10 years into their collective career, new album 'Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace' sees Foo Fighters touching new ground. Taylor Hawkins describes the journey...
The last two years have held some momentous times for the Foo Fighters. A 10th anniversary in 2005, the release of a double 'rock/acoustic split' album in the shape of In Your Honour, their biggest ever gig (in Hyde Park in 2006) and an extraordinary acoustic tour - just where does a rock band go from there? Well, in this case, back to the studio to come up with their most diverse, intelligent record to date. 'Echoes, Silence, Patience And Grace' sounds very much a product of the Foo Fighters camp - Dave Grohl's fascination with both melody and balls-out rock guitar is still much in evidence - but there's more subtlety, more sonic experimentation, more depth on display than we've come to expect. This, as far as drum fans are concerned, means lots of good stuff from Taylor Hawkins. Cheeky nods to heroes like Roger Taylor (on the 'Flash'-like mid-section of 'Let It Die'), the aggressive rush of opener 'The Pretender' and the off-kilter swing of 'Summer's End' all provide highlights on an album that shows Mr Hawkins stretching himself in ways we've not yet heard.
When Rhythm caught up with the currently impressively bearded Taylor a few weeks before the album's release, he's buzzing with excitement. He's enjoyed the writing and recording process, and now he can't wait to hit the road and air the new tunes to the Foo faithful - but, in the meantime, he's ready to talk drums. There's plenty to cover: the worry of sounding like a 'Wings pastiche' on the new record, the change of allegiance from Tama to Gretsch, "too much thinking" in the studio and how similar The Killers' Ronnie Vannucci is to Bun E Carlos. So we dive in without further ado and let him get cracking...
Echoes, Silence, Patience And Grace covers a lot of ground in terms of dynamics and arrangements, and it's Foo Fighters' most varied album to date. Talk us though how it came to be that way...
"We haven't been ready to write a record like this until now. I know that Dave wouldn't have been comfortable putting violins on a song before. But for whatever reasons, it just felt like the right time to explore those things now.
"This is a pretty dynamic record, I think. There's lots of lighter shades on it, alongside the big rock stuff. We've always done quieter sections within songs, of course, but I think this time we embraced the idea of really using arrangements in a more considered way.
"The last record, obviously, was half heavy stuff, half acoustic songs. So it really was like two sides of the coin. It sounds obvious, but this time around we weren't afraid of incorporating everything into one song if it felt right."
How do you think the album fits in with everything you've done with the Foo Fighters up to this point?
"I think this record is better than our last one, certainly. There are good songs on both, but taken as a whole, I'm happier with this one than with 'In Your Honour'. Having said that, I'm still real proud of what we did on that record, and 'Best Of You' has served us real well! It's incredible when a song is received by people like that. I don't think I'll ever take things like that for granted. But I think it's just a case of this record standing up a little bit taller than what we've done in the past."
How did the writing process begin this time? Were you involved with Dave from the early stages?
"Yeah, once Dave has the bones of ideas, it usually starts with me and him doing a little demoing. It's easy that way, because it's so simple for Dave to dictate the drums and guitar parts, because he plays both. Dave always comes up with the guitar parts and the melody. I'm the worst guitar player in the world. It works well just the two of us throwing stuff down to see what fits and what doesn't.
"The big difference on Echoes was Dave added vocals to demos really early on - a completely different way for him to work. He'd usually leave vocals off until the last moment.But this time he wanted to have an idea of where the song was going from a lyrical point of view earlier or, "Once we had some ideas down we all got together and things inevitably got changed. Y'know. we'll screw around with a song like 'The Pretender' for a couple of hours and it'll become something a little different, maybe, than when it started out."
You worked with the legendary Gil Norton on this record - how did you find his production approach when it came to your drumming?
"Gil was great to work with, but he's pretty serious. You have to have your shit together when you're working with Gil. But he's really good, and we had three or four weeks of pre-production before we hit the studio, so we were pretty well prepared.
"We wanted to make sure that everything 'built' on this record, that each instrument started somewhere and went somewhere else in the courseof a song. There was a lot of scrutiny on this record, even over drum parts that I'd played and worked out when we were demoing. I really didn't like it at the time. There were discussions about things like, 'should there be two bass drum beats here, or shall we just have one?' I hated it! It was too much thinking for me, I was like, 'hey, this doesn't feel much like rock'n'roll to me'. But it really made the record what it is. If you can retain that energy, that feeling in your performance, but still really think about every beat you're playing, it's really powerful."
The drum sound varies considerably between tracks on Echoes. If we pick a track like 'StaaIes' for example, can you explain how you came
to arrive at the big, wide sound on that particular song?
"When we went in to track 'Statues', the original concept was to have a really tight drum sound. But when we came to do it I said to Gill, 'I realty think this is going to sound like a bad Wings pastiche if we do this'. There's a point at which things just sound like a poor rip,off if you're not careful and I thought this was just a bad idea in the end.
"He said, 'OK, what do you have in mind?' I said, 'why don't we just go for it with just four mics - let's throw them up in the room, let them pick up the sound of the space we're in and see what happens'. It was a real simple, classic. uncomplicated approach that I really wanted to try. He was good enough to consider my opinion, and it worked great.
"What we got was this big, open sound that really captures the nature of our studio. What you hear on that song is the way I hear my drums when I'm in that room with the band, so I love that.
And in addition to working with Gil on the record you worked with engineer Adrian Bushby. What impact did the involvement of Bushby have on your drum tones?
"I have to say that Adrian was really our secret weapon this time around. Whata talent he is, He comes from a kind of English, European pop background and he can get the cleanest drum sound I've ever heard. I don't mean overproduced and over-processed, I just mean the biggest sound with no crap. I have him to thank for a lot on this record.
"To have someone who understands sound like he does, and be creative with it, is just amazing. You don't want an engineer who knows the correct technical way to close mic a drum kit and won't consider anything else. We need people around us who understand what we're shooting for. Gil obviously gets it, and he gets the best from us. Adrian was the perfect guy to have on board from a creative sound point of view. It was a great team."
How would you sum up the making of the record? Was it something you enjoyed, despite the trials?
"In some respects - and I don't like to use these words - this has been the slickest album that we've made so far. I don't mean in terms of the way it sounds or the production techniques or anything, just in the way that it felt 'right' in the way we approached it and the way it came together. And that did feel good. Sure, there are challenges in the studio and there were some different ways of doing things that felt a bit odd at the time. But when it's all done, you look back and realise that it's things like that that make you step your game up, that take you into different places."
You're very much fans of classic rock bands and that shows on this album. That kind of '70S rock vibe, where a record could feature chunky riffs next to a song delivered on finger-picked acoustic guitar, is very prevalent on Echoes...
"We didn't approach this record like, 'this is a rock record!' - it was just a case of picking the very best songs we had. And that obviously shapes how you record them, what sounds you go for.
"There are lots of '70s rock influences on there, stuff that we've always been into, but it came out more strongly on this record than it ever has done. We're huge fans of (Queen album) 'Night at the Opera', of (Led Zeppelin's) 'Physical Graffiti', all that good stuff, of course. And I don't think we try and hide the influences that have shaped who we are.
"But at the same time we all have our own personalities on our instruments, and they're strong enough that when we play we always sound like Foo Fighters. I had a friend who heard our our version of Wings' 'Band on the Run' recently and just said 'yeah, sounds like you guys'. Which is cool."
Echoes is also a record that rewards repeated listening. It's a densely layered, carefully structured album...
"Oh, man, we just arranged, and arranged and arranged some more on these songs. We never come in with too much of a preconceived notion of how we want the album to sound, we just follow instinct and this time it just felt right to work on the details more than we ever had done. So what we have is a record where the performances really complement the songs, there's stuff that's a little more complex than your average rock album maybe, but it just adds a different dimension. And we made sure it still rocked, too!"
Turning our attention to the tools used for the job, were the 'classic rock' drum tones on the album created using classic drums?
"I used some old Gretsch drums in the studio, and some Tama and some Ludwig. I just love drums, and like to use different things for different sounds in studio. But I have to say that the main kit on there was a vintage Gretsch, and I had thousands of snaresto pick and choose from."
Was it falling in love with the Gretsch vintage kit while recording that led you to make the switch from Tama to the Big G?
"Pretty much - I just really got on with the Gretsch kit in the studio and that's what led me to start using the new gear out on the road. They just sing, there's something about them, the tone, the sustain, that suits the way I play."
You're in a band with one of the greatest rock drummers of your generation, Dave's a big fan of yours, otherwise he wouldn't have given you a job. You're presumably a fan of his, otherwise you wouldn't have taken it. But who else has caught your ear of late?
"Y'know me and Dave were talking about Ronnie from The Killers recently. He's a really fantastic drummer.
I'd been listening to a lot of Cheap Trick and I said to Dave about Ronnie reminding me of Bun E Carlos for some reason. I think they're both incredible drummers, and I don't think either of them get the credit they deserve. Bun E has this kind of second line thing going on with eighth notes on the left hand sometimes - it's just amazing, perfect drumming. So Ronnie and Bun E get my vote at this moment in time."