[Interview] Foo Fighters: Life Is A Highway

Featured in Blunt issue #133

One of the most prominent bands in rock plot the course of American musical history – and notch up their highly-anticipated eighth studio album in the process.

The release of 2011’s Wasting Light marked a lot of changes for the Foo Fighters. For a band a decade-and-a-half into their career, the album saw them welcome former guitarist Pat Smear back to the fold and bolster their sound into a triple-axe attack on the senses. Under the counsel of famed producer Butch Vig – who worked alongside frontman Dave Grohl back in ’91 on a quiet little release known as Nevermind – the Foo Fighters churned out 11 songs live to two-inch tape in Grohl’s garage. It allowed the sheer intensity of the band’s live sound to take centre stage and critics hailed it as their most cohesive release in years. Most of all though, it was a record from one of rock’s biggest acts that left fans wondering how the Foos would go about one-upping themselves on album number eight. For those of you at home that guessed, “Maybe they’ll do an eight-part HBO series that coincides with the recording of eight new songs in iconic studios across America”, that was far too accurate and you’ve given us the willies (that said, we’ll gladly take your suggestions for lotto numbers).
Sonic Highways – both the title of the album and its accompanying TV series – shapes up as Grohl’s “love letter to the history of American music”. This is the Nicest Guy in Rock paying homage to the faces and places that helped sculpt the musical landscape of the United States throughout the 20th century and beyond.
As they stare down the barrel of a lengthy promotional jaunt – including a week-long residency on the Late Show With David Letterman ahead of Sonic Highways’ premiere – Foos shredders Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett reflect on the journey that was. First stop: the Windy City.
“That’s ‘Something From Nothing’,” Smear tells us of the pounding Chicago track, the first on Sonic Highways and the basis for the show’s first episode. Although the guitarist has slipped into a well-defined groove as the Fifth Foo, he tells us of the uncertainty an endeavour like Sonic Highways brings about. “That was when we were like, ‘Okay, we’re not really sure what we’re doing here, let’s show up in Chicago in the winter – and it’s fucking cold I might add – and give it a try’ and we did it. We spoke to [our producer] Butch and he said, ‘I think you’ve got it!’ and we said, ‘Okay! We can do this! So… do we do it again?’ and he goes, ‘I-I… I guess’,” Smear says, laughing as he recalls the trepidation in Vig’s voice.
“You never know when you’re making something if you’re in a kind of bubble and you’ve lost sight of good and bad,” Shiflett concedes.
“Now to be fair, Chicago was Steve Albini’s studio [Electrical Audio] and it’s a fucking great studio,” continues Smear. “Some of the places we recorded at weren’t even studios. Some weren’t studios anymore, some had never been studios, some were studios in people’s living rooms… It was all a different problem for Butch and James Brown, our engineer, but for us, it was all the same: just show up and get it on.”
Following icy beginnings in Chicago comes “The Feast And The Famine” straight out of Washington D.C., yet another driving up tempo rock’n’roll banger, this time packing the punch of early Foos favourite “Monkey Wrench”. It’s as you take in the third track – the Nashville-born “Congregation” – that you truly realise how directly each city has inspired Sonic Highways and just how seamlessly the eight tracks flow from one to another.
“To sequence a series around the sequence of an album and make them both work is a pain in the fucking arse – and we did it,” Grohl offers in one of the series’ teasers.
From Nashville, the Foo Fighters journeyed southwest to Austin, Texas – where “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness” would come about in the old Austin City Limits sound stage – and across to the deserts of Joshua Tree, California to Dave Catching’s Rancho De La Luna studio for “Outside”. From there, it was one last stop in the South – the legendary Preservation Hall, a jazz institution in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter – before heading north to Seattle to pen the sombre “Subterranean” at Robert Lang Studios (“The same studio where Nirvana did their last songs and where Dave did the first Foo Fighters album,” Smear says). Finally, things were wrapped up in New York, New York – the city so nice they freakin’ named it twice – for the album’s lengthy, orchestral closer, “I Am A River”.
“We would go to the city for a week, then we’d go home for a week, and during the week we were home we’d always meet once and work out last minute things or change arrangements,” says Smear, describing the writing process.
“If we started on a Monday or Tuesday, vocals would usually be Saturday, so Friday would be crunch time for Dave,” Shiflett adds.
“Dave would grab transcripts of the interviews, some blank paper and a pen, a bottle of wine and just go to his room and write the songs,” Smear continues. “The songs were always about the city we were in, so we had to be there for a week before he could write them and then he had to do the vocals on Saturday and finish them because we were gonna shoot the music video for each song on the Sunday.”
“It’s a great way to make a record; just bang out each song in its entirety as you go.”
Sonic Highways is one of rock’s hardest-working bands living up to their title. The interviews Smear speaks of are the dozens that Grohl conducted while making the television series, an idea that stemmed from the success of his 2013 documentary on the famed recording studio of the same name, Sound City. This musical travelogue of sorts features everyone from Slash and Dolly Parton to Joan Jett and Buddy Guy – “Just having one of these conversations would’ve been worth all the trouble,” says Grohl in the series’ trailer.
“It was a lot of extra work for Dave ‘cos he did the bulk of the interviews, so while we were in the city fixing up guitar tracks, doing our thing, Dave was running around interviewing rock legends and whoever else about the city,” explains Smear. “Other than the travel, it was really just like making a record for the rest of us. He likes to give himself extra work.”
With such a huge project in the works for so long, it’s impressive that the band have remained as tight-lipped as they have over the past year. Keeping anything under wraps is a courtesy not often afforded many in the limelight in 2014 and the Foos have been sure not to spoil their fans, rarely offering up more than a morsel of new material for listeners to sink their teeth into. Perhaps bassist Nate Mendel described the terrain best in our 2011 interview: “Oh fuck it, it’s such a Wild West in terms of trying to promote and sell a record now.”
“We really wanna play the new songs, it’s just that little bit of torture in between where we’re starting to play shows but we can’t play the news songs yet and when we go practise, ‘We just practise the new songs, but we can’t play ‘em’,” Smear says, his voice adopting a gently mocking tone that suggests the arrangement wasn’t his idea. “It’s like, ‘God! Just come out so we can start playing the new songs!’” he laughs.
Normally we’d be out doing secret shows and playing all our new songs and getting ‘em ready, but we can’t do that ‘cos of the TV show,” Shiflett tells us. “It’s a strange feeling because when it’s just us in our rehearsal studio, that’s all we’re doing right now, we’re just playing the new stuff. We’ve thrown in a couple of snippets live, and when we did, like 99 percent of the people in the crowd had no idea what we were doing, then there were maybe three people who were like, ‘Yeaahhh! I heard that on the internet! I know what that is!’”
As if all of this weren’t enough, the past month alone has seen the Foo Fighters honoured with their own commemorative day in Richmond, Virginia (September 17th – if you’d care to mark it down) and without realising it, they’ve potentially spearheaded a live music trend by playing an entirely crowd-funded gig that saw 1,500 punters pool together $50,000 to see the band play their hometown for the first time since 1998. While “Dial-a-Foo” may be an intriguing taste of things to come, for Shiflett the show harked back to the small-time days of old.
“That was a really special, fun gig – it felt like a Foo Fighters gig from when I joined the band in the late ‘90s, like that’s what a regular Foo Fighters gig would’ve been like,” he says of the Richmond show. “My wife heard on the radio today that somebody in Birmingham has started another crowd-funded campaign to get us to come and play their town. I think it would be cool if this kicked off a trend.” He pauses: “You should start one in Australia and then we’ll come and do it when we’re down there.” We’ll have the beers waiting.

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