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Interview: Taylor Hawkins

on April 19, 2010, 12:01am

If there’s ever a pantheon for modern rock drummers, Foo Fighters’ master behind the kit, Taylor Hawkins, should be sitting comfortably right on top. Whether he’s 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, it’s hard not to be impressed. See him in action at a show, and the same effect takes hold, if not more so. Frankly, there’s 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 Foo’s drummer when he put together his own band, The Coattail Riders, and released a self titled homemade 70’s charged rock record that was miles away from his day job. If you’ve 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, I’ve 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 I’ve known him a long time, and stayed friends with him. And Gannon I met through my friend Drew Hester, and I’ve 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 Drew’s 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?

I’ve been trying to write songs probably since I was in high school, nothing that I would want you to hear though. It’s been interesting trying to write song, it’s almost like a crossword puzzle. If you’re 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.

What’s 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. I’ll go do a demo by myself. I’ve done most of the demos on the record myself. I’ll 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 it’s worth taking further. Then I start to get a better arrangement together, maybe work on the lyrics a little bit more. It’s probably pretty similar to most peoples’ writing process I’d 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, I’ve had that song since the 90’s. I wrote that song back in ’98, ’99.

So you’ve been writing songs way before becoming a professional drummer in anyone’s 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, it’s 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 I’m at home, I probably play way more guitar than I do drums. I’m still not very good at it though.

When it comes to The Coattail Rider records, how much do the other guys come in, once you’re 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?” They’ll 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 they’re a part of.

3059 image 1 Interview: Taylor HawkinsSo it’s more of a band than the name suggests?

Really, the name was just supposed to be The Coattail Riders. That’s what I wanted it to be, and essentially that’s 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 “That’s 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 I’m 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.

It’s not meant to slight the guys in the band that they’re coattail riding. It was a joke! The name The Coattail Riders is more like, “Here’s 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 we’re 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, it’s something we do for fun, for our own love of music. It’s 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. It’s sort of intimate sounding, almost sounding like it could be demos. Not the most high quality, but there was a vibe to it, and that’s 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 that’s very state-of-the-art and has everything you could ever want when making a record. So I said, “I’m going to make a big sounding record, do everything I want. I’m going to run wild, and I’m going to not do something because I don’t have the recording capability.” I’m not going to stop myself. If I want to lay a thousand harmonies down, I’ll do it. I don’t really care. It’s not going to be a small little record, it’s going to be a giant, overblown record. That’s what I wanted, because that’s 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, I’ve 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 Brian’s 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 he’s 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, I’ve 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 — it’s 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. That’s him doing the guitar solo, and that’s 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, he’s a really cool guy. I met him about a year ago, and I’ve 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 don’t think he gets quite the credit he deserves as a guitar player.  He’s just a real tasty guitar player you know? And I think his solo record’s 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 didn’t care. I didn’t 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, let’s 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 don’t care, if we’re making this record. We’re making this record for us. It’s sort of selfish when I’m making music, I’m making it for me. I’m not expecting it to take over the world, that’s 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 they’re 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 that’s what happened.

It’s a very over produced record, but not in a 2000’s way, it’s more of an over produced record in a 70’s way. We recorded everything on pro-tools, but we didn’t do a lot of the things that people nowadays do to music – which is what I don’t like. The drums were untouched after I recorded them. I didn’t grid them, perfect them with computers, I just left them like they were. And the vocals, there’s no auto-tuning, there’s none of that stuff going on. What you hear is what was played, there’s no manipulation computer wise. This is Consequence of Sound right?

It is.

I actually read a review you all did and thought it was really good. I thought it was really accurate, you know? You didn’t pull any punches, and you said things that you liked and things that you didn’t like. I’m not sure who did the review, but I was pleased with it.

It was me actually.

6a0120a69817a7970b01310f7c417d970c 260x260 Interview: Taylor HawkinsIt 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 that’s all I wanted. Even if you hated it, if it sounds like you listened to it for real, than I’m fine with it. Y’know what I mean? I thought the review was great, I thought it was accurate. Yeah, you’ve got a blunder here or there, but no record is perfect with anyone standards. Yeah, there’s moments where I’ll 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, should’ve done this differently, or should’ve done that differently, or I could’ve worked harder on the lyrics.” I feel that’s 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 don’t think I’m 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 you’re 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. It’s essentially like, nobody’s the boss. I’m not the boss, nobody’s the boss, and everyone’s doing this because they want to, because it’s fun. We do it in a van, we had an RV once, that was a pretty big deal, but we stay at Motel 6’s. Every once and a while we’ll treat ourselves and stay at the Holiday Inn. We treat it as it is, you know? I’m not like “Ah screw it, I’ll write a $100,000 check and we’ll 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 Denny’s, we get up on stage, and it’s just fun.

We also play different covers all the time, because these guys are just bad-ass musicians.  So if I was like, “Let’s learn ‘Rosalie’ by Thin Lizzy today,” we’ll 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. That’s a good idea actually, maybe I’ll do that.

It’s fun dude, it really is. I’ve had the most fun in my life touring, and it’s absolutely a different thing. You know, touring lustfully in arenas and five buses and staying at nice hotels, that’s great. That’s 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 you’re playing gigs every night.

Red Light Fever hits stores April 20th. Be sure to check out the band on-tour this month!