The Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins Finally Takes the Reins on ‘KOTA’
"God, I was such a disgusting scumbag 20 years ago. I never thought I would be here."
Taylor Hawkins is in the unenviable position of being one of the finest rock drummers alive, and sharing the stage with a man commonly regarded as the outright best. As the drummer of Foo Fighters, something he still regards as Dave Grohl's solo project ("it just happens to be this huge behemoth thing"), he's been selling out arenas and stadiums for the better part of two decades, joining in 1997 and playing on every album from 1999's There Is Nothing Left to Lose. He's turned his versatile style into a trademark and, in the process, he's come to embody a particular rock aesthetic—the rapturous, long-haired man behind the kit, grinning with a theatrical menace at every one of his own fills.
Foo Fighters may be Grohl's frighteningly large solo project, but the 44-year-old Hawkins hasn't shied away from taking the reins on his own from time to time. He's released two glam-infused albums as Taylor Hawkins & The Coattail Riders; he's toured with his own covers band, Chevy Metal—"my traveling fucking cottage industry wedding band on crack"—playing deeper cuts from ZZ Top, Van Halen, and Sabbath; and, shooting off from that, he's released an album as the leader of the similarly retro-sounding Birds of Satan.
But despite being an intelligent songwriter, a producer by osmosis, a more-than-competent guitarist, and a man with a brilliant record collection, Hawkins never quite got round to following Grohl into multi-instrumental band leadership.
Recently, with the Foo Fighters on a break and no tours on the immediate horizon, Hawkins found himself without any music to occupy him. So that has finally changed. Last week, Hawkins released KOTA, his debut album under his own name. The album has Hawkins, like Grohl in the Foo's early days, writing every track and playing every instrument save for the odd guest spot (Foo Fighters' Nate Mendel and Chris Shiflett, Birds of Satan's Wiley Hodgden, The Living End's Chris Cheney).
KOTA, a six-track mini-album, doesn't deviate too far from the prog-pop mandate laid down with Birds of Satan or his Coattail Riders, but it is a more complete, more accomplished record. Loosely based on Hawkins's own status as a rockstar in the suburbs (he doesn't like the word himself), it focuses on minutiae, small stories from his Calabasas neighborhood where he lives with his wife and three children. "Range Rover Bitch" riffs on a woman in a Range Rover; "Bob Quit his Job" is about his neighbor Bob who, Hawkins says, "just fucking quit his job;" "Rudy" is about a guy who never made it, someone with whom he shares a mutual disdain. His name is Rudy.
There are moments on KOTA where Hawkins isn't quite so "on-the-nose," as he has it; some are more "stream-of-consciousness" others have "dream sequences." But at heart, KOTA is a happily theatrical rock record that wants to be loved for what it is.
We called Hawkins to talk about the album, the suburbs, and his compulsion to keep playing when most people would be lying on the couch.
Noisey: Congratulations on the album. It sounds a lot slicker than Birds of Satan or Coattail Riders.
Taylor Hawkins: It was just made a little bit differently. I played most of everything except for a few bass tracks and a few keyboard tracks and one guitar track or two. It's simple, you know, because it has to be. Maybe that makes it more bombastic. I mean, the drums aren't simple, but the bass and the guitar certainly are. This one's really just me directing the whole thing, even when I didn't play. It's really just hyped up demos. I just laid down the drums and put something down pretty quick and then almost kind of stuck with it. And then, later on, went in and fiddled with it a little bit more, just to make it a little bit bigger.
You were directing things even when you weren't playing. Having been part of a committee—whether that's Foo Fighters of Birds of Satan or Chevy Metal—what's it like to finally be in complete control? Is it daunting, or is it just pure fun?
Well, whenever I work on a [Foo Fighters] record, it always makes me feel sorry for Dave for having to put up with our stupid shit when he can do it all himself. He's done it before. But he looks at it like a band. [But] you still have to deal with people not doing it as good as he would do it in a certain way. He's fucking Dave Grohl. He can do it all. So I really empathize with him whenever I make a [solo] record and I have to settle for not exactly what's in my head sometimes. It's not easy to direct it. People don't really want to be directed too much. And, you know, it's not always easy to get what you want from someone. So it takes time. And sometimes it just takes a bit of giving up and saying, "That's what it is."
I learned how to make demos just watching Dave. It's amazing to watch him make a demo. I saw him do it a couple of times when I first joined in the band. Run in there and do a drum track, run in and do a guitar track, run in and do a bass track, and then just get a vocal thing. And it was always so damn fucking good. I just watched him do it. And that's basically what this is, glamorized demos. We did fiddle a little bit, but not that much. But what the fuck's a demo?
Do you think all songs are just glorified demos in a sense?
In a way. We demo things like crazy in the Foo Fighters. It just depends what your intent is, I suppose. If you want to have a first-thing-that-comes-off-the-top-of-your-head vibe, which I like, you can stick with that demo. But if you want to break it down and take it apart and put it back together to try and create the most perfect pop song ever that has the best arrangement it possibly can... Well, you can fiddle with things too much. You can fiddle the life out of it. And we've done that before in the Foos, for sure, where we ended up going back to the original idea.
So, the concept behind the album seems to be that you're a rockstar stuck in the suburbs. How's that?
I hate that word, "rockstar." Steve Martin, our publicist for the Foo Fighters, he wrote me this first draft of something after he heard the record, and it was the usual thing that they always write about my records. "A romp through Taylor Hawkins's record collection, the '70s in a van." I called him and told him we always say that. These songs are actually little stories, vignettes.
I watched Dave write these songs about the cities [on 2014's Sonic Highways]. I didn't think it could be done. He was like, "I'm going to go to each one of these towns and I'm going to interview people and I'm going to look at all the words and I'm going to write lyrics from that." It was insane to watch. It was a really technical way of doing it. Whether you like it or not, it was impressive to see.
KOTA not all this sort of rock dude stuck in the suburbs, but it's little vignettes told by a rock dude stuck in the suburbs. Going for pizza night with the kids, doing that, and then saying "God, I was such a disgusting scumbag 20 years ago, I never thought I would be here." It's good! I'm 44 now. I'm glad to be a dad and I'm glad to have three kids that are amazing and awesome, and to have this really normal, normal life which is actually kind of insane at the same time.
You're off the road, Foo Fighters are on a break, tour's finished, you've come back home, and then there's a solo record pretty soon after. Do you find it difficult to switch off? Do you feel compelled to constantly be creating?
Yes. And playing. I need that. I'm sure the older we get, we'll constantly be doing more and more. I mean, I look at Paul McCartney and Roger Waters and those kinds of guys. They're not stopping. And they don't want to stop. They really don't. Paul McCartney doesn't need any more fucking money, Jesus Christ. He could sit around and do nothing because he's fucking Paul McCartney. But I think he really loves the gigs and he still loves to play and he still loves to make records and listen to the playback and think it's the best thing he's ever done. That's what you're trying to do. That's the constant give that you get. I know a lot of musicians, when they're not on the road, they're not interested in going and doing smaller, shittier gigs that are less comfy than their big rock band gig. Because it's work and it's effort to do it. But I love it. I'm never going to stop.
I think being a drummer especially, you have to be careful. You have to keep it going. Me and [Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer] Chad Smith were talking about it the other day. If you don't use it, you lose it. Drumming is one of those things where you have to keep your muscles. I always feel like drumming is much harder for me than for so many great drummers. I watch Josh Fresse [Devo, Vandals] play or I watch Dave play. It's so effortless to them. I'm killing myself every time. But that's just how I play. I think that I need to keep on playing all the time. And recording and writing.
In the Foo Fighters, we're part of it with the songwriting. We're part of the sound of the band and Dave includes us a lot and is very, very generous. He's generous with what he gives, because this is his KOTA, this is his Coattail Riders, this is his Birds of Satan. He's just another musician working on his project. It just happens to be this big behemoth thing now with all these hits where we can go play these great big shows, play rock 'n' roll music. We're all creative guys. Nate's very creative, he writes songs now and he plays them on the record. [Chris] Shifett's constantly working on a new country record or something like that. Dave's constantly doing stuff outside of the Foo Fighters, trying to make a movie or something like that. So we're all always busy. Except Pat [Smear]. Pat doesn't give a fuck. At all. Not one fuck. He's just always laughing at us all like, "Why are you guys doing so much? I'm having fun doing nothing!" He's probably right. He'll outlive us all.
So you don't want to quit.
I think all the boxes get checked. It's important for me that all my boxes get checked. Or as Dave would say, "Fill the dark hole in my soul that I need to fill." Like when I'm making one of these records. It just checks a box for me so that I can go and be a great footsoldier for Dave's project.
You're just getting it out of your system?
Yeah, and it frees my creative selfishness so that I can be Dave's tool for his record, for his solo record that happens to be called The Foo Fighters. I think he believes in the notion of a band. I think people sense those strong bonds. When you think of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, you like those guys back there because you know they're Tom's buddies. And you know they're there to fight the good fight for the Heartbreakers and Tom Petty. We believe in that. We really like each other, for the most part. It's like our little shelter.
It's strange to hear about a band as big as The Foo Fighters in that context.
Oh yeah. We're family. We're totally dysfunctional and have our problems. Factions form in little ways sometimes, but not really. Dave's a really good leader which is part of the reason it really works. I think he believes in the notion of having his gang, his rock 'n' roll gang behind him. Something happens when we play together onstage, more and more when we play. Maybe not. Maybe people think we're getting shitty. But I think we're pretty good. We still give everything we've got when we get up there. We bring it. We try really hard to bring it as hard as we can. I saw the Chili Peppers the other night and they really bring it. Chad and Flea playing together. They were so fucking good. They really bring it. I really think that people relate to them as a band, just four dudes. Maybe it's a dying thing, too. I don't know. How old are you?
You know, rock n roll's just in a strange place right now. My son's nine years old, he couldn't give a fuck about it. It's all about Drake, all of that stuff. And that's fine. That's what those kids are listening to. Maybe there's going to be a Kurt Cobain or a Jimi Hendrix, hopefully, with a guitar, to imagine it all up again. What do you think? Do you think it's going to be with a guitar?
I think it's less and less likely.
Man. I think there's people doing amazing stuff otherwise as well. I have no disrespect for it. I like some Kanye stuff. And I get it, when my son plays me this stuff. At first I'm like, "Oh God, nobody's fucking playing everything and it's all auto-tuned blah blah blah, I'm an old man." I still think that there's going to be a little bit of that always. I still think there are people that are really going to want to see people play. I don't think it's taken over. I get what my son sees in it. It's what his friends listen to and I think some of it's silly. But not all of it. I love Death Grips, I love stuff like that. I know that there's great stuff being made in that world. I still think people are doing really interesting stuff. I still think Jack White's records are always interesting sounding, retro and new all at the same time. And every time Josh Homme makes a record, I'm always interested, whether it be Eagles of Death Metal or Queens of the Stone Age.
And the record he did with Iggy Pop.
Fucking great. Best record Iggy's done in a long time. Everything Josh does it always great. He never does anything not great.
So, given all that, are you going to take this record out on tour?
I just don't know. Because I don't know how I would do it. Probably not. I wanted to do a couple of shows, but life is just getting busy. There's not the time in the day I used to have. Birds of Satan never really happened live. We did a couple of gigs, but it never really happened. We never got it together, it never really worked. But Coattail Riders, that was really, really good live at one point. But it took a while. It took a week on the road in small clubs to make it that thing where it's elevated to another lever. It takes time to make those things really fucking happen the way I want it to happen. And we don't rely on computers or any of that stuff, so the band's really got to be great. I'll never say never. I'll do something eventually. Life is gearing up.
Lead photo via Foo Fighters on Twitter.
Alex Robert Ross might just move to the suburbs. Follow him on Twitter.