With Foo Fighters closing in on a No.1 finish today with their new album Medicine At Midnight, revisit Music Week's 2017 cover feature in which Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Greg Kurstin, Rob Stringer, Jason Iley, Tom Corson and Ferdy Unger-Hamiton mapped out the rock legends’ grand plan...
Your correspondent is stood outside the Foo Fighters’ room in the regal environs of London’s Savoy hotel. It is a few minutes before our scheduled interview is due to begin when a strange figure hovers into view in the distance, at the far end of a very long corridor.
It approaches slowly, but moves with purpose - back locked straight, hips swaying side to side with deliberate exaggeration, shoulders jerking back and forth with every stride. After a couple more steps, two hands reach into a jet black mop of hair and give it a playful flick.
To repeat: it is a very long corridor. Music Week squints through its glasses. The thought begins to form, but surely it couldn’t be?
The catwalk-like locomotion continues as more characteristics finally come into focus. Characteristics such as a dark goatee framing an enormous grin. It turns out it is not just a trick of the light: Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl is effecting his very own private catwalk for our eyes only.
“Do you think I’ve got what it takes to be a runway model?” he asks, outstretching his hand, before he bursts out laughing. “Hey man, how are you!?”
In case you hadn’t guessed, Dave Grohl is in an extremely good mood. As we enter the room to greet Foos drummer Taylor Hawkins, who is quietly surveying the day’s papers, Grohl is a man adrenalised with enthusiasm.
At the epicentre of his good mood is a little something that goes by the name of Concrete And Gold, Foo Fighters’ highly-anticipated ninth studio album, which is set to be released on September 15 via Columbia.
It is many things, but one thing it most certainly is not is just another Foo Fighters album. First announced to the world by Grohl as “Motörhead’s version of Sgt. Pepper… or something like that” – it is unlike anything they have tried in their 23 years as a band: a rock record that unites them with one of the biggest pop producers on the planet.
It marks the terminus of Grohl’s pursuit for their most expansive sound to date, something, coincidentally, that has everything to do with all of the other sounds they’ve made to date.
“Every album that we’ve made, usually, has been a response to the one that came before,” begins Grohl. “The first album was done in five days and was barely produced at all.
The second album I thought, Well, we gotta go for it. We really tried to make a produced rock record, and we did.
Third record, I thought, Fuck that, let’s build a studio in my basement! Let’s get back to 11 microphones, two compressors, one tape machine and three people in my house for four months. The next album… Well, the next album is a fucking fiasco.”
“I love that record!” says Taylor Hawkins.
At this point both Music Week and Hawkins attempt to persuade Grohl that Foo Fighters’ 2002 fourth record, One By One, is far from a fucking fiasco to no avail.
He resumes his potted trip down memory lane, after the landmark 2005 double-disc In Your Honour, around 2007.
“Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace was far more produced than anything we had done at that point,” he recalls.
“We were using Pro Tools, and did lengthy pre-production and really put everything under a microscope, more so than I think we ever had. In some cases, it killed songs.
There were songs that never made it to the record because we spent too much time on it. So, on Wasting Light, I thought, We need to go straight analogue - we need to do it in my garage, and we sort of built these parameters and restrictions around the music.
We stripped everything down and tried to make it as direct as possible, and it turned out great. The Sonic Highways record was a bigger conceptual project than just an album.”
All of which leads us to the present day.
If you want to survive you have to kind of push a little bit. I just imagined the sound moving outwards, not necessarily alternative instrumentation, just sonically to push it out. Greg, is a fucking genius.
“This time, one of the first things I imagined was an album that was sonically wider than anything we’d done up until this point.”
To guide them in this enterprise, Grohl had one man, and one man only, in mind. Here it helps to take a temporary detour and deliver a professionally unqualified psychological evaluation of Grohl.
As assuredly as he is the frontman of the Foos, not to mention the legendary drummer of Nirvana, Grohl has always, first and foremost, been a devout scholar of music.
Over the years, he has collaborated extensively with artists he admires, even taking time out to play on (and produce) the satanic retro metal of Sweden’s Ghost in 2013. Grohl follows his heart, his heart follows his ears.
To this end, Grohl was besotted with The Bird And The Bee – an indie pop duo featuring Greg Kurstin, the same Greg Kurstin who also happens to produce the likes of Adele and Sia. In Grohl’s own parlance, he once utterly “starfucked” Kurstin during a chance encounter.
“I was at a restaurant and saw Dave across the room,” Kurstin tells Music Week. “I turned away and next thing he was standing there saying, Dude, I’m a huge Bird And The Bee fan. I was blown away. I had no idea. I was
Of course, having produced and performed on tracks on Adele’s record-breaking 25, Kurstin is currently one of the world’s most in-demand figures in music.
Add to this the fact that rock doesn’t exactly fall under his typical jurisdiction and you could be forgiven for thinking the chances of him getting into the room with Grohl, Hawkins, bassist Nate Mendel, guitarists Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear and keyboardist Rami Jaffee on relatively short notice would have been slim. But you would be wrong.
“The Foos is definitely different territory compared to what I’ve been working on,” Kurstin observes. “I was excited about the change and working on something like I’d never worked on before. I would talk with Dave and scheme about this album.
We wanted it to be extremely heavy at times and completely the opposite with lush musical sections and crazy interludes at other times. I was super-excited even before we started.”
So, what happens when the biggest rock band on the planet get in the studio with one of the world’s biggest pop producers? Well... one hell of a bold album.
“Every time we start to make a record, Dave goes, Maybe we need to get weird on this one,” says Hawkins. “And then we kinda go, Oh, oh, that’s not us. We finally got weird, I think. Which is awesome, it’s great.”
Indeed, at times on Concrete And Gold, Foos do indeed get a little bit weird, a skittering piano outro to Sunday Rain here, a full-blown audio avalanche of vocal harmonies on T-Shirt and The Sky Is A Neighbourhood there.
“If you want to survive you have to kind of push a little bit,” reasons Grohl. “I just imagined the sound moving outwards, not necessarily alternative instrumentation and shit like that, just sonically to push it out. Greg, is a fucking genius.
He’s a brilliant producer and he has this sonic intuition that I have never seen in anybody else. You’ll say, I feel like we need a guitar part here, and he’ll go, You know the B-side to that fucking Tubular Bells record, in the second verse there’s a thing off in the left channel that sounds like birds in trees?
He goes and makes it happen.”
“Greg’s knowledge for chords and what can go within a chord, and the notes...” exhales Hawkins seemingly in admiration.
“Greg would literally go in there on the piano and just find all the weirdest, most inverted notes in a chord and have Dave double it, or triple it until we have this plate of vocals that can just be used almost as a keyboard.
That’s one of the standout things about this record.”
Some would call this union an A&R wet-dream, but it is perhaps more appropriately described to Music Week by president of Columbia Records UK, Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, as something of a “masterstroke”. Both parties profited from the collaborative partnership.
“Dave, Taylor and the whole band would always encourage me to go out of my comfort zone, so I was trying sounds that I’ve never done before,” says Kurstin.
“We were all having fun and because I had that encouragement I was confident in diving into the unknown. I learned a lot of different ways of working I never knew I was capable of. We also tried a lot of recording techniques I had never tried before.”
If you want an example of Kurstin being out of his comfort zone, look no further than La Dee Da – a ferocious, screamed sermon tackling the broken state of the world in 2017. Make no mistake, Foo Fighters may have recruited a pop producer, but that didn’t mean they wanted to stop doing what the Foos do best.
“I think there was this feeling that we wanted it to be the antithesis of the albums that Greg had made,” smiles Grohl. “Knowing that he is most famous for being a polished pop producer, we got super fucking noisy right out of the gate.
When we first got in there, we thought, Let’s make them long, let’s make them noisy, let’s make them weird.
We were experimenting with drum sounds, we were getting guitar sounds we had never gotten before. I think we were just focused on making it worlds away from anything he had done before.”
Yet as much as Concrete And Gold represents different worlds being broached, it also marks the collision of a lot of other artistic worlds, too.
As has widely been reported, Foo Fighters’ ninth outing features a battalion of musical guests – almost all of which are currently going unnamed.
“Well, we didn’t go into the album thinking there would be any collaborations,” insists Grohl. “But in our studio it’s like a swarm of creativity.
There’s people from Nashville down the hall, a hip-hop act upstairs, Lady Gaga is there, Shania Twain was there one day, Justin Timberlake was there one day.”
As to which of these studio lurkers actually appear, that’s being kept secret. Grohl will, however, identify one collaborator.
At one point in the recording, he started feeling he needed a choir on the song when, with the Goddess Serendipity smiling down in favour upon him, he happened to see a friend walking across the studio’s parking lot – Shawn Stockman from Boyz II Men.
Grohl says the conversation went a little something like this:
Grohl: “Oh shit, this song today, I want there to be a choir on it. Would you sing on our album?”
Stockman: “Are you fucking kidding me?“
Stockman: “Yeah! I’ll be in in about an hour.”
Grohl goes on to describe his disbelief at Stockton’s skills, quadrupling harmonised vocal takes to stunning effect on the title-track.
“We put it all up together, and it’s the biggest thing the Foo Fighters have ever recorded, ever. Sonically, it’s so fucking big. It blew our mind.
That was, I think, maybe the fourth song recorded. He left the room and I said, The rest of the fucking record has to sound like this!”
The question is, What are Foo Fighters going to do with this colossal sounding album? As far as campaigns go, they couldn’t have asked for a better start than their triumphant headline set at Glastonbury, the momentum of which had been building since they played a special announcement gig at Frome’s intimate Cheese & Grain back in February.
The ripple-effect of their imperious, grandstanding Pyramid Stage set is still currently charging those involved in directing the campaign with excitement.
“I was at Glastonbury watching the show and there cannot be any doubt they are now in a league of their own as a force in rock with a uniquely multi-demographic audience,” says Sony Music Entertainment CEO Rob Stringer.
“It was a truly awe-inspiring two hours that can only perfectly set up excitement for the new album.”
Jason Iley, chairman and CEO, Sony Music UK and Ireland, concurs.
“The Foo Fighters’ performance at Glastonbury, full of energy, excitement and charisma, showed why they are unquestionably one of the best bands in the world,” he tells Music Week. “The new album perfectly encapsulates that performance.”
Indeed, so effective was their Glastonbury set that the Foos’ 2009 Greatest Hits release soared back up the charts.
It’s merely the latest testament to the Foos’ impressive record as a band who, alongside their incredible live standing (see p14), can shift records in large quantities.
According to Official Charts Company data, their best-selling releases to date are 2002’s One By One (859,896), followed by 2005’s In Your Honour (794,252) and 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (734,814).
Their catalogue is rounded up by an array of impressive numbers, 1997’s The Colour And The Shape (588,641), 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose (573,542), 2011’s Wasting Light (485,442), their self-titled 1995 debut (374,187) and 2014’s Sonic Highways (316,770).
They are now in a league of their own as a force in rock
Rob Stringer, Sony Music Entertainment
The post-Glasto glow may currently be helping the marketing for Concrete And Gold take care of itself, but the
plan is still very much to capitalise on the buzz.
“Foo Fighters are one of the biggest bands in the world so our approach to the marketing is in line with an act of this scale and cultural importance,” says Unger-Hamilton.
“Their fans are extremely passionate and have a deep connection with the band. Many people have grown up listening to their music and feel that they have a relationship with the band which is extremely important to both parties.
“Our challenge is to create moments of scale, to keep pushing the band further into new and more innovative areas, while maintaining the integrity of the band,” he continues.
“We are currently looking at experiential events, and developing content and promotional plans with all major partners; always looking for bigger and better than what’s been done before.
The band’s Mixtape Generator has had a huge amount of engagement so far and offers a lot of scope for interesting activity as the campaign progresses.”
It is a universally accepted truth at this point that rock is lagging far behind other genres in the migration to streaming.
When it comes to Foos, however, the people behind the campaign are feeling bullish about the potential for growth. On Spotify, they attract 7,619,037 monthly listeners, while Concrete And Gold’s lead single, Run, has been streamed 8,780,818 times to date.
“In many ways rock music is bigger than ever but the audience will benefit by fully endorsing streaming platforms,” says Tom Corson, president/COO of the Foo’s American label RCA. “The Foos will take streaming rock music to another level.
The band is evangelical about bringing back rock. Concrete And Gold is one of their finest albums and will further cement the Foos as one of the US’s greatest bands ever. We strive for No. 1 worldwide.”
Kurstin notes that it was precisely Foos Fighters’ reputation as an authentic rock band that formed part
of the appeal of working with them in the first place.
“The Foo Fighters have raw intense energy mixed with these amazing songs,” he tells Music Week. “They are a true heavy rock band in a time when that is becoming more scarce.”
The duty of carrying the torch for rock in 2017 has not been lost on the band. Indeed, the recording of Foos’ new album has also dovetailed nicely with another one of rock’s most lauded groups: Queens Of The Stone Age, for whom Grohl has actually drummed on record and on stage over the years, and who both find a mutual home on Silva Artist Management.
“Queens Of The Stone Age were recording their record a block away,” offers Hawkins. “We went back and forth to each other’s studios, and made opposite records.”
“One of the things that was exciting as we were across the parking lot from Queens, making these records, is that it was clear that there are still rock and roll albums to be made,” continues Grohl.
“I’d listen to what Queens were doing and it would be quintessential Queens. It sounds great. And Josh [Homme, Queens Of The Stone Age singer and guitarist] would come over and listen to our stuff, I remember we were playing him Arrows, and he’s like, God, I’m so glad you’re finally making a dark record. I think we inspired each other.”
“A good competitive spirit,” nods Hawkins. “It’s like we want to make a better record than them, and they want to make a better record than us.”
“You know that’s going to be the headline now, right?” laughs Grohl, looking at his drummer.
“But really we just want them to make the best record they’ve ever made, and I think they want us to make the best record,” smiles Hawkins. “I love every one of their records.”
When Music Week turns to Grohl to ask whether he feels rock, as a genre, needs to catch up in the streaming age, the question isn’t even finished when he interjects. He knows exactly where he stands on the subject, and he knows exactly what his goals are.
“Josh and I were texting the other day, and we just thought, Well, let’s just go take over the fucking world together,” beams Grohl. “Let’s do it, why not?”
“There’s a headline!” laughs Hawkins, reverse-zinging his bandmate.
It is a headline that, you suspect, will be coming true throughout the rest of 2017 and beyond.