It was the feet that gave out first. Watching the secret Foo Fighters gig at Sydney’s Goat Island, their first set on Australian shores since 2008, my soles were starting to get real sore. It was then that I realised day had turned into night, and the band were still relentlessly powering along. Somewhere down the line, a small promo set had mutated into a monster three-hour marathon. “Three hours and four minutes,” clarifies bassist Nate Mendel when I meet him and bandmate Taylor Hawkins at their hotel a few days later. “That was actually the longest set we’ve ever played.” Their secret set the next night, at Sydney Uni’s Manning Bar, lasted for roughly the same amount of time – so how the hell do they do it? Seven albums and sixteen years in, The Foos are certainly not young guns anymore. Blonde drumming dynamo Hawkins likes to compare the band’s relentless performance regime to a workout: “It’s turning into a bit of a macho thing. You know: endurance. It’s sort of like getting shape and going to the gym, seeing how far you can push yourself,” he laughs. “You definitely reach a point where you start losing some of your facilities. But also you start breaking through walls – mental as well as physical.”
The training has certainly paid off; Foo Fighters are back in a big motherfucking way this year. This week they release new album Wasting Light, and in a few months their first feature documentary Back & Forth comesout, helmed by Oscar-winning director, James Moll. After that, they’re returning to Australia to blow the roof what frontman Dave Grohl affectionately labels our “super mega domes or whatever the fuck they’re called.”
The doco, Back & Forth, illustrates that downtime is not a luxury the Foo Fighters have had a lot of in their careers. It’s a revelatory gem of a film, as Moll probes each band member to find out just how intense it is being part of one of the world’s biggest rock and roll acts. “We’d do these crazy interviews in front of the camera that would last a really long time, and he’d just break us down to talk about things that normally we can skate over,” says Hawkins, whose London overdose in 2001 is discussed candidly for the first time, as well as his clashes with Grohl, when the frontman left the band to drum for Queens Of The Stone Age on Songs For The Deaf. “You’d give him [Moll] diplomatic answers and stuff, but he wouldn’t let you get away with it.”
Mendel, whose former band Sunny Day Real Estate features heavily when the film focuses on the early days of the group, agrees. “Instead of getting ‘How was it like to record with Butch Vig?’ it’s ‘How did you feel when William [Goldsmith] left the band?’”
Fans will be interested to learn that the Mendel is actually the only consistent member of the group, with guitarists and drummers leaving, entering and being excised through the band’s career. And though Taylor admits he finds it uncomfortable to watch, he concedes “the best documentaries are the ones where they get under the skin. Unfortunately, it was our skin this time.”
Back & Forth also gives an insight into how the band preferred to write songs for the new album, with most of the groundwork being done almost exclusively by Dave and Taylor first before demos are given to the rest of the group. “It’s just easier for him to visualise ideas quickly with me sitting at the drums,” explains Hawkins. “We can literally run something as fast as you can press record. With all due respect [to Nate] it’s different to being there and saying ‘now this is E Minor’ or whatever.
“Plus, he’s a drummer…. and I’m a drummer,” he shrugs. “So we have that kind of connection where we can sometimes talk sort of without talking!”
That’s a welcome change from when Dave and Taylor actually weren’t talking, as the band nearly imploded when Grohl left the group to play with Josh Homme’s group. One of the most difficult interviews of the film sees Taylor lashing out at Grohl for what he perceives to be insensitivity: ‘Dude, I just nearly died over in the UK and you want me to come see you play drums in your new band? No thanks.’
But before the new film comes the new album. Wasting Light is important for a number of reasons, not in the least because it marks the recording debut of the newly minted Foo Fighters five-piece. Original guitarist Pat Smear, ex-Germs and Nirvana, is back in the saddle after almost a decade, bringing the distortion and madness that defined the band’s earliest releases.
“I’m not an outgoing person,” says Mendel, “so I do like having Pat on my left side, because he’s doing his thing and everybody’s looking at him and I can just relax and play music.”
Certainly Smear, who features heavily in Back & Forth as the perennially chain-smoking, distortion-obsessed axeman who drops out of the band just as Hawkins enters, adds significant weight to the group. “It’s actually the best for Dave,” says Mendel, on being flanked by not one, but two crack guitarists. “There were a couple of times [on stage] where he’s just stopped playing guitar, and he can do that now.”
But having another instrument in the mix and playing ludicrously long shows definitely puts pressure on Grohl’s extraordinary pipes. The man is renowned for screaming his way through nearly every set, but Hawkins, who currently provides backing vocals almost every song in the band’s catalogue, says that’s not actually what Dave has to be careful of. “It’s not so much the screaming as the singing. The voice is an instrument like anything else, and you can train it to do certain things,” he explains.
“I think he [Grohl]’s got this thing where he knows how to do that without ruining his voice. It’s more songs like Best Of You, which are really at the top of his range, and he pushes really hard to get to. You can only do that so much – any singer – whether you’re fuckin’ Celine Dion or Tom Waits or Rihanna, it’s like a muscle.”
That particular muscle certainly does a lot of flexing on Wasting Light. Produced by Vig of Nervermind fame, the album was recorded entirely in Grohl’s Virginia garage – on tape.
It’s a move that allowed the band’s approach to be more elastic (“I’m writing stuff on the fly now, and I like it way better,” says Mendel), and shifted the emphasis away from studio gloss and back towards what made them love playing the first place.
With a bipolar history of going from the basement to the studio and back again, scrapping entire albums (One By One) and changing line-ups, the only thing Foo Fighters like to keep consistent is the quality of their output. “Obviously you want to have an interesting story for the record and the fans,” figures Mendel, “but you also want to keep the band interested and keep everyone on their toes. It’s constructed in a way, ‘How do we make it better and interesting and different?’”
It certainly shows; new songs like Rope and White Limo are some of the most relentlessly hard-hitting tunes the band have cut since the ‘90s. The latter’s music video, done in typically hilarious Foo style, is a tongue-in-cheek VHS-era clip that features booze, bad outfits, band members playing multiple characters and Lemmy from Motorhead driving said white limo.
It’s a telling sign, one which is repeatedly mentioned in the documentary, that far from winding down, Foo Fighters might actually be enjoying themselves for the first time in ages. “I just hope we can do it like this in the future,” says Hawkins, “there were times – like last record – where we really squeezed everything in, recording and touring, without ever giving ourselves any time to breathe or have fun with it!”
This renewed approach also comes off the back of a saner touring schedule, to coincide with the fact that most of the Foos are now also fathers. “We used to do four week, five week tours of Europe. Twice,” ruminates Hawkins. “Now we do maximum two or three weeks and then spend some time at home. It seems to work better for us better, as people.”
They’re also playing more intimate club gigs than ever before, “which is great, because it means we’ll be really fuckin’ hittin’ hard when we get to the stadiums.” The band now also rehearse for a week without Grohl, to get themselves super tight before heading out on the road. “We drilled ourselves without him, which meant he could sort of walk in to a readymade band. It wasn’t intended that way, it just sort of happened.”
So look out for Foo Fighters, they’re well oiled and ready to beat their previous record. Just make sure you stretch out those calves before you hit the pit.
FOO FIGHTERS’ stonker of a new album Wasting Light is out now through Sony. The band will tour later this year (apparently with Tenacious D!) – so keep an eye out in Beat and beat.com.au for info.