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Nate Mendel: Rejoining the Ranks as Lieutenant

on March 25, 2015, 11:00am

Consequence of Sound is pleased to present the premiere of Lieutenant’s new music video for “Belle Epoque”, which can be viewed below.

For most musicians, being an integral part of one of the biggest rock bands in the world would satisfy their ambition. For Foo Fighters’ bassist Nate Mendel, there was still more music to make. That music has arrived in the form of Lieutenant, a solo album five years in the making that saw Mendel leave the bass behind and try his hand at singing and writing lyrics. With a little help from skilled friends like Joe Plumber (Modest Mouse, The Shins), Jeremy Enigk (Sunny Day Real Estate), and Toshi Kasai (Melvins), Mendel donned the moniker Lieutenant and released his debut, If I Kill This Thing We’re All Going to Eat for a Week, earlier this month via Dine Alone Records.

Passionate but wise from decades of experience, Mendel is a man who thinks about music often. Speaking from SXSW the morning after Lieutenant’s third ever live show, he discussed the origins of his new project, how solo records can still be a collaboration, Paul Simon’s ridiculous songwriting chops, David Byrne’s lyrics, and how to go from playing The Troubadour in Los Angeles to headlining the Glastonbury Festival without losing your mind.

So you just played your third live show as Lieutenant last night as part of SXSW. How was it?

It was good. It was a little bit of trial by fire. We got a new drummer, and we’ve only had a few rehearsals, and we’ve got a new guy doing front-of-house sound for us. No sound check. We just kind of threw it out there and did our best. But that’s the process: You go out there and play shows to get it wired. A little bit scrappy, but it was fun.

Do you have any bands you’re trying to catch while you’re there?

We’re playing with AWOLNATION tonight, and I’ve known Aaron Bruno, the guy that’s behind that band, for years, and I’ve never seen them play live. So I’m excited to stick around and check them out. I haven’t really gotten a chance to see what else is out there. We’re playing early tonight — we’re first on the bill — so we’ll have some time on the ground I think.

Your touring band for Lieutenant includes a lot of talented folks. When you decided to tour this album, did you immediately have people like Christian Wargo [Fleet Foxes] and Pablo Wilson [Snow Patrol] in mind?

No, I didn’t really know what to do. I started calling people and saying, “Hey, I’ve got to put a band together; do you know anyone that might want to do this?” It started like that. I talked to some folks and got some ideas. I’d toured before with Jorma Vik [The Bronx], who is the first drummer that we played with, and he’d been working with Pablo, and so he mentioned him. Christian’s become a friend over the last couple of years, so that was a pretty easy choice. Keyboard player Toshi [Kasai] helped record the album, so that was also pretty easy.

What’s it like to go from touring stadiums in Australia to much more intimate venues, all the while knowing you have something like a headlining set at the Glastonbury Festival coming in June?

[Laughs] Compartmentalization. That’s what it is. I knew I had this coming up after the last Foo Fighters tour, which was in Australia, which ended about a week and a half ago. So when you’re in the mode of playing with one band, you have to concentrate on doing that. And then you come home and put your other hat on, so to speak. But it is a bit of a culture shock. It takes a moment to acclimate.

Lieutenant – If I Kill This Thing We’re All Going To Eat For A Week

Is it fun to be playing some smaller places that the Foo Fighters have probably long since outgrown?

You know, the Foo Fighters do a lot of warm-up shows and shows for fun in smaller venues, so it’s not like I haven’t been to a lot these places in a while. The place we’re playing in Nashville, the Exit/In, I was there checking out shows when we were in town. The Foo Fighters just played the House of Blues, where we’re playing in a couple of days. So thankfully, with Foo Fighters we try to do like a spectrum of different types of shows, so it’s not like this tour is super foreign. It has been a while since I moved gear and traveled in a van, but I grew up doing that. For years that was a template for me: This is what music is. You put your guitar or your bass and amp into a van, and you drive around from town to town. I may be a bit rusty at it, but it’s not like I haven’t done it.

Watching Sonic Highways [the Foo Fighters’ HBO documentary] really reinforced for me the importance of collaboration as a means of creativity. How did you incorporate that mentality into your solo record?

Well, I’m trying to figure that out right now, honestly. With the recording, to go back a bit, I did everything. I was very reluctant to show it to people. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in what I was doing. My thinking was: I want to get this as good as I can, make demos that are the best I can do before I show it to people, so they’ll take it seriously and want to help me make a record. So there was zero collaboration. Then slowly, I’ve been bringing more people in and figuring out how to have a musical idea that was still mine but letting others help out. It started with my engineer, Toshi, who played a lot on the record and had a lot of great ideas. I found it was pretty easy to call someone up who you’ve never worked with before and say, “I have this song, and it would be cool if you come sing on it.” Then you get Josiah Johnson [The Head and the Heart], who’s very talented, to come in and harmonize beautifully over the top of a song. It’s still my song, but now it’s got his ideas mixed in with it. Now I’m playing with other people live, and I’m thinking about making another Lieutenant record, and I’m trying to figure out how it’ll work. How to make up a song, but then bring in other people, and keep the identity of the song that I want but also have their ideas in there. I’m sorting that out right now.

How did the process of recording as Lieutenant differ from your stint as The Fire Theft in the early 2000s?

Well, with Jeremy Enigk, he’s a really talented songwriter and singer, so he was doing the bulk of the writing. It was collaborative in that we got in a room and really shaped the songs, but they were his ideas, and ultimately he was the editor, because you need to create music that he’s going to want to sing over the top of. That might be the way this ends up going: we’re all in a room collaborating, but the person who has to sing has the last say in how it’s going to go.

What’s it like to have the final verdict on when a song is finished as opposed to recording as part of a band?

It’s different. It’s a matter of communication, figuring out how to properly communicate. And I want to be sure I get that right. As a person that’s been essentially a sideman, trying to find ways to have my imprint on a song, I want to be aware of that when I’m in the position of being the editor and make sure the song has got my identity in it but that everyone feels like they’re contributing. It’s a balance. I’m not quite sure I’ve figured it out yet, which makes sense since I’m brand new at it.

The title for your record came from something you overheard a friend say at a party. Are you the type of person that hears a snippet of something and writes it down, like, “I definitely have to save this for later”?

No, not in general. I don’t carry a Field Notes journal, like, oh, that will spark poetic thought later. That was kind of a one-off. I knew that there was going to be an album pretty soon that would need to be titled, so that was in the back of my head.

So you were hunting for the right thing to call it?

Subconsciously, I guess. Yeah. Because I didn’t event pause for a second. I just told him, “I’m stealing this. Hope you’re OK with that.”

Solo albums are always a mixed bag. Sometimes they feel like a diluted version of the band the musician usually plays with, and other times they totally redefine an artist. Are there any solo albums you looked to as successful examples when making If I Kill…?

That is a great question. I haven’t even thought of that myself. I’m not sure I can answer that question. I should be able to! [laughs] If you’re going to make a solo record, why not look to the people who have done it well in the past? Of course! Of course you would do that! Do you have any suggestions?

Hmm. I’ve always thought Eddie Vedder’s work on the Into the Wild soundtrack was really stunning because it’s gorgeous, harrowing stuff, but it has no place on a Pearl Jam record. I’m glad he made those songs, but not with the band.

I think the best example I can think of is — have you ever heard of the Latin Playboys?

Yes, I have!

That, for me, is a perfectly example of doing a solo project and having it be a defining moment. Obviously Los Lobos is a thing, and then you hear the Latin Playboys record, and it’s like, how are these even connected? This is completely psychedelic weirdness. That’s so awesome that they can do this.

Photo: ©Andrew Stuart 2014

If I Kill… has a noticeable variety of pacing across its nine tracks. Was it a relief to be able to play with structure and tempo in your songwriting and not worry about honoring the sound aesthetic that Foo fans expect?

I don’t know. I don’t feel like when we’re writing Foo Fighters music that we’re necessarily super constrained. I mean, there is a sound there, but that’s the natural sound of that group of guys making music. There are quiet songs and loud songs and funny songs and serious ones. We’ve done things like the quiet side of the In Your Honor record. I think The Beatles are the great example of a band doing every single type of thing you can possibly imagine musically but still always remaining The Beatles. There are so many records where you hear it, and every song is kind of the same, and there’s the one song everyone knows, and it’s like the version of that song that they just did the best. For me, it’s cool to have an identity and have a sound, but I would want there to be more variety if I could choose, absolutely.

You’ve discussed in other interviews that you pretty much had to start from scratch as a singer and a lyricist when working on this album. Did you look to any vocalists or writers for inspiration during that process?

A couple. Josiah, who ended up singing on the record. When I started paying attention to vocalists, which I’d never really done before, I was seeing The Head and the Heart play quite a bit because my wife is in the music business, and she works with them. I noticed that his voice was so good, and natural, and strong. He’s the first person I looked to where I was like, that guy’s a great singer. When it comes to lyrics, I was reading How Music Works by David Byrne.

Great book.

Yeah, it’s a cool book, and it’s a really interesting, odd take. He’s such an interesting character — I’m a gigantic Talking Heads fan, and I love the way he writes lyrics. You know, from that perspective? Not necessarily like, “I know the way the world works and here it goes and I’m going to tell you what I think about it.” It’s more like an alien that dropped onto the planet and is trying to figure it out. I think that’s pretty cool. He writes about what his process is with writing lyrics in [his book], and I took inspiration from that.

If you had to include one cover on If I Kill…, any tracks come to mind?

Yeah! “My Little Town” by Paul Simon.

Are you guys playing that on the tour?

No. I brought it up. He’s a total inspiration for me. The chord structure in that song is mind-boggling. Every verse has a different chord progression, and they’re all chords you’ve never heard of before. So the truth is it’s too hard. [laughs] It’s too hard.

I guess that’s the mark of a truly great song — one you’re too afraid to cover.

Yeah. And that chorus is so heavy, and I think it’s really great because the song is really folky. [Singing] Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town. I mean, that could be Sepultura, you know? If you did it right. It’s heavy as hell.

Maybe on the fourth or fifth Lieutenant album you can finally tackle that one?

Yes.

You’re currently on tour with Lieutenant through early April, and then you have a UK tour with the Foo Fighters followed by a US tour until October. Are you planning to work on more Lieutenant material when the touring finally ends?

I’ve got a decision to make when we take a pause from the Foo Fighters, whether to do more writing or to do more touring for our record, which at that point will be almost a year old. I don’t know what to do with that yet, but it’ll be something Lieutenant-oriented.

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