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Foo Fighters: Nate Mendel

For the second instalment of our Foo Fighters interview series we chat to bassist Nate Mendel about the recording process of ‘Sonic Highways’, their 20th anniversary and the time he quit the band (for 12 hours).

Foo Fighters are set to release their eighth album, Sonic Highways, on November 10th. Featuring eight songs recorded in eight different cities across America, it’s accompanied by a documentary series (currently screening in Australia on Go!) investigating the musical history of each city in which the band recorded, directed by frontman Dave Grohl.

In part two of our exclusive Foo Fighters interviews, we talk to bassist Nate Mendel about making Sonic Highways, the moment he quit the band and instantly regretted it, and Dave Grohl’s battle with lyrics…

How have you found the Sonic Highways project?
It’s been fun. It’s the most challenging but also the most fun thing we’ve done in the 20 years we’ve been a band. I liked it initially because it was like being on tour but also recording at the same time, and usually they’re very different things. In Chicago we’d go record during the day then walk through the snow a couple of blocks to the local burger place and have beers. It felt like having a real job for a second, which felt nice.

How together was each song when you arrived in each city?
That was interesting. We had this album kind of sorted out more than any other record before going into the studio. We spent about six months rehearsing the songs, so much so that when we went to record the first one [“Something From Nothing”], we got it in one take. Which if you’re a session player that’s not that big a deal, but that’s not how our band operates. It usually takes a bit of time, but we nailed it. [When you rehearse that much] you don’t have to think about the changes coming up or the parts that you’re playing, the idea is to do it with the best feel possible. That’s when the songs are at their best.

How much time was there between each recording session?
We got into a week-on week-off pattern. Go into Chicago for a week and then come home and practice for the next week, then head out for another week.

What for you was the most memorable city?
They were all great. I’m from Seattle, and it was a little weird for me that Seattle was the one that didn’t really stand out. I was excited to bring people to Seattle and say check out how great this town is! The band has a bit of a love-hate relationship with the city – we started there but then left the town, and Dave’s got some interesting and tragic history associated with it, so I wanted it to be a time when the band came to love Seattle the way that I do. Ordinarily [during the recordings] we were in the middle of a town and it was a town that nobody knew that well, so we’d go out and try and find things to do and meet new people, but it was a beautiful week in Seattle and the studio was a little bit outside of town and it’s got a view of the Puget Sound, so we just recorded and hung out on the deck and experienced Seattle in a very insular kind of way. The most interesting city was New Orleans by far. Because it’s got such a depth of history and music history, and when you’re living in America you know parts of that history, you travel through town and the French Quarter and that’s usually it. So it was nice to spend a week there and meet some of the local musicians, who’ve got roots that go generations back into the jazz scene. That was a standout for me.

You recorded the song “Subterranean” in Robert Lang Studios, which is where, 20 years ago, Dave recorded the demos that became the Foo Fighters’ first album. Was it emotional going back there?
It’s a funny thing, you can’t manufacture those moments. Yes, this is the place where the band started. Everybody knew that in the back of their minds, but it wasn’t a unique moment materialising or anything. It was cool to go back there and see that it hasn’t changed or anything, cos it’s very unique. It’s carved out of a hillside, and it’s about 10,000 square feet, and they’ve only developed about 2000 of that into the studio. It’s been unfinished for 20 years. I assumed we’d show up and it would be this sprawling and beautiful finished studio, and it’s exactly the way it was in 1995.

This project must have put a lot of pressure on Dave. Did you see that?
I’m not unaccustomed to seeing him fraying at the edges a little bit, I think that’s when he does some of his best work. And what happens inevitably when the work load gets too high, some things just don’t get done. And I actually thought that was an interesting part of this record. I don’t know if my band mates noticed or agree with me on this, but I feel it was looser than a lot of the other albums in a way, cos there wasn’t the opportunity to go back and focus on making changes and making it perfect as possible. Some things had to be left to their own devices.

2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the Foo Fighters – what does that mean to you?
I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished as a band, and I feel like we have just as much to offer than we did 20 years ago – probably more cos we can play now. This will be a marker. The 20 year marker. A defining moment for us, because we’re going off and doing something we haven’t really done before as a band. Hopefully it marks the beginning of another chapter where we go off and do the band for years in the future but with a new inspiration.

At one point you quit the Foo Fighters very briefly – what do you remember of that?
It was about 12 hours of not being in the band. It was uncomfortable. I go back to that moment in time a lot in my own head when I’m making important decisions in my life. It was so instructive about how my own brain works in making decisions, because it seemed like intellectually the right thing to do, and then as soon as I followed through with making that decision I saw it from a completely different perspective and I took more of a visceral view point on it. That was the wrong choice. It’s really helped me with head-and-the-heart kind of decisions in my life.

For you, what’s the best thing about the Sonic Highways album?
I think that the coolest thing about this album is the different way that Dave has done the lyrics. [Grohl wrote his lyrics after conducting interviews in each city for the Sonic Highways TV show, using the interviews as inspiration.] I feel like the common perception of our band is one where lyrics aren’t a strong suit of ours, and I know Dave has struggled with that, cos he’s a great writer, and he’s funny and smart, and he writes some good lyrics, but he’s not seen as a person who is well known for that part of his craft. And he did them a completely different way this time. It was my least favourite part of the project when it was in the idea phase, it didn’t make sense to me, and now it’s kind of my favourite part of what happened. It was a very creative and different thing to do. This is more about telling stories and taking a larger perspective and commenting on places and history, and I thought that was really cool.