Since joining the Foo Fighters in 1997, the ever-youthful Taylor Hawkins has won worldwide admiration for the power, intensity and sheer physical abandon of his drumming. As the band enjoys their most successful era yet, Taylor gives Rhythm his most frankly revealing interview ever.
On the sidewalk outside a small Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles county’s Topanga Canyon, a familiar figure is unloading drums from the back of his truck. “Hey!” he calls out as he spots the Rhythm crew “You made it! Cant stop now, though, were running a bit late and I’ve got my kit to set up” A distinctive 26” Ludwig bass drum, affectionately described as “My John Bonham tribute” is swiftly carried into the small room at the back of the restaurant where tonight’s gig is taking place. Cymbals, toms and hardware quickly follow, as does the highly prized fibre optic cable, which lights up the kit like a Christmas tree. Half an hour later and cover band Chevy Metal are in full flight. Engulfed in smoke, the trio work their way through a medley of classic 70’s tracks from the likes of ZZ top, Aerosmith, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Unsurprisingly, the place is rammed with an appreciative audience of friends and fans. After all, its not everyday you get to see a drummer like Taylor Hawkins letting his hair down and cutting loose in a venue no bigger than your front room, is it?
Fast forward five days to the town of Bakersfield, California, two hours north of Los Angeles, and the scene couldn’t be more different. It’s the opening night of the Foo Fighters’ US tour and, after the success of One by one, the band are playing their biggest venues to date. Last minute preparations are well underway and the 9,000 strong crowd are beginning to take their places in the conference centre. Backstage, Taylor Hawkins and Blink-182’s Travis Barker - who is supporting the Foos on this tour with his side project The Transplants - are deep in conversation “To be on the road with someone like Taylor who really cares about drums is just great” Travis confides later.
And whether he’s in action with his cover band in the back room of a local restaurant, or rocking huge arenas with the Foos, Taylor Hawkins is clearly a man on top of the world, relishing every moment of playing drums and making music. The frightening events of 2001, which saw him end up in hospital after over-indulging in archetypal rock’n’roll lifestyle, are well and truly behind him, and now he’s fit, healthy and clean-and playing better than ever because of it...
Rhythm: With everything going so well now, what happened in 2001 must seem like a long time ago?
“All I can say is that I was living this rock’n’roll lifestyle, and getting trashed every night was part of it. Then it started to become a problem and it wasn’t fun anymore. I started messing around with drugs and I almost died. In some ways what happened was a blessing because it really just turned my life and idea of how I wanted to live, around.”
Physically, you must have experienced a marked improvement in your stamina since adopting this much healthier lifestyle?
“It’s so much easier for me now. Our shows are full on, that’s our style, and we like to go straight in and hit people from the start. It’s effective, but you have to be in good shape to do that or if you’re going to falter. I’m not a ‘traditional’ player and I use my arms, rather than my wrists, which is tiring. There are times when I wish I could tone down my style a bit and be a ‘proper’ drummer, but when I’m onstage and the music starts, it’s just the way I play.”
The success of One by One has propelled the Foo Fighters to new heights. Do you feel that you’re playing has progressed too?
“There is always going to be stuff that I can’t do technically and I don’t think that will change; I’m never going to be able to play jazz properly and I will always rush, as opposed to slowing down, or staying right in the pocket. But the main thing I feel I have done progress-wise is found my position in the Foo Fighters, and found my confidence inside the music. And that has come about with the latest record.”
The initial recording of One by One wasn’t a very positive experience though, was it?
“Dave has actually recorded with Queens of the Stone age before we started One by One, which is something that people get mixed up about. But when we went to Virginia to start recording, nobody had their studio chops together-especially me –and being in the studio is a whole different mind-set. It’s less about hitting the drums hard and more about precision, good feel, and good takes. We had a soundtrack that needed to be done very quickly so we did the drum part, then slammed it into pro-tools and just made it perfect. I might still like the song and the drum part is cool but to me it’s not really playing. It’s like giving you’re drums a boob job, you know?
"I think we were kind of mesmerised by the process though, and decided to record the whole album that way. The tracks came together and we gave the drums, vocals and guitars facelifts with pro-tools, so everything was perfect. To be honest, about three quarters of the way through I just stopped caring- I think everyone did. It didn’t matter what I did, it was going to be perfect anyway.”
And at that point Dave was getting ready to tour with QOTSA wasn’t he?
“He was falling in love with their music, the Foo Fighters was becoming less exciting and the relationships began to get strained. I felt abandoned, but at the same time I could understand because what we were doing wasn’t exciting. We finished the record and although we didn’t want to admit it, it was under par. We weren’t getting on well and I didn’t feel we were much of a band; I thought we’d put a record out, tour a bit and then break up.”
What happened next?
“I did other things-I started making music with Eric Avery, who used to play bass in Jane’s Addiction, and I recorded with my friends from campfire girls. I felt free, and had more fun playing with those people than with my own group. The real crunch came around the Coachella festival, which takes place in the desert outside Los Angeles. We had a big blow up in rehearsals and finally got a lot of things off our chests. Dave suggested we go to my house- because I have a little recording studio there- and demo a couple of new songs. We ended up doing six or seven songs and it was exciting and fun. Two of those songs turned out to be really important; I see ‘Low’ as my drum statement on the record and ‘Times Like These’ is Dave’s favourite song lyrically.”
Coachella was a real turning point then?
“I watched Dave play with Queens there which was very hard; it was like seeing your ex-girlfriend with her new boyfriend. But when I realised how great Dave was with them I thought ‘Well, maybe Dave should play drums; maybe he’s not enjoying being the front guy anymore and this is just the next phase of his long and wonderful music career and mine will be something else…’
"Then the next day when we played. We’d rehearsed well and we played really, really good. Dave as well as being one of the best rock drummers, songwriters, singers and guitarists, is an awesome frontman. He knows how to connect with the audience, how to sing to people and how to be honest, musically. We hadn’t played in a long time and it really hit home. I remember thinking ‘He can’t quit doing this’.
"Dave was really happy that I’d finally seen him play with Queens, it had upset him that I’d never been before. We’re good friends-like brothers in a way - and playing at Coachella, and doing those new demos, re-ignited our energy. If you listen to ‘Times Like These’ it is a little like that, going back to your family and remembering what’s important.”
You actually ended up scrapping the original recordings and starting the album all over again from scratch.
“In two takes we had ‘Times Like These’ and it felt great. It’s not perfect, but its rock’n’roll and it comes from the heart. The next day we did ‘Low’ and then we re-did ‘All My Life’ and ‘Have It All’, which has that rush ending, one of my favourite parts on the record. Within two weeks we’d re-recorded everything. We did use pro-tools but we used them how they should be used for rock’n’roll; very sparingly for editing things, almost like a tape machine. It was a triumphant moment for me personally, for the band and for Dave and me. We threw the rules out the window and got excited about our music again. You can hear that excitement on the record.
What set up were you using second time around?
“A real mixture of stuff, including my big 26” kick drum, a Tama kit that Dave has had since he was in Nirvana, a great old slingerland drum set from the 70’s with a 24” kick that belonged to our producer, Nick Raskulinecz, and various Ludwig snares and Gretsch toms. We didn’t really focus too much on the sound- it was more about capturing the excitement of the music. Next time we record together I think we’ll tinker more.”
It’s hard to believe, but this is actually the first album you’ve contributed all the drum parts to…
“I finally feel that on this record I’ve made my drumming statement, for better or for worse. When we were listening to one of the tracks Dave said ‘You sound like every drummer from the 70’s rolled into one’ it’s a cool compliment and there are definitely Stewart Copeland and Neil Peart rip offs, Roger Taylor fills and Ian Paice and Vinnie Appice moments. I think that’s what all drummers do; they take their favourite players, throw them in a big pot and pull out all the little things. You will never be able to play any of it the same way that they do, though.”
Tell us more about your covers band, Chevy Metal, who we had the pleasure of seeing in action the other night.
“My drum tech, Wiley Hodgden, is our bass player and singer, and my good friend Akim Dangerfield plays guitar. I’m on drums and sing a bit too. It’s fun and we just play little bars close to my house. It keeps me rehearsed and in shape. One song will sound great and the next horrible- the whole thing can fall to pieces at any moment, but it’s a blast.”
You freely admit that you get nervous before playing any show..
“I think I’ll always be that way. There are times when I feel confident, but there are times when I feel insecure, which just adds to my nerves. The album has helped me a lot with my confidence, but I want to keep getting better-get my feel more together and improve my time, you know?
"With most rock music the drummer needs to lay it down and have everyone else follow. Even if you are speeding up or slowing down, everybody needs to follow that groove.”
You’ve been out on the road almost continuously since the release of One by One, which has given you the chance to catch up with a few of your favourite drummers…
“It was really cool playing with Steven Perkins every night on the Big Day Out at the start of the year; he was just so important to me as a kid and, as I’m concerned Jane’s Addiction saved rock’n’roll. One night we did a drum thing together on ‘Three Days’. If someone had told me in high school that I would be on-stage with Jane’s doing that one day. I’d never have slept again! Everybody loves watching Steven play - he had such an enthusiasm for the instrument. I’m a bit of a fuddy-duddy because I don’t like a lot of new music- I listen to the 70’s stuff I grew up on. I do love Supergrass, though. Danny Goffey is so fun to watch; he’s wild and out of control in a great way. It was cool to have them support us in Europe and what Supergrass has, that’s missing from a lot of todays, is personality. “Take Roger Taylor with Queen for example; every time Roger opens up his hi-hat or hits the snare, you just know that’s him playing. It’s those elements that give a band personality and are so often missing today.”
Queen will always be one of your favourite groups, but now both Roger and Brian May have become close friends of the Foo Fighters, haven’t they?
“ Brian begged us to play on the last record, so finally we let him! Seriously he was awesome, and so gracious. There’s a feel and sound to his playing that automatically makes you sound like Queen; he’s a genius. “Last time I saw Roger Taylor he was telling me about playing with Phil Collins at the Queen’s jubilee concert, and how nice Phil had been. People seem to have forgotten that Phil is one of the greatest rock drummers ever to have walked the planet. I’ve been lucky enough to have had drum lessons from people like Chad (smith) and Dave in the past, but I’d love to get a lesson from him. So Phil, if you’re out there, please come and teach me how to play ‘properly’…”