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Foo Fighters The “Foo Fighters, from left,” Chris Shiflett, Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Pat Smear, and Nate Mendel, stop by Fuse studios in New York for an appearance on “
The “Foo Fighters, from left,” Chris Shiflett, Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Pat Smear, and Nate Mendel, stop by Fuse studios in New York for an appearance on “"Hoppus On Music."
AMANDA SCHWAB / AP Enlarge
Published: Sunday, 4/24/2011

Foo Fighters get real on documentary, disc

BY GARY GRAFF
NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE

At the end of the new documentary Back and Forth, about the Foo Fighters, band founder Dave Grohl reveals his biggest regret about the whole thing.

"Honestly, had I taken this whole career thing seriously, I would have named it something else," Grohl says, "because it's the worst [ever] band name in the world."

Too late. Grohl and his fellow Foo Fighters are stuck with the name and, after 16 years, seven studio albums, 9.5 million records sold, and six Grammy awards, they aren't going to be changing it.

The band's success was, in fact, the inspiration for its new album, "Wasting Light," its first in four years.

"The way we were thinking was, after playing to 85,000 people in a stadium, what do we do now?," the 42-year-old Grohl recalls. "We make a huge rock record in a garage!"

He's sitting with his bandmates on the patio of a bucolic park in Austin the day after Back and Forth was premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival. That same night the Foo Fighters played a live concert, playing "Wasting Light" -- which really was recorded in the garage of his home in Encino, Calif. -- in its entirety.

"It's a pretty clean garage, though," drummer Taylor Hawkins says. "It's a garage connected to a mansion."

Grohl, who started Foo Fighters as a one-man project in 1994, after his tenure as the drummer in Nirvana, smiles slightly sheepishly.

"Yeah, it is in a mansion," he concedes. "But it's still just a garage. We made a couple records in the other studio that we own, and it's a state-of-the-art recording facility that other bands record in. But [the garage] seemed like the right place to make an album this time. To me this album is more about the experience, and it became a project."

After spending a couple years working outside the group -- Grohl started a new band, Them Crooked Vultures, with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme -- the reconvened Foo Fighters made "Wasting Light" with Butch Vig, who also produced Nirvana's breakthrough "Nevermind" (1991). It was recorded on analog tape rather than on digital computers, and it features guest appearances by former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and Bob Mould, a hero of Grohl's since his tenures with Husker Du and Sugar.

"When I look back at the making of the record," Grohl says, "I don't really think about it as this sterile recording process in the studio. I think about it as two or three months where we all lived together and worked together every day, and my children were there and became friends with the band. It was something more than your typical album-making process.

"And that was the intention, to do it in a way that we'd never done it, that would be special and that would have character, so it wouldn't sound like other things we'd done."

The old-school technology, he adds, only enhanced the powerful, in-your-face rock that has been the Foo Fighters' stock-in-trade since Grohl's first demos in the mid-1990s.

"Recording with analog, 24-track equipment, you get a lot more personality and imperfection," Grohl says. "With digital recording you have the option to make things perfect and you can manipulate them, and sometimes you suck the human element out of it. With tape, once you hit 'record,' it's really what it is. There's only so much you can do to correct things and make them sound better.

"So we were rehearsing these songs at our big studio, to make sure that we had them tight and ready to record once we got in the garage, and I think all of that rehearsal and all of that preparation made it sound like five people with instruments and songs instead of some massive sonic soundscape."

"In a weird way, and subconsciously maybe, it feels safer to go back to kind of how and why you did things in the first place," Hawkins says. "There's a certain safeness and comfort in that. It takes you out of that whole stadium thing, and you kind of get back to just being a rock-'n'-roll band, and that's good."

The "Wasting Light" sessions were chronicled for Back and Forth by documentarian James Moll, a fan who never had seen the Foo Fighters play live before he signed onto the project. The studio experience was "one of the perks of doing this film," Moll says, but he was careful to stay unobtrusive, using remote equipment and only one live cameraman while the Foo Fighters were working.

He sees the use of analog tape as reflecting the retrospective tone that characterizes both the film and the album.

"It follows along the lines of one of the themes we cover in the film," Moll says, "which is Nirvana and the fact that Dave is now, I believe, more open to talking about his experiences in Nirvana than he ever has been in the past. And inviting Krist Novoselic to play on the record and recording on analog tape and doing it old school brings it all full circle. It all makes sense."

Back and Forth begins with Kurt Cobain's suicide and the end of Nirvana. Grohl and guitarist Pat Smear, a former Nirvana member who is now in his second tour of duty as a Foo Fighter, both talk about the earlier band in greater depth then they ever had previously.

"It's not something you want to talk about all day, every day," Grohl says. "But in this case James was there for a reason and, I don't know how he did it, but he made you feel sort of safe in really confessing things that you may have never even faced or owned up to. You knew you had to give him something."

The end of Nirvana "is really where Foo Fighters begins," Moll says. "It was the biggest rock band in the world, he was the drummer, the band meets a tragic end and now he's at a crossroads. 'What am I going to do with my life?' If you were to write this as the screenplay for a scripted movie, if it was fiction, that's where you'd start."

Smear also had a difficult time resurrecting his memories of Nirvana, the director adds.

"It was hard for him," Moll says. "In fact, when he saw the film later, he said to me, 'I didn't realize I said that stuff.' But I'm glad he did. He was a very close witness to the things that happened with Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and that really adds to the story we're telling."

Moll also interviewed former Foo Fighters William Goldsmith and Franz Stahl about their acrimonious departures, and spoke with the current musicians -- Grohl, Hawkins, Smear, bassist Nate Mendel, and guitarist Chris Shiflett -- separately, so that no one knew what the others had said until actually seeing the film.

He insists that the band members never attempted to control or manipulate the content of his movie.

"They wanted me to make the film I wanted to make," Moll says. "Dave even said that to me: 'Yeah, this may be our story, but this is your film' ... And, frankly, I wouldn't have made the movie if they had told me that anything was off limits. Then it's not honest.

"They waited till it was done," he says. "I showed it to the whole band. There was a little bit of squirming in their seats, I think, and they said, 'There are moments that made us uncomfortable, but it's real. That's really the way it happened. Don't change a thing.'"

With "Wasting Light" out, the Foo Fighters are returning to the road, starting with a real "garage" tour for contest winners but continuing into a standard tour that will return the band to arenas and stadiums around the world. Nevertheless, Grohl says, he "can't wait to just go and play shows," putting the drama of making a movie and an album in the Foos' collective rearview mirror.

"To look at a schedule that's two years long ... kind of scares me," the singer says. "But we have a way of doing it. We try to keep things very simple and do it, as much as we can, without burning out. And, if it gets to the point where we don't enjoy it, we know that we have to break the glass in case of emergency and just stop and come back to it later.

"I think that's what's kept us around this long," Grohl concludes. "We know what we can and can't do and, as long as we remember that, we'll be OK."



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