POSTED ON MAY 11, 2011:
Back to Basics
Foo Fighters return from the garage as the biggest rock band of the year
If you're like me, when the Foo Fighters debuted with a self-titled CD in 1995, you found it interesting and solid, but possibly more of a curiosity than anything else. After all, the prospect of Nirvana's drummer emerging with a new rock band was cool, but not many people knew just how well versed he was in the songwriting department and the idea of him moving from the back-beat (and background) to front man seemed a risky move.
I'll admit I never expected Foo Fighters to last more than a couple of records. I certainly didn't expect the band to last 16 years, knock out seven albums and become one of the best straight-up rock bands in the U.S. -- but that's exactly what happened.
Over the years, Dave Grohl's writing and the band's chemistry has gotten consistently stronger and the Foos have gradually built a catalogue of songs that have become part of any mainstream rock fan's subconscious. You may not have them in the front of your mind and you might not even know the song titles, but chances are, you know the words and melody to at least a half dozen hits or more from the past decade and a half.
Most recently, Foo Fighters emerged from a break with a new CD, Wasting Light, and lead-off single, "Rope." I couldn't get in my car for two solid weeks without having that damn song pop up on the radio. And worst of all: I loved it. America was starving for a good rock record and Foo Fighters were more than happy to oblige. Wasting Light debuted at No. 1 (a first for the band) and the band was quick to jump right back into high gear.
After roughly three years off the road, the band was quick to hit the concert trail again, first with some promotional appearances; then a series of garage show for lucky, concert-winning fans; and even a series of shows playing the CD in its entirety before setting out on a full-blown arena tour. That tour stops at BOK Arena this Tuesday night, May 17 and bassist Nate Mendel was generous enough to give me the lowdown on how Foo Fighters have emerged as arguably the biggest rock band in the land right now.
"This is our seventh studio album, so we've been doing this for a long time," he said, reflecting on the band's history. "We had a good five-year run where we were really busy doing the album, tour, album cycle.
"Everybody's got families now, though, and we'd been pretty much everywhere -- a lot," he continued. "We thought it was probably a good time to take a little time off. Not because we necessarily wanted to, but more so we didn't overdo it and wear out our welcome, so we decided to take some time off."
Mendel said the members kept themselves busy with other projects and one year off turned into two years. Not that an extended break was intended, it just happened that way.
"Then, a little over a year ago, Dave (Grohl) sent out this big manifesto email," Mendel said. "It went on forever and was full of all these ideas he had: we should film it and make a documentary, Butch Vig should produce -- which we'd never done before -- and I want to record it in the garage on two-inch tape..."
And that's exactly what the Foo Fighters did. A documentary film, Back and Forth, debuted at Austin's South by Southwest in March, then appeared in select theaters and was aired only once on VH1 right before the CD release. In it, the band reflected on and explored its past before culminating in a documentation of the recording process.
Yes, Grohl converted his garage into a recording studio. The entire band rolled in with families in tow for cookouts and swimming and the band embraced the family that it has become. Butch Vig headed up the proceedings, Krist Novoselic made a guest appearance to record the bass parts for the reflective "I Should Have Known" and Bob Mould (of Hüsker Dü) even stopped in to record backing vocals for "Dear Rosemary."
When Grohl and company emerged from its hiatus and home recorded studio, the band had the most immediate and engaging album of its career in hand.
The biggest change when putting together the new album was actually recording to tape instead of to a hard drive, Mendel said.
"You always try to progress and change, but the biggest thing this time was doing a record without Pro Tools (a software package used for production)," he said. "Over the past 15 years, everything has moved to computer, which has different sound. It also gave the opportunity to manipulate the songs without the input of the musicians -- or with their input, to move things around.
"We talked to Butch Vig going in and he had some ideas of what to do," he continued. "And we rehearsed a lot before recording. That was a big part of why the record turned out like it did -- we had to be able to play the songs and know we had a song, not just an idea."
With the songwriting process as well as working with Butch Vig for the first time and doing it all with a film crew overseeing things, Mendel said the process felt like the band was "taking stock of the past, embracing it and changing what we wanted. I feel like this record is like a more distilled version of us at our best."
Ultimately, Mendel shared that the band's primary goal is just to make a great record. "That's the basic job," he said, "but it's a big one because people fail at it all the time and as a band, you live in two year cycles."
"Every record is of what's come before," he continued, "and your goal is to better than you've done in the past. That's tour challenge -- not playing a stadium in England or winning a Grammy or having a No. 1 record. Those things just fall place if you do the other right."
When looking forward to the band's appearance, you can count on hearing a good portion of the new album, but rest assured that you'll hear plenty of old hits as well.
"We had this idea to play the record front to back and we did a series of shows doing just that," Mendel said. "Those were some of the most fun shows we've ever played, but we realized we can't do this for an entire tour. Over the last handful of shows, we've played as much of the new record as possible and some of the old songs, but we try to keep them new and fresh."
No matter what pops up in the set list on Tuesday night at BOK Arena, you know it's going to be one hellacious rock show.
New tracks like "Burning Bridges" and "White Limo" rock as hard as anything in the band's past and cuts like "Rope" and "Arlandria" have the kind of melodic hooks that guarantee they'll be added to your subconscious Foo Fighters playlist. The inclusion of Motörhead and Biffy Clyro as openers only serves to guarantee you'll get your money's worth at the biggest rock show of the month.
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