Foo Fighters: Now a dad band
Ageing rockers happily swap partying for potty training and puberty talk, writes Bridget Jones.
Rock’n’roll has long been regarded as a boys’ club. Teenage lads starting garage bands, all sweaty, wild, primal, awkwardly hormonal. But at some point, things change. You grow up, you settle down, you mature, your band mates start talking about the perils of toilet training.
Spoiler alert: even modern-day rock legends like the Foo Fighters aren’t immune to the realities of middle-age and parenthood.
‘‘A lot of times, when we get together to play these days, it’s a little bit of a men’s club therapy session. We’re talking about potty training, or who’s kid is going through puberty or whatever it is,’’ the Foo’s bassist, Nate Mendel, says from his LA home. ‘‘We are like our own little parenting group at this point.’’
A dad-of-two, Mendel says away from the hype of being one of the biggest bands in the world and the excitement of releasing their ninth studio album, Concrete and Gold, there’s the familiar feeling of being a working dad who wants to do right by his family.
‘‘Kids literally do ground you – you’ve got this responsibility and you have to figure out how to be a rock band, which is by definition, something that’s not particularly grounded and still be a dedicated father.
‘‘It’s kind of tricky, but it makes it more fun. It adds to the experience when you’ve done it for this long to throw that in the mix; how are we going to maintain our family lives and maintain our creative lives at the same time?’’
After 20-plus years, 11 Grammys and record sales of more than 25 million, it’s a lesson the band is learning together. But it’s a world away from what Mendel was focused on as a 13-year-old with a new bass guitar.
‘‘I just wanted to go on tour – I was always the logistics guy of the band, which is a role that falls on bass players a lot. So, in high school I sold drugs to buy a van so that we could go on tour,’’ he admits. ‘‘And then I quit selling drugs.’’
Mendel, along with two of his band mates – frontman Dave Grohl and guitarist Pat Smear – grew up playing in punk bands and living up to the DIY-mindset they prize. He never really studied his craft, instead putting his energy into planning tours, making album art and figuring out how to get people to listen.
‘‘I kind of got sideswiped by the success of the Foo Fighters. I certainly never planned to be here. I’m happy I am, but because I saw myself as more of an integral part of this project – of making a band – I never saw myself first and foremost as a musician.
‘‘Taylor [Hawkins, drummer] and Chris [Shiflett, guitarist], they studied their instruments when they were younger. They had a lot of respect and reverence for successful bands and wanted to be in successful bands themselves. But for me, I looked at it as getting together with my friends and doing something fun. I never thought about doing it when I was 48. That never crossed my mind for a second.’’
Aside from Grohl, Mendel is the longest-serving member of the band. He had previously played in Sunny Day Real Estate, before joining the Foo Fighters in 1995. He also launched Lieutenant, a solo project, in 2015 – ‘‘I wasn’t amazing at it. It was my first time out though’’.
And while music trends, side projects and band members may have come and gone, the way the Foos make music has more or less gone unchanged over the past 20 years.
‘‘There are differences [in how we approach making an album], but more than that, there is a consistency in a way things have been done.
‘‘We’ll go out and tour, run through a bunch of shows, then get antsy and Dave will have already started writing and thinking about what’s going to be on the next record.’’
The way it goes, the band will spend some time apart, while Grohl nuts out the songs, and then, Mendel says, comes the cry to rally the troops and start work. And what’s it like when the phone rings?
‘‘It’s a two-year process, and we’ve done it enough times now to know what’s involved. It’s exciting but it’s also daunting. So you take a deep breath and ask yourself, ‘Am I ready?’. Then you make sure everything is buttoned up at home and brace yourself for the hurricane, because there’s going to be high water.’’
This time, the band had company in hurricane season, albeit a little unexpected.
At the helm was the man who wrote songs for the movie adaptation of the musical, Annie, and produced killer pop hits from Kelly Clarkson, Pink and Adele’s comeback hit, Hello.
Greg Kurstin was a left-field choice to produce Concrete and Gold, but Mendel says it came down to a natural change and curiosity after all these years together.
‘‘It’s not like we were pushed to do something different, because we are kind of set in our ways. It was more like we were ready to try something different, so let’s bring in someone new, with a whole different set of experiences and see what happens.’’ It didn’t lead them down a path of pure power pop, in fact the band say this is their biggest sounding album to date. Even as the elder statesmen of rock, there’s still life in the old dogs yet.
‘‘In a rock band, you’re trying to make things more powerful a lot of the time – how do we get impact? A lot of the time it’s stacking guitars, but this time it was stacking vocals – there are Beach Boys’ harmonies grafted onto a lot of the songs. So it’s a little bit of a different record for us. But it’s not a wild departure.’’
Added to the unusual rock recipe, Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman helped with some choral arrangements, The Kills’ Alison Mosshart sang backing vocals – as did Justin Timberlake. They even managed to convince Paul McCartney to take a seat behind the drum kit for one song on the album, which was a big moment for Mendel as a bass player and music-lover.
‘‘Within moments, he’s just a friend who’s making music and it’s so special and cool – it could easily be something so intimidating and terrifying that you couldn’t enjoy the moment. But he helps dispel that,’’ Mendel says of the band’s time in the studio with The Beatle.
You’d think months of planning and co-ordination would go into locking in so many big names, but it turns out these things are more about who you happen to bump into in the hallway of the recording studio.
‘‘Then, one thing leads to another, and they’re on your record,’’ Mendel says. Sounds simple.
While it’s fun to try something different, the way the band works – and has done for two decades – means that even the most unusual of musical mates doesn’t change the end result all that much.
‘‘I think it would really be fresh if [the collaborations] were a songwriting thing, to collaborate with somebody from scratch,’’ Mendel admits. So far though, that’s still Grohl’s baby.
‘‘When we have people in to guest, that adds icing on the cake. So it’s more like ribbons on the present, than it is the contents of the box.’’
Will the Foo Fighters ever shake things up so dramatically the contents of that box are unrecognisable? Like some sort of mad mid-life crisis in musical form?
‘‘There’s a rich history of rock bands, when they reach a certain point in their career, deciding to go some place exotic and record without a bunch of songs already in the bank. I think that path has been tried – I just don’t know if we’re going to go down it.’’
So sensible. So grown-up. So rock’n’roll.
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