Foo Fighters: Something Left to Gain

When it comes to guitarists, Foo Fighters have become something of an alt-rock Spinal Tap. Although nobody has spontaneously combusted yet, the group, formed during late 1994 by ex-Scream and Nirvana drummer turned axe-slinging frontman Dave Grohl, has found it challenging keeping the other guitar chair filled. Original member Pat Smear quit during the 1997 tour for the Foos' album The Colour and the Shape, and his replacement, Grohl's former Scream bandmate Franz Stahl, was gone by the time Grohl, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins headed to Grohl's Virginia house to work on last year's There Is Nothing Left to Lose. But with Chris Shiflett now in place and radio embracing new songs such as 'Stacked Actors' and 'Learn to Fly,' the Foos have again climbed to cruising altitude and are riding the crests of a successful Big Day Out festival in Australia (newsworthy for Grohl's DUI bust -- on a scooter, no less) and a recent stint opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. With the benefit of some hindsight now, what kind of perspective do you have on There Is Nothing Left to Lose?

Dave Grohl: I think it just sounds like three people left to a basement studio trying to make a pristine rock record. I think I was discovering a lot of classic influences in the band that I hadn't noticed before -- anything from Foghat to Peter Frampton to Gerry Rafferty, Andrew Gold. Just AM soft rock that we all love that before maybe we were afraid to do anything with just because we felt obligated to be the punk rockers that everybody thought we were. When, in actuality, you're melody freaks?

Grohl: Definitely. We wanted to turn the volume down while we were there. The other records, we'd plug into a distortion pedal and go '1-2-3-4,' and that's it. This time we looked for new ways to make these songs happen. It was our instinct to plug in and play fast and loud; this time we wanted to turn it on its side.

Nate Mendel: I guess that the one thing we learned is that we've got a style, and that it's not bad. We felt we'd done two albums, and though the second one was a progression from the first, they were both still pretty standard rock records. We wanted to try and experiment on this one, and maybe take a song that was more standard in its arrangement and instrumentation, tweak it and turn it into something that we hadn't done before. Do you feel like you accomplished that?

Mendel: Well, no (laughs). We didn't really do it. I think on a couple of songs we screwed around with what we would normally have done, but on most of them we didn't. That's not to say that it's not a new type of record for us; I think it's more complex melodically and with the dynamics. But we didn't really go as whole hog as we'd imagined. I remember we would sit down with a song and go, 'Okay, now what can we do with this one?' And we would change the tempo or the time signature, and it just sounded bad. It just ended up that the way the song came out originally was the best take on it, so we just went with it. You also produced this album yourselves. What was that like?

Grohl: We were pretty much left to our own devices and free to do whatever we wanted to do. I think a lot of our personalities came through much more on this album than ever before.

Mendel: We just totally did it on our own, built a studio from scratch, and taught ourselves how to use it. There wasn't a producer there to help us learn our way around the studio and discipline us and do all the things that a producer does. Was the Foo Fighters opening slot with the Chili Peppers a way for you to test the waters for a big-hall tour of your own?

Grohl: No, I don't think so. I don't think we ever really could; we don't sell enough records to do anything like that. Plus, one of the great things about coming to see us play is the uncomfortable silences and the subtle inside jokes and things that are understood in a small theater or a club. Creating that mood in an arena has yet to happen to us. It's something new for us, and I can't really think of many other bands that we'd do it with. We got asked to go out with Oasis. I thought that might be fun but, I don't know, what kind of people go to see Oasis' We got asked by Bush, No Doubt and Korn, and a lot of acts have chosen us as the opening band du jour. But it seems like with the Chili Peppers, it's kind of an honor because they're an institution in their own right. 'Stacked Actors' started as a song Dave was writing for Ozzy Osbourne, at Ozzy's request, and you wound up sending him some other songs. How did that connection come about'

Grohl: Well, he was making a new record and was basically calling different people saying, 'Hey, would you like to get together and make some music, write some songs'' So I wrote a couple of songs and demoed them, and maybe he'll use them. Or maybe not. But I actually went in and recorded with Tony Iommi from (Black) Sabbath, for his solo record. I played drums and sang, and that was a thrill. To be asked by Tony Iommi to go in and make a song in a day with him is pretty great. How have you felt about going through several different configurations of Foo Fighters? It would seem to have both pluses and minuses.

Grohl: Yeah, it's both. I wish that we could've had the same four characters throughout the whole time, but I understand why it didn't happen, and it's no big deal. But it also does keep it really interesting. When a new member is introduced, the sound is altered, albeit usually not enough for anyone to really notice. But, yeah, it keeps things fresh just because it's a whole new perspective and it's a whole new dynamic. I don't think that what we've been through is too unusual, in that most bands go through it before they release their first record. We've had to grow up in public. And the sound of the band has definitely changed. It went from a demo tape of one person to four people and a producer to three people and a basement studio. That seems interesting to me.

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