Foo Fighters: ‘When Dave Grohl runs out on stage it’s an act but it’s not’

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US rock band Foo Fighters are gearing up to headline Leeds Festival for the fourth time. Drummer Taylor Hawkins spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins is in a sunny mood. After “summering” in the California resort of Laguna Beach where he grew up, the 47-year-old is en route to band rehearsals in Los Angeles.

“We’ve got to get ready,” he says, “because we’re going to rock your world.”

In a week’s time the band will headline Leeds and Reading Festivals, an event where their sets, which have often stretched to three hours long, have become legendary. This will be their fourth appearance since 2002.

“It’s the one,” says Hawkins. “It’s where we finally kind of arrived at a certain level, before Wembley. I’ll remember headlining it in 2002 for the rest of my life because we’d overcome so much in the band, the strife and starting out at the corn exchanges and all those things, and getting to a point where we thought maybe one day we could be on at the four o’clock slot at Reading and Leeds, getting up near that headline spot. And Dave [Grohl] just wrote a couple more good songs and we did a couple more good shows and we got through some of our youthful bulls*** and upped our game.”

The drummer traditionally sings lead vocals on at least one cover version during their set, but as to which song they might do this time, Hawkins says it’ll be down to the spur of the moment. “We never know for sure. We’re pretty loose on a certain level. We try and get as tight as we can and then we get loose.

We’re really a band that believes rock ’n’ roll is, among many things, entertainment, and that doesn’t mean it’s not without meaning or it’s trite, but we also know that people love to hear songs that they know.

Taylor Hawkins

“We’ve kind of decided Under Pressure is our song as well, we actually stole Under Pressure from Queen, and I actually sing a couple of others as well. Obviously Queen is close to my heart and they always will be. There are so many English bands, to be honest, that are close to my heart, but Queen is definitely one of them. People get excited when you play one of their songs.”

Foo Fighters’ lead guitarist Chris Shiflett recently said he thought the secret of the band’s appeal was frontman Dave Groh’s ability “to make 80,000 people feel like they are his best friend”. Hawkins concurs. “I think that’s definitely one of the elements. I think Dave being a great frontman is numero uno as far as why people want to come and see us live, they want to go and have a beer with Dave Grohl – and that’s what they do, essentially they get their pint and they party with Dave for three hours.

“So yeah, I do think that is a major component. I also think having a solid catalogue of songs that people know. We actually do an album in its entirety sometimes but if we’re doing to do something like that we do it in the privacy of a small club. We would never go to Reading or Leeds and play our new album in its entirety because we’re not like that.

“We’re really a band that believes rock ’n’ roll is, among many things, entertainment, and that doesn’t mean it’s not without meaning or it’s trite, but we also know that people love to hear songs that they know – that’s why our shows are getting longer because we want to do that, we want to play the greatest hits, no question.

“We want everyone to hear the song they want to hear, but we also want to have some fun and jam and do a Queen song or a couple of the new ones and a couple of old ones every once in a while that we like to pull out of the hat.

“Dave tries to write a set that goes up and down as far as dynamics are concerned but he doesn’t want to see people bored either, I can tell you that, so we try really hard not to do that. But we also like to have an element of…I wouldn’t say we’re a jam band in the sense of the Grateful Dead or Phish or something like that, but we definitely like to stretch musically and leave things to chance. I also think that’s one of the appeals of our band live. So many bands now, even old bands, are starting to do this thing where they connect up with a computer so that they can sound perfect and we’re just not that band. We’ve always believed in the live experience – this is right out of the Queen handbook, the live experience is the live experience and the album is the album. Sometimes we do a lot of production on our records, we don’t need to reproduce that live with a bunch of computers.

“I really do feel that you can sense when a band is actually playing with that human element and they’re not connected to a bunch of computers. I think that’s the death of rock ’n’ roll sometimes. We’re one of those bands that just don’t do that. I see that hip-hop sort of has to have those elements but, having said that, I was watching Lil Wayne the other day on the internet and he’s got a really good live band. I believe that the live transaction between humans is really part of what makes the show.”

Foo Fighters’ last album, Concrete and Gold, came out two years ago. Hawkins is unsure exactly when a follow-up will be along but he says: “We want to do quality work. We’re not just going to make an album every three months just because we think every fart and burp should be recorded. We take a lot of time.

“That’s the thing about making a record with the Foo Fighters, there’s a long process to it that Dave puts himself through, it’s almost like training or something. Like the inception of the Foo Fighters he starts by himself, just like the first record. But now it’s become a bit of a collective as far as once he gets the songs to a certain put then he brings them in to the band and we start destroying them and then building them back up again, at which a producer gets involved – whoever Dave decides is the right person at the right time, whether it be Butch Vig or anyone else who’s ever produced us. I don’t know what that plan is but I know Dave’s got a lot of good riffs. All I know is his riffs and they sound like classic kickass Foo Fighter riffs so we’re all ready to begin but the process is a big one, we don’t just go and make a record really quick, we work on it for a while.

“That’s the great thing about the Foo Fighters live as well. Dave’s got all that intent and control. When we did the Sonic Highways record, to watch him literally hunker down and make a movie, interview a bunch of people, writing a song, make sure he likes the way it sounds, make sure he likes my drum performance, make sure he’s happy with this vocal performance. He was doing all that in a week at each sitting. He has the craziest ability to focus. A lot of the time he’s all over the place because he can be but I think live is another good release and oh my God, to play Reading and Leeds again, every time we headline it I get a little sad and think, ‘Well, what if this is the last time?’ Anything could happen.

“Even before I was in the band I remember being back in America watching MTV. I was on tour with Alanis Morrisette at the time, we were having a great time, trust me. I remember in a hotel room all sitting together watching this Foo Fighter riot at the tent at Reading and thinking, ‘Oh my God’. We loved them so much, they were my favourite band new band, I wore that record out upside down and backwards and sideways five times. So when I got the chance to be the drummer [in 1997] I was obviously more than willing and ready to join the fight, and have been ever since.

“I’ll tell you, watching that footage at Reading, they really explode, and Dave ascending to becoming an icon as a frontman, he’d already been one as a drummer in Nirvana, but to see that strength and that nonchalance as well, just by being himself as well. When Dave runs out on stage it’s an act but it’s not. Obviously there’s a lot of bravado and brassneck and all that stuff, I think Dave learned that from watching James Hetfield and Freddie Mercury and all of our favourites, but you don’t learn it, like music you pick up licks and I think that Dave maybe subconsciously picked up licks from all the greatest frontmen – be it Tom Petty, Freddie Mercury, Henry Rollins, HR from Bad Brains, Perry Farrell or be it Kurt Cobain. He took in all of that. I remember seeing that footage of them at Reading in that tent and going ‘Wow, he didn’t just made a great record, he’s a frontman for real’ and it made me want to be in the band even more.”

As a band, Foo Fighters have struck up a strong friendship with Leeds’s own Kaiser Chiefs. They’ve yet to have chance to see the sights of Leeds together but Hawkins says: “We did really create a friendship with the Kaiser Chiefs. Me and Dave heard I Predict a Riot on the same day separately and we both came into our practice room and said, ‘Did you hear that song that kind of sounds like Madness and a bunch of other stuff?’ ‘Yeah, I Predict a Riot, oh my God, it’s really good’. I think it wasn’t long after that they toured America with us for a pretty good long time and they were great guys. They’re just a good rock ’n’ roll band, they really play like a rock ’n’ roll band and every time we see them at a festival it’s always hugs and kisses and memory lane.”

Hawkins sounds genuinely disappointed to learn Liam Gallagher is not going to be playing at Leeds and Reading. “He’s got the voice, man. Some day him and Noel are going to hit their heads together. People are going to have to see Oasis again some day, it’s going to happen. They’re great on their own, Noel’s a brilliant songwriter, Liam’s got the voice, he’s just like a perfect cross between John Lennon and Johnny Lydon, right down the middle. I love him.”

Foo Fighters play at Leeds Festival on Friday August 23. www.leedsfestival.com