IN FOO FIGHTER COUNTRY
When the call came through asking me if I’d like to interview Chris Shiflett, there was only a very momentary pause before I gave my reply. The kind of pause that comes from being asked a question that you’re almost afraid you misheard because if you did, the sense of disappointment would be just gigantic. Crushing, almost. But on the other hand, if you didn’t mishear, if you did actually hear what you thought you did, well then…something potentially awesome was about to happen at the end of that pause!
Chris Shiflett, of course, is the lead guitarist with rock band the Foo Fighters, who are without a shadow of a doubt, and by any man’s measure, one of the world’s greatest bands of the modern rock era. But, as epic a role as that is to have on your bio, Chris is way more than just the Foo Fighters lead guitarist. He’s also Chris Shiflett of Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants. And the Chris Shiflett who gave us the honky tonk and country covers collection with the gloriously Texan inspired title of ‘All Hat And No Cattle.’ And that same Chris Shiflett who, as host of his own podcast, has interviewed men and women of the music world who have literally inspired millions all around the world. And last April Chris released his latest solo offering, ‘West Coast Town.’
So, was I interested in chatting with Chris? Well, that pause I mentioned was all of a half a heartbeat long (so not very!). All I needed to know was when!
Well, that moment came earlier today, and as ways to spend a Wednesday morning in June go, it’ll take some beating, that’s for sure.
Every song on ‘West Coast Town’ was recorded in about two or three takes. I began by asking Chris if that had been part of his plan at the beginning or did things just naturally start to go in that direction, so that’s how he kept things going?
“Well, I think that’s how Dave Cobb, the guy who produced my record, normally operates, ya know. I went into it really with no plan, other than I was just gonna follow his lead. And listen. And he said right from the beginning, I think even before we tracked a song, he said something about how sometimes you can go past the good takes. And I think that he was right about that. So I think a big part of it for me was just not over-thinking it, and just trusting his instinct on when we got the best take.”
Is there a little bit more pressure or a little bit more freedom involved in trying to capture a song in as few as two or three takes?
“I think it’s probably more freedom really. I mean, the way that we made this record, I didn’t go in with a band. So it wasn’t like I had a group of musicians that I was rehearsing with, and demoing, and doing all that sort of thing. So for everyone in the room, but me, when we would start working on a song, that was the first time they’d heard it. So it really was very fresh. We would just run through it with acoustic guitars a couple of times, kinda make some tweaks to the arrangement, and then jam on it a couple of times, and then press record. And that was that.”
So in essence, once in the studio his songs actually ended up being new again for Chris himself, too?
“Oh big time, yeah. Cos’ we were changing them so much that I was having to adapt to the changes just like everybody else. And really, and this is no exaggeration when I say this, I was not paying close attention to what anybody else was doing. It’s true because I was just trying to focus on what I was was doin’! Like, I was tryin’ to nail down my take, ya know. Si I wasn’t even thinkin’ about what anybody else was doin’.”
In putting ‘West Coast Town’ together, did Chris have a vision in mind of the kind of album he wanted to end up with, or was it more a case of looking at the collection of songs he had available at a certain point and then working out a way to best fit some of them together?
“Well I definitely had a vision for what I wanted to do, but ya know, it changed a lot once I got out to Nashville and made the record. If you were to listen to the demos i made of the songs before I went out there, they changed a lot! And for the better, too. So, I think it’s the same with any album, ya know. You go into it sorta thinkin’ it’s gonna go in one direction, but it kinda goes into a different place ultimately. You can’t really predict these things.”
Given that Chris writes so much, I wondered if it ever gets a little bit frustrating if his other musical commitments (being in the Foo Fighters) maybe prevent him from being able to release as many of his own songs as he’d like to, or as often as he’d like to? Or would that even be the case at all?
“No, and you know it’s funny because I’m goin’ into a Foo Fighter tour like this week, where we’re gonna go and do a bunch of festivals this summer. I’ve been so sorta consumed for so many months, because not only did I make ‘West Coast Town’, but it takes a long time then to put your record out. So all my energy kinda focused on that, ya know, and all the little bits and pieces of getting a record out, then going out on tour, cos’ I was touring in the States. So I’m actually really looking forward to this month of shows. Cos’ I know that I’m gonna have a lot of time to sit with my guitar in hotel rooms all over the place. And I’ve got a bunch of half-finished song ideas that I want to hammer out. So it’s kinda the opposite [of being frustrating]. I mean, when Foos are workin’ a lot, of course I’m focused on that. But there’s always lots of time to work on my own stuff as well.”
As well as being a member of one of the world’s biggest and coolest bands, and working on all of his own musical projects, Chris has also been hosting his ‘Walking The Floor’ podcast since 2013, for which he gets to interview all kinds of amazing artists. But how did ‘Walking The Floor’ come about in the first place?
“Well the initial idea actually came from my friend Joe, who’s one of the guys who owns SideOneDummy Records, who put my records out. It was around the time that I put out that ‘All Hat And No Cattle’ album. He said, hey, you should make a podcast, it would help promote your record. And I was like, yeah, that’s a good idea, ya know. And then I sorta thought, well what would my podcast be? And at the time, the only one I listened to was the Mark Maron podcast, so I just kinda modelled it after that. It sort of evolved into mostly being focused on Americana and country artists. It’s fun, ya know, and it’s super educational for me to get to sit and talk with people like Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard, and all of these guys that I looked up to. To get to hear their story in their words, and get to have a little conversation with them, it’s cool.”
Obviously being in a band like Foo Fighters brings with it plenty of experience of interview situations. But that apart, did Chris have any kind of journalistic background or anything of that nature before ‘Walking The Floor’?
“None at all! [laughs]. And I’ll tell ya what, man, it has really given me a much bigger respect for people who do interviews, ya know. Cos’ it’s not always easy! You go into an interview with your prepared list of questions, but then the conversation can take some crazy left turn and you kinda just have to react to it. And of course you know from my podcast that it’s like a long-form conversational interview. I always prepare a bunch of notes and questions and have some different things that I want to ask people about, but my goal at every interview is that I never have to look at my questions, that I never have to look at my notes. Cos’ if I can do that you just sort of stay in the flow with it.”
As well as the artists Chris has already mentioned, he’s also interviewed people like Steve Earle, Robbie Fulks, Brad Paisley, and Imelda May for his podcast. But does he have a favourite?
“My favourite interview? God, I mean there’s been so many. The fact that I got to interview Merle Haggard sticks out, that’s definitely one of them. That was a great conversation and he passed away not too long after that, maybe six or eight months later. So that one I’m really proud of. Some of the other ones then, well Lucinda Williams was really fun. And I was nervous, ya know, cos’ I had never met her and I just didn’t know what to expect, and it was Valentine’s Day! Sometimes when you interview someone that you’re such a big fan of, I go into super-nervous. And I was nervous to interview her. But she was very welcoming and disarming. And also, of my recent ones, Marty Stuart was amazing, Rodney Crowell was incredible. There’s been a bunch, man.”
And is there anyone who he’d love to talk with but it just hasn’t happened yet?
“There’s a lot! Yeah, I mean there’s so many. I would love to interview Chris Stapleton. I would love to interview Margo Price. I would love to interview Loretta Lynn, that would be amazing. It’s an endless list, there’s so many that I still haven’t gotten to yet.”
Something that I, as a writer myself too, really love about Chris is the fact that he works so hard on the craft of songwriting. He tries to write every day, he’s taken a songwriting workshop, and he’s even once considered joining a storytelling group in order to see how that might make him a better writer. So from a songwriting point of view, I wondered what has been Chris’s proudest moment, and also, has there been anything like a point he’d describe as the lowest?
“Well basically every album I’ve done of my own songs, up until this one, after I had done them there was so many things that I wanted to change. I think with lyrics, I used to write the lyrics almost as an after-thought. I didn’t spend enough time revising and editing, and that I regret. When I look back now and look at my earlier songwriting, I think the best ones were the ones that were like the ones on this record, on ‘West Coast Town’, that really just tell a story, ya know. I think my favourite song off the new album is probably the title track.”
The worse thing about interviews like this is that you have to keep an eye on the clock. Because as sure as there was someone else in the queue for the artist’s time before you, you can bet your life that there’ll be one waiting in line to follow you, too. When you’re talking to someone as interesting as Chris, that’s definitely a downside. But it’s an understandable part of the business of show! So, reluctantly and unfortunately, we arrived all too soon at what had to be our last question.
Chris has stated previously that reading every day is as important to his songwriting as actually writing every day is. I wondered was there anything else he’d advise songwriters to do on a daily basis to help hone and develop their skills?
“Well I think it’s different for everybody. Ya know I talk to a lot of songwriters about their process and everybody has a different version of what they do. I just know that for me, the more that I write, the better I’m writing. And part of that is to do with where you like your confidence level. Like, the more I write, the more confident I am as a writer. The ideas seem to come quicker and easier.”