Foo Fighter’s Down-Home Homage
Few Santa Barbara musicians have reached the heights that Chris Shiflett has. In 1999, he left the ranks of his former band, the Bay Area-based punk rock collective No Use for a Name to become one of Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters. The band had just recorded its third album, There is Nothing Left to Lose, and wanted to expand its lineup for the subsequent tour. The album went on to win Foo Fighters its first Grammy Award and catapult the collective from playing clubs and theaters into the realm of stadiums and arenas. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Shiflett first picked up the guitar at age 11 and, by the time he was 14, he was in his first band. While Schiflett’s day job as the guitarist in one of the biggest bands in the world keeps him busy, as he currently knows all too well through the recording of a new Foo Fighters album, he still finds time for his own musical musing. Having previously formed Jackson United with brother Scott and hard rock cover band, Chevy Metal, with fellow Foo Fighter, Taylor Hawkins, he currently fronts Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants. In July of 2010, the country-tinge Americana outfit release its self-titled debut album and, last year, delved heart first into the world of California country and honky tonk music with a covers album: All Hat and No Cattle.
Despite the demands on his time placed by the Foo Fighters, Shiflett is conscious of keeping the Dead Peasants an on-going concern and regularly rounds up his colleagues for a run of shows. Shiflett might be a rock and roll god who tours the world, but he also doesn’t mind plugging a Telecaster into an old Fender amp for a little down-home musical frolicking around his old local haunts every now and then.
Neil Ferguson: You are taking the Dead Peasants for another run of southern California shows. What was the motivation behind getting the band back out on the road?
Chris Shiflett: I’ve been doing a lot of work with Foo Fighters in the recent months so I have been trying not to put the Dead Peasants on the back burner. That’s what I did last time we got busy with Foo Fighters and we wound up not doing any Dead Peasant gigs or anything at all for the better part of a couple of years. When we did get back together it was like starting the band over again. So I’m trying to go out and play some local gigs once or twice a month, fitting in the cracks of my Foo Fighters schedule just to keep the band playing.
The last Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants album, All Hat and No Cattle, was an album of cover versions where you turned your attention to a collection of Bakersfield country and honky tonk songs. Have you been doing much writing yourself of late?
I have been writing, but we haven’t been learning the songs. I have a bunch of new songs so, at some point, when my Foo Fighter schedule slows down, we will get back into the studio and record some new stuff. Things started getting really busy with Foo Fighters about nine months ago. That’s when we hunkered down and started working on the new album. so that’s obviously been front and center. Hopefully a little later this year, I will record some new songs with the Dead Peasants.
Throughout your tenure with Foo Fighters, you have had various side projects. Previously it was the punk-orientated Jackson United with your brother, Scott. What led you and the Dead Peasants into the realm of Americana music?
I had that Jackson United band for a little while and we did a couple of records, and it just ran its course. I was writing songs that just wouldn’t make sense for another Jackson United record anyway. They were leaning a little more Americana. When I made that first Dead Peasants recorded I didn’t have a band. I made the record and then put a band together afterwards and, over the course of that time period, I started delving into old honky-tonk more and more. The first Dead Peasants record wasn’t that at all. There was an influence there, but it wasn’t a honky-tonk or country record.
On that first record, you assembled an amazing collection of players — folks like Davey Faragher of the Imposters, WPA, and the Union, Eddie Perez of The Mavericks, and Greg Leisz, who has worked with everyone from John Stewart to Robert Plant. What was it like to turn over the songs you had written and hear someone like Greg Leisz bring them to life?
A lot of those guys I didn’t really know. I didn’t really know Davey Faragher and didn’t know Greg Leisz at all. I just got his number and called him. I wasn’t even sure on how much of the album I would get Greg to play on, but then every song he played on sounded so great I said “Hey, here’s another one! Keep going!” He is such a great guy and a lot of fun to work with. When you hear someone play pedal steel well, like he does, it’s a pretty magical thing.
What seeded your enthusiastic embrace of honky-tonk music?
I had a realization that if I didn’t live in country music for a while, it wouldn’t really become part of me musically. That was the inspiration for doing what we’ve been doing for the last couple of years, which is basically going out and being a cover band. We’ve learned all these old Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs and are playing them over and over and over.
You come from a punk background and play in a rock and roll band. Is authenticity something you are conscious of with the Dead Peasants?
It’s funny you should ask that. I was recently down in Austin and I was talking to some friends of mine who are working musicians down there. Those guys do two or three gigs a night, six or seven nights a week and they’ve been doing it for years and years and years. One of my buddies down there told me there are 200 songs you have to know to be a working country musician in Austin. If you know those songs, you can work regularly. So here are the same musicians playing with the same people in different combinations, but it’s mostly the same material and they just do it over and over. That’s why they’re so good and they make it seem so effortless — they’re living it all the time. That’s not really possible for me because I’m in another band that’s my full-time band and that’s mostly what I do. At heart I’m really a rock and roll guitar player anyway, but I want to be as close to authentic with this music as I possibly can so that’s what led us down the path we have gone down.
Is there a cross-over from the Foo Fighters to the Dead Peasants in terms of fans or interest?
We do get a lot of Foo Fighter fans coming along who are curious, probably most of who are not country music fans. But you know, when you’re playing in a classic bar situation and its later at night and everyone is out to have a good time, it doesn’t really matter what kind of music it is. As long as there’s a band playing and it’s loud and you can groove to it, most people in that environment are rooting for you because you’re the soundtrack to their evening and they just want to have fun.
What about when you take the band into the heartland of California country music? I know you guys have played out in Bakersfield and I suspect that could be a very tough audience for what you do.
Yeah. We played the Crystal Palace up there in Bakersfield. There were older folks there who grew up on Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and all that music, and didn’t have any idea who I am. They came up to me after the show and said stuff like ” You played the shit out of those songs” and “Buck would have been proud.” That’s when I really feel good and felt like I passed the test.
How have these songs and this music influenced your own playing?
It’s actually influenced it a lot. On the technical side, just getting used to playing a Telecaster through an old Fender amp is very different to what I was used to. And I have also really got into that style of guitar playing. I have really tried to do my homework and immerse myself in it, and that has had the desired effect because it’s helped me to think that way instead of just falling back on my Ace Frehley licks, which were my go-to licks. Everyone has the thing they always play at a guitar store and that’s what it was for me. But, these songs and this music has changed me for the better as a guitar player.
How did your induction into Foo Fighters come about?
I just tried out for the band back in 1999 when they were looking for a new guitar player. I was lucky enough to get an audition and went in cold and was lucky to get the gig. I didn’t know any of them prior to that, which now seems a little strange.
What was it like to step from a Bay Area punk collective into a band that was on a trajectory to become one of the biggest bands in the world?
When I joined the Foo Fighters, they were obviously a well-established band. They had just made their third record, There Is Nothing Left to Lose, and were doing great. At the time I joined the band, it was an interesting point because I got to experience the band’s transition from being a band that played large clubs and theaters to being a band that played arenas and stadiums and shit. Which was something hard to believe for everybody. I feel very fortunate that I have got to experience all that with them.