Interview: Foo Fighters Discuss Their Heavy 2011 Album, 'Wasting Light'
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.