“IT WAS THE FOO FIGHTERS’ 25TH ANNIVERSARY, SO IT was going to be a big year,” he says. “We thought, it’d be great to make an album, our 10th studio album, and I started planning around that — ‘Let’s circle the planet! Let’s release this documentary thing that we’ve made! Let’s do these van tours! We’ll play the same cities 25 years to the date that we did on our first-ever tour… and in the same van we did the tour in!’ Just all this shit, you know? Basically coming up with this world-domination-celebration thing.”
Spoiler alert: 2020 did not work out the way anyone — Grohl and the Foo Fighters included — had planned. Which is why the singer and guitarist, rather than telling this story to Guitar World from the back of a beat-up van in some far-flung locale (that van tour, scheduled to begin last April, was cancelled as the world went into COVID-19 shutdown) is, like everyone else, at home, talking about his aborted world domination plot over — what else? — Zoom.
And when our narrative is enriched with brand new anecdotes courtesy of Dave’s Foo Fighters coguitarist, Chris Shiflett? That interview takes place over Zoom as well, with Shiflett safely confined in his home.
The final piece of the Foos guitar triumvirate, Pat Smear, meanwhile, is clearly not taking any chances. He speaks with GW via a crackly cellphone connection from the east coast of Canada, where he’s holed up, he reports, “in the snow in a little cabin deep in the woods, with no mail delivery or garbage pickup.”
“He’s turned into a Canadian frontiersman,” Shiflett says with a laugh.
2020, to say the least, was weird.
But while the Foos didn’t get to spend the year circling the planet delighting fans, they did manage to get some real work done. For starters, Grohl finished his documentary, What Drives Us, which finds him exploring the psychology behind why musicians drop everything to spend their lives traveling in, yes, a van, to bring their music to people. And the Foo Fighters — which is rounded out by drummer Taylor Hawkins, bassist Nate Mendel and keyboardist Rami Jaffee — recorded that celebratory 10th studio album. It’s called Medicine at Midnight, and it’s a killer.
It’s also unlike anything you’ve heard from the band before. Sure, there are all the Foos trademarks — indelible riff-rockers (“Cloudspotter,” “Holding Poison”), tightly coiled ragers (“No Son of Mine”), soaring ballads (“Waiting on a War”) and hooks (“Making a Fire”) upon hooks (“Medicine at Midnight”) upon hooks (“Love Dies Young”). But there’s also something else going on: an adherence to groove and atmosphere — and a very particular sort of early-Eighties-pop-rock new-wave-dance groove and atmosphere — that lays out a fresh sonic and stylistic launching pad for these songs. You hear it in the slinky, heavily syncopated rhythms of the album’s first single, “Shame Shame,” and you hear it even more in the bubbly, synthy riffs that power “Love Dies Young.” And you hear it maybe the most in the sultry, heated funk of the title track, which nods heavily to David Bowie’s 1983 pop-exotica classic “Let’s Dance” in sound and style — and even the guitar solo, which finds Shiflett paying tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s bluesy work in the Bowie original.
“I’m sort of aping Albert King through the lens of Stevie Ray,” Shiflett says of his lead work on “Medicine at Midnight.” “I even said to our producer, Greg Kurstin, ‘We might want to mix these licks up a bit, because it’s really a homage.” He laughs. “But, hey, that’s rock ‘n’ roll!”
Shiflett approached the “Medicine at Midnight” solo not only from a unique perspective playing-wise, but also in his choice of guitar. “The Foo Fighters are generally a humbucker kind of group,” he says. “I remember a few years ago I showed up at something we were doing with a Strat and Dave looked at me and said, ‘Now there’s something I never thought I’d see in my band!’ Because we don’t really do the single-coil thing. But for ‘Medicine at Midnight’ that’s where we wanted to go. So I grabbed one of my Strats and worked out the solo stuff and it was really fun. And I love that about our band — that we still have these moments of getting to jump into things we’ve never tried before.”
Grohl lays it out in more general terms. “After 25 years, and now we’re making our 10th record, I wanted to be sure we didn’t make ‘Learn to Fly’ again. Or ‘Best of You’ again. Or ‘My Hero” again. We’ve done those already. If we want to be a band for another 25 years, then we have to be able to find something new. So the greatest reference I had for this record was everything we’ve done in the past. And it was, ‘Let’s not do that.’ ”
Or, as Smear puts it, “We just said, ‘Fuck it, let’s get weird on this one.’ ”
That weirdness began, in a way, much like past Foo Fighters records have begun — although that process is somewhat weird in and of itself. After coming off a 16-month world tour in support of their 2017 album, Concrete and Gold, the idea was, as it often is with the Foo Fighters, to take a break. “We kind of work this cycle where we’ll go into the studio and make a record, then we run around playing clubs and doing promo for a couple of months, and then we release the record and tour for a year and a half,” Grohl says. “By the time we’re finished with that cycle, we’re all exhausted and we promise ourselves we’ll never put each other through that fucking hell ever again.” He laughs. “I say it every fucking time. You should ask my wife. She’s like, ‘I hear it every time — I’m exhausted. I’m never doing this again. This is the last record, blah, blah, blah.’ ”
“We always claim we’re going to take this break and then… we miss it,” Smear says. “We miss each other, we miss making music together.”
“So within two and a half weeks, I’m demoing shit and sending it to the band,” Grohl continues.
Smear concurs. “It’s never more than a few months after we’re home that we’ll get a group text from Dave saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been writing songs…’ Then it’s on.”
The Foos began recording Medicine at Midnight before the pandemic hit. But whereas in the past they’ve tracked at various facilities, including the band’s own Studio 606 and, for Concrete and Gold, EastWest, located in the heart of Hollywood, this time they took a different approach, taking up residence in a 1940s-era home in Encino, California, not far from Grohl’s own house.
“The weird thing is, I actually lived in that house 10 years ago,” Grohl says. “I was going through a remodel at the time and needed a place close by to move into while my house was completely bulldozed. This place looks kind of like an old mansion, with these big iron gates out front. It sounds beautiful, but really it’s a dilapidated, rundown, spooky old house in the middle of Encino. Amazing neighborhood, though — you can jump some fences and go be in Slash’s yard, or walk six houses up and there’s Steve Vai’s place. Within, like, 75 yards, there’s all this guitar hero wizardry. It’s insane.”
As for how the non-traditional environment affected the recording process, Shiflett says, “it was a really different vibe than Concrete and Gold. That record was made at a beautiful, classic studio with multiple rooms, so you have that thing where, you know, one day you walk in and Lady Gaga is sitting on the couch in the lounge or whatever. But this time, because you’re in a house, you remove all the sort of Hollywood entertainment elements of it. Which was great. You’d show up in the morning and, depending on where we were in the recording process, you might be working or you might just be hanging out in the kitchen, drinking coffee and shooting the shit. It was real laid back.”
But if the band members themselves were relaxed, the house itself had a fair amount of activity happening. “I started demoing things there by myself around June of 2019, and it felt creepy,” Grohl says. “But I thought, well, you can creep yourself out if you’re alone in an old house at night recording rock songs. But then as we moved in, weird little things would happen here and there, whether it was guitars being detuned, settings moving around on the board or shit happening in the Pro Tools session that wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“It was a bit of an oddball house,” Shiflett acknowledges. “It has that look that’s sort of like it’s being reclaimed by the mountainside, and everything’s cracked and the pool is nasty and there’s vines everywhere. It had a vibe.”
“Beyond that, there was this feeling that you were either being followed or being watched all the time,” Grohl goes on. “And when more than one person is feeling that way but they don’t tell each other, and then all of a sudden everyone starts confessing, ‘Oh, this room in the house? This room is fucked up.’ Or, ‘That stairway? That stairway’s fucked up.’ When it all starts coming out you’re just like, ‘Oh my God…’ ”
Even Smear, who asserts that he “doesn’t really believe in magic and that kind of stuff,” admits, when pressed, that “there was a lot of odd and creepy goings-on happening.”
“So we recorded nine songs and got the fuck outta there!” Grohl says with a laugh.
In fact, at just nine songs and 37 minutes, Medicine at Midnight is the Foo Fighters’ most concise full-length to date. But not because they were trying to flee from supernatural forces. Rather, Grohl says, “we intended on making a record that was short and sweet, because it’s inspired by a certain type of album that we all loved when we were young. Like an Eighties Bowie record — tight, full of grooves, lots of melodies, that’s it. Let’s go.”
While the band ultimately traveled a very specific stylistic road, that intention wasn’t set in stone right from the beginning. “There were a few things that got recorded that didn’t see the light of day,” Shiflett confirms.
“It was a bunch of songs and they were all great and they were all very ‘Foo Fighters,’ ” Smear says. But then, he continues, “we did ‘Shame Shame,’ and that just changed the direction of the whole process.”
Indeed, “Shame Shame,” built on a stark, repeating five-note figure that is adorned with handclaps, keyboard accents and other sonic ephemera, is among the biggest stylistic departures on Medicine at Midnight, and maybe even within the entire Foo Fighters catalog.
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