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Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett: “In 25 years, we’ll all be on stools, playing ukuleles and doing ballads – but we might still be going!”

Foo Fighters
(Image credit: Supplied)

Note: this article is also featured in Australian Guitar #142, which is out now wherever great magazines are sold! Click here to read more about what’s in this jam-packed issue!

At over a quarter-century as one of the world’s most strongly prospering rock bands, there are very few amongst us who can’t immediately recognise a Foo Fighters song. They’ve a tried-and-true, absolutely unf***withable formula: big, driving drum leads, ultra crispy guitars and that bright, buttery howl many have tried their hand at, but only Dave Grohl can truly pull off. So when the Seattle post-grungers announced their hotly anticipated tenth album, Medicine At Midnight, we all had at least a vague idea of what to expect… Then we actually heard the lead single. 

Like a defiant middle finger aimed at those of us certain the Foos had settled in their ways, “Shame Shame” landed with less of an epic, concrete-shattering rock ’n’ roll thud and more of a breezy, near-unsettlingly nonchalant calm. The four-minute jam creeps along with simmering violins, understated guitar lines and a simple kick-clap drum beat that never even teases at, let alone rolls over into, the ear-splitting excess Taylor Hawkins so dearly loves to deliver. It signalled an ambitious departure for Grohl and co, at a time when OTT stadium rock would be easier to sell than ever.

Of course, there’s still a tonne of that classic Foos ferocity to indulge in on Medicine At Midnight: there’s an undercurrent of gritty dive-bar swagger on “Cloudspotter”; a punky, pit-stirring spirit on “No Son Of Mine” that has us desperate for more non-seated live rock shows; and a slick, summery hook on “Love Dies Young” that makes it a perfect closing salvo. Hell, even “Holding Poison” feels like it would’ve fit in snugly on 1997’s The Colour And The Shape. But for every classic Foos staple, there’s an experimental flair you never could’ve seen coming – like the glittery, Bowie-esque pop slant on the title track, or the pseudo-Floydian melancholy of “Chasing Birds”.

As longtime shredder Chris Shiflett fills us in, now was undoubtedly the best time for the Foo Fighters to shake things up. Motivated by a then‑impending 25th anniversary tour that was poised to have them celebrate one of the most enviable careers in rock ’n’ roll history (which never actually happened, obviously), they set up shop in an eerie old house in Encino, California where ideas flowed a freely as the beers. The band were high on life and felt a renewed sense of creative energy, leading to the quickest writing and recording process they’d ever experienced.

Between this being album #10 and the fact it lands during the band’s 25th anniversary, Medicine At Midnight is a pretty monumental release by default. Did that significance ever pop up during the making of this record?
Well y’know, while we were making the record, we planning what was supposed to happen in 2020. So yeah, that was definitely something on everybody’s mind. I feel like with every record, y’know, Dave’s always trying to do something different in some way, or we’ve got a new setup to work with that influences where we take the songs. We’re never just coasting along. We’re always trying to do something in reaction to the record we made before, and they all kind of go end-to-end like that. But where we are as a band definitely popped up. We were supposed to do a big 25th anniversary tour and all of that stuff, so we were definitely thinking about that along the way.

Where do you think the Foo Fighters are on the timeline right now? Do you see the band rocking on for another 25 years and ten more albums?
If my ears hold up, then sure! We’re pretty loud onstage, man! In 25 years, we’ll all be on stools, playing ukuleles and doing ballads – but we might still be going! Maybe we’ll all be enclosed in a big plastic box with headphones and amp simulators.

I’ll take it! For now, though, let’s vibe on Medicine At Midnight. The record is certainly… Interesting. And I don’t mean that in a critical way, but my first reaction was that it felt like a very notable step in an unexpected direction. This far into your career, do you find it important to keep shaking things up wherever you can?
Yeah, and I mean even just in the sense of where we record, how we record, and all of that stuff – that’s all really important to us. We’ve bounced around quite a bit over the last few records, from building our own little studio here in LA, to recording at Dave’s house, to recording at EastWest and bunch of other different locations all over the US for Sonic Highways, or for this one in a funky old house out in Encino… You don’t get bored in this band, that’s for sure.

I was reading in the new Total Guitar that Medicine At Midnight actually started off as a more straightforward rock album, and a bunch of songs were demoed and scrapped before you settled on this groovier, more pop-oriented kind of sound.
I do recall that when we first got in there, we recorded a few things – I don’t remember if they ever really got finished, but yeah, there were some things that maybe sounded a little more along the lines of what you would expect. But I mean, to me, this record – it’s definitely a bit different stylistically, but it’s still the Foo Fighters, y’know? There’s still lots of guitar on it, Dave still belts it out like a monster… I think it’s more of an evolution than a radical departure from what fans have come to know as the Foo Fighters’ sound. 

I know that as far as individual influences go, your heart lies in country, Dave has grunge in his bones, pretty much all of you come from punk and hardcore origins… How do all your influences gel together in the studio?
That’s a good question, because if you look at all of our record collections, there’s a pretty broad range of styles in there. Of course we have plenty of overlap and a lot of common ground, but then everybody kind of goes off into their own little areas. But I don’t really bring country-flavoured guitar ideas into the Foo Fighters. I just play a lot, y’know? When the Foos aren’t working, I’m doing my solo thing, I’m playing in the parents’ band at my kids’ school, or I’m off doing something or other, y’know? I’m just always playing. And I’ve noticed, in recent years, how good that feels when we get back into doing the Foo Fighters stuff. 

Because y’know, we’ll take little breaks here and there – and in the past, when I wasn’t so busy in those breaks, I’d get back into the rehearsal studio and feel a little dusty – I’d feel those cobwebs. But I never feel that anymore because I’m playing all the time now. So that’s more how my influence plays into it; it’s not so much about bringing in some of the stylistic stuff. Because y’know, the guys in the Foo Fighters aren’t really country music fans – I don’t think I could bring in some pedal steel riffs and start twanging away. I don’t think that would fly with Dave [laughs]. But yeah, it’s just about keeping your chops feeling good and your strings warm.

For sure. If you’re working out regularly and then take a break from it, those first sessions back at the gym are going to be brutal. You’ve gotta keep your stretches up.
That’s it. Also, we’ve been a band for a really long time. So we really know each other, and we know the way we all play, and there’s a lot of intuitive stuff that happens there. I think everyone [in the Foo Fighters] does it to some extent, but it’s good to go out and play with other people, y’know? It’s good for your overall musicianship, and to keep yourself inspired – and to help you appreciate what you’ve got. 

Because y’know, when I go out and do a solo tour, who I’m doing it with always varies from one town to the next; I’m always having to learn a whole set with a bunch of new people, and it’s always in those moments that I realise just how much work it is to start something like that from scratch every time – to try and get to that place where you don’t have to talk about the menial stuff, y’know? Where you just do it. The Foos have been at that place for a very long time, just because we’ve all played together for so long. 

On a track like “Shame Shame”, the guitars feel very understated and sort of minimalist. When you’re in a band with three guitarists, is it hard to embrace that ‘less is more’ attitude?
I mean, some songs just call for that, y’know? It’s always a little hard being like, “How do we play this live when there’s like one guitar line in the whole song?” You do have to work those kinds of things out. Sometimes it’ll be a case where you go, “Okay, I’m just gonna stand backstage for five minutes and I’ll come back out at the end.” But those moments are far and few between. And that’s another one of those things that, over the years, have become very natural to navigate – picking out the parts and deciding who’s going to play what. And a lot of times, Dave might play something on the record but not want to fuss around with the part while he’s singing, so Pat or I will wind up playing it in the show. A lot of things move around like that. 

What’s the creative dynamic like between yourself, Pat and Dave? Is there a lot of collaboration or bouncing back and forth?
We tend to record one song at a time, and that takes about a week once you get into the groove of making a record. I know for myself as one of the guitar players, I’m probably recording on, like, Wednesday. It usually works out that way because first we’ll get a drum track, then maybe Dave will put some guitars down and do a vocal, and by the time it’s my turn to come in, we’re a few days into it. And so while the drums are getting recorded and other people are doing their stuff, I’ll be listening to the song and sort of working out what I’m going to wind up playing on it. I’ll usually have something roughed out by that Wednesday. 

But there’s a lot of collaboration going on because I’ll be in there with Greg Kurstin, who’s produced the last couple of records with us, and Dave, of course, and then whoever else happens to be sitting on a couch in the studio. So you can be sitting there and working on something, and everyone will chime in like, “No, do this! Try that! What if we did this?” And then it just kind of evolves and becomes its own thing.

Is there a pecking order to how each of you add to the guitar parts on a track?
I mean, I can’t think of a time when Dave didn’t throw his guitar track down first – it’s just sort of a reference point, y’know? Pat and I will put stuff on there, then Dave might go back and add something, or re-do something, or tweak the mix a bit. By the time you’ve got the drums, Dave’s guitar, my guitar, Pat’s guitar, bass guitar, percussion, keyboards… All of a sudden, you’ve got so much going on in a track, and you can really get a sense of what needs to be there and what doesn’t. Something important might not be poking through anymore, so I’ve gotta go back and change my tone, or maybe Pat has to come up with something new. It’s always evolving.

What was that house out in Encino like?
Well, Dave had initially just rented the house out to make some demos, because he had a bunch of riffs and loose song ideas. And he just really liked the way the room sounded, he liked the way the drums sounded and all that kind of stuff, and so we wound up just bringing out all the real gear and setting up shop out there. And it was great! It was very laidback, y’know? We just kind of hung out every day. If you weren’t recording, you were sitting out on the back patio or hanging out in the kitchen, just living in the atmosphere.

I’m sure you knew this question was coming: was the place actually haunted
[Laughs] it probably depends on who you talk to, y’know? When I’m walking through the dark at night, even if I’m just putting out my trash cans, I’m spooked – so I’m prone to say ‘yes’. But this house… It’s sort of like this old, funky mansion that’s sitting in disrepair, and it’s in a very nice neighbourhood so it seems a little out of place. There’s all these nice houses and beautiful yards all up and down the street, and then there’s this old, crappy house sitting there, sliding off the hill, being reclaimed by the earth.

There’s a rumour buzzing around that you’d actually captured some paranormal shit on camera, but you can’t release it due to an NDA you signed with the homeowners. Is there any truth to that?
I don’t know about that one, to be honest. We’ll see! I’m sure if it is, that video will see the light of day somehow. Keep checking Dave’s Instagram for all the latest ghost footage!

How important is something like the acoustics of a room when it comes to the direction you want to take a song in? Can something like that influence your creative mindset?
That’s a really good question, because nowadays… I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter at all, but so much gets manipulated after its recorded, whether that’s in Logic or Pro Tools or whatever Greg’s got kicking around. I don’t know how much of the room even winds up in the recording – I guess it does, but it’s all very processed after the fact. It’s a funny thing because you could make a great sounding record in a beautiful studio, but you could also make a great sounding record in some shitty, dilapidated house in Encino! I think it has a lot to do with who’s manning the decks, y’know, and what you’re playing through them.

My understanding is that for the most part, these songs would go from rough ideas to demos in no more than 30 minutes. Is that loose, run-and-gun mentality something you find crucial in capturing the energy you have in the Fooies?
I love it. And it’s not how we normally work, so that was a real breath of fresh air on this record. Normally, the process is that Dave makes some demos and we all get together to learn them, we rehearse them, we make some new demos, and then we go back and make some more demos, and then we go back and make even more demos, and then by the time we get into the studio and make the record, we’ve demoed all the songs ten times – which, in my opinion, can get a little stale. 

So this time, we skipped that whole process. Dave made some reference recordings, then we’d just sort of flesh them out on the spot. And I feel like as the recording process went on, we wouldn’t even really flesh them out as much – we just started, y’know? I think that process of fleshing them out was more how we worked in the beginning, but then by the end of it we’d just be like, “Alright, here’s the idea,” Taylor would put something down on the spot, and the song would start getting built from there. 

So was there much improv going on?
I wouldn’t say that, because it’s not really improvising – it’s like noodling around until you find something that works. I mean, I guess there’s a bit of improvisation to it, but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m thinking about it way in advance and trying to wrap my head around what the song is, and what I think the song needs.

How many revisions will a riff go through before you find something that clicks?
It really depends on the song. I think “Shame Shame” was pretty much the same as the demo, more or less – I don’t think that one changed radically. But a song like “No Son Of Mine” changed quite a bit. I think that was one of the songs where we had recorded a version of it, then it got tweaked pretty heavily and became something pretty different.

Well those two tracks are very different in mood and structure as well. Do you find that songs come together in different ways depending on what’s going on in them?
It probably does. “Shame Shame” came together much quicker because there’s so much less on it. But there was a lot more that we’d recorded for that song, which wound up just not being used. There’s also that process of elimination that can happen.

What guitars were you jamming out on?
I have a signature model with Fender, and we did a Masterbuilt version that Greg Fessler built for me. I had a red one of those up there [in Encino], and then somewhere in the middle of making the record, Fender sent me a green one. I think that one’s my favourite, now. They both have noiseless P-90s in them, which are great – they really growl, they’ve got a real specific kind of thing they deal. 

Then a couple years ago, I bought an old ’57 Les Paul, and that definitely got used. Those beautiful PAFs in it make such a difference. I also used one or two of my Strats on this record, which is a little unusual for a Foo Fighters record – we don’t usually throw down much of the Strat. And then I think I used a more traditional sort of Tele with a single-coil pickup. I’m sure I just picked up whatever was sitting there in the room a couple times, too. You know how it is: when you’re recording an album, everybody brings out all their gear, so there’s a lot to pick and choose from.

You get a really cool dynamic with those signature Teles, balancing the groove of these songs with just the right tinge of P-90 bite.
Yeah, it’s nice to have something that sits in a little bit of a different place, tonally. Pat and Dave are usually playing through humbuckers. And for years that’s all I ever played through, too, but it is nice to have somebody in there playing something that gives it a little bit of a different colour. There’s something about those P-90s where even when you grit ‘em up real good, they still have a lot of clarity. When you play a full chord, you can still hear every note. That kind of mushes out with a real hot humbucker.

Then with the PAFs in the Les Paul, how did you find that added to the flavour profile?
To be honest, I’d be lying if I said I could tell you what I played on what song – somebody might have made a note of it somewhere, but I don’t remember. And I mean, that’s the thing about recording the way we record: you go in and you’re noodling around, trying to find your part, and you do it that one time, and then will months go by where you’re not playing anything at all. Then you have to go in and play the song again, and you’re like, “I don’t even know what the f*** I played!” So you’ll have to go into the studio and pull up the track, solo tracks out and go, “Oh! Right! It’s these two things and they’re kind of overlapping…”

How does that work out in the way of effects? Were you shooting out many pedals?
I definitely used a lot of Greg Kurstin’s pedals. We used his Roland Space Echo a lot – I couldn’t get enough of that thing. I don’t know where all the pedals came from, but I don’t think many of them were mine. But I love a good phaser, a flanger, some tape echo – those are the big three for me. And you can’t go past the [Jim Dunlop] Fuzz Face!

With some of those more upbeat, dance-y tones, did you find yourself experimenting with many unique effects?
That was more in the guitar selection than effects, I think. One of the things that’s so great about working with Greg is that you can go to him with a reference track and be like, “I want to make my guitar sound like Nick Jones on ‘Know Your Rights’”, and he’s just like, “Right! Got it! Boom!” He can work that shit out lickety-split. He’s really well-versed in all the different ways to get different effect tones out of his gear – that’s always one of the biggest highlights of recording with him.