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.
For the full story, check out the new issue of Rolling Stone, on sale Thursday, November 6, featuring Foo Fighters on the cover. In the lead up to the record’s release, we’ll be posting new interviews with each member, made up entirely of new content not included in the feature.
Up first is guitarist Pat Smear…
Sonic Highways seems like a massive undertaking. How did you find the whole process?
It’s a massive undertaking for others more than some [laughs]. For me and Taylor [Hawkins, drums] and Chris [Shiflett, guitar] and Nate [Mendel, bass] it’s just recording songs for a record, like we do anyways. We just happened to be doing it in different studios around the country. It’s massive for Dave [Grohl] because when he’s not recording he’s doing interviews. And it’s a massive undertaking for Butch Vig and James Brown, our producer and engineer, because they had to sometimes create studios where there were none. And it’s also a massive undertaking for our crew, cos they’ve got to drive two giant tape machines and a bunch of gear around the country as well.
So on a basic level, making Sonic Highways wasn’t that different from making your previous album Wasting Light?
It’s pretty consistent with the Wasting Light record – get a bunch of songs, practice them a lot, gradually weed them down, pick the ones that we like and will make the record, and then just practice them a lot and be ready so we can go in and do it live, or as close to live as we can possibly do it. With records in the past we’d be more building songs in the studio, or Dave might come up with an idea for a song and we’d build it up in the studio, but we like to do it this way cos we like to learn them live and play them live and know if they’re good songs by playing them live. Sometimes you do a studio creation and you start performing it live and you’re like, this doesn’t really work.
Dave clearly had a lot on his plate with this project – were there ways the rest of you could try and ease his workload?
We do whatever we can and whatever we’re asked, but he had a vision for this TV show and so much of it is based around the lyric writing that we couldn’t have done it for him anyways. Basically what happens is we spend a week in a studio somewhere in the country, and we work on recording a song, and while we’re doing that Dave’s out doing interviews with people from the local music community about music and the city in general. And then by the end of the week, when it’s time for him to do vocals, he’s got to write the lyrics based on his week of interviews. So it really is something he has to do himself.
This is your second full album back with the band – did it feel more comfortable in the studio than when you were making Wasting Light?
In a way yes, but the situation was uncomfortable in that you didn’t really know where you were going or what the studio was going to be like. But as far as playing with the guys, that’s always comfortable. The oddest recording experience I had with Foo Fighters was on the Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace record  where I just played on a couple of songs – I wasn’t part of the song, it was just me going in and playing on a song that was already written. That’s a little odd. We love to hang out and practice together and work on songs, it’s not difficult at all for us.
What was the most uncomfortable place to record, in terms of not knowing what to expect?
In New Orleans at the Preservation Hall, which is this hundreds-of-years-old building, just this very small room that has been many different things over the years, and I can’t even describe it. It’s just so crazy. They don’t even normally let electric instruments in there, there’s just a traditional jazz band playing traditional New Orleans jazz. And it’s like going into someone’s living room. It was more exciting than uncomfortable.
Which city was the most memorable for you?
I kind of feel like it was Seattle. The people were so great and the place we were in [Robert Lang Studios] was such a great place to hang out and you never wanted to leave. Even if we weren’t playing on a particular day we still were there all the time. It was very hot and sunny the whole time, and we spent most of our downtime sitting on a patio getting sunburnt. It was not Seattle-feeling at all weather wise, and one thing we discovered on this adventure is that weather really affects the music that comes from all these towns. I got my first sunburn in 10 years in Seattle. That’s so weird!
Can you hear the influence of each city on the record?
I don’t know. I can for sure. I hear each town in all of these songs, but I’ve played them for a couple of friends and they’re like, “Oh, that sounds like you must have recorded it in DC.” “No, we did that in Seattle.” For me it seems so obvious, but for the listener I’m not sure it is so obvious. Probably not, it probably just sounds like a Foo Fighters record.
It sounds like you’ve really figured out how to harness the three-guitar attack on Sonic Highways…
We’ve learned pretty well what our roles should be. We all play really different from each other first of all, and so sometimes we might all be playing different parts, and sometimes we’ll say let’s bang out these few chords or this riff together. We’re just used to the three-guitar thing now and it comes very easily. With Wasting Light we had to get used to it.
This year marks 20 years since Dave recorded the demos that became the first Foo Fighters album. How conscious were you of that landmark while making Sonic Highways?
Sure, we’re aware of it, and when we were in Seattle we went to the studio where he did that first Foo Fighters album, so we were hyper aware of it then. Also by crazy coincidence the [first] episode airs on the exact same date, 20 years later, to the day, that he went into the studio to do that first Foo Fighters record. It’s a crazy awesome coincidence.
What for you is the best thing about this album?
I think the best thing is that it’s our best record. The show’s really cool, and it’s a new thing to have and the way we did it is really fun and great. But the most important thing to me is the record and how the record is, and I think it’s a really great record.