PRINT EXCERPT: Chris Shiflett on Touring Extremes
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below is an excerpt from a story in our Spring 2020 print issue “Live and In Person.” You can read the whole story — and much more — in that issue, here. And please consider supporting No Depression with a subscription for more roots music journalism, in print and online, all year long.
Goodnight Little Rock, we’ll see you when we see you again
Tonight, we turned a hundred strangers into our best friends
C’mon boys, pack up the van real tight, yeah
Because we gotta get lost in Texas by tomorrow night
When it comes to the ups and downs of a working-class musician’s touring life, this opening verse from Chris Shiflett’s “Goodnight Little Rock” — a jangly single from his 2017 album West Coast Town — paints the scene pretty well. There’s the unmatched high of a live show and the hard-earned thrill of victory in winning over a crossed-arm crowd, quickly being overshadowed by the realization that the gear needs to be loaded up so that you can get a jump on the overnight drive to the next gig. It’s rapture and responsibility, rinse and repeat.
For the last 25 years, Shiflett has experienced the ups and downs of touring with a variety of different bands in a variety of different settings. While he’s best known as the longtime lead guitarist for global arena rockers Foo Fighters (a role he’s maintained since 1999), he’s also spent time in punk rock bands No Use for a Name, Me First and The Gimme Gimmes, and Jackson United, and led the alt-country outfit Chris Shiflett and The Dead Peasants. Most recently he’s been touring as an Americana solo artist in support of his sophomore record, the Dave Cobb-produced Hard Lessons, which came out last year.
Shiflett’s life on the road over the last two-and-a-half decades has unfolded via quite a few escalating, yet, intersecting paths. He’s toured in punk bands that were barely scraping together enough gas money to get to the next gig, in on-the-rise major label outfits that toured during the last days of a fully cash-flush music industry, in an alt-country group comfortably filling mid-level rooms, in an iconic rock band able to call all of their own shots on both domestic and international levels, and as a solo roots artist who’s happy to crack triple-digit attendance in dive bars and honky-tonks.
Shiflett has intentionally made a career out of cleverly hopscotching between all these styles of touring. Just last summer, for example, Shiflett and his Foo Fighters bandmates closed out the UK’s Reading Festival with a massive three-hour headlining set for more than 80,000 fans; a week and a half later, he fronted his solo band at Chicago’s 160-seat Schubas Tavern on a Wednesday night.
While some may wonder how Shiflett is fueled by this balancing act, it seems his best-of-both-worlds outlook is at the heart of it all: “It’s interesting because I’ve never wanted to stop doing shitty little tours and playing in shitty little bars. Last year, especially, I toured with my solo stuff in every gap of Foos touring, so there’s a lot of back-and-forth in those different environments and I honestly love things about them both.”
Although he’s been touring consistently since the mid-1990s, Shiflett feels like he actually got a bit of a late jump on carving out a life on the road: “The first time I ever went out on a tour was in early 1995, when I worked as a roadie for my friend Joe Sib’s band Wax. I think I was about 23, and since all of my friends that were in bands had already been out on the road and toured Europe, I considered myself a bit of Johnny-Come-Lately to the whole thing. I wanted so badly to get out there and really experience it for myself.”
In early 1996, Shiflett first started touring with Shannon Gabriel, a stage manager, guitar tech, driver, and all-around Swiss Army knife of a road crew member who still works with Shiflett on his solo tours. “Pretty soon after Chris started playing guitar with No Use for a Name, they brought me on as a driver and guitar tech,” says Gabriel. “My days looked like: pack the van, drive the van, load-in at the venue, set everything up, make sure it’s working correctly, run the gig, pack up the gear, load-out from the venue, repack the van, and drive to the next gig.
“Oh, and also partying, of course,” Gabriel adds with a laugh. “In fact, the biggest difference between back then and now is definitely the drinking. We used to drink a lot. Now, we get up early, have coffee, start the drive, and just have a blast hanging out. I recently did over 14,000 miles with him and it’s like we hadn’t missed a beat in 20 years.”
When Shiflett joined Foo Fighters in August 1999, he was thrust into international touring. One of his first tours with them was to Australia and New Zealand, which involved a substantial road crew and touring infrastructure. It turned out to be a whole new world for Shiflett: “In my previous bands, we always took a guitar tech with us, but we were still always loading in and loading out and involved with everything. With Foos, it was radically different to have this really great crew and to have your amps and monitors sound good all the time and to be playing places with consistently good PA systems. It was a very different experience for me to not have to deal with any of that stuff.” Shiflett says, chuckling. “Also, I got my very own hotel room, which had never happened before. It was a huge milestone for me!”
Another welcomed change that he experienced with Foo Fighters was a more measured touring schedule made up of shorter continuous stints and more trips back home sprinkled throughout. “With Foos, our tours are planned out pretty smartly. Luckily, we’re never really gone for more than three weeks at a time or so,” says Shiflett. He quickly points out that this type of measured trips wasn’t always the case. “On one No Use for a Name tour, we did a six-week North American trip, came home for two or three days, and then went to Europe for seven weeks straight. All in, I was gone for like three months total. When I got back from that one, it felt like the whole world had turned upside down.”
Continually balancing the massive globetrotting success of Foo Fighters with his working-class side gigs has given Shiflett a seasoned perspective touring. “On a van tour, there’s this constant momentum of driving, loading in, soundchecking, finding food, playing the show, loading out, and driving to the next town; which can all be really fun,” he explains. “But it’s also really fun to tour at a higher level where you can stay more human — you get a good night’s sleep, maybe hit the gym, eat a nice meal, see some friends, or walk around the town you’re in. I’m not going to pretend that there’s always sightseeing and going to museums, but sometimes I cram some of that in there too.”
However, rather than getting too complacent with comfortable touring, Shiflett uses it for moments of reflection and gratitude. “For me, it works that when I’m on a van tour, it makes me appreciate how lucky I am to be in Foo Fighters and have the crew that we have and the management and infrastructure that I’m so thankful for,” gushes Shiflett.
He continues, “I think it’s really easy in any walk of life to lose sight of how good your life is and how awesome things can be at any given moment. You just grow into whatever fishbowl you’re living in. So it’s always good for me to take a step back and remember that real working-class musician stuff is extremely hard work.”
Here’s a playlist of songs by artists, including Chris Shiflett, featured in our Spring 2020 issue.