Rock & Roll & Life & Death: An Interview with Taylor Hawkins
After taking on drumming duties for one of modern times’ most successful rock bands -- Foo Fighters -- and helping to establish them as a must-see live act, you could say Taylor Hawkins is ready to prove that he’s more than just a drummer. Cue his band, Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders
Taylor Hawkins plays drums like a man possessed. The question is possessed by what? Is it some inner demon testing his limits and propelling him to push himself further? Is it the energy of a higher source shining down through him? Is it the simple joy and rush of just playing? The answer is that it's more than likely all of the above. Either way, when Taylor plays he always appears to be out to prove something.
After taking on drumming duties for one of modern times' most successful rock bands -- Foo Fighters -- and helping to establish them as a must-see live act, you could say he's ready to prove that he's more than just a drummer. Cue his band, Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders which he formed back in 2006 with Chris Chaney on bass and Gannin Arnold on guitar. The trio's self-titled debut was a decidedly independent and stripped-down effort rooted in ‘70s classic rock that was a far cry from the anthemic rock hits produced at Taylor's day job. Since then his band has been earning kudos for their organic rock sound and recently released their ambitious follow-up, Red Light Fever.
Taylor is lively and outspoken as he talks to PopMatters about not getting worried over perceptions that he's “ripping off” the classics; his disdain for over-produced rock; his continuing struggle with self-confidence as a drummer; his response to MGMT turning down the chance to open for Foo Fighters; and playing like every night might be his last.
There is a brilliant line in your bio where you state that you don't care if the current record sounds like you're having sex with your record collection. That line hints at the fact that on the record there's a sense of paying homage. So how did you strike the balance between homage and your putting forth your own originality?
I didn't think about it to be honest. I didn't go in to make homage. I went to make the exact record that I wanted to make. I sent some tracks to Roger Taylor and Brian May to do bits on it. Brian did guitar and vocals and got Roger to sing on the songs. After they did that stuff I got led in that direction and started stacking vocals and harmonies on everything. At one point I almost decided I was gonna pull back. Then the next day I realized that I have to just have as much fun as I can. Making the record is an expression of me enjoying myself and doing whatever I want to do. If that means I'm paying homage or ripping people off it's out of respect and love. I know I'm not reinventing the wheel. I just wanted to make a fun record and have fun.
You've spoken before about the need for there to be a certain energy level in the room to foster creativity. So what type of energy was in the room for this album? Was it all pretty fun and loose?
The energy was fun and great and always a blast. I think about when Chris Chaney came in to do the bass tracks and he did them all in one day. There was so much energy and goofing around and jumping around the room. When I did background vocals to get my pitch high it was silly and super duper fun. That's the whole concept of the record.
I know that Foo Fighters are not a complete democracy and that Dave makes final decisions. So do you manage your band in the same way?
It's similar and the funny thing is me and Dave started working on demos for the new Foo Fighters record and we discussed it. The thing is it always depends how a band writes songs. For the Coattail Riders, I write the tunes and the others give me their suggestions but they come and put their stamp on it. As a songwriter you know how you want things to go. At the same time you have to leave something open for suggestions ‘cause that's what makes things more interesting and not just one dimensional.
I read that you were a fan of U2's older, more under-produced catalog. Your band has that similar under-produced quality. So is that deliberate way of adding a more human quality to some of the more over produced slick stuff on mainstream radio?
Yeah, in the studio you can auto tune vocals and with drums you can put them on a grid and make them perfect. I hate that sound. When someone hands me a record and the drums are perfectly gridded and the vocals are perfectly auto tuned I throw it out the window. I have no interest in rock music being like that. If it's dance, well, then I expect a Britney Spears record to sound like that but I don't want my rock and roll to sound like that. It's not real to me. Rock is about honesty and rawness and it should be there. I don't have perfect pitch. My drums sound like a drummer not a drum machine.
Do you think there is a connection between that perfectly produced sound and the obsession for perfection as seen in so many other areas in society? I mean so many more people are going plastic surgery to attain perfection.
I think things are so glossy and fake right now. If I really wanted this record to be a huge success I would be filming a reality show to go with it the whole time. There is a lot of plastic in this world right now and fake nonsense. I was talking to our engineer and he was telling me that some kids came into the studio to do demos and they wanted everything to sound completely perfect and have it on Pro Tools. They think that's how it should sound and that's a scary thing to me. I'm glad you picked up on the fact that this record is organic.
Rolling Stone recently had a “State of Rock” piece where journalist Dan Fiske pretty much stated that rock is not dead. He stated that the good rock music is out there. Do you agree?
Rock will never be dead for me. Do I like a lot of what I hear on rock music radio? No not for the most part. I'm not a fan of the regurgitated Pearl Jam and Nickelback crap that's the biggest thing in the Midwest. There isn't that big of a market for rock anymore. Every once in a while something happens and you like it. For the most part popular music is boring and crappy now. But there has got to be a genius or Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon to clean the slate and remind everybody how important rock and roll really is. I have faith in that I really do.
I read that you were once inspired by how Queen's “We Will Rock You,” matched the film “King Kong.” So do you feel like the most affecting music is something that conjures up an image?
Yeah, memory is in music and it's everything like the air I breathe. I am completely obsessed. There is always music in my house. The different between this record and the first record is that the cover of that was black and white and this album is colorful. It's orange and blue. Without thinking about it that became the visuals of this record and this record has more color.
I know that as a drummer you had to build lots of confidence when taking that position with Foo Fighters. So do you still have moments of self-doubt?
Absolutely, there are still moments but at the same time I let things go a little bit easier. I move on and don't let things affect me too much. I try not to ‘cause that can kill you in the end.
As a singer do you have the same self-confidence issues?
No, as a singer I know I am limited and don't expect much from myself. I know I'm not Freddie Mercury or Ann Wilson and that's okay. You don't have to be a great singer to sing rock and roll. That's not what it's about.
It sounds like the confidence issue from drumming stems from the fact that you know you have so much more potential.
I know my limits with drumming too. I'm not the greatest that ever walked the planet by any stretch but I know I'm good for Foo Fighters and helping push them in a live sense. I know that one way or another we will always be good live because we can get on stage and play. It's hard for me to comment too much about it.
With the state of music it seems that already established artists have a better chance of sustaining success. For smaller bands coming up they really have to invest in themselves first before a label backs them. What is your perspective being that you experience both ends of the spectrum?
I don't know because it's changing so much. My perspective is that Foo Fighters have been blessed and been around for 15 years. We came up at a time when the record industry was different and it was more realistic to have success. Foo Fighters are most successful in England and Australia. Americans perceive us to be this huge band here and we are successful comparatively to some bands, but we are not quite as big as people think we are here. I consider success so different for each thing. I think that all I ever wanted for the Coattail Riders was to have it be a situation where we can go on tour and have people there so we wouldn't go broke. With Foo Fighters I wouldn't care in a way if we became less successful. To have any career in this business is tough. So we are lucky to have any career. So if it's 20 or 3,000 people I've already made way more money than I should have.
MGMT revealed that they turned down an opening act slot for the Foo Fighters since they don't want to be pop stars. So do you applaud that or look at is as missing a big opportunity?
I don't remember offering them shows. They did open once for us in Canada at a festival so ha! I don't see it either way or care either way. Some bands don't want to open for others and want their own shows. So whatever works for you. Foo Fighters opened for a lot of people along the way and that worked out fine for us. I like MGMT's first record. I haven't heard the second one but playing is playing. You go and play.
Do you approach your live shows with this band the same as you do with the Foo Fighters?
Well I sing from behind the drums so I'm working twice as hard. I do approach it the same. My approach on stage is always like life or death. Each time I get on stage this could be my last show and that's how I feel when I get on stage.
Do you have any details on the next Foo Fighters record?
I don't really have any details. It will be a little bit heavier. I don't know how straight ahead but it will be more of a rock record.