It's not like the repertoire in my '70s cover band, Chevy Metal. In that band we try and do deeper cuts, not "Foxy Lady" and "Whole Lotta Love."
  Here's Chevy Metal's set list: "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" by The Rolling Stones, "Fairies Wear Boots" by Black Sabbath, "Chip Away At The Stone" by Aerosmith "Jailbreak" by Thin Lizzy, "Highway Star" by Deep Purple, "Stranglehold" by Ted Nugent, "Young Lust" by Pink Floyd, "Shapes Of Things" by The Jeff Beck Group, and "Beer Drinkers And Hell Raisers" by ZZ Top.
MD: Sounds great. Where's your next Metal gig?
Taylor: We're playing the River Batt & Grill in Burbank. Bring your friends!

return to Hawkins' Poor Brain