Foo Fighters’ Nate Mendel on Dave, Sonic Highways and the Holy Shits

It’s midday on a warm Saturday and I’m shivering in my boots, about to talk to the bassist from one of my favourite rock bands of all time.

Nate Mendel from Foo Fighters is on the line and I begin with a high-pitched “Hi?” as if I’ve never used a telephone before. I try to be composed as my questions, printed out in size 16 font before me begin to blur into a garbled mess of Greek.

He’s as calm as a beach in Mauritius. He’s talking to me from London, where they’ve just played a few shows.

Mendel says they’re not as popular in the United States as in the United Kingdom and other places and being famous is not something they talk about. “I think it’s an image thing as a bass player; as being a quieter member of the band without a microphone.”

He says for him, it’s not about being famous or in one of the biggest rock bands of all time, but rather sitting back and watching the other people in the band develop.

He laughs and says: “Dave [Grohl] is the dominant one and he took the band in the right direction. We’ve taken up all the challenges presented to us. We don’t fall back on convention.” He says if the band has an opportunity, they take it, and that’s how they got to where they are now.

“It’s essentially Dave’s band,” Mendel says. “Front and centre. I think everyone knows that. He’s the idea generator.”

He chuckles, adding that not many people know the other band members’ names.

Foo Fighters is made up of the legendary Dave Grohl, former drummer of ‘90s grunge band Nirvana, Mendel on bass, Pat Smear , who was also touring guitarist for Nirvana, on guitar, Taylor Hawkins on drums and Chris Shiflett on lead guitar.

The 46-year-old bassist, who initially started music with the violin, got into rock at age 13. He taught himself to play the bass, and in a “20-year detour into Punk”, he had limited knowledge of the instrument. As he learnt, he played with a few bands that eventually faded away, ending up with Sunny Day Real Estate before being invited to join Foo Fighters.

Twisting and turning
Mendel says he never thought he would be a star. “I first heard the first [Foo Fighters] record when I was on tour with another band I was in that was about to dissolve and I thought it was cool and I liked the music a lot, but I saw how it could be different and envisioned this other kind of band Foo could become.

“We did become that band, but it took a while and there were a lot of twists and turns on the way and it almost broke us up a couple of times. It hasn’t been a super easy road. And we weren’t that great at the beginning.

“Dave had some good songs but he was new to singing and playing guitar in front of an audience and had hired a scrappy group of musicians who had a lot to learn, and the idea that we’d be where we’re at right now? Playing at a stadium in South Africa? I wouldn’t have thought that at all.”

Mendel is articulate and doesn’t garble his words. A regular contributor to the Foo Fighters’ blog, he is very much in touch with the fans.

He is also known for his treatment of the bass as a melodic instrument, and says his purpose in Foo Fighters is to support Dave’s guitar and vocals, and the band’s style has pretty much stayed the same.

“There was a period, I’d say, around In Your Honor and Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace, where that was really us trying new stuff. That’s as far field as I think we’re prepared to go – adding different instrumentation and trying arrangements that are a bit pop-oriented and a little more complex.

“Some of it has carried over to the way we are now, but I think we have a firm identity as a band and we’re very careful to preserve that. You know, try things, experiment, but maybe not as much as Frank Zappa would.”

He says the band has become better musicians. “Dave’s more comfortable as a lyricist so I think he can put some depth of feeling and thought into his lyrics now as opposed to previously, where he felt he needed to be obscure about it.

“We’re not afraid of maybe having a horn section. There are no hard and fast rules and how we record has evolved. We used to go into the studio and record what we had and whatever was thrown at us.

“But then we became very particular about making the music very precise using all the computer tools we had to make a really polished sounding record and now, we’re swinging in the other diction and making it sound more like we sound when we play live or in a practice space.

He says Grohl will say: “Let’s not edit”, or “Let’s record on tape.”

“I can see the next album or two will be recording purely live. It’s what bands did up till the ‘80s where multitracking happened and they played until it’s perfectly synced. We may go back and record like Paul McCartney and Wings did – recording the song at once in one space.”

Mendel tries to keep it organic. “There are no virtuoso musicians in the band. When we jam it’s more like ‘hey, let’s figure this out’ rather than ‘check out our virtuosity’.”

Driving on a Sonic Highway
Foo Fighters’ latest album, Sonic Highways, is one that is coupled with a television show of the same name, in which the band traverses the musical history of eight US cities. Each song on the album corresponds with each episode of the series, aiming to capture the sound and spirit of each city in song.

“Dave comes up with ideas that aren’t fully formed and not everyone fully understands it, including Dave,” Mendel says. “The idea was at first a lot larger and different to how it turned out to be.”

He says even through his skepticism, he learned to wait until the idea was more fully formed, “and then I usually find that out that he’s on to something good, like this idea of going to a city and learning about it, documenting it, and then taking bits of interviews and things that have been discovered and then putting them into the lyrics for the songs”.

“When I first heard that, I didn’t know what to think, or how it was going to work; like, you know, that’s just plagiarism, right? But sure enough, we put it in the exact context of how it turned out.”

Mendel says I would know what he’s talking about when he says “looking at the experiences of being documentarian, or a bit like a journalist and telling a story, and part of that story is going to be a direct reference to the people we’ve spoken to and encountered in that week … I think it makes sense and is pretty cool”.

I say that telling people’s stories is the coolest part of the job and he laughs. I think this is the first time I’ve spoken up since the interview started. All I wanted to do was let him talk and me listen like an obedient student.

Mendel says it’s a funny thing working with other bands. “You’re always meeting other bands on the road and listening to records and talking about stuff, and a lot of the stuff it’s like, “wow, maybe that record isn’t so great”, but they are nice guys.

“That’s kinda cliché, but they really are nice guys. Most musicians that you run into out on the road are pretty down to earth, cool people. Some not, of course, but in general most of them are.

“When it comes to our band I know that from the very first day Dave had an ethic or motto or whatever you want to call it: ‘If its not fun, then let’s not do it’. And that creates a good culture in a band.

“You know, I think, it’s one of the reasons I think we are still here so many years later, and maybe one of the reasons that the band has a reputation for being easier to work with.”

‘Sound City ‘to ‘Sonic Highways’
He says the ride since has been incredible. “The Sound City movie was pretty much Dave’s passion project, and the rest of the band came in really at the end.

“We recorded one song with Rick Springfield as part of the film. And then we went out on this great tour with a lot of the musicians that recorded at Sound City and were in the movie playing their songs and that was incredible.

Mendel says they got to record with legendary people like Lee Ving from the band Fear and John Fogerty. “It was a crazy, wild experience.”

Sound City, a documentary about the recording studio in Los Angeles, which eventually closed down, was Grohl’s first step into the movie sphere. It told the history of Sound City, where albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was recorded. The prolific studio went bust in 2011 and Grohl decided to save a little piece of it.

Grohl’s vision then evolved into Sonic Highways and Mendel says the project has been the coolest thing that the band has ever done. “It’s been my favourite experience of being in this band so far, ‘cause I like how ambitious it is.

“The bands I loved growing up were the likes of Devo, that had entire package with this attitude of ‘we’re gonna make movies, have a uniform and have a whole mythology surrounding the band’. I like when bands stretch out and do something different.”

He says he’s never afraid and thinking about whether it’ll be successful or not. “So this thing of going to each city and saying ‘okay, this is our Austen song. Or our Nashville song’, what can we say about it, who can we talk to, where can we record … I think it’s super cool adds another dimension to being in a band, especially if you’ve been at it for as long as we have. We constantly ask ourselves ‘what can we do that’s different and challenging’.”

The band wrote the album and spent about six months perfecting the songs before they went out to each city. “We only had a week in each city and at the end of that week, we had to have a finished song that we could perform at the end of the episode.

“It was well worked out before we went on the road and we added guest musicians and made the bridge of the song the portion of it that represented where we were at.

“In Nashville, we had Zac Brown do a solo in the centre. That’s what really stamped the local flavour on each song.”

I ask whether the band will carry on the idea to other countries and Mendel says that they talked about it and it’s an idea that another band can take up somewhere else.

“If there’s a UK band or South African band that can tell the story in a similar way, that would be amazing. There are stories to be told and all this musical heritage in these unique cities and scenes … they’re almost like languages where we’re worried it’s gonna go away due to globalisation. It would be great if it can carry on in other places  but I don’t know if it’s gonna be Foo Fighters who are gonna do it.”

He says he thinks that telling stories and describing local music scenes is a great idea there’s no downside to it, so people should pick up where Foo Fighters left off in Sonic Highways.

(Ahem, South African bands. I’m looking at you.)

Down South
The band recently made their first visit to South Africa for two shows that people said were the best they’ve ever been to. You can read my waxing lyrical review here.

Mendel says it’s a sort of limited tour window, and they just never got a chance to tour South Africa. “We sort of say we’ve this amount of time and we are going to go everywhere within that amount of time, rather than saying these are the places that we need to go, and it will take as long as it takes.”

We just unfortunately just never made it down to South Africa. Of course it is a bit out of the way. But it’s been on our radar for years. It has been a long time and it’s a good time because it’ll be one of those first shows where we can play our new album in full. It’ll be a long show. There’ll be a lot of essential Foo Fighters songs played.”

And indeed it was a long show, with almost every hit of theirs belted out on stage as the crowd lapped it all up. Three hours and we still wanted more. Grohl said to the crowd: “We always tour the US, the UK, Australia, Europe and by the end of it we’re tired and wanna go home … This time, we’re starting in South Africa. You guys get to be our guinea pigs.”

Cape Town’s show on December 10, 2014 was the first concert of the band’s Sonic Highways tour.

Long road (to ruin)
Mendel says Foo Fighters’ evolution was a long road and from the first record being recorded by Grohl, all by himself to forming the band.

“It helps that he’s really prolific and he’s good at what he does, so being a sort of back seat driver, armchair quarterback becomes a lot less rancorous when the person who’s usually calling the shots is doing a good job of it.

“And then the other thing we do is each one of us goes out and makes records on our own when the band isn’t active. And so, that’s a really good way to kinda quench that creative need that sometimes doesn’t get completely fulfilled by Foo Fighters.”

Mendel is putting out a record under the name Lieutenant in March. “I don’t know what to say about it. You know, you’ve gotta kinda give it a listen and experience it. See what you think for yourself.”

The band sometimes goes under the name “Holy Shits”, when playing small, unplanned gigs. “It’s a name that we’ve been going under doing small shows and warm-up shows in London.

“It was really Taylor’s idea when we played in a festival in Delaware a couple of months ago and instead of doing an encore of Foo Fighters songs, to do a bunch of covers and just pretend that were a cover band called the Holy Shits. It’s been fun.”

The band celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2015, and Mendel told NME magazine that they have something big planned. He tells me that Sonic Highways is kind of their anniversary tour.

“We have once concrete idea that’s kinda weird and fun, and I don’t wanna say too much but it’s kind of a tour that looks like something we did 20 years ago.”

Time’s up and I feel like I’ve just spoken to God’s little brother. It’s taken me this long to write up this interview due to my fear of it being not worthy, but it’s definitely one ticked off my bucket list. – Nikita Ramkissoon