Sitting about staring at their completed record gathering cobwebs, Foo Fighters decided the usual release-and-tour marriage could go kick rocks; Medicine at Midnight has arrived in its post-grunge splendour (sprinkled with a few unexpected curiosities) despite the pandemic, and guitarist Chris Shiflett gave us some insight into its concoction.
Let’s pretend you’re Dave Grohl (don’t think on it too hard, just listen), and it’s time to record the tenth album by your wildly successful band Foo Fighters. Everyone’s jazzed, you have your pick of spaces in LA, and you’re ready to roll. Where do you go to lay down the fresh meat? Frank Zappa’s meticulously constructed Utility Muffin Research Kitchen in the Hollywood Hills? Josh Homme’s outlaw-chic Pink Duck Studios? Hans Zimmer’s Austrian-bordello-inspired rooms in Santa Monica? Or do you select a decomposing mansion, never before used for any kind of recording, which you must rent from a guy who reportedly requests you sign a non-disclosure agreement because of the property’s weird history?
“It was a funky old house, kind of sliding off the hill,” describes warm and breezy guitarist Chris Shiflett. “It needs a little maintenance, a little love, that house! It’s being reclaimed by Encino at this point. Dave rented it when he was just going to make some demos. He brought some gear up there, put a little demo studio together, and he liked the way it sounded. So, we popped the real gear up there, and the guitars, and we ended up doing it there – it was a nice environment, a laid-back kind of place to record.”
Grohl has described strange occurrences during recording (guitars spontaneously detuning, mysteriously added ProTools tracks containing only open mic noises, and so on). Shiflett is a bit less whimsical in his assessment of the place, but grants there were a few spectral moments. “I mean, walking back to your car at night, there’s overgrown bushes snapping at you, at the back of your neck,” he laughs. “It’s hard not to get a little spooked by that sh-t! I just watched Poltergeist for the first time since like, the ‘80s. That scene with the tree? I was a little kid when that movie came out. It scared the f-ck out of me!”
The band (comprising Shiflett, Grohl, drummer Taylor Hawkins, guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mendel and keys player Rami Jaffee) began recording in their possible-necropolis-cum-studio in October 2019, and things immediately bent their way into interesting territory. The off-beat disco feel of Love Dies Young is one of a few surprises on the album, with a rhythmic guitar line Shiflett introduced. “That guitar, chugging along, I actually started playing that just as a joke,” he admits. “That galloping, Eye of the Tiger rhythm. But then when you f-ck around with something like that, you’re like – ‘Sh-t, that actually sounds kind of good. Maybe we should do that for real.’ Then of course, once we recorded it, it’s all the way through the song and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s going to be a b-tch to play live.’ The hardest stuff is when you have to do the same thing for four minutes. You’re standing there going ‘dang-chagga-dang-chagga-dang-chagga-dang-chagga’ and you start to get upside-down, like, ‘Where’s the f-cking one?’”
The other track Shiflett’s pondering on live is another stand-out: single No Son Of Mine. It contains a mad, chronological ascent in its chords, which sounds like Shiflett and Grohl made a pact to create as many weird angles in two bars as possible. “Yeah, that’s a funny little section,” Shiflett smiles. “I don’t remember how it came about, but it’s funny trying to play that one now, ‘cause we f-ck that part up every time. Everyone’s like, ‘Wait, what is it? Seven? Is it eight? How many times do we move up?!’ It also contains some awesomely atmospheric guitar details (“There’s a lot of tape echo, and spooky-slap-twangy sh-t, that I think of as The Clash – combat rock era guitar tone stuff”) and glam-metal style backup vocal ‘wahs’, which Shiflett attests he did not sing in-studio, and will not sing live: “We have some back-up singers that’ll come out with us,” he laughs.
It is, of course, due to the utter evaporation of live gigs that the translation from studio to stage has been so jagged. “That’s the strangest part of this whole thing: not to have live shows,” Shiflett says.
“Usually [the album’s release and the live shows] would be going on at the same time… but we’ve had to sort of sit on our hands for months and months while the record was just sitting there, ready to go. You have that thing of going out and playing the new songs in front of a crowd, and [the songs] become something else; it becomes kind of looser, and louder. It becomes a different thing.”
The guitarist is more than ready for show time to arrive (“I think the vaccine is a good benchmark for me,” he says), but until then you’re just going to have to crank Medicine at Midnight on your home player. Where it sits in the Foos’ canon – its similarity or dissimilarity to one or another of their records – is something Shiflett’s not busting to define. “I think, sonically, this record is a bit different to anything the band’s done in the past,” he says, “but we don’t sit around talking about everything all the time, ‘Today let’s make something different to everything else,’ you know what I mean?” Yes, we do: don’t think on it too hard, just listen.
Medicine at Midnight by Foo Fighters is out Feb 5 via Sony.
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