A Foo Picks His Own Fight: Taylor Hawkins on Going Solo and Calling the Shots

on November 18, 2016, 2:14pm

Photograph by Andrew Ogilvy

There’s this sense of invincibility in the air around Taylor Hawkins, this feeling that he could do anything, so he did everything. It got daring for a while for the Foo Fighters drummer, drugs and laziness, and too much of nothing. He’s reached a symmetry now. He won’t go back, but he will be able to look back at a life of adventures.

Take a look at the titles of his various non-Foo projects and you get an idea of Hawkins’ personality: the Coattail Riders, the Birds of Satan, Chevy Metal. His new solo album shows a similar sort of winking, old-school rock ‘n’ roll goofiness, the same spirit that imbues his wild, excited energy in conversation. Each piece on his upcoming album, KOTA, boasts his high-volume past and the awareness of its over-the-top lunacy.

That duality runs through his entire conversation, too. At once he’s humble to a fault, constantly crediting Dave Grohl and other old friends, downplaying how seriously he takes his solo work. However, he’s also bold enough to actually get out there and do it, to put out a record full of classic rock-infused goodness under his own name.

According to Hawkins, sometimes you listen to music because it kicks you in the face. It grabs you by the gut and shoves you down a shaft until you’re falling and you have no idea where your feet are going to land. And while he’s far too bubbly and nice to worry about any actual violence, his music runs on that kind of feeling, a powerful drive to make an impact — even if he simultaneously says it’s not that big a deal.

kota artwork A Foo Picks His Own Fight: Taylor Hawkins on Going Solo and Calling the ShotsYou know, it actually sounds sunny where you are. I can hear it in your voice.

Oh, it’s sunny and bright! I am in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. It’s going to be 85 degrees today.

What does one do on an 85-degree day?

I do a little bit of work, I talk on the phone with you, I take the kids to school. Regular shit. I’m a regular dude. [Laughs] We were out of eggs today! I do go mountain biking. That’s what I do when I’m not working to get my jollies and stay in shape.

But you’ve essentially been touring for half of your entire life. Perhaps because of being that busy, working so much, you have honed in on a very particular Taylor sound. Your album feels as energetic as you sound.

Well, that’s fucking good news. I wish the rest of the world would agree, but probably not. I really just make music to amuse myself more than anything because I have to have something to do, a creative outlet outside of Foo Fighters. I just do. I am a creative person. I’m trying to make catchy music. That’s the trick always. I mean, even when we’re making Foo Fighters music, that’s all I want to do most of the time: as catchy as possible, even if it’s strange. The real trick is, can you make catchy music that’s interesting and not just fucking [sings like Drake], “You can call me on my cellphone.” I mean, that’s catchy as fuck. My kids love it. They love Drake, and they love all that shit. I like catchy music, so when I hear all those songs, I totally get it. I’m not saying this in a negative way, but it’s amazing what little effort goes into making something so huge. I’m not going to say it’s horrible. I’m not going to be one of those going [mimics an old man], “Aah, you sound like fucking Nirvana or The Beatles, you guys!” That’s just not my way.

As much as you say you’re doing this to amuse yourself, it still must be a bit of a challenge to go, “Hang on, I’m only putting six songs on a record, the ones I love playing and the ones people will like.” There still has to be that consideration. Or do you not care about that at all?

Whenever I make a record, I do think, “Okay, for the 5,000-10,000 people that usually listen to my side projects — that’s an estimated amount of how many people listen to me — I’m really only playing for that audience. I am trying to make the best music I can, but I like to do it quickly, so that eliminates much thought about it. I’ve made four records that you can dub my “side project.” Two of these were Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders, one was under Birds of Satan, and then I made this. The second Coattail record, I really dug in and tried to make it a professional-sounding production. Dave [Grohl] helped me a lot with that, actually. I liked that record, and in some ways, it will probably always be one of my better ones because it’s so worked on. I remember working on that record and being a month and a half into it and thinking, “Fuck this, I don’t want to do this. I want to make music fast, have fun, get it recorded, and get the fuck out!” Enjoying the process is the most important part to me, because I know you know this, but this project isn’t going to put food on my kids’ table, so I don’t really have to worry about those things. I don’t have to think in those terms.

When the Foo Fighters make a record, there’s a crew of 70 waiting to do a massive tour, so we have to do the best thing we can every time, and that pressure brings the best out of you. Whatever the best means — trying to write a song that’s going to get on the radio, I suppose. I’m merely a small tool in what makes a Foo Fighter record anyways. I’m Dave’s drum machine. Like, Dave could do it all on his own if he wanted to. We do it as a band because Dave likes to be around people, and we believe in the notion of a band and a gang … a rock and roll gang. Fans do as well, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re still around: People identify with Dave as this leader and his merry band at the back. Some people don’t even notice, they think it’s just Dave, but we all play on the records. In the end, it’s Dave’s project, and his ideas will win out always. And it should be like that.

As much as I love you for being really humble, I do feel that for people who aren’t aware of your role, your solo work exposes how you are somebody who can play a lot of different instruments and has your own voice. While I commend you for not taking this solo record “seriously,” there’s something about being in this massively huge band that affords you the ability of pure expression without worrying about hits.

Absolutely! I mean, fuck yeah! It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to do anything. I could just be the drummer in the Foo Fighters, and everyone would think that’s awesome. You don’t have to do extra shit. Pat Smear, our guitar player, is on and off again with us, and now he’s on again and been with us for the last six years, which is great. He doesn’t feel any need whatsoever to do anything outside Foo Fighters.

I actually chatted to Nate [Mendel, Foo Fighters bassist] last year about his Lieutenant project. Side projects are a tricky thing when you put focus or pressure on it. At the same time, the percussive side of this record doesn’t suffer. It almost seems like in some of these songs, the percussive element of the music is magnified. I think this is very close to who you are as an artist.

Even though I played all the instruments and sang, it might be a little bit rawer than some of the other records I’ve made, as far as the guitar playing and the bass and keyboard, really. At the end of the day, all my songs still sound like what I always do. It’s just a different amalgamation of it all. I’m not trying to be humble here again, by the way.

I think “Rudy” sounded like a slight departure from your other material. I feel there are things that you cover in that song that you can potentially see as a different realm for you.

I think it does show me experimenting and working with new ideas. I think it’s fresh, and “Range Rover Bitch” doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever done. It’s almost a disco-punk track. I’m trying to do new stuff, but you may not see it unless you really look in there and you pay attention … which you did, and I thank you so much. I don’t know if you’re doing it for your job or if you generally enjoy it.

Do people not? I’m not going to talk to you if I’m not interested. Like, I know who you are, but that doesn’t mean much to me.

No, it’s great. I love it. I don’t do a lot of press for this stuff. Like I said, it’s not the deal. I’m not going to tour either. I don’t really have time. I would love to, though. I also have this cover band called Chevy Metal. And that’s another whole other world of getting my jollies, so to speak.

So, are you obsessed with covers? You’ve covered everything from Queen to Aerosmith to Billy Joel. With Joan Jett and Mick Jagger taking the lead.

And you can see that all the things that we play show up in these records that I make. I’m aware that there’s a major Queen influence, especially on the Roger Taylor side. I’m aware of what I love; believe me I can hear it. I know there’s the Police, I know there’s James Nixon, I know the usual suspects are all represented. I know that I’m so influenced by Dave. I could never have made this record had I not sat, watched, and studied Dave for years. Am I obsessed? God, I don’t know if you could quantify fucking 75 perfect of what I know about playing and writing.

But isn’t that the art of collaboration? I feel like people persecute others for either taking on influences or being inspired, and the truth is that’s the only way to kick off creativity. Sometimes people don’t touch covers because they’re sacred cows. Covers have a lot to do with being fearless, tackling someone else’s world and making it your own.

I think in the end, it actually makes you a better musician. I do, because you get inside someone’s world and pull it apart and figure out how you can fit into that world, and then you regurgitate it to people. It never sounds anything like it. When the Foo Fighters do “Under Pressure”, we’re not kidding ourselves or anyone. We don’t sound like David Bowie and Queen. We know that. We’re well aware that we sound like Motorhead singing “Under Pressure”. But that’s okay! And somewhere deep within there, Dave takes in that song arrangement, even if it’s subconsciously, and we pull it in and it’s in there now. When the first Foo Fighters record came out, I remember people thought it sounded very Nirvana-ish, and I was like, “Well, yeah, he’s the fucking drummer from Nirvana. And he just sat and watched one of the greatest songwriters of all time for years. Hell yeah, he’s influenced. How can you not be?”

For example, I think Dave’s work with Queens of the Stone Age and Josh brings something into our little Foo Fighters world. Maybe Dave working with Josh brings something into Josh’s world? However you get your “it,” that’s good. There are times when people have been a little too on the sleeve sometimes. That’s just a pastiche. When you’re playing covers, it’s going to be somewhat of a pastiche, but when you’re writing your own music, some people are really derivative. I am very derivative. I’m a bit of a mimic on certain levels when I make a record. I have no problem saying, “Yeah, when I stacked all of those high, screaming vocals, my inner 11-year-old was trying to sound just like Roger Taylor at the end of fucking ‘I’m in Love With My Car’.” I’m not going to lie. When I got that keyboard sound that was from Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato”, I was stoked to have it, and I was going to use it, you know? But that’s okay. It’s kind of like what do they call that — art? When you just put up clip art, almost. In a way, my solo records or my side projects are like clip art.

There are different versions of Foo Fighters and Taylor Hawkins over the years, too. You’ve been around long enough that people can enter into your catalog at different life stages.

A band that’s been around for a while is like comfort food.

Is that what music is meant to be?

In some way, it takes you to a warm, safe place, or you can listen to music because it fucking kicks you in the face. I mean, one of Dave’s favorite kinds of music, which I’ll never fucking understand, is this insane death metal shit. I don’t get it at all! I listen to it, and it sounds like death.

Foo Fighters // Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photograph by David Brendan Hall

I know this might sound weird, but on the presser it says, “[Hawkins] reluctantly steps into the spotlight with his first ever album released under his own name, KOTA” What does the word reluctant mean? You certainly don’t sound like you’re holding back.

I have no idea. I think maybe they’re trying to say I’m reluctant in that I’m being humble. I do feel that way when I make a record. I haven’t listened to the record since it was mastered, because you get so into it you don’t fucking want to hear it anymore; you start to hate yourself, your voice, and your music. When I’m finally done with it after mixing over and over again, I’m like, “Fuck that shit, I don’t know why I’m doing this, who cares!” You throw it away for a month, and then when you know it’s coming out, you get your nice little copy and start saying, “Okay, yeah, I think this is okay?” I question myself whenever I make records like this. I wonder what each listener will sit there and think? Why does this dickhead need to make a record? Like who is this fuck?

You’re an accomplished musician and have been for so long. It’s not as if you’re trying to make bucks and have an ulterior motive. You are stretching yourself.

Trust me, there will be no bucks made. I will lose money on this; that’s for sure! I will, and that’s okay. The only way you can make money is playing live now, which is kind of nice actually because it’s evened out the playing world better. It’s like, are you any good live? If not, fucking beat it.

In terms of this new album, is there a certain level of guardedness that you wanted to withhold, or are all the characters fictional?

It’s all out there. “Range Rover Bitch” came from the fact that I live in Calabasas. I live in the neighborhood where the Kardashians live. I look around at my life, and outside of being onstage and all the wonderful crazy fucking shit that we get to do as a band, I lead a very normal life. I have three kids, a wife, and we have a date night every week. We take the kids out for dinner, and they always get in trouble, and they’ve got to do well in school or else. It’s very normal. It’s upper class suburban life. So, I look around and think how I never ever thought that picking up this pair of drumsticks would make me one of these well-to-do adults. [Laughs] I’m looking around going, “Look at these idiots, and how did I become one of them?” There was a song that was meant to be on the record called “KOTA”, which is where the title of the record came from.

What does it stand for?

It means King of the Assholes!

You are a royal asshole, you’re right!

Absolutely, I am the asshole.

You don’t sound like an asshole.

I’m just one of them, really, and the lyric went, “Look around at my achievements/ Where did all this shit come from/ Is it true, or am I dreaming/ Am I the new King of the Asshole Club?” Unfortunately, I didn’t finish the song.

Why?

I will finish it eventually. It’s a cool piece of music. I just need to fidget with the words and make it a bit better, and I didn’t have a good performance of the vocal yet. I just ran out of time. Maybe try and finish it over the next couple of months and put it out independently or send it to anybody who ordered my record. That’s what I’ll do! I am gonna finish the song, and as soon as I’m done with it, it will end up just like U2’s last record in someone’s phone.

I mean, it’s fitting considering the name of the song. It seems like you’re writing all the time. I’m not saying you’re this mad genius at the top of a tower with notes flying around you, but…

There’s so much time on the road to do nothing, so I always bring a guitar. The older I get, the more I just do nothing. I like to be creative, I like to write songs, and I like the buzz that I get after it all happens. I’m sure there’s something on this record that I’ve had lying around for 15 years. I’ve been working on “Rudy” for 6 years.

I really like the consideration on that song, what you sing about, you’re thinking about lucky breaks…

That’s so true. That’s an ex-band mate of mine from high school, and there’s a line in there: “I used to think that years made friends, but they don’t.” Rudy hates me and I hate him and we tried to act like we were friends forever, but we always fucking hated each other. And he’s always talking about the old times.

Tell me about Bob from “Bob Quit His Job”.

My old neighbor Bob was having a tough year. His son came out the closet, which was a heavy thing for him to deal with. He’s probably about 63 at this point and has worked his ass off his whole life in construction. He just called me up one day saying, “I quit my job! I’m done!” He loves the Grateful Dead, he loves to golf, and his wife actually started making a lot of money, so he said, “Fuck it, I’m quitting my fucking job.” So all the lyrics follow that idea about being a family man and having to provide — something we can all relate to — keeping a job and raising a family.

Do you feel like there’s an example of a song that you’ve written that you might not have done years ago? Something you feel a little more confident to release.

I am definitely more confident. I think that whole deadpan sort of storytelling is something I’ve grown more comfortable with as opposed to abstract word-visuals. I don’t think I could have written “Bob Quit His job” or “Range Rover Bitch” before. It’s clear I started getting into this style of songwriting on the last Birds of Satan record.

What was your biggest fear when you started singing and playing drums professionally?

My fear was that I’d be completely embarrassed. You know? I’ve been trying to record songs, some sort of record or side band out of my feeble songwriting attempts for 10 years, god, no since high school. I just gained enough confidence, or I just decided, “What the fuck. If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.” Once I sort of popped that cherry and let people tell me how shitty my voice was and how shitty they thought my songs were, then I was confident enough to say, “Well, it doesn’t really fucking matter now, does it?” I can just do what I want. At the end of the day, you think it’s nonsense. That’s fine.

Creatively, how difficult is it to maintain that pace of writing and recording? I’ve gone through your career timeline and felt a little like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. When you’re not recording Foo, you’re performing in Chevy Metal. When you’re not in that, you’re writing for a side project. Don’t you feel frazzled sometimes?

The frazzled-ness doesn’t come from writing and recording. I can do that at my own pace and watch shit sit on the shelf for ages. The pace gets frantic when we’re going out and playing stuff live. Sometimes I’ve overdone it, overexposed myself … well not overexposed! Oh wait, or maybe I have? I overplan and think I can do every gig available. The next thing you know, I’ve got three gigs in a row, and my kids and wife are pissed off because I’m not around. I’m always just trying to balance. When I was younger, if I would have known then what I know now, known how little time I had once I had kids, I would have done so much more in my 20s and early 30s. I started having kids when I was about 35. I didn’t realize how much free time I fucking had. Instead, I just fucked out and did too many drugs — man, I did so many drugs. And partying and being a lazy fuck face. Something happened around 30. I had to grow up to fit it all in. Before I was just in Foo Fighters and that was enough, but because of the drugs, I could barely pull that off. I then realized I want to do more with my time.

Am I frazzled? Yes. I get frazzled when I have too much work. I don’t have my shit together always as far as time goes. I’ll just say yes to everything and then let people down. I’m not good at planning my own shit, that’s for damn sure. You’re always working, right?

Right now I occupy my seven days a week with work.

Yeah, I mean it sounds like it; you’re on it. That’s what you do. Foo Fighters, in actuality, exists in congested clumps of time where we work. We work our asses off for six months straight, then take two months off.

At each stage, is it weird defining where you’re at? The definition of success is really difficult.

There’s monetary success and personal success. It’s hard to pin down what you think is successful. My solo projects for the most part are pretty much unsuccessful in terms of commercial success. After I put out my first Coattail Riders record, I thought, what if I actually had a hit song? I thought, wouldn’t it be awesome to make a side career? I’m not right for the marketplace, though. I’m never going to be that. Foo Fighters is so much more wildly successful than I ever imagined. That’s a success, that’s a dream, that’s otherworldly. That’s something none of us could have ever imagined. So as far as success, I got more than I deserve.

In terms of creativity and artistry and perfectionism, have the elements of what drove you as a drummer 20 years ago shifted somewhat?

I’m still striving for perfection that I never get. What I consider perfect is different now. All I’m ever trying to do in Foo Fighters is help Dave realize his goal for a song. There is a little bit of space to define yourself in that. It’s about making interesting music; that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do as a songwriter. I want to scribble, write, and play stadiums. Dave likes to write big, giant, infinite choruses, and so we don’t shy away from that. We’re always searching for the perfect song.

Do you think you’ll write a new song for the upcoming Foo Fighters record then?

I think it would be cool. I write when we have a double record. There is only enough room for Dave on a single record; let’s leave the real writing to him. Our manager even wanted to take off the one song I ever wrote!

Why?

I think they figured if there is one less Dave Grohl song, then there’s one less chance of a hit. For the last few records, I’ve started singing backup vocals, so that’s become a new part and a relatively new space for me in this band. I could never have felt comfortable doing that unless I started doing my solo projects. The one fuels the other.

2 comments