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Can't Foo Anyone

As front man Dave Grohl slowly looses the creative reins, the Foo Fighters begin to act more and more like a band.
Hamish Brown

There Is Nothing Left to Lose, the title of the current Foo Fighters CD, suggests a sense of desperation. That much is true. But the title also reflects the carefree attitude of a band that has achieved Billboard success but not much else. No devoted Fooheads. No Foo bongs. No Foo logos on the ass end of a VW microbus. The band obviously has an identity crisis, falling somewhere between the commercial supernova of Smashing Pumpkins and the outsider jam-band appeal of Phish. Having nothing to lose, in light of this fact, means the Foos don't have to acquiesce to a niche audience the way, say, Sugar Ray or Third Eye Blind must. Selling tons of records by appropriating indie-pop attitudes, without catering to the hypercritical indie-pop fan, is clearly the Foo Fighters' calibrated act of genius. So if the band is indeed in danger of losing anything, it is that special skill.

"We have our good days and our bad days," says drummer Taylor Hawkins, "but when it comes to the basic dynamic of the band right now, it's like, 'Fuck, man, we're lucky to be doing this. I could so easily be home delivering pizzas right now.' "

Yeah, right.

Yet the band is unlike the nine kazillion other indie-pop bands it emulates, in that it is made up of a bunch of happy characters: Hawkins, front man Dave Grohl, bassist Nate Mendel and new guitarist Chris Shiflett.

Part of the upbeat mood stems from personnel changes as well as a label shift that has occurred since the recording of the group's second CD, 1997's The Colour and the Shape.

By all accounts, the making of that CD was anything but smooth. A number of "finished" tracks were scrapped and rerecorded during the sessions, and original drummer William Goldsmith walked away from the band during the recording, citing the ubiquitous creative differences.

By the time the Foo Fighters had finished touring behind Colour, the group had also gone through two guitarists, Pat Smear and his replacement, Franz Stahl.

The artistic shake-up was soon followed by a business one: Capitol Records president and CEO Gary Gersh left the label in July 1998, which permitted the Foo Fighters to exercise an option, allowing the band to void the remainder of its Capitol contract and shop for a new deal.

Instead of signing with another label directly, Grohl, Hawkins and Mendel chose to record There Is Nothing Left to Lose with their own money; the guys didn't ink a deal with RCA Records until after the CD had been completed. The move obviously gave the group complete freedom over the songs and sound.

Nothing Left to Lose would be an about-face for Grohl, who with Colour had wanted to create a complete-band record that took full advantage of studio technology. So the group hired producer Gil Norton (the Pixies, Counting Crows) to apply a clean, shiny gloss. This was partly a reaction to the way the Foo Fighters' debut CD had come about: completely and literally DIY.

Launching the band soon after the suicide of Kurt Cobain, former Nirvana drummer Grohl had recorded the band's eponymous debut essentially as a solo album, playing virtually every instrument himself over a five-day period. He then recruited Mendel, Goldsmith and Smear for a Foo Fighters tour.

Having already experimented with two diametrically opposed recording approaches, the minimalist and the kitchen-sink, Grohl was ready to revert to the spontaneous approach for There Is Nothing Left to Lose. He built a studio in his Virginia home, brought in producer Adam Kasper, renowned for his ability to capture live energy, and had him record the songs with minimal overdubs.

"We were trying to do something good and interesting without using the gadgetry of today," Hawkins says. "It's a fairly honest representation of the band. That means warts and all. I mean, if you listen to [Pink Floyd's] Wish You Were Here , that album's not perfect. Or if you listen to the first couple of Police records -- but that's what gives them life. A lot of the life is missing from a lot of music today, and I think it has a lot to do with computers and Pro Tools and [studio technology]. I mean, I'm totally into, like, I'm into that new Nine Inch Nails record. It's good. It all has its place. But what we wanted to do was make a really good natural-sounding record, not totally compressed."

The organic approach comes through. The tracks sound uncluttered, direct and rough around the edges. A nice appropriation of indie spirit.

Stylistically There Is Nothing Left to Lose seems like a logical successor to the first two albums. The loud, hard-rocking side of the band, epitomized on hits such as "Monkey Wrench" and "This Is a Call," re-emerges on such first-rate new songs as "Breakout," "Gimme Stitches" and "Stacked Actors." These tracks feature fat yet catchy guitar riffs, full-throttle tempos and Grohl's full-throated vocals. The new disc also provides an ample showcase for the band's more restrained side, particularly during the latter half of the recording, during which the group concentrates on mid-tempo tracks that turn down the volume and place more emphasis on the melodies. "Aurora," "Next Year" and "Headwires" are among the best of these less manic tunes, and they're straight out of the indie-pop songbook.

"If you listen, there are not a lot of harmonies and stuff on this record," Hawkins says. "It's pretty straight-forward, but the songs aren't, necessarily. I think the big goal on this record was just to pull as much out of a song without having to rock something out, you know what I'm saying?"

With There's Nothing Left to Lose, the members of the current edition of the Foo Fighters say the tensions that existed before are gone, and that the new lineup enjoys strong personal chemistry. What's more, Hawkins says he and Mendel have slowly begun to play larger roles in the band, even if Grohl remains very much the guiding force. "That's a lot of trust for Dave to give," Hawkins says. "It's his thing, and I totally understand that he's the leader. And I don't want to dirty the process or cloud the genius or whatever."

The Foo Fighters perform with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on Monday, June 5, at 7 p.m. at Compaq Center, 10 Greenway Plaza. Tickets are $36.25. For more information, call (713)629-3700.


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