Foo Fighter’s Chris Shiflett On His New Country Album & His Pot-Induced Freakout At The Big Day Out
Written by Emmy Mack on 10th April, 2017
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Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett is the living embodiment of being a little bit country and a little bit rock n’ roll. Though he’s best known as the lead axeman for one of the biggest rock acts on the planet, the prolific muso is a grain-fed country boy at heart.
The rock n’ roll cowboy and his backing band The Dead Peasants are about to serve up their third full-length helping of blue-collar country punk in their 2017 LP West Coast Town, and Shiflett kindly took the time to sit down for a gasbag with us and school us on the finer points of what is – to many Foos fans – an outlandish genre.
Naturally, our convo veered in the direction of his other band as well (the one with Dave Grohl), who are rumoured to be working on a brand new album following their hiatus-busting surprise UK show and spot on this year’s Glastonbury lineup. Despite our best efforts, however, Shiflett bucked most of our Q’s like a savvy bronco (clearly not his first rodeo), although the string-slinger did spin a killer yarn about some adventures he had while touring with the Fooies at the 2000 Big Day Out.
On the subject of touring though, Shiflett assigned us the task of starting a petition to bring his solo band to Australia to tour on the country circuit, and it seems the success of that petition will determine whether or not we see him visit our shores as a solo artist or with Foo Fighters next up (so no pressure!)
Catch our full chat with the multitalented muso (and cheeky rascal) that is Chris Shiflett below.
Hey mate! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today. So for many of us who mainly know you from your work with Foo Fighters, can you tell us a bit about your relationship with country music and what drew you to the genre?
Chris Shiflett: People are always curious about that, but I really don’t have a great answer! I don’t know quite how to explain it, it’s been a sort of gradual process over the years of just diving into different kinds of music. I like a lot of different kinds of music, but country’s definitely one of the [main ones]. And I can’t exactly define why it appeals to me but it just does, you know? I just love it.
Have you always been a kind of closet country boy or did your taste for it develop later on in life?
CS: I definitely didn’t grow up listening to country music, it was something I came to later. It was sort of just a slow progression, you know? I liked Hank Williams, and Hank Williams led me to wanna hear other things like that. You know how it is. Once you sort of get into something, you start hanging out with other people who are into the same thing, and then they start turning you on to other bands. Like, “Oh you like Buck Owens? You gotta listen to Wynn Stewart! And if you like that, you should check out some Del Reeves,” and you just kinda keep going down that rabbit hole.
When it comes to you as a performer, is there much of a difference between how you feel when you’re playing your solo stuff to how you feel when you’re, say, performing with Foo Fighters?
CS: Yeah, definitely. The key difference is – in my solo stuff – I have to sing. And play guitar. And sort of be the bandleader. And I’ve usually been the sideman in whatever band I was in, I was always the guitar player. So I think that is certainly the biggest difference, and a lot harder in a lot of ways. Just all those pesky lyrics that you have to remember!
Yeah I’ve always found people who can sing & play at the same time so impressive. You almost need two brains to concentrate on it all.
CS: Seriously, I’m so senile. It’s so hard, they’re even my own lyrics and it’s just so hard to remember ‘em! I’m the worst with that.
Well we’d love to see you come and try not to forget your lyrics Down Under sometime soon. Have you ever looked at playing one of our country music festivals here, like Tamworth or Bluesfest?
CS: Oh, I’d love to. I mean, I haven’t had an opportunity to do that yet. But, you know, maybe we’ll get a chance to do that on this record. If I get the opportunity, I definitely will, I love touring and travelling around in Australia. It’s just one of my favourite places in the whole wide world.
Awesome, we should talk to someone about getting you down here!
CS: I think you’ve gotta make that happen! You’re at an advantage ‘cause you’re already down there and you probably know tonnes of people that have something to do with that festival and could put that together. So I am handing over the authority to you to act on my behalf.
[Nervous laughing] OK, let’s do this. We won’t let you down! So back to the new album — for Foo Fighters fans who might not necessarily be familiar with your solo material, what do you want them to know about ‘West Coast Town’?
CS: Well it’s a lot of different influences combined into one thing. To me, it’s equal parts Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, The Rolling Stones, Social Distortion… just like rock n’ roll and honky-tonk and punk rock, all just kinda thrown together in a blender, and then it’s just sort of my version of those things.
So you really are a little bit country & a little bit rock n’ roll?
CS: [Laughs] Totally, yeah. Exactly. Not as much as legends Donnie & Marie [Osmond], but yes, I try.
For anyone who might be going down the country music rabbit hole for the first time and discovering the genre, what are some of your top recommendations for artists that they should try checking out?
CS: Well, the stuff that appeals to me the most are the guys like Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart. Merle Haggard is a big one. I mean, you could spend a lifetime just exploring Merle Haggard’s records. You know? Waylon Jennings and all those cats. I love all that stuff. I love that era, the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s era of honky tonk and outlaw country and all that stuff. And once you do that then you start to sort of dig into all the other stuff – Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clarke – there’s just so many of ‘em. It’s endless.
As in every genre of music, I’m sure there’s a standard of what constitutes ‘good country’ and ‘bad country’… In your opinion, what separates or defines one from the other?
CS: Well you know, it’s tough. I think it’s just personal taste. That’s the funny thing about music, there’s no right or wrong, there’s really no good or bad. Something that I might love, you might hate. I know a lot of people who play in mainstream country bands or that are mainstream country artists and they’re hardworking people that’ve earned their spot just like anybody else. And I feel like mainstream country music is like the whipping boy or last resort for anybody who wants to make fun of music genres [laughs] You know what I mean? You’ve gotta like what you like. With culture in general, I don’t like a lot of mainstream anything. I don’t like mainstream rock music, it just doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t like mainstream movies, mainstream TV shows, pretty much mainstream anything just isn’t my taste. But, you know, I’m like a grumpy, jaded middle-aged man [laughs].
So Taylor Swift, for instance, wouldn’t really be your bag?
CS: Not necessarily. Although I’m sure she has some great songs.
While I’ve got you, I do have to ask you about Foo Fighters… so the hiatus is over! Is there a new album on the way?
CS: Well you know, we’ve got some shows coming up this summer. I’m not sure what the plan is for a new record. I’m sure there will be one at some point, but right now we’ve just got a bunch of gigs coming up this summer and some festivals. I’m sure that there’ll be more coming down the pipe. And when the Powers That Be that manipulate this kind of information want the world to know, they’re gonna tell everybody! [Laughs cheekily]
[Laughs] Well hopefully that happens soon! So you mentioned the gigs that are coming up. I have to ask… what the chances are of us seeing you guys back Down Under any time soon?
CS: Not anytime real soon, but we always tour Australia when we have a new album so no doubt that will be coming down the pipe at some point. They don’t tell me anything! I’m the last guy — you’ll know before I know, I guarantee it.
Yeah, yeah, a likely story [laughs] I realise I’m totally milking you for info here.
CS: Milk away!
Next time you guys come to Australia, do you reckon we might see you on any festival bills? I don’t think you’ve played one here since the Big Day Out back in the day?
CS: Does Big Day Out not exist anymore?
No, it doesn’t. It sadly died.
CS: That’s too bad, that was really one of my favourite touring experiences of my entire life, the first time we did Big Day Out. It was 2000 and it was like us and The Hellacopters and Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros and Primal Scream… I mean, that was one of the most amazing experiences of my whole life. It was the first time I’d ever toured around Australia, for starters, but it was just off the hook the whole time.
Hopefully another festival will pop-up soon that you can come and play that’ll be just as good.
CS: As I was answering that question, a bunch of images were going through my head and I was going “nope, can’t talk about that, can’t talk about that, can’t talk about that. Think I’m gonna have to save that one for the memoirs!” [laughs] But it really was the greatest tour of all time.
Oh! Are there any stories you can share that won’t get you into too much trouble?
CS: Well we would stay in the same hotel as, like, Joe Strummer and his band. And I would see him in the lobby and see him here and there at the festival and I was such a nervous fanboy every time I was around him that I couldn’t get two words out. And there was one night in Melbourne – it was a night off and everyone was at the bar at the hotel and having fun – and Joe Strummer was in there and all the Primal Scream guys, it was just one of those crazy nights. And I was sitting at this big table and slowly working my way to the other end where Joe Strummer was sitting – I was making my way to sit right next to him [laughs]. And I was finally having that moment I’d dreamed of, of just having a conversation with the dude and talking about whatever, and he rolled a HUGE joint and lit it up and handed it to me, and I was sitting there going “Oh my god, I’m smoking a joint with Joe Strummer!” And you’ve gotta understand, I don’t smoke pot and I never have. So next thing you know, it was like full on acid trip, freaking out! It went from like the greatest moment of my life to like… I ran up to my room and passed out in the midst of a paranoid freakout.
Oh damn. At least you remember the good parts though?
CS: I do, I do.
So I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t keep pestering you about this Foo Fighters stuff. Do you guys have any kind of timeframe for the new record, even just when you’re aiming to start recording it?
CS: I don’t know, I don’t think anybody knows. Yeah, who knows? When the stars align and the sun and the moon are in the house of Jupiter it will be time.
[Laughing with defeat] OK I accept that. Although we did hear you guys bust out two tracks that we’ve never heard before when you played this recent surprise gig in the UK… Do you know whether they’re going to end up on the record or is it still too early to know?
CS: It certainly seems feasible that that could happen [clearly taking the piss] although I have no information on it at this time.
OK wise guy. How bout this: Have you written many other new songs for a potential new record so far?
CS: Well that assumes that we’re writing songs and writing a record, which I have not confirmed [Laughs] Haha, I got you!
[Laughing] This is definitely not your first rodeo, I’ll give you that. Well one of the new songs you played the other night – which the internet seems to be referring to as ‘Run With Me’ – sounds super heavy, almost a bit of a Motorhead speed rock vibe to the guitars. Hypothetically… if you WERE working on a new record… would you be keen to take it in more of that kind of heavier direction?
CS: Yeah, you know the heavy stuff is always fun to play live, it’s perfect for that environment.
Something else I’m really interested to know. After so much longevity and success with Foo Fighters, when you guys go to record new music now, is there any pressure to write songs that are likely to be successful commercially? Or are you at a point now when you can just say “Fuck it, we’re going to write whatever the hell we want”?
CS: You know, Dave [Grohl] writes all the songs in Foo Fighters, it’s really his band. But I don’t recall a time when that’s ever been discussed when we’re making a record. I mean, I don’t know what’s going through Dave’s mind, I don’t know if he’s thinking those thoughts. I kind of doubt it. But yeah, you know, it just never comes up, we just record and usually at the end of the recording process our manager or somebody will say “Oh, that should be the first single” you know what I mean? It’s usually not even the one that the band thinks it should be so who knows?
Do you think it’s more likely we’ll see you come to Australia next with Foo Fighters or touring your solo album?
CS: That depends on how successful your petition is to bring me down there for my solo tour! [Laughs]
We’re going to actually do this. It’s going to happen!
CS: I would love it! It’s hard enough to put dates together up here in the States. You know, touring nowadays is very crowded, it’s like, everybody’s touring more than they used to so it’s just a crowded field. It’s difficult to do it here and, like, we live here, you know? [laughs]
And I imagine the long, expensive flights to Australia and visa fees don’t help much?
CS: I know, I know. I mean, I’ve done it before – I had a band called Jackson United that toured down there a couple of times. It’s certainly possible and I would love to do it.
Chris Shiflett’s new solo album ‘West Coast Town’ is due out Friday, 14th April.