“It’s like your grandparents when they get too old to get divorced!” Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett on 25 years of Foo Fighters
As Foo Fighters celebrate their 10th LP, Medicine At Midnight, we caught up with Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett to look back at the guitarists’ journeys as part of the biggest band on earth.
When Nirvana’s touring guitarist Pat Smear first heard drummer Dave Grohl listening to the music that would become the Foo Fighters’ debut album in his car, he was impressed and intrigued. Soon he was asking to get involved, and after those demos had become the eponymous first Foos album, Grohl knew he was going to need a band to perform this stuff – Smear climbed aboard with bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith from Seattle band Sunny Day Real Estate and Foo Fighters, the band, were born.
“One day in particular we were leaving a Nirvana rehearsal,” remembers Smear, “and Dave was sitting in his car playing some music that appealed to me. He told me it was some tapes he’d been making, and I remember really liking it and saying that I wanted him to play me more. That was the first I heard of it.
“The second time I heard it was when we were at my house in Los Angeles and he said, ‘Oh, I made this tape’, and gave me a cassette that was essentially the first Foo Fighters album. I absolutely loved it and it made me want to play music again.”
If Foo Fighters had originally been an outlet for Grohl within Nirvana, and subsequently a place to go to deal with the dissolution of that band following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, it became something bigger around the time he gave Smear that cassette.
“Dave didn’t have to ask me to join the band,” says Smear, “I asked him! After I heard the tape I went to him and asked if he was going to make a band, because I wanted in.”
That band hit the road to support what was essentially Grohl’s solo record, but Smear reveals that there was a bit more to it than that. “The first thing we did in the studio as a band was actually mixing the first album,” he tells us, “Which Dave had recorded by himself. It was a pretty cool thing to bring us in on, and we spent a week or so in the studio doing that, so in a way that was our first record, even though we didn’t play on it.”
In March, Foo Fighters will release their ninth studio album, Medicine At Midnight, 26 years after that self-titled debut. Smear is still in the band, having left in 1997 before returning part-time in 2005 and full-time in 2010, as is Mendel. Goldsmith was replaced on drums in 1997 by Taylor Hawkins, while Smear’s long-term replacement, Chris Shiflett, now works alongside the former-Germs man and frontman Grohl as part of a three-guitar attack. Keyboardist Rami Jaffee was officially added to the line-up in 2017 after more than 10 years as a touring member, and so now Grohl’s one-time solo project bestride the world of rock as a six-piece, often augmented by backing singers and string sections on tour.
Medicine At Midnight is a tight, nine-track album that casts off any ‘punk rock’ assumptions that the format might suggest to see the band explore new ground, incorporating elements of soul, funk and disco into the hard rock mix for what Grohl has called a ‘Saturday night record’. Both Smear and Shiflett admit to an element of surprise when introduced to the new music.
“When I got the demos, I didn’t think it was a radical departure or anything,” says Shiflett, “but it was certainly a little more groove-based. I think Dave had a different idea in mind as far as the vibe of this record, because it chased down some of that 80s Bowie-sounding stuff. And that’s fun to do, especially for the guitar work.”
“Dave didn’t have to ask me to join the band, I asked him!” – Pat Smear
“I think the first thing we did was Shame,” recalls Smear, “and things started getting a little weird and going off the tracks a bit. I mean, I normally play how I play, bring my punk rock thing, but it became clear that wasn’t necessarily always going to work here.”
Shiflett is keen to stress, however, that this is still every inch a Foo Fighters album. “It’s sort of the beauty of having a band that’s been around for a long time and has an identity, it’s like we can’t not sound like us. It’s a blessing and a curse,” he laughs.
Did either player need to adopt any new approaches or bring new instruments to the material?
“I can tell you, the Gibson SG is an odd guitar in that I only like the ones that have a tremolo system, it just looks right. But the joke of that is that with an SG you don’t need a tremolo system, because as you move it’s like you’re using a tremolo system, you know? So I did have this one particular SG that I would put lighter than usual strings on specifically for the extra wobble, because if your strings are too light it gives you that certain sound. That’s probably the most gimmicky thing I did on this record, and that features mostly on the harder rock songs.”
For Shiflett, his approach remains the same, looking for parts that fit and work within the song, but the recording process still brought its share of enjoyment.
“What’s great now, and different from when I joined,” he says, “is that when we record everyone brings in their special stuff… I’ve got some nice old Fender Tweed combos that I always bring in. We have some great Marshalls we always use, and I have a hand-wired Vox AC-15 that I use a lot for recording.
“Fender made me a Masterbuilt version of my signature model a while ago called The Cleaver that I definitely used a lot on this new record because I love the P-90s in it.
“And I also bought a really beautiful ’57 Les Paul that started its life as a Goldtop before someone along the way took the finish off to reveal the wood grain. But it is a ’57 Les Paul Goldtop, and it’s got the original pickups in it and everything, and it’s just the greatest thing that’s ever happened. Those original PAFs are just amazing, so I use that a lot.”
Things have not always as comfortable and settled in the Foos as they are today. Smear’s first studio recording with the band would yield the acclaimed 1997 album The Colour And The Shape. The band used several studios, going from what Smear describes as, “Practising recording as a band” in Seattle to finishing the project at Grandmaster in Hollywood. “I think that’s probably where Dave got the idea of recording different things in different studios to see how the environment affects what we record, because we did that so much on that first album together,” Smear tells us. In 2014 the band would release Sonic Highways, an album on which each individual track was written and recorded in one of eight cities and eight studios, from Nashville to New York, exploring American music history.
“With guitars I generally just bring what I feel like playing, and with The Colour And The Shape I remember it being the time when I first started playing hollowbody jazz-style guitars, and I felt some of the music called for that kind of sound. But it was a lot less structured than you might think, there have been a lot of happy accidents in this band. That’s what works for us… except when it doesn’t!”
After The Colour And The Shape Smear left the band, and music, but never lost touch with Grohl. “I was really away from music, I didn’t even have a guitar on a stand in my living room,” he recalls, “But Dave would play me or call me down to hear new music they’d recorded and that would really get me fired again. I remember with There Is Nothing Left To Lose, when I heard that album I thought, ‘Aah man, I can’t believe I’ve missed out on this one!’ To this day it is one of my favourites.” Shiflett feels his pain: “Tell me about it, man! If I’d joined the band three months earlier, I would have been on that one, too!” he adds.
“Pat coming back forever changed the band, really, we were never a four-piece again” – Chris Shiflett
Shiflett instead joined after recording had wrapped up on album three, and remembers being handed a cassette a few months before its release in an LA hotel bar after his second audition for the band. “We all got drunk and it felt like I’d got the gig, but I hadn’t been officially told that.
“Actually, one of the songs they sent me to learn for the audition was Aurora, which is off that record, so I guess that was the first thing I heard, and based on that I could tell they had made a different sounding record from The Colour And The Shape.”
Becoming a Foo Fighter was something of a culture shock for the Californian. “At the time I joined I was playing in No Use For A Name,” he explains, “We were a punk rock band. We made records and went on tour and all that sort of stuff and had a little fan base. But, you know, Foo Fighters is on such a bigger scale, even things like not having to carry your own amp at load-in is very different and amazing, and kind of hard to wrap your head around at times.
“But the beauty of it was that when I joined, we just hit the road right away. There was no time for contemplating anything: they told me I got the gig on Sunday, we played a show that Friday and left for tour on the Monday. And then we went to Europe, and the European part was insane. You know, in my band, I’d never heard the term ‘promo tour’, but it was like a masterclass in the Foo Fighters for me because I had nothing to offer in interviews. I hadn’t played on the album we were promoting. I had literally just joined the band. So, I just sat there day after day in hotel rooms and radio stations and playing TV shows and stuff with the band, just sort of listening to them talk about the band, you know, and getting to know everybody on the fly. And we went all over Europe and then we went down to Australia and it was just like, bam, bam, bam.”
Making a mark
After touring There Is Nothing Left To Lose, Shiflett returned ready to put his own mark on the next Foo Fighters record, only to walk into the most turbulent period in the band’s history.
Still on the outside, Smear remembers hearing an early version of One By One: “I heard the first version and I didn’t love it… and I guess they had the same reaction as they went and rerecorded it.”
On the inside, Shiflett was worried his dream was dying early. “That was a strange period, especially when you’re the new guy in the band. We did the Nothing Left To Lose tour cycle, which was great, but then at the end of that cycle Taylor OD’d on tour, which is no secret, and so there was the fallout from that and some tension between him and Dave. During that time Dave also played on the Queens Of The Stone Age record, then we made a Foo Fighters record that got shelved, which was an experience I’d never had before, then Dave went off to tour with QOTSA, so there was a period there, and it was long – six or eight months – of thinking, ‘Is this thing coming to a close?’ Where I thought, ‘Well, that was fun but it’s over!’ You know, it was very interesting and scary for me.
“There have been a lot of happy accidents in this band” – Pat Smear
“One By One was totally unlike any record I’ve made before, even with this group, but ultimately it worked and that record had All My Life and Times Like These, and then we toured our asses off and it all turned out fine.”
Looking back on the recording, Shiflett remembers: “The first Foos stuff I recorded I was still using a 1982 Les Paul that I got for my 15th birthday quite a lot, and when I joined the band Dave bought me a couple of guitars: a ’91 white Les Paul Custom that I used all through those years and still use a lot, and a white Explorer. Then somewhere along the way I bought a black ES-335 from Gibson and used it a lot, and definitely recorded with it.
“Amp-wise we were mostly playing through Mesa/Boogie’s back then, although Dave would have a few vintage boxes around we might use.”
Back on track, the band next made a double album, In Your Honour, including a second disc of acoustic recordings. Shiflett remembers being enthused by doing something different with the band, but it was the subsequent acoustic tour that proved to be a turning point. In search of a bigger sound to fill the concert halls they would be playing, Dave Grohl recruited string and percussion sections… and turned to an old friend.
“I was involved with my punk rock band at the time,” remembers Smear, “and we had a tour scheduled so I said why not come back to me when you do a greatest hits tour? It will make more sense that I’m there again for that.
“But Dave insisted and sent over the schedule for the Foo Fighters tour and not one date clashed, so after that I switched between playing crazy punk rock shows in tiny punk rock clubs, then hooking up with the Foo Fighters to play these gorgeous theatres. It was a lot of fun to have that experience of such extremes in one touring year. And after that I just never went away.”
“I look back at that time as a really big shift for the band,” adds Shiflett, “and not just because of the fact that Pat came back, but because from that point forward, the band was forever expanding, you know? Because then the touring that we did beyond that incorporated some acoustic, mellower stuff where we had, you know, cello and percussion and keys and Pat, so the band has never gone back to being a four-piece. I think that moment forever changed the band, really.”
“There was a six-to-eight-month period where I wondered if it was coming to a close” – Chris Shiflett
An original guitar player returning to a band to play alongside the guy who essentially replaced him has the potential to be more than a little awkward, but Smear and Shiflett are on the same page when it comes to remembering the transition.
“When I did the acoustic tour, I was sitting next to Chris, who I think I had probably met but didn’t really know at all,” says Smear, “But we had so much common ground, music we liked, boxing, guitars, that we became good friends very fast. We’re also very different guitar players, which is what you want when you’re in a three-guitar band, so I really enjoyed that first time together.
“After that it was good fun working out how we were both going to be in the band together.”
Shiflett recalls: “In the beginning we did spend a lot of time talking about and thinking about who’s going to do what and working out the parts just to not be all on top of each other. But we don’t do that so much now, we just naturally fall into playing different parts. I feel like with our band, Dave is the central guitar player and the stuff that Pat and I do builds off that, so you’re trying to figure out what’s going to work and what the song needs. And we have a lot of people on stage, so sometimes it makes sense to just not play anything because you don’t have to have the whole shebang from start to finish.
“As the old joke goes: Dynamics? I’m playing as loud as I can! I think that can apply to any three-guitar band.”
Smear’s first studio album back with the band was 2011’s Wasting Light, an album recorded analogue to tape by Butch Vig at Dave Grohl’s house. Vig recently told Guitar.com that he considers that album to be the most accurate studio representation of how Foo Fighters sound live. Both guitarists agree.
“It’s another of my favourites,” says Smear. “The process of recording that was very comfortable, I was happy recording to analogue, and being at Dave’s house was very comfortable, but I was really trying to find my spot in there as a guitar player, even though we had rehearsed those songs and knew them well.
“Sometimes I would play baritone, and I would say to our engineer, James Brown, ‘I don’t know what to play here because there are three of us: I don’t want to overpower but I don’t want to get lost either.’ And he would often come up with amp or pedal combinations that I would play and say that I didn’t like the sound at all. He would say, ‘Not alone you don’t, but now play along with the other two and see what you think…’. Then I’d be, like, now I get it. So, he taught me not to worry about whether I sounded good alone, but to think about what sounded good with the other two.”
“We love hanging out and making music together, why would we ever not do this?” – Pat Smear
Shiflett feels it is an album that gets close to what he loves best about his band. “I loved making that album,” he tells us, “And I loved that we were limited by tape. One of the things that I think our band has suffered from is too many options, and sometimes the songs get bogged down and we keep adding shit until we get it where we want. My own personal taste is the exact opposite of that, so the thing I love about Wasting Light is that as a guitar player you have one track on a song, and you have to build it out as best you can. That was fun.
“I always love the way our live demos sound, and always wish that was a little closer to the end result. It’s hard with modern techniques not to keep adding stuff, and there’s a place for that, but my personal taste is that I love the way our live demos sound because that’s what we sound like in a room, you know?”
Brothers in arms
They may have joined the band at different times under different circumstances, but both men admit it never crossed their minds at the time that they would be sitting here as members of a 25-year-old band at the close of 2020. Surely now, though, it must feel like Foo Fighters could go on forever?
“In a way, yeah,” says Smear, “it more feels like why would we ever not do this? We’re all best friends, we all love hanging out together and playing music together. During this year, when we had such a big stretch where we weren’t even allowed to be together, I can’t speak for everyone but I think we all felt kind of lost, you know? I want to get together with my boys and do that thing we do! So more than ever because of this year, and here I go speaking for everyone again when I have no right to, we all realise the band is even more important to us than we already thought it was.”
Shiflett agrees: “Dave always says it’s like your grandparents when they get too old to get divorced, well, we hit that point a while ago.
“But it’s like, when you finally achieve being a working musician and doing it for a living, it’s nothing like you imagined it to be when you were a kid. So, I think in the same way, when you’re 25, you can’t really imagine what it’s going to feel like to still be doing it at 50, and how our lives have changed so much. We’re all parents, husbands and have families. But now, being here, I can imagine it going on forever. Yeah, why not?”
Even if the young Shiflett couldn’t have seen where he’d be now, he probably still would have bought a ’57 Les Paul if he knew he was going to be in a big rock band, right?
“I think my younger self would have never imagined that that would be possible,” laughs Shiflett, “But would be very pleased with the purchase. No doubt.”
Medicine At Midnight is out 5 February on Roswell Records/RCA.