The Foo Fighters’ forthcoming album, Medicine At Midnight, is their tenth, which may surprise readers who still think of them as a pretty new band.
You won’t have to be an established fan to like its nine songs – they’re recognizably Foo-ish in nature – but if you’re familiar with the stadium-rock quartet’s early hits, Learn To Fly, Breakout, Times Like These, Monkey Wrench, and the rest of them, you may detect a slightly funkier edge to the music than usual.
“There’s no good adjective to describe the sound,” chuckles bassist Nate Mendel, a band-member since the former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl formed the group in 1995. “‘Funkier’ and ‘dancey’ fall short of describing what we’re trying to do. We’ll have to come up with a better word.”
Given the new edge to the songs, did Mendel consider deploying some slap and pop on this album? We obviously don’t mean this seriously for several reasons, but he still considers it, replying: “No, but if there was ever a moment for a popped note, it would be on Medicine At Midnight, because this album was inspired by albums like David Bowie’s Let’s Dance – we wanted it to be up, and breezy, and almost dancey. That’s a bit of a different sound for us, and we have some different instrumentation, too.”
As you’ll know if you’ve read Mendel’s previous interviews in BP, his background – punk and alternative rock to the core – forbids fripperies such as headless or fretless instruments, extended ranges or, God forbid, the aforementioned slap.
“In the environment I grew up in, five-string bass guitar is a bit illegal!” he says. “Look, I’m not judgmental about it – those things can be great – but in my style of music, it wouldn’t go over too well. The super-low notes would be out of place in this music. If I need to, I’ll tune down.”
The new album was recorded before the current pandemic and originally timed to tie in with the Foos’ 25th anniversary in 2020. The coronavirus had other plans, though, hence the delayed release and the absence of any tour dates until late this year, or even 2022.
“Thank goodness the album lyrics aren’t pulled right out of the headlines, so we have the ability to push it back six or eight months,” he notes. Given the extended delay between recording and release, has Mendel listened to the album and wished he’d recorded anything differently?
“I’m usually pretty mellow about that, but with this record, I would redo a lot of it,” he says, although he’s not being entirely serious, it seems.
“Listening back to it after taking a break, I was really conservative, and I could hear that, and I’d rather have been asked to pull back by Dave or our producer, rather than self-editing. I think it would have been maybe a little more interesting if I’d stepped out a bit more on this record.”
He adds: “I like to throw as many things in there that are musically incorrect as possible, so they stand out and hopefully have a bit of a signature to them. If I don’t hear enough of that, I’m like ‘Dammit!’
“A friend of mine just sent me a track and said ‘Put the bass on this’ and it was wide open, with no structure to it whatsoever, so I basically did a couple of improvised passes on it. I loved it, because it was really jazzy and out there. I sent it to him and said ‘All right, man. You asked me to play on it, this is what you’re gonna get!’ It sounded good to my ears, but I totally get how you’d find it jarring and repulsive.”
Mendel may regard the lines on the new record as conservative, but the same can’t be said about the tones, many of which are gritty and overdriven. “That’s the producer Greg Kurstin,” he explains, “and that really surprised me about working with him. You’d think he’d be really conservative when it comes to getting bass sounds, but he’s not at all.
“He’s willing to experiment and he works really fast, which was really shocking to me because I expected him to be very methodical. I kept waiting to spend an hour and a half on getting a snare drum sound or a bass tone – but no, he was like ‘Let’s throw it on and go!’
“He’s really fond of working in Logic, so not everything was coming out of a stompbox or an amp – he’s willing to use a plugin to get a bass tone that’s really broken up and crazy-sounding. I also used a lot of flatwound strings, oddly, and I was playing with my fingers, which is not my style.”
This sounds almost like maturity, I tell him. “Haha! Right? Almost like a traditional bass player. You go through phases, you play around with stuff and you become fascinated with an idea in a certain phase. One thing I realized, after all these years, is that the note is so much fatter with fingerstyle. I don’t know if it’s because there isn’t a piece of material between your fingers and the string.”
Fingerstyle playing has been a revelation to Mendel, it appears. He continues: “I’m not a trained person, so I still struggle with rhythm and playing in time, but this time I found that I locked in. It’s easier to play the part correctly, even though I’m so much less confident with my fingers than I am with a pick.
“I would never go so far as to say ‘You should...’ when it comes to fingerstyle or pick, but there’s definitely benefits [to the former] that I’ve never found before. It takes less time, too, rather than with a pick when you try to fatten up or warm up the sound. You ditch the pick and automatically you’re right there.”
Did he record with an amp or straight into the computer? “We used a vintage Vox amp that one of our techs had in his collection. He brought it down, and I actually bought one afterwards, like ‘Oh my God, this is it!’ We messed with the formula a little bit, with the amp going through a 2x12 cabinet, and not much in the way of pedals, and it sounded great. As for basses, I’ve been collecting a bit more in the last two years.”
He muses: “Your readers will be familiar with this – you try a ton of great basses, and the one that sounds the best is the bass you’ve been playing for 15 years. Everybody’s got their magic bass in their mind, and mine is my '70s natural P-Bass with a maple neck, which cuts through perfectly.”
As well as enjoying a signature Fender Precision, Mendel also has an Ashdown overdrive pedal with his name on it.
“The idea with that is that every distortion pedal I’ve ever had would go from zero to 60 as you turn the drive up,” he explains. “You’d have no drive and then suddenly you’d have distortion – so what we tried to do with that pedal was get it to modulate a little bit, so you’d kind of have it broken up.”
Talking of things breaking up, how have 20 years of arena gigs treated the Mendel eardrums?
“Remarkably well, although I don’t do well with dead silence, as anybody who has been playing live for a while will know. I hear my fair share of white noise, so I use in-ears these days. I’m the only person in the Foo Fighters who does. Our stage volume is heroic, and I can’t tell what’s happening – with three guitarists to deal with – without in-ears.”
Is he a better bass player these days than he used to be, we ask? He replies “That’s an interesting question”, which often means “That’s a really annoying question” in interviewee-speak, but not in this case, fortunately.
He goes on: “In some ways I am, and in some ways I’m not. I know more of the rules, so I’m a little bit better at knowing what the right note is at the right time, and I’m tighter. Am I as creative as I once was? Maybe, maybe not. When I was doing [former band] Sunny Day Real Estate in the early days, there was an exuberance, and that’s hard to replicate after I’ve been doing it for so long.
“I think I came up with some cool stuff back then, but there was an equal amount of stuff that I played or recorded that was just out of place, so hopefully wisdom has taken the place of some of that loss of creativity and on balance, I could be considered a better player.”
So does Mendel think of himself as a good bass player? “I’d say situationally, yes. I’m a good bass player in the Foo Fighters, and I’m a good rock bass player in terms of coming up with ideas and helping a band function. Am I just stock good, in terms of throw me into a situation like a session player? I’d say no.” Hats off from us for that reasoned-out answer. If only more of us were as reflective as this, eh?
- Medicine At Midnight is out now (opens in new tab) on Roswell Records/Columbia.