When Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel picks up the receiver, he’s in Austin. Later that night in the Texan capital, the Foos would be joined onstage by bluesman Gary Clark Jr. This wasn’t a random pairing in a random town. Clark Jr. and Austin are integral features of Foo Fighters’ new Sonic Highways project.
We’re sure you’re all over the Foo Fighters’ eighth album, Sonic Highways, and the corresponding HBO series of the same name. But, just in case, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.
Late last year, Foo Fighters set out across the United States to make their eighth studio album. Each of the eight tracks on Sonic Highways was recorded in a different studio in a different city.
Their mission was simple: Foos would record with and relay the stories of the musicians that best exemplified each city’s sound, be it blues in Chicago or jazz in New Orleans. Sonic Highways, the episodic documentary, chronicles Foo Fighters on their country-wide adventure.
As Mendel tells it, the band had very real doubts they could accomplish such an ambitious expedition. “I thought it was a cool idea, but I didn’t really understand how we were gonna pull it off. I don’t think anybody did.”
It might be easy to see the undertaking as an average day’s work for the band, now one of the biggest touring acts on the planet. They recently played a week-long residency on The Late Show With David Letterman. Last year frontman Dave Grohl, gave us the Sound City film and assembled the Sound City All-Stars from some of the biggest names in rock.
“Dave just had the idea… We went, ‘Great. OK. Here’s a catalogue of questions on how this is going to work.’” Evidently they figured it out.
Listen: Foo Fighters – Congregation
Mendel says Sonic Highways was a long time in the planning, and necessarily so. “It’s probably the most well-rehearsed record that we’ve ever done. We only had a week in each city and we didn’t have the opportunity to record it and then rethink it and do them over, which is usually what happens.”
Despite the extended rehearsal period Mendel describes the new album as one of the Foos’ less structured records. Like their live shows, which he says are shifting from a strictly orchestrated set to something more fluid that allows the band to “fuck around”, Sonic Highways is the sound of the Foos throwing out the rule book.
“I don’t know if our listeners will be able to listen to the record and pick that out, like fully as a looser record than the one before.
“It was more of the way it was put together… With Dave having essentially two jobs to do — being out in the cities, doing the interviews and essentially being a reporter — there was less time for him to be in the studio.”
A Grohl spread thin might actually be the best kind of Grohl, though. “I’ve never worked with anyone like Dave that is so prolific and really kind of a workaholic,” Mendel says. “He ends up doing his best work when he’s kind of on the run … Kinda constantly leapfrogging ideas.”
The other four Foos were, of course, swept along in their fearless leader’s wake. They didn’t even decide which artists would guest on the LP until the last moment, bringing an element of surprise to the recording process. We begin to think perhaps it’s not just Grohl that thrives on the challenge of the unknown. Mendel concurs.
“As you get older, record by record, I think maybe making records becomes a little bit more easy, but finding a reason to make a record becomes a little bit trickier. You’ve got to turn the formula on its head once in a while, otherwise you’re gonna find yourself searching around for reasons to still be a band.”
Listen: Foo Fighters – What Did I Do? / God as My Witness
Despite the geographical scope of the project, they didn’t have to go too far to look for more reasons to be a band. The chance to work with a range of talented artists seemed like more than enough. A highlight for Mendel was recording with “rebel, bad-ass guitar player” Joe Walsh, of Eagles fame, at Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree.
It was in the bassist’s home city of Seattle at Robert Lang Studios, the site where Grohl recorded the demos which would spawn Foo Fighters’ first album 20 years ago, where the band took their most unexpected turn, working alongside Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service main man Ben Gibbard on Subterranean.
“He was kind of an odd choice, I felt. It was Dave’s idea to have him play on the song and I was really surprised at that. It’s not really Dave’s type of music. He likes sort of heavier rock, and those classic rock guys … so I thought that was cool, a bit different for us.”
Another unusual choice from Grohl was to piece together the album’s lyrics from the interviews he conducted. But this challenge may not have been as self-made as it seems. Mendel thinks using other people’s words to tell their tales on Sonic Highways is a natural reaction to the band becoming increasingly accessible in recent years.
“I was definitely concerned that there wasn’t, at least at this stage, a lot of story left to tell. So I think that fixing on the roots of these cities and how the music developed and how the individual studios came up, in their respective cities, that was the way to tell the story of this album. And then maybe have the role of our band within that be more a minor role.”
So, we ask, which song on Sonic Highways best tells the story of the city it was recorded in?
“Something From Nothing I think maybe is the most direct,” says Mendel. “Watch the episode on Chicago and hear about the birth of the blues there and … that kind of blue collar, make-it-up-for-yourself, survive-on-your-wits kind of mentality to it. I think the Something From Nothing lyrics, right down to the title, encapsulates it pretty beautifully.”
For Mendel the increased exposure of the band’s inner working will hopefully allow them to one day return to the norm, without it being too mundane. Until then, he and the rest of Foos are up for whatever challenges they can imagine.
“I think we’re gonna be doing things differently for a little while. Experimenting and trying to get out of our studio and out into the world to try some different things,” he reveals. “And then that will allow us at some point in the future too, to make a record in a more conventional way and actually have that be more unique.”
So does anything really seem impossible for Foo Fighters now? “Wait till you hear the idea for the next record,” Mendel laughs. “It’s pretty impossible. But we’ll figure it out.”
Foo Fighters’ new album Sonic Highways is out now. The band will tour Australia with Rise Against in 2015. Full tour details below.
Watch: Foo Fighters – Something From Nothing
Foo Fighters Australia & New Zealand Tour Dates
General public tickets on sale from Thursday 13th November, 10am local time (Australian shows) / 12noon NZDT (New Zealand shows)
Wednesday, 18th February 2015
AMI Stadium, Christchurch (All Ages)
Saturday, 21st February 2015
Mt. Smart Stadium, Auckland (All Ages)
Tuesday, 24th February 2015
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane (All Ages)
Thursday, 26th February 2015
ANZ Stadium, Sydney (All Ages)
Saturday, 28th February 2015
Etihad Stadium, Melbourne (All Ages)
Monday, 2nd March 2015
Derwent Entertainment Centre, Hobart (All Ages)
Wednesday, 4th March 2015
Coopers Stadium, Adelaide (All Ages)
Saturday, 7th March
nib Stadium, Perth (All Ages)