If theres ever a pantheon for modern rock drummers, Foo Fighters master behind the kit, Taylor Hawkins, should be sitting comfortably right on top. Whether hes pounding your head in with Foo classics All My Life and Stacked Actors, or showing off his technically adventurous side with his own catchy rocker Louise from the first Coattail Riders record, its hard not to be impressed. See him in action at a show, and the same effect takes hold, if not more so. Frankly, theres just no one else out there who comes close playing like him, but there’s more to the man and his music than you might think.
Back in 2006, Hawkins decided to show us he was much more than Foos drummer when he put together his own band, The Coattail Riders, and released a self titled homemade 70s charged rock record that was miles away from his day job. If youve been paying attention, a hint of things to come appeared with the Foo song Cold Day in the Sun off their 2005 Grammy winner In Your Honor. Co-written by Hawkins, it was the first time you really got to hear him, both on lead vocals and in writing. It was surprisingly awesome, a track that was closer to Tom Petty than Foo, and in the end becoming our official introduction to a man we felt we hardly knew. A year later, Hawkins would give us his apartment-recorded debut with a new band, and a stripped down, heavy rock sound that was all his own.
With his more ambitious second record Red Light Fever out this month, and the subsequent tour under way, I received the lucky opportunity to talk with Hawkins about the music he loves, making records, and the story behind The Coattail Riders. There’s more to the man than snares and high-hats, much more than his quiet nature would ever lead you to believe.
So how did the Coattail Riders come to be? How did you meet the other guys and get this thing going?
Well, Ive known the bass player Chris [Chaney] for a long time. I used to play with him in Alanis [Morissette] when we were young kids in our mid-twenties. So Ive known him a long time, and stayed friends with him. And Gannon I met through my friend Drew Hester, and Ive known Drew since I was five or 10, and he was his roommate.
And it just kind of came together with me doing demos at my buddy Drews house five or six years ago when I put out the first record, and it just kind of turned into a little unit, a little band, a little pet band.
For a lot of people, Cold Day in the Sun was the first time people really got to see that you can write, and hear you really sing. So how long have you been writing your material?
Ive been trying to write songs probably since I was in high school, nothing that I would want you to hear though. Its been interesting trying to write song, its almost like a crossword puzzle. If youre a musician, I think it would be really limiting to be just a drummer. It will make you a better musician, better drummer, better everything, if you just try and figure out how you write songs — for better or for worse.
Whats your writing process like, where do you start?
Well, for the most part, my writing process just starts with an acoustic guitar. I just come up with little things, melody, lines and stuff, and try and sit down and put some lyrics to it. Ill go do a demo by myself. Ive done most of the demos on the record myself. Ill go to our studio, and put down a little trashy drum track, a couple little strappy guitars, and a quick vocal on top of it — and see if its worth taking further. Then I start to get a better arrangement together, maybe work on the lyrics a little bit more. Its probably pretty similar to most peoples’ writing process Id imagine. It usually starts with a guitar line and a melody, or piano line on a few of them. I just sort of wrote a few of them in my head. Pick up a guitar, and try to transcribe what I heard in my head to a guitar.
The second song, Your Shoes, I wrote when I was mountain biking one day. I heard it in my head, the chorus and the verse, and I just raced home, picked up a guitar and tried to figure out how I heard it. There can be lots of different ways, some of these songs, especially Sunshine on the record, Ive had that song since the 90s. I wrote that song back in ’98, ’99.
So youve been writing songs way before becoming a professional drummer in anyones band.
Yeah, trying to. Like I said, I think it would be very limiting to think in terms of just drums. I enjoy that position in the Foo Fighters, but relatively, for the most part, its just the drummer, except Cold Day in the Sun, and a few backgrounds here and there. I enjoy that, but I’m much more interested in music than just sitting around and playing drums all day. When Im at home, I probably play way more guitar than I do drums. Im still not very good at it though.
When it comes to The Coattail Rider records, how much do the other guys come in, once youre recording and things are rolling. How much influence do they play into it?
They come up with their own parts. I write the basic song, the lyric, the melody, all the basic riff, and I kind of hand it to the people that are much more capable, like Gannon, like Chris, and say, What do you think? How can you make this more interesting? Theyll do things to make the chords more interesting, because they have a lot more knowledge of their instruments than I do. The guitar solos are all their own, and the bass parts are all their own. They suggest a few things. For the most part, I let them figure it out on their own so it has their personality on it, something that everyone feels theyre a part of.
So its more of a band than the name suggests?
Really, the name was just supposed to be The Coattail Riders. Thats what I wanted it to be, and essentially thats what it is. When I put out my first record back in 2006, they really argued with me about having my name at the top of it, you know: Taylor Hawkins and The Coattail Riders, and I said Thats not what it really means. We went back and forth on it and they just said, People will pay more attention to the record if it has your name on it. Not that Im a household name, but it just felt like it would be an easier marketing and selling point, if my name is on it — so it just turned out that way.
Its not meant to slight the guys in the band that theyre coattail riding. It was a joke! The name The Coattail Riders is more like, Heres the drummer making a record, me coattail riding on the success of other things. It was just me having fun with the whole concept of me even making a record, taking it lightly in a way. I take the music seriously though. When were up on stage as The Coattail Riders, I take it very seriously. We want it to be great, and we work hard to make it great. We worked really hard on the record, and I worked really hard on the songs, but at the end of day, its something we do for fun, for our own love of music. Its our own little mini band in a way.
When it comes to the new record, compared to the last, this thing is just so much bigger. What were your intentions for the second time around?
Well Dave Grohl helped me out a lot in the beginning with the process of this record, so he actually helped me arrange the songs. It started out with just me and him. Helping me do the drum tracks, guiding me on some ideas as far as the arrangements are concerned. He helped me construct the basic songs, and then I took it from there.
Really the difference between them, the first record, was made in a living room with like maybe $5,000 worth of recording gear. A small pro-tools rig and like five microphones. Its sort of intimate sounding, almost sounding like it could be demos. Not the most high quality, but there was a vibe to it, and thats why we decided to put it out. There was an energy and a vibe and an excitement that we caught making that record.
Since we made that record, Foo Fighters built this studio complex thats very state-of-the-art and has everything you could ever want when making a record. So I said, Im going to make a big sounding record, do everything I want. Im going to run wild, and Im going to not do something because I dont have the recording capability. Im not going to stop myself. If I want to lay a thousand harmonies down, Ill do it. I dont really care. Its not going to be a small little record, its going to be a giant, overblown record. Thats what I wanted, because thats the stuff I loved to listen to growing up. You know, Queen, ELO, and all like kind of stuff. I just wanted to make something for fun really, and because I loved doing these songs, and recording all this crap on top of it; with the band hearing it back and playing it in the car going, Whoa, that sound is huge!
Speaking of Queen, you brought in quite the collaborations with Brain May, Roger Taylor, and Elliot East from The Cars. How did that all end up happening?
Well I called in my favors. [laughs] Well, Ive known Roger [Taylor] and Brian [May] a while, since I started going to England, and playing shows out there. They tend to come to the shows, and sit in with us. I played on one of Brians solo records, and did a little recording for this other project he was working on. Now, because of the way most records are made nowadays, on computers, you can do things sort of virtually. I could send tracks to his studio, and when hes done he can send it back. The process would be a little more difficult if we were still using tapes. Logistically, it just makes it easier to do things like that. As for Roger, Ive known him a long time, and he was totally game to do it. I said, I know I can totally hear your voice on this song, the second song. You know, I could just hear it — its like I wrote the part for him. So I sent him the track and he did his thing.
Elliot [Easton] and I worked together in the studio on Not Bad Luck, which is the first song. Thats him doing the guitar solo, and thats him singing on the background vocals with me. That one sounds like a silly kind of production, but The Cars did that kind of production. So I said, lets do something like you used to do, and we had a blast.
I really like Elliot, hes a really cool guy. I met him about a year ago, and Ive always been a huge fan of Elliot, and The Cars records. Those are really just top records, and they were just a great band from that era. Elliot was kind of an unsung hero. I dont think he gets quite the credit he deserves as a guitar player. Hes just a real tasty guitar player you know? And I think his solo records awesome!
So did they give you any more pointers as far as writing goes, because some of the tracks sound very much like Queen at times.
I literally just didnt care. I didnt really go in to make a record to try and re-create anything. I knew I was wearing my influences pretty heavily on my sleeve. I started to pull it back at one point, about halfway through. It was like, lets not go so crazy and over the top with all the harmonies, and the other stuff that symbolizes a lot of that era. Then I just said, I dont care, if were making this record. Were making this record for us. Its sort of selfish when Im making music, Im making it for me. Im not expecting it to take over the world, thats not the idea. The idea is for us to have a good time and make music that we enjoy, and hopefully other people will here that and enjoy it as well. Obviously, the influences are there, but theyre always there with me. They were there on the first record. I just now have the capability to run wild in a big studio, so thats what happened.
Its a very over produced record, but not in a 2000s way, its more of an over produced record in a 70s way. We recorded everything on pro-tools, but we didnt do a lot of the things that people nowadays do to music – which is what I dont like. The drums were untouched after I recorded them. I didnt grid them, perfect them with computers, I just left them like they were. And the vocals, theres no auto-tuning, theres none of that stuff going on. What you hear is what was played, theres no manipulation computer wise. This is Consequence of Sound right?
I actually read a review you all did and thought it was really good. I thought it was really accurate, you know? You didnt pull any punches, and you said things that you liked and things that you didnt like. Im not sure who did the review, but I was pleased with it.
It was me actually.
It was you? You know what, I was pleased with it, and you know why I was pleased with it to begin with? Because you really listened to the record. I could tell you listened to the record and thats all I wanted. Even if you hated it, if it sounds like you listened to it for real, than Im fine with it. Y’know what I mean? I thought the review was great, I thought it was accurate. Yeah, youve got a blunder here or there, but no record is perfect with anyone standards. Yeah, theres moments where Ill go back and wish that I would have done this, or that. There already is moments where I listen to the record and go, Oh, shouldve done this differently, or shouldve done that differently, or I couldve worked harder on the lyrics. I feel thats where I tend to be the most challenged, lyrically. I think people who write really good lyrics are just a different breed. I worked really hard on them, but I dont think Im the best lyricist in the world. I just try and be really honest with it.
But I thought it was great, and I did read it because it was my first review actually. So you have the privilege of saying you were the first one to review my record.
That means the world to hear from you, man.
So maybe you should come in the next time I do a record.
Absolutely! I would be more than happy to. So youre on tour now, how is it to tour with this band. Is it more relaxing getting to play small clubs again?
I was talking with my Dad this morning, he was asking me about the tour and stuff. Its essentially like, nobodys the boss. Im not the boss, nobodys the boss, and everyones doing this because they want to, because its fun. We do it in a van, we had an RV once, that was a pretty big deal, but we stay at Motel 6s. Every once and a while well treat ourselves and stay at the Holiday Inn. We treat it as it is, you know? Im not like Ah screw it, Ill write a $100,000 check and well stay at the Ritz Carlton. We treat this band as it is, so we tour in the style a club band would tour. We eat at Dennys, we get up on stage, and its just fun.
We also play different covers all the time, because these guys are just bad-ass musicians. So if I was like, Lets learn ‘Rosalie’ by Thin Lizzy today, well do it that night. I always thought it would be fun to do a request thing. Everyone emails us a different request and we try to do a different one every day. Thats a good idea actually, maybe Ill do that.
Its fun dude, it really is. Ive had the most fun in my life touring, and its absolutely a different thing. You know, touring lustfully in arenas and five buses and staying at nice hotels, thats great. Thats obviously a different way of doing things, and this is just another different way, and honestly, I enjoy them both just the same, but in totally different ways. This is almost like a camping trip with your friends, except youre playing gigs every night.