"My initial response when Dave first told me that we were going to be recording the new record in his garage to tape, without using any computers, was that he couldn't be serious. But he was deadly serious. He wanted something different, he wanted to capture a vibe, and I think he was looking to challenge everyone... including me! The first old school razorblade edits that we did were pretty hairy, though, because some of the tape started flaking. I freaked out and suggested to Dave that we make a back-up to Pro-Tools right away. He told me that if I brought a computer in he would firebomb it and throw it out the window! It meant that we didn't have a safety net, but it was a pretty ballsy decision and there was no going back after that, it's been about 15 years since I recorded a whole record to tape, and it's been a great experience.
"In rehearsals Taylor would give me lots of different options for the songs, and I loved them all. He really understands the Foos' music and he writes his parts very musically to fit. I might be a drummer too, but I can't play even close to how he can... I love those crazy buzz fills he can do, and there was a sort of guilty pleasure for me to hear the wonderful fills he'd drop in.
"Back in the day, if I was working to tape with drummers who couldn't play that well, we could end up doing multiple takes and I'd spend hours doing drum edits because it's such a time-consuming process. With Taylor, though, he'd usually get a master-take all the way through except for maybe a couple of little things, so we decided to just punch-in rather than do edits, to keep the momentum going.
"Taylor is such an amazing drummer to watch, and he and Dave almost have this sixth sense in terms of how they play rhythmically. They really are the core of the band and the chemistry in how they lock in together is pretty amazing. They feed off each other and play off each other, and that is the x-Factor that a lot of bands just don't have. Part of the reason we were able to record the album the way we did is because the band are so damned good.
"When you listen to Wasting Light the drums do have flaws and they are not perfectly edited, but it feels like someone really played them. And that, to me, gives all the tracks a feel and a swing that I think is maybe lacking, not only on the Foo Fighters' last couple of albums, but on so many records being made today. Stuff gets edited to death and it doesn't sound real but, to me, this is the most honest-sounding Foo Fighters' album since their first record, where Dave played everything.
"Yes, the drums could have been cleaner, and they could have had a bit more low end and sharpness, but that's part of the whole vibe. And maybe some other modern rock records sound slicker, but this sounds more real and it breathes - I think because it's not perfectly quantized between the bass, the drums and the guitar. It sounds bigger too, because everyone is not falling exactly on the downbeat.
"In terms of my drum highlights on this record there is an amazing, really ballsy moment on 'Rope' where it just stops and it's dead space, and then they come back in and Taylor plays these crazy fills before it launches into the guitar solo. I think a lot of producers would probably have cut that out, but we wanted to leave it in because we felt we had captured something special. It had a great vibe, and it was fun, cool and completely unexpected. Those kinds of moments on the record are great and Taylor's drumming is incredibly exciting. I also love the intro drum fill on 'Rosemary'. Normally you'd just have a little pick up into it, but we made a moment out of it. 'I Should Have Known' is one of my favourite songs; it's the roughest and darkest sounding track, and it's the song that took the most work. When we originally finished the track I thought it sounded amazing, but Dave thought it was too orchestrated, so we went back and cut it again. We got Taylor to play it more roughly, with messy Keith Moon fills, and then Dave redid his vocal. Instead of singing into the mic, he took a hand-held and plugged it into the guitar amp, so it had this dark, distorted sound to it which completely changed the vibe of the song. Lyrically I think it is one of the most powerful moments on the album, and it's one of my favourite drum tracks.
"Seeing the Foos play the new record in its entirety at the club gigs they have been doing has been such a thrill for me; there is nothing that they can't pull off live, and it's great to hear them sound as tight, as focussed and as energised as they do."
Butch Vig's career in an abbreviated discography: Nirvana's Nevermind. The Smashing Pumpkins' Gish and Siamese Dream. Sonic Youth's Dirty. Garbage, Version 2.0, beautifulgarbage and Bleed Like Me. Green Day's Grammy-winning 2ist Century Breakdown. And now Foo Fighters' Wasting Light, which, bar a couple of tunes on the band's Greatest Hits, marks the first time he's worked with Dave Grohl since Nirvana.
For the past few weeks Vig has been alternating between production work and sifting through some 20 tracks earmarked for Garbage's first album in six years. On a Sunday morning in LA, he guides us through the making of Wasting Light, the origins of which took the form of a double dare. Grohl insisted that they abandon Pro-Tools alchemy and cut the record to analogue tape in his garage. Vig agreed on condition that the Foos deliver their heaviest record yet. Read on...
There's a fairly wide consensus that Wasting Light is the most focused Foo Fighters record in about 15 years. Tell us about the process of making it.
"Well, I think this is the most honest record they've done since The Colour and the Shape and the first record. A lot of it was due to limitations. We did it in Dave's garage, it wasn't a super hi-tech studio, and we did it on tape, so you can't record a million tracks and you can't fix'em. There's no quantizing or Autotune or anything like that, the performances are what they are. The band had to really play well. When they said they wanted to do it on tape, I challenged them. I said, 'You guys have to be bad-ass, you gotta be in top form'".
How did the return to analogue affect your approach as producer?
"I had to sit down and think after I talked to Dave in pre-production: 'Shit man, there's a lot of things I can't do!' But I learned to make records on tape, so I was like, 'Okay, you just gotta remember how to punch in and out, you got to commit to things. And I had to remember how to cut tape. The first song we did, we had a great take, but I liked some of the fills that Taylor (Hawkins) did on the previous take and I was like, 'Okay, I'm gonna go razor blade edit these'. And I was sweating! I used to be able to do 20 edits in half an hour if need be. It took me about 20 minutes to do the first edit! I did a practice run about four times."
Razoring a master tape sounds a bit like operating without anaesthetic.
"One of the first edits I did, the backing fell off the tape. And I thought, 'Shit, is the analogue tape really crappy these days? They don't make good analogue tape anymore?' But the splicing tape itself was this really thick industrial tape, and I realised it was too thick and was pulling the oxide off. And I remembered I used to use this really flimsy, thin, editing tape, it was only a quarter-inch wide. They don't make it anymore, but I remembered there was some back at Smart Studios. So I called one of my guys back there and he said, 'Yeah, I think we have one little reel of it down in the basement.' He sent it to me and I went, 'Hallelujah, we have enough editing tape to get through the record'.
"But the next day we came in and saw this little strand of tape on the doorknob and went, 'Oh no'. Dave's daughter had come in and taken the tape, wrapped it around the doorknob and stretched it all over her room, which was right next to our studio above the garage. I was like: 'Oh my god, that is the only reel of splicing tape I have'. She managed to leave maybe a quarter of an inch on there, so we probably had enough for thirty edits or something. Then we just decided, screw it, we're not even going to edit tape, we're just going to punch in and punch out. We'd all start sweating and I'd stand up: 'I gotta get this punch...' It was fun.
Did you register the significance of working with Dave and Krist for the first time since Nirvana?
"Y'know, I didn't really think about that, but then when I started telling people I was going to work on the Foo Fighters record, they were like, 'That's going to be amazing, people are going to be really excited about it'. And then I started thinking, 'Oh god, yeah, people are going to read our history into it'. And then Dave said something in the press about making the heaviest Foo Fighters record ever. And people kept saying, 'Are you gonna try and make a record like Nirvana's Nevermind?' and I'm like, 'No, it's a different band'. I tried to downplay it a little bit. And then I went, 'Fuck it. If it puts added pressure on the band or on me, that's okay, they're two totally different things'.
"But somehow having a bar set like that makes you work a little harder. I think we looked at the past as something that we wanted to share, to capitalise on. Why not? Why can't we use some of the things we learned on that record on this one? If anyone should be allowed to do it, we should! So I think we did channel a little bit of that vibe: 'What can you do to elevate your game and get the best possible performances?' There were a couple of simple criteria. The songs had to be heavy and they had to be hooky. We kind of wanted all the songs to speak to each other to a certain extent."
Tell us about recording 'Dear Rosemary' with Bob Mould.
I was a huge Husker Du fan, and it was cool for me, because one of the first albums I ever did at Smart Studios was with a band on SST called Tar Babies. Bob was the producer on it and I was the engineer. It was like a four-day record. It was incredible to work with him again. You know, he has a couple of pedals that he routes his guitar through, and he has tape over them so nobody can see how he gets the sound. And when he plays the guitar he doesn't just strum with perfect meter, he hits the guitar and bangs it so these notes ring out of it. The second he starts playing guitar it's like, 'Fuck, that's Husker Du'.
A lot of people have picked up on 'I Should Have Known' as one of the rawest Foo Fighters songs in terms of subject matter.
"That was the most difficult song to record. We tracked it about halfway through the recording process. I loved the song and kind of obsessed on it a little bit, and I think Dave thought I was making it sound too pristine. He kept saying, 'It's too parted out', which meant every section was very carefully arranged. And we went back and listened to a rehearsal that we did, which was a complete trainwreck, because it was the first time Dave showed the band the chords and stuff, no-one really knew what to do. Taylor was playing all these wild fills and Pat Smear was playing noise and feedback, but I remember listening to it going, 'The vibe on that is really exciting'.
"So we went and re-cut the song and left everything much rawer and looser. We set Dave up with a hand¬held mic run into a guitar amp with tape echo, with a really thick distorted sound that bled into all the tracks. It definitely has that John Lennon solo album vibe, dirty and mucky, but really primal sounding. The end of that song is all from the first take he did. He was sitting about four feet away from me and when he finished it nobody said anything for a few seconds and I could see tears welling up in his eyes and he had sung so hard he couldn't even catch his breath. He was channeling something there. It was real. No-one knew what to say. To me that is sort of the cornerstone of the record. Dave won't say that's specifically about Kurt. He's lost some friends to other illnesses and accidents too. It's about dealing with things in the past, and Kurt is definitely a big part of that, trying to make peace with it and move forward in someway. Still when I hear that, the hair on the back of my neck goes up.
Even though a lot of the songs have a retrospective air, there's nothing rose-tinted about them. There's a lot of darkness in the record.
"Even Wasting Light, the title itself, is sort of positive and negative at the same time. A song like 'These Days' is a combination of both. There's still fighting in him. It's like the line from that Dylan Thomas poem, "Rage against the dying of the light": I'm not gonna fucking give up. That's a theme that runs through a lot of Dave's writing, and there's definitely a handful of songs on the record that have that battle against adversarial forces, and the push to try and overcome them. I think that's one of the things people like about the Foo Fighters: that quiet, anthemic everyman quality.They're not a band on a pedestal that's unreachable.
"When I hang out with Dave, everywhere we go, people aren't like, 'Oh my god!' They go, 'Hey Dave'. Everyone thinks they're his best friend. There's a sort of blue collar, meat-and-potatoes thing about the band. They're incredible musicians but they stay within themselves, and they've gotten really good at what they do. That's one of the things I talked about with Dave in early pre-production: 'You guys have to make a record that is you. I know at this point in your career you're trying to figure out what to do, you've made six or seven albums, but the most important thing is to be honest and do what you do best'. And they kind of have. They've taken some detours in the past, but I think they're back to, 'This is who we are. Take it or leave it, this is the Foo Fighters'."
You are back with Dave Grohl and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic for the first time in two decades for this record. What was that like?
It was intense. Krist was guesting on the album and he’s standing there saying “Hey how’s it going?” My brain is going “Holy shit! We haven’t been in a room together for almost 20 years.” Dave opens up a bottle of wine, a friend had sent me a bottle of bootleg whiskey, we start sipping on that, and just sat down and told stories. We were there until about 2 in the morning. It was powerful, all those memories come flooding back
You recorded in Dave’s garage. Are times hard?
Dave set up a tent in the backyard so it was very much like being in the UK at a festival. His daughters would wander in whenever they felt like it. The environment is one of those things that you can’t always put your finger on, but it directly affects the performances and sound. Something about the loose vibe there really translated to the tracks: they weren’t uptight, they just played great.
Which was the hardest track to lay down?
The second to last song ‘I Should’ve Known’ which is one of my favourite songs on the record. Definitely the darkest – I don’t know exactly what the lyrics are about, but I think that Dave is channelling the ghost of Kurt Cobain in there.
Do you ever regret swap and your piano for that $60 drum kit?
No, but I do regret stopping piano lessons. I can still play the piano poorly, cords and melodies. But I wish I’d kept my chops up. As a producer its helpful to be able to quickly figure things out on piano or guitar when you’re working on an arrangement.
As a former cabbie to you ever give taxi drivers shit?
No, never. They are the unsung heroes of the urban environment.
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