Taylor Hawkins plays drums in one of the biggest bands in the world but you'd never know it by talking with him. The Foo Fighters' drummer speaks about his heroes in hushed tones and you can just tell he doesn't even consider himself worthy of sitting in the same room with someone like Roger Taylor - one of his big influences.
Even when he's describing his new project called Birds of Satan with guitarist Mick Murphy [My Ruin] and bassist Wiley Hodgden, he tends to be dismissive. For the drummer, it's all about having a good time. "It's just an album and it's just some fun," he says. "I kinda remember John Lennon always having that same kind of attitude. Like, 'It's just f--kin' music.' If it makes your life brighter and better that day then f--kin' A, that's f--kin' amazing. But at the same time, it's just not that big a deal. It's just some fun."
Even the next Foo Fighters record - it's just not that big a deal. Still, it is a remarkable record that showcases his unique approach to rhythm and his gifts as a songwriter. Recalling the likes of the Beatles, Queen and Pink Floyd, the "Birds of Satan" album was recorded in a week while Taylor had time off from his day gig as drummer for the Foo Fighters.
Ultimate-Guitar: Does it mean a lot to you to do a project like the Birds of Satan?
Taylor Hawkins: I mean it does. Mmm, I'm trying to think of the best way to [talk about this]. When I say it's like toilet paper or whatever [a reference Hawkins made earlier], I remember reading articles when I was a kid by Queen. Freddie Mercury would be saying, "Oh, my music is like tissue paper. You use it and after it's done you discard it."
Is that how feel about your music?
I think I was thinking of it that way.
It's a very interesting point of view to have.
In a way I'm trying to just kind of dispel the preciousness people have over their work. "My work," you know? I think Roger Waters is an amazing musician and an amazing conceptualist and all of that. But... [dispels breath] ... I just don't take it seriously. I enjoy it and it's part of my life but it's something people get too precious about.
You have had remarkable success so maybe it's a bit easier to have that type of cavalier attitude as opposed to some new band out there still struggling?
You're right. It's easy for me to sit up in my ivory tower, hahhahhah.
I didn't mean to imply that.
No, but you're right. Yeah, obviously this isn't do or die. But even when it was for me, I swear to you even when it was, I still kind of looked at it like that. It's kind of like two halves - on one side of things is when I'm doing a performance whether it be with the Foo Fighters or the Birds of Satan or Coattail Riders or whatever, I really do for some reason seem to play like it's the last show I'm ever gonna do. I do. At that very moment, it is important. But I don't know - I feel like I'm over-conceptualizing it too much now. It's the most important thing and yet it's not important at all. Does that make sense?
It does. Birds of Satan grew out of yours covers band Chevy Metal. You did songs by the Beatles, Queen and Van Halen. Can you hear those influences on the new album?
Oh, yeah. Of course. I'm not trying to remake any of those things. I would never think I have the talent to do that but I'm absolutely accessing all the licks I've been trying to steal for 20 years.
Did you specifically want to form a trio?
Umm, these kinds of things as with the Coattail Riders and with some certain degree the Foo Fighters, they tend to organically happen. You know what I mean? I thought maybe it should be a trio but then I sometimes think I should have a rhythm guitar player and sometimes I think we should have background singers. I think every time you see this band, it will probably be slightly different like a revolving door in a way.
Was John Lousteau [Foo Fighters, Coattail Riders] the natural choice to produce the album?
Well he's just like one of my best friends and he happens to be the house engineer at the Foo Fighters 606 Studios. He's a very musical guy. He really is. He's not just an engineer. He sings and he's a great drummer and a super musical guy and his pop sensibilities have always been amazing. He's sort of a pop culturalist. Like he can sit there and recite everything off Stripes the movie or we can have an in-depth conversation about "Woman in Love" and Barry Gibb. I can discuss the harmonies and the production of the drums and he's there with you.
He sounds incredibly creative.
The last song on the record "Too Far Gone to See" is just a hyped up demo I had about six years ago by myself. I played everything: the guitars and originally all the bass. He's always been with me when I'm doing those demos and he is my wall to bounce off of. He could very easily be in the band. He's a super, duper important part of the thing and I gave him co-writing on the album as well because he delivered and he was there.
Giving away a piece of the songwriting to a producer is a rare thing.
I was, "Should I sing this here or should I sing that there?" and he'd be, "Sing that there because that's way better." He's helpful and a big part of it. I can't really even say it enough and he's gonna have great success. He really is. I mean he's having great success to a certain degree with us but he'll have his own as well. I know he will. He's always lookin' for bands and he's always recording a demo for people on spec and he's into it.
Where did a song like "Too Far Gone to See?"
It's a riff to start with [sings riff] and I f--k around with that and record that on my phone. Then I'll start humming a melody over it. The same way anybody writes songs I suppose or at least people that are sort of not real musicians, heh. I don't sit there writing out notes or anything like that. I don't even know the notes I'm playing to be honest. I don't know if it's an E or D or G - I don't know any of that.
I think most writers use that method of banging out melodies on an iPhone.
You just figure it out and you go in and do a demo and change a melody here and a lyric there. Like I said that was built off a demo and if I played you the demo you'd be, "Oh, it's basically the same just not quite as good." So basically I went in and took that demo and replaced all the vocals and sang 'em as good as I could. Wiley [Hodgden] came in and played bass on it.
Who played guitar?
Mick [Murphy, guitar] was out of town actually so Pat Smear happened to be there. I said, "Hey, I need a little bit of guitar at the very end of the song." The hard guitars at the end are Pat. Other than that it's all me and Wiley. It was sort of a last minute addition to the album as well because our management and the record company both said, "If you put one more song on here it can be an album and not an EP." I was like, "OK, f--k it."
You and Pat obviously know each other really well from the Foo Fighters.
The reason I got Pat to play on it in the first place is because I had four demos that were unused. I said, "Pat, let me play you these. Which is the best one?" Pat's got great ears too and Dave listens to Pat a lot. He just said, "That's the song" and I said, "OK, cool." So we did it and I said, "Hey man, come in and put a little bit of your f--kin' dirty guitar on there for me" and he was happy to. So proud to have him on the record.
On the opposite end stylistically from "Too Far Gone to See" is the opening track "The Ballad of the Birds of Satan." Where did that come from?
That comes from literally just saying, "I wanna have a 'Station to Station' on here or I wanna have a 'The March of the Black Queen' or I wanna have a 'Band On the Run' on here. I wanna have a Jane's Addiction 'Three Days' on here."
You knew you wanted an epic track?
I wanted "The Revealing Science of God" on here and I wanted to have a "Supper's Ready" on here. It was, "I want one of those songs on this record. How do we do it?" Literally it's a piecemeal of three dudes sitting around going through their phones finding riffs they never used and just trying to musically connect them. We wrote it and recorded it in one day. I'm not saying like, "Can you believe we did that?" and I'm not trying to make a big deal about it but we did.
That is very ambitious to record a song like that in one day.
I'm proud of that. The first riff is Dave's, the second riff is Mick's, the third riff is Dave's and the fourth thing is mine. Then everything else from the Sabbath breakdown to the end is a song I had called "Old Tomato," which was actually a pun for ultimatum.
Does everybody in the band sing on the record?
Me and Wiley are. One of my best friends from childhood is a guy named John Davidson - not the guy from That's Incredible, hah hah - and he's the singer in Yes now, which is so unbelievable. It's out of this world that we were kids listening to that stuff - that weird, old prog rock stuff - and he's the f--kin' singer in the band. He sang harmonies on "Raspberries" and "Pieces of the Puzzle."
Your singing on the album was great for a drummer.
Hah hah hah.
Seriously can you sense a growth in your singing?
Yeah, I can. It's two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes I think I'm really killing it and I did the Jimmy Kimmel [television] thing the other night and it just wasn't quite ready. To be honest when I listened to my vocal I'm like, "It could have been f--kin' better." I actually tried in-ears at the very last minute, which is a monitor system that pretty much everybody uses now except for the Foo Fighters. None of us really do. So at the last minute I'm like, "Oh wow, I can really hear myself" but it was a mistake.
Being a great singer is so much different than being a great drummer or guitar player.
I don't really rate myself as a singer. I can get the job done when I have to. I love backing harmonies. It's one of my favorite things in the world to do - it's like making a f--king burrito or something. I love the playback of it. It's so fun to stick a bunch of harmonies together and go, "OK, put 'em all up" and see how it sounds. I get such a joy from doing that. I really, really do. So sometimes I'll drive down the road and I'll say, "Let's have a listen to the Birds of Satan today. Let's see how I feel about it today." And I'll go, "You know what? It's OK, man. You're singing OK. You're OK." Sometimes I'll listen and I'll go, "F--k, why are you doing this to yourself? Who are you kidding?" Insane moments of self-doubt over and over again. But you know? Whatever.
It really is amazing to hear you talk about your own voice that way.
I never put myself in the category of John Lennon or even Roger Waters. I think a lot of people always said, "Ah, Roger Waters - he's tone deaf. He can't really sing." I dunno, man. Is he gonna be an opera singer? No, he's not. But a lot of my favorite singers are not good singers. They know how to beat the s--t out of a song.
Who are some of your favorite signers?
Perry Farrell is one of my favorite singers of all time. If Axl Rose's singing coach was there at a Jane's Addiction show, he'd sit there and tell you every other note is flat or sharp and that's fine. Because who gives a f--k? He's singing the song with his heart and soul.
Attitude and passion are big parts of being a great singer.
If you meet a girl and she's perfect looking except she's got a crooked tooth or she's a little bigger nose than a good, normal-sized perfect Hollywood nose, those imperfections sometimes become the sauce that makes the chick sexy.
It's like the whole is better than the sum of the parts.
When I think of a band like Queen, if they would have had Supertramp's drummer, they would have not been good. They would have been too perfect - they would have sounded like Supertramp. Not that that's bad but you know what I mean. Roger Taylor is sort of the punk rock of Queen. He really is. He's got a trippy, kind of interesting feel and he opens up his hi-hat every time he hits the snare and he doesn't sound like a session drummer. Let's put it that way but he's got amazing feel and he's got a voice all his own on the drums.
Yet Roy Thomas Baker wanted to can him when they were making the first Queen record. Can you imagine canning Roger Taylor? It's insane isn't it? I swear to god it almost happened.
Besides Queen, who impacted you musically?
I would talk about John Lennon and Joe Walsh. I'd talk about Perry Farrell and Jane's Addiction. Stephen Perkins as a drummer. I would talk about Stewart Copeland and the Police as a band. I would definitely talk about David Lee Roth-era Van Halen. You know the list goes on and on.
Do the more classic rock drummers like John Bonham or Keith Moon feed you in any way?
Yes, absolutely. Of course John Bonham was the greatest rock and roll drummer of all time. There's no question about that and everybody knows that. He could have played on the Steely Dan records. He really could have.
I know what you mean.
He was that good. John rode that line perfectly. He could have been session drummer but he was also a great rock drummer.
[Note: At this point, the publicist broke into the conversation and said there was time for a couple more questions].
Can you talk a bit about the new Foo Fighters album that is being recorded in eight cities and will be documented on an HBO special?
I can't believe that world knows that [just minutes before this interview took place, a press release was emailed about the new Foo Fighters album]. They're not supposed to and someone opened their mouth.
Can you talk about it at all?
All I can tell you from the engine room, which is where I sit, that we're playing awesome right now. We're really reaching where we want to go musically speaking as a band right now and moreso than ever. That is super duper exciting watching it unfold. We have absolute super confidence as far as our playing is concerned.
Anything you can say about the music?
The songs are interesting and awesome. Obviously the concept, which I guess has been sort of confirmed [recording in eight different cities] but I can't really speak too much about it because I still don't want to be the guy. We want it to be special and surprising. I think overall the entire campaign of it all or however you want to put it is gonna be great. And if you're a Foo Fighters fan, I think you're gonna love it. I really do. If you're not? You're gonna hate us even more, hah hah hah.
Thank you for your time, Taylor. I wish we had more time.
Is there anything else you want to ask me? I'm OK right now and I have time. I'm actually enjoying this one.
That's great. Does playing in the Birds of Satan feed what you do with the Foo Fighters?
I don't know. It's a funny thing. There's no defining moment where I go, "Oh, yeah. Is it because I did that?" There's none of that. So, no. But having said that, at the same time what it does is it keeps me sane. I have to be doing something; I have to be working on something. I have to have a little something on my phone to listen to that I'm working on that's scrutinized. I have to be in that mode all the time. I have to and Dave even more than me. Dave's got a million things going on always.
It sounds like the journey is as important to you as the destination.
It's kinda like if you stop in life, you might freak out. If you stop, sit there and take stock. You gotta stop every once in a while and I do. I do it every day. I jump on my mountain bike every day I'm home and I get out there and go through all my evil thoughts and my positive thoughts and my anger and my happiness. Everything. But yeah, I think it does feed it in that sense but it just feeds our lives as artists if you will without sounding pretentious.
But musically there is no crossover from the Birds of Satan to the Foo Fighters?
On a musical level? I don't think so. It's hard to imagine that if the Birds of Satan did a song that sounds like Queen that we're gonna go, "Wow, that's a really good idea. Let's do that on a Foo Fighters record." It's Dave's boat and we all work on it, hah hah hah. So wherever he decides to go musically, we just go.
With the Birds of Satan, it's your boat?
All of a sudden in a much smaller way, I have to be on point. With singing and checking t-shirt design or "Should we have these lights?" Doing all of that and with the Foo Fighters, I just show up and play and maybe do a little bit of background singing. There's definitely a forced comfort in that. I watch Dave just pulling his hair out all the time putting all of these pieces together. "Gotta go do this. Gotta write lyrics."
You don't feel that pressure?
When I write a lyric for the Birds of Satan - who cares? But when Dave writes a lyric for the Foo Fighters it's like, "Oh well, this is for real. A million people are gonna wanna know how good this is." So that's a lot for him and I get to sit back and go, "Yeah bro, that was a good idea." You know what I mean?
You do occupy a unique place in having this day gig - which is a term you used in our interview a while back - with the Foo Fighters and also performing in your own band.
A day gig? I feel like that's a disrespectful way to put it and I don't mean that. It's the mothership for all of us. Occasionally Dave's playing with other people and doing other things but it's everybody's sort of day gig - it's everybody's home base if you will. That's what it is.
Dave encourages you to go out and pursue projects like the Birds of Satan?
Yeah, he helped me write some of the new songs and he even played guitar on three of the songs. He enjoys it. He looks at it probably the same way I do - it's just more music and it's just more fun. It's like going to the gym or playing a pickup basketball game. It's as simple as that or going for a bike ride with your friends. It's not like [in serious voice], "Let's sit down and write some music." It's like, "Let's go f--k around and have some fun. If something good comes from it, good."
That is such a positive way to look at music but like you said earlier, musicians get really precious about what they do.
When I started Birds of Satan, it wasn't anything yet. It was literally, "OK, let's see what happens. I have a week in-between Shifty [Chris Shiflett] doing his record and Dave doing his things and Nate [Mendel] doing his things. I have one week at 606 - let's see what we can do with it." What we did was what you hear. If it was really bad or if I felt it lacked energy or a spark, I think I would have been able to notice that.
You could have been honest enough with yourself if it hadn't met expectations?
Because I've had miles of failed supergroup attempts and failed solo album attempts. I got demos up the a-s, man, from 20 years. So if I didn't feel like it was connecting with me and everybody else who was working on it and if I felt it wasn't up to snuff, I would have shelved it. It would have been another one of those things.
Can you talk about any of those supergroups you referenced?
At one point me and Elliott Easton were talking about forming a new, little band together. I was gonna do a band with - you're gonna like this - Trevor Rabin and Eric Avery. We were gonna do a power trio. I mean we talked about it and I was on the phone with both of 'em. You have these ideas and you wonder, "What if we had got in a room together?" I love Trevor. He's a sweetheart and I love Eric Avery but, hah - what would have happened? I don't know. Maybe nothing and maybe it would have been horrible and maybe it was too many ideas. Too many concepts.
But the Birds of Satan did work out.
This just happened to work out just like the Coattail Riders did. Because when I recorded the first Coattail Riders record, it was once again a demo project. I look at everything as a demo until it actually is out, hah. It ceases to be a demo and now it is public property and a record now.
The fact that you only had a week to do the record may have contributed to the energy and the focus as well.
Yeah, Van Halen I was done in one week. I mean c'mon - you're not gonna get any better than that. That's a different thing because on the same hand I can flip that coin over and say I love Queen and "A Night at the Opera," which was the most expensive record ever made at that point. They worked on "Bohemian Rhapsody" for four weeks alone. So I like 'em both.
Have you approached albums from both ends?
Red Light Fever? I worked on that for a long f--kin' time and you can hear it. I labored over it. Is that a bad thing? I don't know. It's just different but there is something to what you and me were talking about with Van Halen I, Black Sabbath's first record and Led Zeppelin's first couple of records. You know - it is it. And the Beatles' first couple records. They did "Meet the Beatles" like in what? One day and that's unbelievable.
Scary. What it kinda does if you are limited to a certain amount of time, it kinda throws your cards out on the table. And says, "OK, how good are you really? We know you're good if you sit there and scrutinize every note for six months. We know you can make a product." And that's OK too because I like those products. I love Abba, the Bee Gees and Olivia Newton-John's solo stuff.
All of that stuff. It's just two sides of it. It's like those are my two favorite things. It's either like it's gotta be labored over and when I say labored over, I don't mean by today's standards. I don't like the way records are made. Period. I just don't.
I don't like computers. I don't like people recording on computers especially if it's a rock band. I don't need to hear some band doing some fake, plastic surgery version of their band. I'm not interested. Remember when you were a kid and you put a playing card in your spokes so it sounded like [makes engine sound] a motorcycle. Remember that?
I remember exactly.
There's records that sound like that when it's going by on the tape machine because they've had so many f--kin' edits. To me that still is a human thing.
It's the difference between CGI and Star Wars effects. When I say Star Wars, I don't mean the last one like 10 years ago. Something about the werewolf in American Werewolf in London versus American Werewolf in Paris, which was all done on computers. It's just not as scary and it's not as good. It's not as real.
You're talking about the difference between digital and analog, right?
I think music has that same thing. Even if you labor over it on tape and put things in Eventide to try and tune a vocal here and there, Queen did all of that. Queen used to tune vocals with an Eventide but it's not like a computer. It's just not. It's a human feel and you have to have feel to do these things. You don't need feel with computers - you just need a mouse.
The sound of drums in a computer can be pitiful.
Oh god, yeah. When I hear some modern, heavy metal drummer doing the fastest kick drum beats in the world, yeah, you can tell it's been completely quantized. It means nothing to me.
It's impossible to understand what that is.
Well, me and you are old first of all, hah hah hah.
I'm sure I'm older than you but these drummers just don't have any sense of...
Taste. That's why thank God we have Jack White and things like that where he said, "Really? How about let's go back the other way and have this girl playing drums that can barely play drums." But she's got great little parts and he's a guy who's got a great voice but he's sort of out of control too the whole time. You know what I mean?
The guitar sounds like it's about to explode the whole time and it sounds like it's held together with duct tape. It's almost like Crazy Horse in a way. It's that same concept?
Neil Young's band?
Neil Young's Crazy Horse is one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. Period. They were f--kin' the best. I remember reading an interview with David Crosby talking about Neil Young and he said, "Why would you want to play with guys that sing out of tune and play out of time? I don't understand that." I don't remember exactly what was said or how it was said but Neil Young understands what rock and roll is.
What is rock and roll?
My definition and possibly yours as well is it's gotta be from the gut. I'm sorry but a lot of this modern music we're discussing now, it's just not really getting me in the gut. That's alright. If it's making other people happy and they like it then who the f--k am I? That's just what I like and I'm sure there are 20-year old DJs who sit there and say, "Oh, f--k you. You old man. This is our time. This is what's really happening now."
Certainly there are one or two young artists out there cursing both of us.
You know what? Good. I don't wanna know.
We're talking about artists like Supertramp, Queen, Pink Floyd and Zeppelin who made records 30 or 40 years ago and those bands still matter. Isn't part of making music having the desire to create something lasting?
I do but unfortunately we also come from a different time where you had to wait to get to a payphone to call your buddy. Or you actually had to have a conversation with somebody. Not somebody sitting there texting while you're trying to have a conversation. Nobody is really listening anymore and nobody is f--king paying attention anymore.
It is a fast-food world.
It's just a different time, man. I realize that sometimes and I have to know that the kids look at our time - and I'm not even talking that long ago in the 1990s - as archaic, dude. I don't know if you've seen this thing on YouTube where they're handing kids like a Sony Walkman and they're like, "What is this? I don't f--kin' have a clue." That's kind of crazy but it is what it is and it's exciting nonetheless.
If we were here in another 100 years, the world would be unrecognizable.
I think it'll go so far in one way, which will bring things to the other side. I don't know if there's ever gonna be as great a cleanout as Nirvana was. It was like the world changed in one week. It was insane. Unfortunately I don't think we'll ever see that. A big movement like that is hard to happen now because of so much information. What do you think?
You're absolutely right. Too much information.
Well, at least we got to see some of it. I think there's still gonna be things though. I'm waiting for another Eddie Van Halen and someone to redefine the guitar again. I remember hearing Tom Morello and hearing Rage Against the Machine the first time and going, "He's doing something I never heard before that's for damn sure." You can never take that away from them.
Very cool band.
I saw them open up for Porno For Pyros and I'd never even heard of them. I thought the name was so cool though. "Rage Against the Machine? Oh, my god." And dude, they came out onstage and literally destroyed it. I'm waiting for that again. Maybe it's not gonna happen for me or you - maybe it's gonna happen in a different way for someone else. It's just different.
Interview by Steven Rosen