Monday, November 13, 2017

INTERVIEW: Chris Shiflett (May 2017)

There’s a brilliant portrait of Chris Shiflett in the booklet of his latest solo release, West Coast Town, which depicts the Foo Fighters axeman looking ever so slightly bemused while modelling a Stetson. Prior to joining Dave Grohl’s stadium titans in 1999, Shiflett honed his chops in the California punk band No Use For a Name and San Francisco’s resident cover oiks, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (for whom he still serves as recording guitarist) - and one might suggest that the image perfectly captures the incongruity of a punk rocker from Santa Barbara now finding himself fully immersed in country music.

Nowadays, Shiflett hosts a regular country podcast, Walking the Floor, while practising what he preaches as a solo artist during periods of Foo Fighters downtime (the Nashville episode of the Foos’ Sonic Highways series is a must-see, not least for Shiflett’s evident delight at finding himself in the genre’s spiritual epicentre).

West Coast Town is a curious hybrid: recorded in Nashville, yet boasting a bright and resolutely Californian sheen, it manages to make blowing off steam between headlining festivals and enormodomes sound like a grand old wheeze. Shot through with an underlying sense of fun and a tongue-in-cheek eye for the genre’s lyrical staples, both the spirit of the playing and Shiflett’s love for this music are in glorious abundance throughout. It’s the perfect encapsulation of his own personality: both relentlessly good-natured and hopelessly likeable.

When I was younger, I used to regard country music as something of a joke - and yet as I reached my 30s, I found myself not only empathising with it more and more, but also wanting to listen to not much else. Now, I first became aware of you some two decades ago in No Use For a Name – so my question is this: why is it that so many former punks always seem to end up gravitating towards country?!

I mean, that is a really... it’s an interesting question, because there are so many of us that, you know... I don’t have a great answer for it, but I think that there’s a real connection in, like, attitude and spirit between a lot of like the honky-tonk legends - certainly like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, people like that who have that rebellious streak in them. I mean, there’s certainly a straight line from that to somebody like Mike Ness, you know? I mean, for me personally, I think Social Distortion was a big bridge between those two things, and through that band I sort of became aware of a lot of the country stuff - and because of that band, was sort of what led me to take an interest in it. Um - but I can’t really... I don’t know, for everybody. I think there’s also something that happens as a musician, like: you know, you get a little older, your tastes mature, and things open up to you that you didn’t really connect to before. And, like, a lot of that old country music - it’s not really the same now, but the older stuff, that was music that was geared to grown-ups; it wasn’t, like, teenybopper music. It was adult-themed music, and I think you maybe need to have lived a little bit for the lyrics to mean something.

I was going to ask if, like you say, perhaps it’s a genre that people ‘grow into’ over time - but you seem to be so up on it that I’m guessing it’s more of a long-standing interest of yours.

Well, it’s something I started to get into... I don’t know, probably in my late teens, I started buying some of those records and followed that back a little bit. But there was a real turning point for me, which was when I was in No Use For a Name, you know, the singer for No Use was really into all the alt-country stuff that was going on at that time. And that was a big bridge for me into the older, ‘classic’ stuff. But there was also a point where, you know, I knew that I liked it, but it was just a genre that I hadn’t really explored much and I didn’t know where to start - it’s so big, and there’s so much... it’s just like, where do you begin? So I asked a friend of mine that’s a country musician, and he gave me some good starting-point tips; it was like my honky-tonk starter kit. He pointed me in the right direction, and from there it was kinda off to the races.

I can’t quite pin down what it is precisely, but it seems to me that is what really makes this record come alive is the fact that it operates in that very specific space where roots meets rock - the roadhouse,  the bar-room, the honky-tonk. Is that a product of your own experiences being on the road over all these years?

Oh, for sure. I mean, I think that that...  for me, this record is like equal parts rock’n’roll and honky-tonk, and punk rock sprinkled in there - like, all the stuff that I listen to a lot, or is all my sort of primary influences. And, you know, it’s interesting that you said that - was it born out of my own experiences on the road, because in a way it was: I really wanted to make a record that was going to be fun to go out and play. To play live. And because of that, I wanted to keep it ‘up’ - you know, I wanted it to be kind of an up-feeling record; more of a Saturday night record than some of the stuff I’ve done in the past that I feel has been a little more minor-key and kinda down, you know. So, that was certainly... I had that in mind, you know, what’s this gonna feel like to go out, to be in a bar and play these songs.

There’s obviously various different strains of country music, but it strikes me that the Bakersfield country seems to linger quite heavily on this album. Despite being recorded in Nashville, it does have a very ‘Californian’ feel to it – particularly in terms of the brightness of the sound. Who are your favourite country artists: are you more of a traditionalist, do you go for the new school, or are you just a bit of an all-round connoisseur?

Well, I mean, there’s so much great music being made right now between guys like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, and I love all that stuff - probably my favourite record from last year is that Lori McKenna record, you know? That record, I just go back to over and over. So I love a lot of the new stuff that’s happening, but for me I delve in really deep into Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and all the sort of honky tonk, ‘Bakersfield sound’ stuff that was sort of attached to that: Del Reeves, people like that. Wynn Stewart is a big one. If you’re talking, like, what are your desert island artists you’d want to have with you, it’d be that era: mid-sixties into the early seventies era of country is really my favourite. But you know, there was tons of great stuff in the seventies made - there’s always good stuff, but I tend to... I just like the way records sound from that time period, from the fifties through the eighties to me is when records sounded the best.

It’s quite interesting that country as a whole has grown in critical respectability over the last few years - you had Sturgill Simpson getting nominated for a Grammy, you’ve got people like Lydia Loveless getting all the plaudits, and labels like Bloodshot are considered really cool all of a sudden. I was wondering how that squared with your experience of it growing up, because it’s always been quite the ‘uncool’ genre, particularly from the rock side of things.

Yeah, I mean, probably one of the... You know, there was a show over here called Hee Haw when I was growing up that was supposed to be a country version of Laugh-In or something: it was really kinda low-rent, idiotic humour [laughs]. And that kind of stuff probably had a large part in shaping my opinion - when I was a kid, my opinion of country music was it was just corny, sappy, heartache love songs, and it didn’t appeal to me at all. But it’s funny, if you go back and listen to some of the stuff from that era, there was a lot of corny, shitty country music coming out - but there was always, like, an underbelly of really incredible stuff happening. I think it’s the same in any era - you’re gonna have your slick, pop, mainstream side of things, and that’s always gonna be the most popular, the stuff that’s on a larger scale, but there’s always going to be the underbelly of people doing it a little bit differently: a little more rootsy, or whatever. I dunno, I don’t wanna bag on any... you know, everything has its merits and everybody’s worked hard to get where they’ve got, but my own personal taste in music and in culture in general has also sort of gravitated to things that are always just a little bit off the beaten path.

The thing that really tuned me on to country as a kind of bridging point was Gram Parsons - I noticed that the song Cherry on this record feels like quite an homage to him, particularly his track Ooh Las Vegas. Are you a particular fan of his and, if so, where does he sit on your country continuum?

I mean, I do - I am definitely a fan of Gram Parsons: like a legendary figure in bridging that gap between rock’n’roll and country music. And I love that sound - that California country sound of that time. It’s funny, like, the influence - when I first heard Gram Parsons, the work he did with the Flying Burrito Brothers or even, like, Sweetheart of the Rodeo that he played on with The Byrds, that all sounded like straight-up country music to me, but when you actually A-B it with what mainstream country music sounded like at that time, it’s pretty radically different, and that’s how you can really see how big of an influence that he had on mainstream country music. You know what I mean? Because if there was no Gram Parsons, there probably would’ve never been an Eagles; if there was no Eagles, we might’ve never gotten to Garth Brooks - it’s like, it’s reflected back on mainstream country music in a huge way over the years, I think.

The album’s title track is the most obviously autobiographical song on here – and quite nostalgic, in a sense. At the same time, it seems to be about the limits of nostalgia, and the fact that the place you grew up in has irrevocably now changed, not necessarily for the better. Is that how you feel revisiting your hometown?

Well, I grew up about an hour and a half north of LA in Santa Barbara, and my wife’s parents are still up there; my brother’s still up there, so we get up there pretty frequently. And I still love the place and am super nostalgic about it, and will probably someday move back there - but yeah, it has radically changed since I was a kid. It’s funny, not too long ago, someone posted on Youtube this video that was like my high school in 1987... I guess I didn’t realise this at the time, but they made a video yearbook, right? Somebody posted it on Youtube, and it’s fucking incredible because things change slowly over time and you don’t see it ’cos it’s, like, slow. But when you look back at video footage of what my hometown looked like in ’87, it’s fucking radically different, man - that kind of really brings it into focus, you know? And things change and that’s just the way it goes, but I had struggled for a while: I really wanted to write a song about growing up where I grew up, because I think it was an interesting time and a place kinda like no other, and that’s what I was trying to get at in that song.

Let’s go back to that time when you were growing up in Santa Barbara. You’ve played in a lot of different bands, and different types of bands over the years – who were your main formative influences as a kid, or the artists that really turned you on to music and made you want to pick up a guitar?

Well, the big ones for me were, I mean, it was my brothers’ record collection. I had older brothers and we listened to a lot of Beatles and Stones, and Deep Purple... Kiss was a huge one... just basically all the classic rock of the seventies. But it’s an interesting thing, I see this with my own children, where... when I was a kid, a lot of sort of like ‘pop culture’ was still remnants of my parents’ childhood. So like, when I would stay home from school and watch re-runs on Channel 5, it was all re-runs of movies and shows from like the forties and the fifties and the sixties. So although I didn’t grow up in that time -  that’s like my parents’ childhood - but I was way more connected to that era of American culture than my children are to my childhood. When my kids try to watch a movie, I’m like “YOU GOTTA WATCH KARATE KID!”  - they watch, and it’s terrible to them! They don’t get it at all, because technology has moved so fast since then, whereas it hadn’t changed - like, as a little kid in 1979, I could watch a movie from 1948, and it was different, but it wasn’t that different: you know, phones still looked the same, things like that. Whereas now, things have moved so fast that I feel like my kids have no connection to my own past. It’s weird - I think that has a huge effect on, you know, the culture at large. I don’t remember what your question was now, but as far that nostalgic connection to the past, I think that’s where a lot of that comes from.

Interesting you should mention The Karate Kid - do you have to show them the remake? Because that’s not good, is it...

They loved the remake! And they watched the remake first, so for them, watching the original was like: “What’s this shitty slow version of that other movie that we liked?!” [Laughs]

That must be really upsetting...


So what do they think of the bands you play in now - are they able to relate to them, or do they just gravitate to whatever’s coming along at that very moment?

Well, I mean, my kids have very kind of varied musical taste - they love the Foo Fighters, and they hate country music. So I don’t know how much they like my solo record, to be honest! [Laughs] You know, I was thinking they would much rather listen to the harder rock stuff. I was gonna say, it is like universal in my family that when I’m in control of the stereo, I basically get shouted down. Like: “NO COUNTRY! TURN THAT SHIT OFF!”

But surely you should tell them that you get to dictate the terms, since you bring the dollar in...? Surely they should respect that...

Well, that’s right. We would get along great!

There’s quite a revealing moment in the Foo Fighters’ Back and Forth documentary where you talk about joining the band and there was that moment when Pat re-entered the fray, and you thought you might be on your way out - just as, in your words, your felt like your dreams were about to come true. It struck me as quite an interesting thing to hear from someone who comes from a punk rock background – you’re almost not supposed to admit that you want to be a big rock star.  Was that always in the cards for you? Did you always want that?

Well, you have to bear in mind when I was a little kid that I listened to rock music - I wanted to grow up and be Ace Frehley. That’s the reason I picked up a guitar in the first place: I wanted to be Randy Rhoads or Ace Frehley or one of these guys... or Keith Richards. Those were my heroes when I was a kid. But it changed. When I got to an age when I was playing in bands, making records and touring, music - and my taste in music -  had changed radically from the time that I’m, like, ten to the time that I’m twenty is like a massive shift in my taste in music. So when I was in No Use For a Name, I was totally immersed in that, and that scene - but I was never somebody that was hung up on, like... I always... I wanted to make a living as a musician, because I didn’t want to have to go get a fucking job! I had a lot of jobs, and I didn’t like ’em. They sucked, you know what I mean?! If the option is go play guitar and make a living, or don’t do that and go work in fuckin’ Starbucks, obviously I would prefer to play guitar and make a living do that.

When you’re a kid, you don’t know what being a rock star is - the reality of it is not what you think. I don’t know what you think - you think you’re just running around in limousines and acting like a jack-ass all the time, whatever! [Laughs] When you’re twelve years old, that’s what you think of as being a successful musician. But by the time you get there, you’ve grown up different - your sense of things, your interests, it’s all different, you know? And so you’re not, like, behaving in a way... I dunno, “rock star” is a dirty word; I just think of myself as, like, a musician - and one that’s lucky enough to get to make a living at it, you know? By the time I was ever making records and touring, all that stuff, I was in No Use For a Name and that was my life, you know? That was the scene: it was NOFX and it was Pennywise, it was Lagwagon, and it was us. And that was what the music world around me had become; your interests change and you adapt to it, so... You know, when you’re young like that, you sorta... anything that came before, you wanna pretend you never liked and make fun of or whatever, but I was never one of those sort of people - I never thought about it in terms of the economics of it; I just wanted to go play, and if I could make a living at it, great.

It seems like between all the different bands you play in - Foo Fighters, the Gimme Gimmes, your solo work, Chevy Metal - you’ve kind of got the best of all worlds. It must be quite nice to be in a range of bands where you literally don’t have to apologise for any of your tastes …

[Laughs] Right, yeah! I think that comes with growing up too, you know? I don’t have guilty pleasures anymore - I just like what I like. And I like a lot of different types of music - I’m about to turn forty-six tomorrow, why would I feel bad if I want to go and play a fuckin’ 38 Special song in a cover band somewhere, you know what I mean?

I feel like the Foo Fighters are becoming a more ‘musicianly’ band, particularly on the last couple of records. I had Rope on the other day, and it struck me as a really intricate song for what’s essentially a big rock single. Is that you that plays the solo on that track?

It is, yeah.

That’s an incredibly interesting choice - when do you make the decision to go for something that’s more of a soundscape than a conventional solo?

Yeah, that was an interesting... Putting that together was funny, because Dave generally in Foo Fighters tends to shy away from having, like, shreddy, spaghetti ‘rock’ solos on the songs. That’s never really been his taste. So on that one, I remember when we were recording up at his house, he came in that day and he was like: “Dude, you should put down, like a full-on shred solo.” And I was like, “Alright - I can do that, sure!” And then we started going down that road and then he was like: “Nah - let’s not do that...”, you know what I mean?! [Laughs] And then it kind of evolved into being, like... That’s where being in a band, you’ve got, like, Dave’s gonna have his input into what it’s gonna be, and then there’s everybody else in the room, then there’s Butch producing it and James engineering it, so it becomes this other thing of, like, everybody else’s ideas kind of blending together and you get the compromise - what’s on the record. It’s funny you asked about that - I remember I did that that day and I didn’t really like it, you know? When I was done, it wasn’t really my taste, so I came back the next day and I was like: “Let me just do another pass at it.” And I did a full-on, like... I doubled it, and it sounded like Skynyrd or something. And of course, we didn’t use that version of it! [Laughs] Maybe that’ll show up on the rarities/out-takes box-set someday!

Over the years, you’ve had the chance to not only meet a few of your heroes, but also to play with some of them as well. I was watching the Chicago episode of Sonic Highways the other day, and you seemed particularly stoked to be jamming with Rick Nielsen – who’s been the biggest deal for you out of all of them?

Oh man, it’s hard to narrow it down - there’s been so many of ’em, I can’t even remember all the people I’ve had the chance to jam with over the years. Ummm, who were really good ones...? John Fogerty was really fun to play with, he was great... Certainly Rick Nielsen, that’s a big one for sure... I mean, I remember like literally just after I joined the Foo Fighters, one of the first things we did  go to London to do press for the album that was about to come out. And as we got off the plane and we go to the hotel, Taylor was like: “Hey, I’m going to go and have dinner with Brian May - you wanna come?” ...Sure! I’d come from, like, a month prior to that I’d been in the van with No Use For A Name, then all of a sudden it’s this whirlwind thing and I’m sitting at a table having a curry with Brian May. It was pretty bizarre, and surreal.

Conversely, they always say “never meet your heroes, as they’ll only let you down” – is there anyone you’ve met who’s been a heartbreaking disappointment?!

Ummm... I can’t recall anyone real heartbreaking - I generally find that most of those people who are really, like, they have these incredible careers and are icons of music or whatever, they tend to be really comfortable in their own skin. You know what I mean? They’re not like... They’re just cool, you know? It’s usually the young bucks that can be problematic! [Laughs]

Let me put it another way, then – you play in a world-famous rock band who I suspect occasionally runs in celebrity circles; who’s the biggest douchebag you’ve met over the years?!

[Laughs] God, I can’t say, because I’ll probably have to see those people at a festival somewhere down the line and I don’t want to have a beef! But you would be surprised at how little my life interacts with celebrity culture - I just do not exist in that world, man. I go home, I sit with my wife and kids, and it’s very quiet and suburban compared to what you might think, you know?

I want to ask you about Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, because I’ve been following them basically since …Have A Ball came out. I’ve seen the band live on a couple of occasions – the last time was on the tour just before you put out the Diva record, and Spike was getting very annoyed because it was the last night of the tour and he was clearly well up for a party, but it was a miserable Monday night in Birmingham and the crowd just didn’t seem to be having it. But I wasn’t interested in that – I kept watching you, and the entire time you were just chuntering away on your guitar with a sort of beatific smile on your face.

I’ll tell you a funny story about that, and you’ll probably not believe me, but that wasn’t me. That was my brother, Scott! We look very similar, it’s funny, he gets mistaken for me constantly - I have people seriously come up to me all the time like: “I was at your show in Des Moines last week!” I’m like: that was my brother Scott! One of our promoters down in Australia texted me a couple of years ago - he texted me, like: “I’m in Melbourne in the crowd at your show!” and I’m like: “Dude, I’m in LA. I can’t see you, that’s my brother...!” And I know that dude well, you know what I mean?! Like, we’ve spent time together! So it’s funny, we do look very similar. My brother Scott’s a ripping guitarist - he not only does the Gimme Gimmes touring side of stuff, he’s the bass-player in a band called Face to Face; that’s sort of like his main gig. But yeah, he’s a ripper, man!

Well, the question I was going to ask is that I imagine it must be funny as hell to you that what started out as a bit of a joke has now become a sort of viable second career with its own Greatest Hits album…

Totally! No, I know - it’s bizarre, ’cos when we started that band, literally the whole concept of it was that we were just going to play gigs every now and again in San Francisco, ’cos we all lived up there; we would just play little gigs in bars, and it was just an excuse to get free beer and party with our friends. And in the really early days, we weren’t even going to put out records or anything - and then Mike had the concept to put out only seven-inches, and each seven-inch would come out on a different label. That was the idea, and we did that for a while before we put out the first record. But it is really interesting to see, ’cos in the years since, I’ve pretty much missed out on the touring side of it because I’m usually working with Foos or whatever, but it has become like a real band! And they have, like, a big draw now, they do really well. It’s great, you know?

Given the sort of music you make as a solo artist nowadays, are you the person who pushed for the set of tunes that became the Gimme Gimmes album …Love Their Country?

No! It’s so funny -  I had had nothing to do with that; I played on it and was involved in that side of it, but it wasn’t my concept at all. And it’s funny, because that was quite a while ago now, and if we were to do that album now, I’d probably, like... I don’t even remember if I suggested covering any of those songs, you know what I mean?! I was listening to country music back then, but it’s funny - you would think that would’ve been my baby, but it wasn’t at all.

If you could do the ‘Redux’ or the Director’s Cut of that album, what sort of songs would you want to put on there - or did you cover all of them on your last album?

Yeah, that’s a tough one because the thing you gotta understand about covering songs for Gimme Gimmes - and Mike has this down, he really has this worked out, where there is like certain songs; they might be your favourite song of all time, but it doesn’t make sense as a punk rock song. It’s gotta be a certain tempo; it’s gotta be when you speed it up, the vocal still has to work - there has been so many songs over the years that we’ve attempted to record that you just go: “Nah. This doesn’t work. This doesn’t work like a punk rock song.” So the songs that make it onto those records are the ones that have been, you know, tested and work in that style.

Which ones over the years then have been the great lost Gimme Gimmes songs that we’ll never hear?

Ha! Oh, god, I don’t remember - there’s a bunch for every album... It seems like every album, somebody comes in - or we probably all come in - with songs that we really want to record, and it just doesn’t work and you have to let go at a certain point. I’ve always just deferred mostly to Mike - he drives the train, the concept train for the Gimmes, but... I do remember attempting to do like a Gary Glitter version of a Madonna song called, um... oh, what the fuck is that song called... True Blue, I want to say...? It’s one of my favourite Madonna songs, and it just sucked. Didn’t work. Had to let that one go.

I hadn’t intended on asking this, but you know on those records where you do like the version of another punk band’s song as an intro - a version of a Dead Kennedys intro, or something like that - do you ever get in trouble for that, or do they always see the funny side of it?

I don’t think anyone’s ever gotten mad about it - I think probably most people dig it, but I don’t know! I don’t even know... I personally haven’t gotten much of any feedback from the people that we’ve covered, you know? There’s been so many - it’s funny now, because we’ve been doing that for so long that now when you go into it you’re like: “Well, we should ape the intro from... whatever... this old TSOL song - ah, fuck, we already did that!” We did that four albums ago, can’t do it again. Damn!

I suppose what would be the ultimate is if you had people actually pitching their songs to you - like, Madonna phones you up and asks you to do a version of True Blue or Like a Prayer...

Yeah. Yeah! Like a Prayer might even be one of the ones - did we try that one? I don’t know, there was a bunch - with some of those people, there’s so many great songs that they have, but they don’t necessarily all work. You know, Fat Mike had a great concept once, that was: Gimme Gimmes albums are always covers, but he had this idea to write an album of originals, and then record it, and call it Songs From the Future. And then take each song, and have a band in the future record them, and put them out! [Laughs] So that in retrospect, it will have been a covers record when we record the songs from the future. [Laughs]

Seems like a lot of work for not much benefit there...

I know! I’ll tell you what, the funniest - you know we did that Japanese EP? And to me, that was, like, Spike’s finest moment - singing all those songs in Japanese, it was amazing. And, uh... I don’t think anybody gave a shit! But god, it was the best idea! [Laughs] It just kind of didn’t really connect...

So, finally - you’ve been playing music now for well over two decades, and I always ask this of people who’ve had a long career: what are your five favourite songs you’ve either written or played on, or what are your five favourites, or what are the five that you’d most like to be remembered for?

Mmmm! Jeez, Louise... I would certainly say All My Life would be one of those... uh, the title track from my new record would be one of those, West Coast Town.... there was a Jackson United song called All the Way that I just always felt connected to... oh, what would be another one... ummm... Maybe Long Road to Ruin - I always liked that one, that song always struck a chord with me. It’s hard when, you know, there’s so many that have happened over the years. Um... you know what Gimmes song was probably my favourite we ever did was Summertime, off the... I don’t remember which record that was!

That’s on the musicals record, ...Are a Drag.

Oh, yes. What is that, is that five...?

Yeah. You don’t remember getting dragged up on the cover for that album...?

Yes. Yes. My favourite memory from that album was we played the Folsom Street Fair, which is like a hardcore, S&M-flavoured street fair in San Francisco, and we did it all in drag like we are on the album cover. It was... it was quite a day!

I was going to tell you actually, I’m on the inlay cover of the country album - really tiny on the front row of the balcony at London Astoria.

No shit!

That’s like my little piece of rock history I’ve been involved in...

Oh, wow! Was that when we played in 1998?

No - I’m going to say around about 2008, 2009...? It was just before that album came out, and everyone was wearing blue rhinestone suits and stetsons. It’s barely noticeable, but that’s my little ‘lame to fame’, I guess...

Love it. Love it!

West Coast Town is available now on SideOneDummy.


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