CHRIS SHIFLETT: WHAT A FOO BELIEVES
Since 1999 singer, songwriter Chris Shiflett’s day job has been lead guitarist for Foo Fighters, one of the world’s most successful guitar bands. In his downtime he meddles in looser forms of rock ‘n’ roll with sides projects such as the punk-fueled cover band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and his own alt-country outfit Chris Shiflett and The Dead Peasants. Next week Shiflett releases a new album West Coast Town, this time under his own name. Featuring loud, swaggering guitar licks, West Coast Town follows a similar path to the Dead Peasants but this time he’s backed by a crack team of Nashville session guys under the production baton of Grammy Award-winning producer Dave Cobb.
Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to Shiflett about the creation of his new album, West Coast Town.
You began with bands in the punk scene. Where does your country influence come from?
It was just kind of a slow evolution. I’ve always been a music obsessive and when I get into a band or style of music, I want to go as far down the rabbit hole as far you possible can. I don’t remember exactly when or what it was that I got turned onto the west coast Bakersfield stuff but when I did, I just took to it. It struck a chord in me for whatever reason that has stuck with me throughout my adult life. It was little by little over time. I remember I bought a Johnny Cash cassette. Actually I didn’t buy it, a friend bought it for me. I was probably eighteen. At that time I was listening to a lot of hard rock, classic rock, that’s what I grew up on. There was something about that Sun Records era of rockabilly and some of the country stuff that always spoke to me. Then later on, bands like Wilco and Son Volt started putting out records I really loved. The alt country stuff in the mid 90s and from there it was pealing back other people’s influences. There was a point where I bought the Buck Owens box set and that was like, alright … I’ve found it! I’ve found the motherload!
The thing that strikes me about this album is the looseness. I mean that in a Stones or Faces way. It’s got real swagger. It’s got to be a fun album to play live…
It has been. I have only done a couple of shows with a full band set up since I made my record but we are leaving on the weekend to go out on the road and I am really looking forward to it. I have done a lot of shows just me and an acoustic guitar since I made the record, which was helpful with getting to play the songs live but you definitely don’t have that Stonesy swagger when you are playing acoustic. You can only get that with a band. I am really happy to hear you say that because The Stones are my all time favourite band ever. I love The Faces and all that stuff, Mott The Hoople. I love that style of rock n roll, it’s my favourite rock n roll. So it is nice to hear that influence comes through a little bit.
The other thing that stood out for me and I hope you take it as a compliment, was that even though you didn’t really know these musicians that you recorded with, it sounds more like a band album than a solo album. It’s like you had played with those guys for a long time.
Well they are really good those guys and over the course of recording with them, we got to know each other pretty well. It was cool because we recorded the basic tracks all together in the room playing with no click track. The basic tracks of every song, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, bass and drums, that’s all live in the room. Then after that we added overdubs, more guitars and whatever. At the heart of every take, that’s just us playing in the room together, which gives it that loosey, live feel.
It seems that you’re happy to hand over much of the guitar solo glory to Robby Turner on pedal steel.
Yeah, I mean when you can have a guy like Robbie come in and play, it is hard not to just let him play on everything. It just sounds so good. That guy is incredible. It’s funny because I am going out on the road without a pedal steel player, it’s a stripped down version of it, so I had to work out a couple of his leads, which was really cool. I don’t really play pedal steel so I had to figure it out. I am not attempting to play pedal steel live, I just had to work out the same notes and play it on guitar. He’s amazing. He’s got country music in his blood. His parents played in Hank Williams’ band at one point. If that isn’t country lineage, then I don’t know what is.
Did you bring a bunch of guitars to the studio or mainly use Dave Cobb’s collection?
I brought a whole group of gear with me but I really only used one of my guitars on the record because Cobb has a ridiculous collection of gear, not just guitars but amps and anything you would need. I didn’t bring any amps with me. I did bring a bunch of guitars. I pulled them all out of their cases and sat them there but I never needed them, just my non reverse Firebird, which I played a lot. I played this one Esquire of Cobb’s so much that he actually sold it to me at the end of the record.
What amps did you use? You’re usually an AC30 guy.
I don’t recall, we might have used an AC30 on there. He’s got a bunch of crazy amps. We used a Dumble and an old Tweed Vibroluxe that we used a lot. I know he used a Marshall on something and a bunch of little combo amps, Fendery type combo amps that we would kind of go between depending on the song.
What’s Dave Cobb’s production style? What does he bring to a project?
He’s super laid back, not like an in your face producer. Before I went out there I really had made the internal decision I was going to trust him with my songs. It’s not in my nature to just turn over my music to somebody else in the studio. I’ve never done it, never had a producer on a solo record and obviously your songs are dear to you and you think you know what’s best for them. But the whole purpose of going out there and spending a month in Nashville and making a record is because I wanted his influence on the record. As much as it was counter intuitive at times I just listened to his advice. There were moments where I didn’t necessarily agree with some of the tweaks. He might say let’s drop that verse and in my head I’m thinking I can’t drop that verse, are you crazy? That’s the verse where the girl breaks my heart or whatever. It’s funny because in hindsight I look at all the tweaks he made on the record and I am so glad that he did and so glad that he was involved. He made everything stronger and made the songs better.
I have to be honest in saying that the most of the research I did for this interview was listening to the podcast interview you did with Dave Cobb before you’d even discussed doing an album with him. That was so insightful.
Yeah, that was before I made the record with him and that was what made me want to go and work with him. It was in that room talking to him about the way he makes records and his whole attitude to it and he’s just a great human being. Even if he wasn’t a record producer he would be a guy that I would want to know, he’s just an amazing person.
You talk about him creating his own Wrecking Crew style band with guys like Chris Powell (drums) and he talked about being a student of recording history and knowing what they did on recordings at Stax and Muscle Shoals. How big a factor do you think that historical stuff is in making a great record?
I think it was a huge factor in making this record for sure because he’s such an encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to guitar tone and the recording process. We would get to talking about something and he would go, oh check it out, this is how they did that. He’d run out of the room and grab a guitar and plug it in to some old pedal and put it through an amp, roll the volume back a little bit on the guitar and say that’s how Jimmy Page got that tone on whatever. Then he’d play it for you and you go, fuck that’s it, that’s the sound. It was really educational for me. it was kinda like going to guitar tone school courtesy of Dave Cobb. I think the beauty of what he does is … he’s steeped in vintage gear and vintage recording techniques and all that stuff but his records sound very current. He’s not trying to recreate Sticky Fingers, he’s just drawing from some of those techniques but it sounds like now. It doesn’t sound like a kitschy period piece.
What kind of things can you do on a Chris Shiflett solo album that you cant do on a Foo Fighters record?
I think the key differences here are that it’s a pretty different style of music, exploring that whole vintage country meets punk rock meets The Stones. Those are my favourite styles of music. So of course it sounds very different to a Foo Fighters record. Also it’s great to go play with new people, outside of the usual group of people you play with. That’s always an inspiring refreshing thing to do when the band is on break. The big one is .. I’m singing and writing the songs and all that stuff, so it is a very different role. I think you have a different connection with songs you write than when you are supporting somebody else’s creative vision. Both can be fun and fulfilling, it is just a different thing.
You’re in one of the biggest guitar bands in music history. Given that you have to return to that at some point, what are your hopes and dreams for this album?
Well we are going to do these shows and then see what else comes up. I would love to get down to Australia, New Zealand and Europe. I’m not sure what my schedule is going to look like after the summer so I am just going to take it as it comes. I guess my biggest hope for the record is that it reaches some people that haven’t heard my solo stuff before. I want get out and do as many solo shows as I can too, so we’ll see.
You have a podcast in which you interview musicians and producers, as you did with Dave Cobb. After years of being interviewed and being the interviewer, what kind of questions do you know that artists don’t like being asked?
It’s funny, the way that I approach the interviews … I know from doing lots of press myself that when you are doing a lot of promo for a record there is always a narrative which develops and there’s always a handful of questions that you get asked and individual to each artist that I interview, I just try to avoid those. There’s a basic framework of my interviews, the things that I cover with everybody … where did you grow up? What got you into music? What was your first band experience like? Can you talk about your songwriting process … so I do have a handful of questions that I tend to ask everybody but I think the biggest thing I am trying to accomplish, which is impossible for most people who are doing interviews because you just don’t have time .. is I just want a slow conversational discussion. I just want my interviews to be a conversation more than like .. OK I have ten minutes and I have to fire these couple of bullet points at you. I mean look at us right now, you’re limited to a certain amount of time, there’s a handful of questions you gotta ask me and I totally get it. That’s just the way that it goes. I tell you it has made me have a lot more respect for journalists that do these interviews all the time because it can be tricky and it can be awkward. There’s nothing worse than losing your train of thought mid interview and then awkwardly trying to recover from it. Those are the parts that I edit out.
You’ve never made a secret about your feelings for the current American president. Apparently his first budget will see a gazillion dollars dedicated to defence but cuts to community organisations and the arts. Is it time for the artists to fight back? Do you foresee a rise in political themes in music now?
That’s a very, very good question. I hope so. I think you have seen a bit of that already. My fear … I mean I have so many fears with having Trump in office. I think that in this country … you know … Trump is an anomaly. He’s a Republican but he is not like a normal Republican, so it is not the usual Republican versus Democrat divide. The reason, in my opinion that we are at where we are at is because we have these two parties here who are not exactly the same but they are pretty close on the big ticket stuff. They have made it harder and harder for working people to get by in this country for decades. They’ve de-industrialised much of America, they have destroyed unions, they have destroyed public education, they have destroyed the media. So you have this situation where people are just saying fuck you to the system. One candidate addressed that and the other one didn’t. The one that addressed that … he maybe a fucking huxter and a scumbag and a crook and all that shit but I understand why people voted for him. I don’t agree with them and I certainly don’t agree with his policies but I don’t view Trump supporters as the enemy. I view the people who run this country, both politically and in corporate boardrooms as the enemy. The problem is if you don’t connect those dots and we just put another Clinton type democrat in office, then we haven’t solved anything. And then what comes next? The next time around when people are still fucking pissed and still can’t get by and still have to work three jobs and lose their fucking house. That’s the thing that freaks me out. I see a lot of people taking to the street. I don’t see a lot of people really comprehending what I believe are the real reasons that we have gotten to this place at all.
West Coast Town is released on April 14th on Cooking Vinyl.