Interview: Foo Fighters Discuss Their Heavy 2011 Album, 'Wasting Light'
"Hey, what's that buzz?"
Inside the cavernous main recording room at Studio 606—the nerve center of Foo Fighters HQ — a guitar tech pores over a pedal board propped up on a road case. The Foo Fighters are about to embark on a world tour to promote their new album, Wasting Light, and the road crew is busily primping the guitar rigs.
Three banks of Fender Tonemaster, handwired Vox AC30 and Peavey 6505 amps are set up in the configurations that will be used by the band’s three guitarists, Dave Grohl, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear. Nearby, other crewmembers hustle even more gear into mammoth flight cases and roll them into place for the next day’s big load-out.
Housed in an industrial building in an L.A. suburb, the Studio 606 complex is bustling with purposeful but slightly frenetic activity, like a giant anthill.
Staffers speak into telephones and poke at laptops in the front office, a high-ceilinged space adorned with large promo posters for past Foos albums—now-iconic discs like The Colour and the Shape, In Your Honor and the Grammy-winning Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace.
A large sign announces that the space has also served as a production office for Them Crooked Vultures, the supergroup that Grohl put together with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and Queens of the Stone Age guitarist/vocalist Josh Homme.
In an upstairs lounge, lights and tripods are being set in place for a Guitar World photo shoot. Suddenly, Dave Grohl emerges from a back room, a tall, slender figure dressed in a black blazer, T-shirt and jeans, clutching a funky-looking, black Flying V guitar of indeterminate brand that’s outfitted with skull knobs for tone and volume.
“Check this out,” he says. A wide grin stretches the sharp contours of Grohl’s well-trimmed beard as he proffers the instrument. “It used to belong to Philthy [Phil Taylor] from Motörhead. It’s the one he used when Motörhead played ‘Ace of Spades’ on [U.K. television comedy] The Young Ones!”
This is clearly a big deal for Grohl. For all his grunge/indie-rock cred and Eighties D.C. hardcore roots, he is an unapologetic metalhead. That much is clear from listening to Wasting Light. “I wanted the Foo Fighters to make songs that you could play, like ‘Hells Bells’ or ‘Back in Black,’ ” Grohl says of the album. “Strip it all down to a verse and a chorus that you can’t forget.”
After two albums of experimentation with acoustic guitars, orchestral arrangements and other niceties, the Foos have indeed gotten back to the hard-hitting, balls-out—if blissfully melodic—rock that put them on the map in the mid Nineties. The guitars bark and snarl with strident authority, punching home the disc’s killer hooks with unrelenting jackhammer intensity.
One of the men who had a key role in making it sound that way prowls the Studio 606 parking lot, a cell phone glued to his ear. Pat Smear, who provided much of Wasting Light’s gritty baritone guitar underbelly, possesses a kind of vacant, distant air, the sangfroid cool of a guy who seems somehow to be floating above the busy scene unfolding at 606. But then Smear was a member of seminal late-Seventies L.A. punk rockers the Germs and also performed in the final incarnation of Nirvana.
Both bands’ leaders died early, messy, heroin-related deaths, and both groups changed rock music in ways that are still being pondered. Having come through that, the almost inaudibly soft-spoken Smear seems to be unfazed by almost anything.
He has drifted in and out of the Foo Fighters lineup a few times since 1995, mostly in a touring guitarist capacity, but has left his indelible stamp on Wasting Light.
Chris Shiflett, the third pillar of the album’s guitar triumvirate, is affable and easygoing. Although he doesn’t stand quite as tall as Grohl and Smear, when the guitars are strapped on he’s fully their equal. On standout Wasting Light tracks like “Arlandria” and the lead single, “Rope,” Shiflett and Grohl’s guitars duck and weave around one another in lurching lockstep rhythms atop the massive foundations laid down by longtime Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins.
At any given moment, Shiflett, Grohl or Smear might bust out with a blitzkrieg single-note riff. The Foo Fighters are an equal opportunity establishment in that regard.
Like Grohl and Smear, Shiflett carries full punk credentials, having played in San Francisco Bay Area/Fat Wreck Chords stalwarts No Use for a Name and Me First & the Gimme Gimmes. Wasting Light is an album very much steeped in alt-punk history.
Stationed behind the funky old API analog console in Grohl’s garage—where the album was recorded—was none other than Butch Vig, the legendary producer who crafted Nirvana’s profoundly influential Nevermind album, not to mention seminal discs by Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and Garbage.
Vig produced a few bonus tracks on the Foo Fighters’ 2009 Greatest Hits album, but Wasting Light is the first full-on studio album that he and Grohl have worked on together since Nevermind some 20 years prior.
“Butch and I have been close ever since we made Nevermind,” Grohl says, “and we always have that between us. Whenever I see him I think, Oh, there’s Butch; he made the record that changed my life forever. Hi, Butch! It’s more casual than that, but it’s an undeniable connection that two of us have. Over the years we’ve talked about having him come back and do a Foos record. And it just made sense this time. It’s the right songs, the right time…a good thing.”
In true indie-rock spirit, Grohl decided to make Wasting Light a garage album. The Foos took a break from Studio 606 and its state-of-the-art Pro Tools system, holing up instead in a tiny garage space at the Grohl residence, with tape machines stashed in a storage closet and a tiny room above the garage as a control room. The two Studer A-80 analog tape machines and API console used to record Wasting Light are the exact same gear employed to track the Foo Fighters’ third album, 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose, in the basement of a house in Virginia where Grohl lived at the time.
“That’s the only Foo Fighters record I still enjoy listening to,” Grohl says, “because it reminds me of Virginia and that nice house I had there. It was like a coming-of-age album; I’d moved back to Virginia where I’d grown up. And it was just so relaxed.”
Grohl wanted to recapture some of that vibe for the new record. “I thought that recording at my house, combined with the analog equipment — which lends to the sound of the album — would make this new album an experience. It couldn’t be just another record. We made a few records at Studio 606. We’ve used Pro Tools, and we’ve used tape. So it was just a matter of switching the process to make it exciting.”
A further note of nostalgia was added to the mix when former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic came down to play bass and accordion on the track “I Should Have Known.”
“I’ve been close friends with Krist ever since I first met him,” Grohl says, “so I thought it would be nice to have him come down and share the experience. It all seemed just too perfect for me.
For Krist and me to record with Butch again was more than something musical; it was a real personal reunion. And then, I just realized the other day that Krist and I had never been in the studio with Pat. So the whole thing had a deep personal meaning to it—to sit in a room with Krist and Pat and think, Wow, 17 years ago we were touring America with the Butthole Surfers and Half Japanese, or whatever. How strange. But now we’re men—fathers—in a band that acts as our family. Pretty cool. We have to look at one another and think, Wow, we survived all of that shit!”
Other guests on the album included guitarist/singer/songwriter Bob Mould, whose Eighties band Hüsker Dü was an immense influence on Grohl during his formative years. And mixing the album was the legendary British producer/engineer and key architect of the Nineties alt-guitar sound Alan Moulder (Smashing Pumpkins, NIN, Marilyn Manson, the Killers) who had last worked with Grohl on the self-titled album from Them Crooked Vultures.
As a result, Grohl’s garage was literally crammed with talent. Adding to the crowd, a film crew was on hand to create a feature documentary about the Foo Fighters. Back in the Studio 606 lounge, as they take their places around a large circular table for an extended chat with Guitar World, Grohl, Smear and Shiflett seem pleased that the process is over and delighted to have a great new album in the can.
GUITAR WORLD: The new album has been heralded as the Foo Fighters’ return to rocking out. Was that anything like the intent?
DAVE GROHL: I think so. Our last few records were really focused on exploring new musical ground. As you keep making records, you want to excite yourself. You want to prove the band’s musicality, diversify and not make the same album every time. But inevitably you start to crave that feeling that you had when you made the first or second record. You go so far away from that to explore new and different things that, after a while, you miss the simplicity of plugging in, turning up to 10 and screaming your balls off.
And now the time seems right to do so once again?
GROHL It does. Back when we made our third record, we really focused on melody. Because, at the time, music was going through this nu-metal shift, and it was all screaming choruses with distortion pedals and creepy, quiet verses. It was all really in your face and brash. So we made that third album intentionally mellow by our standards, because it had become boring and all too easy to scream and step on your distortion pedal. So for the last 10 years I’ve tried to get more melodic. But the idea of making this record in a garage with analog equipment and Butch Vig—it only made sense to make a big, fuckin’ rock record.
CHRIS SHIFLETT Also, we’d taken a break for a while after we put out the Greatest Hits album [in 2009]. But then we did a session here at 606, a live internet set where it was just random. Dave would call out a song that we hadn’t played in years. And that energy just felt comfortable; we all grew up playing in loud rock bands. Then we went over to Germany and did a small show where it was basically the same thing, only in a club. And it seemed like that was a turning point for everybody: the realization that that’s what we do. That’s the essence of what the Foo Fighters are. It’s certainly my favorite thing about what we do. And maybe that moment had an influence on what this album became.
PAT SMEAR I love doing interviews with the guys, ’cause I learn so much! I hadn’t thought about any of that, but as you’re saying it, I’m like, Yeah! I didn’t think about that, but it’s true.
What are some of the earliest songs that emerged?
GROHL I think “Rope” was the earliest. That was from a soundcheck.
SHIFLETT Probably, technically, “White Limo” is the oldest. We’ve been trying to make that into a song for years. And “Rope” is so different now than what it was when we were jamming it on tour. A lot of the songs evolved like that. [to Grohl] Did you even have the chorus for “Rope”?
GROHL I think so. But it was slightly different.
SMEAR Somehow it didn’t make sense to me when we played it at soundchecks. I couldn’t get a handle on it until we got into the studio.
The verses are a bit like something off Led Zeppelin’s Presence album—that slightly skewed, off-kilter rhythm and angular chords.
GROHL Yes, it is like something off Presence. Led Zeppelin are one of my favorite bands, and that may be my favorite album of theirs.
SHIFLETT The verse chords in “Rope” are really interesting to me. What my guitar is doing over the bass makes no sense in a way. It does, but you don’t know how. A flat seventh, a fourth and a minor third; those seem like weird notes to put together in a chord and put in those places. I remember when we were learning that I was like, “What the fuck? This is nuts.” I don’t know if people will interpret it as “out there” compared with what the band normally does. But it’s a crazy kind of sophisticated thing that’s happening.
The third chord in the intro is the one that throws me. What is that chord?
SHIFLETT They’re all minor sevenths with a sus four. But it’s in B minor, and then you move to a D, which is also a minor sus four. So that’s kind of illogical, in a way, to your ear.
SMEAR [to Grohl] Do you understand anything of what they’re talking about? [laughter]
GROHL I wish I did.
So we have a few different schools of guitar playing in the band.
GROHL Yeah, drummer school in my case. It’s true. I’m a drummer writing guitar licks.
SMEAR I noticed when we were practicing the songs that there are a lot of guitar parts I play where I said at first, “I’m never going to figure that out.” Even when I was working on the other record, there’s plenty where I said, “I’m never going to be able to do this on guitar.” But then I did. And it’s always a pattern! It’s a visual pattern. And once you get the visual pattern you say, “Okay, now it makes sense to me.” So yeah, drummer school.
SHIFLETT Another thing about this album is that we did so much rehearsal and preproduction for it that everybody had their parts laid out pretty well. Normally what happens is you go in the studio and things change a lot. But this one wasn’t like that. For the most part, what we did in rehearsals is ultimately what we recorded. So it took the whole thing of “Do I have to figure out another part here?” out of the equation. All you had to do was play the part you already know. And it was just a matter of getting the tone.
GROHL That was a big part of the album concept—to make sure that preproduction was thorough. So by the time we got to the garage, we didn’t have to focus on anything but performance. The garage could have been a real challenge, but it turned out to be incredibly easy. It was the easiest album we’ve ever made.
Were there any technical limitations to doing it that way?
SMEAR It was funny to watch Butch Vig try to figure out which track to put each part on.
GROHL You’d have some tracks that had a guitar part in the verses, but then in the choruses a tambourine or something would come in on the same track, because we wouldn’t have any other place to put it. That was one of the wonderful inconveniences of doing it this way; we really had to make each guitar part count. With three guitars, you have to be careful that it doesn’t become a huge fucking mess. But when everybody’s playing their thing really well, it sounds perfectly orchestrated.
SMEAR A lot of my stuff came out differently, though, because it ended up being on baritone guitar. When I was rehearsing I was playing guitar mostly, but when we got into the studio I’d record my parts after Chris and Dave had done theirs. And a lot of times Butch would say, “Try the baritone [guitar] on this.” So I ended up playing baritone on most of the songs and having to relearn the parts on baritone, because what I was playing before wasn’t necessary. Plus, they got a sound on the baritone that they liked, so they kept saying, “Let’s use it again on this song.”
What kind of baritone guitar do you play?
SMEAR I took a Hagström body, like their Strat clone guitar [a modified F Series model], and just got an Allparts neck and screwed it on there. It’s kind of rough on the high notes, but it’s okay.
You’re something of a Hagström guy, aren’t you?
SMEAR I’m married to them. That was my first guitar. I bought one at Guitar Center in 1980.
SHIFLETT Wait a minute. 1980? That doesn’t jive with being your first guitar.
SMEAR I didn’t own a guitar when I was in the Germs. I would just borrow one from the opening band.
GROHL The baritone really works when it’s put in the right places and in the right contexts. In that song “Arlandria,” on the new album, the baritone kicks in for the chorus and then the outro melody. It takes up a space that a guitar might get lost in. When we started making this album, I demoed some songs that were really heavy. I had to do an interview with someone, and I said, “This will be the heaviest record yet.”
We didn’t use any of those songs I was referring to. But Butch read the interview somewhere and said, “Okay, this has to be the heaviest record yet.” And there were some songs where Butch said, “It doesn’t really fit the criteria. It has to be heavy and hooky.” So if we ever felt like a section wasn’t heavy enough, we put the fuckin’ baritone on it, and it became huge.
Yet, it isn’t like a few years ago, when every nu-metal record had a baritone guitar on it.
GROHL Yeah, it’s not the same thing. We’re using the baritone in a melodic fashion, not like a fucking steamroller. We’re using it to make the music better.
GW So Pat, what did you put your Hagström through for the album sessions?
SMEAR I usually put it through either my Peavey 6505 or else a Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus amp and an MG Music Lexotone stomp box, this crazy distortion pedal.
The baritone with the Roland is an interesting combination.
SMEAR I know. But in some cases I decided it’s better to use a clean amp and mess it up a bit. ’Cause the JC120 is a transistor amp.
I know. It’s not a rock and roll amp really.
SMEAR It is now.
What other main guitars and amps came into play?
SHIFLETT I ended up buying a few guitars on eBay while we were working on this album. I don’t normally do that, but I’d be sitting at Dave’s house waiting to play my tracks. We had the backyard set up with a tent, because there was only so much room in the control room. So I’d be sitting there buying guitars on eBay, and then I used them on the record. I bought a 1968 non-reverse Gibson Firebird and a brand-new traditional sunburst Les Paul. And I actually assembled a Tele Deluxe and Thinline Tele out of Warmouth parts.
GROHL They’re incredible guitars.
SHIFLETT That’s the beauty of when we get all these people together to record. We all bring our favorite guitars and amps.
What about amps?
SHIFLETT I’ve got these handwired Vox AC30s. We AB-ed them with my vintage AC30, and the new ones sound better. That’s not to say they all do. I also have a Marshall JMP that I used, and our engineer, James Brown, had a couple of Audio Kitchen amps that we used.
What about you, Dave?
GROHL I mostly used my Gibson Trini Lopez guitars. I used my old faithful red Trini, which was the first Trini I ever bought, back in around 1993. I think it’s a 1966. I’m bad when it comes to gear. And I have a couple of Pelham Blue Trinis, which is a very rare color. Someone told me there are only 11 of them. One is sort of fucked up, and the other is in really great condition. They have two different sounds: one is a lot warmer, and the other has more chime.
There’s something about the Trini Lopez model; it works well in any situation. You can brighten it up or warm it up. And it really rings because of the tailpiece, due to the amount of string between the bridge and the tailpiece. It’s also a percussive guitar. It has some attack to it, so it works well clean and dirty. You can modify it to sound good in a big chorus or a quiet intro. So on the album I basically went between those three Trinis that I have. I started to get lazy after a while. I don’t think I played anything else.
SMEAR It seems like you did, but then you always went back to the Trini.
GROHL I think I picked up a Danelectro, but I ended up putting it away and using the Trini again.
What amps did the Trini Lopez guitars go through?
GROHL Mostly the Fender Tonemasters that I have. I found them at Norm’s Guitars here in the [San Fernando] Valley. I walked in and said, “I want a really great amp that I’ve never used before for this album that’s really meant to be raucous.” And apparently Tonemasters were used by Jimmy Page and Joe Perry. So I plugged it in, turned it up and it sounded exactly how I wanted the guitar to sound. Another great thing about the Trini Lopez guitar is that it’s sensitive to touch, and the Tonemaster is very responsive to that.
What did Butch Vig bring to the picture?
SHIFLETT He’s a really great guy to work with. Making a record brings out the best and the worst in people. You have these moments where you feel so great. You can do anything and it’ll work, and everything’s smooth. But then you have these moments where you’re super frustrated. Whatever you’re doing is wrong, and you know it’s wrong, but you can’t figure out how to make it better. And one of Butch’s greatest strengths is defusing those moments when it gets tense and can get really ugly. He has a good way of just mellowing you out somehow.
GROHL You can tell when a band has its Butch Vig record. Take Nirvana for example. Here you had a band that was kind of rough around the edges but had this clear pop sensibility. Butch managed to take these songs, pull out the sweet pop sensibilities but retain the raw, edgy energy of it without it becoming out of control. Butch makes huge-sounding rock records. But make no mistake, that dude is a pop producer. He would layer on sweet harmonies all day if he wanted to. But he likes big fucking guitars and big fucking drums.
Speaking of pop sensibilities, Dave, you excel at writing great, massive pop choruses. What’s the secret?
GROHL I’ll tell you: the Bee Gees.
GROHL I’m not kidding. I listen to a lot of Bee Gees. You listen to those Bee Gees songs and it’s not verse, chorus, verse; it’s four or five sections that repeat only twice. But every time you think you’re at the chorus, it’s not the chorus. The next section comes and you think it’s the chorus. It’s not. The section after that comes, and you think that’s the chorus. But that’s not it either. The next section comes. That’s the fucking chorus.
I approach every song trying to write the biggest chorus I possibly can. But then what I’ll do is use that as the prechorus and go ahead and write an even bigger fucking chorus. That chorus should have a melody and lyric so simple and recognizable that you can mock the melody in the intro with a guitar line.
So I’m basically pounding that riff into people’s heads right from the intro of the song. Then I’ll go to a verse, then the prechorus—which, to the listener, is the chorus—and then, bam, I hit them with a bigger chorus that incorporates the intro riff. Basically, you just try to keep lifting and lifting. That’s how you do it.