The state of Virginia probably didn't know what hit it when Dave Grohl moved there recently, but for Grohl and his band, the Foo Fighters, it seemed the perfect locale to make the group's third album, There Is Nothing Left to Lose.
"We had no outside influence at all," Grohl says. "We were in a position to leave our contract with Capitol Records and go out on our own and pretty much do whatever we wanted to do. With everything so wide open, what could be better than building your own studio, having a good friend of yours help you produce the record, spending as much time as you wanted doing it and when you felt you were finished, coming out of the basement and saying, 'Okay, who wants it?' We were all living together in a house in Virginia, shooting skeet, having barbecues, playing basketball, riding motorcycles and making a record."
Producer/engineer Adam Kasper had worked with Grohl during Grohl's Nirvana days in the early '90s. In fact, he produced some unreleased Nirvana material that will be on the box set later this year. It was during those sessions that Kasper first became aware of Grohl's talents.
"A lot of times we'd be waiting for Kurt [Cobain] to show up, so Dave would start doing these songs that ended up on his first album. We did about five or six of them. He'd run out, do the drums, run out, do the bass, and we'd be done in half an hour. I was joking with him, saying, 'Man, you should do a solo thing with this stuff someday.'"
When the time was right for Grohl, Kasper helped him put together his basement studio. "My tastes are usually along the vintage analog type of gear," Kasper explains. "We bought Allen Sides' personal custom API board that came out of Ocean Way Nashville. I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd had recorded on it, but I'm not sure. That's what I'd like to think," he says with a laugh. "We bought a Neve [console] and a Studer tape machine as well-Dave wanted to be able to do a lot of quick punch-ins, so he bought a fairly nice new Studer. That was the only thing that wasn't vintage, but it's a killer machine."
Grohl says he and his bandmates-Taylor Hawkins on drums and Nate Mendel on bass-decided to take a different approach on this album than the last two. "The first Foo Fighters record was made in five days by one person," says Grohl, the mastermind behind the project, which was intended to be little more than a demo tape, before it caught America's attention. "We thought the songs we had written for the second album [The Colour and the Shape] deserved some serious production, so we took the conventional route of interviewing many different producers. We had done demos, so we would play the demos for the producers to see what sort of suggestions they would make. We went into a studio we hired and lived at outside of Seattle, and spent a lot of time getting sounds and perfect performances, comping vocals and working as hard as we could to make it sound as pristine, precise and powerful as possible.
"That's the most produced thing I have ever recorded in my life, but I don't regret it at all," Grohl continues. "I'm glad we went through the process, and I'll try anything once. We did well with that record, and I still listen to it with fondness."
This album, however, was a creative work in progress for the four-and-a-half months the band was holed up in Virginia. Although they took a great deal of time on the arrangements and instrument placement, the recording wasn't as scrutinized as the prior project, and the album was made sans Pro Tools.
"I feel a lot of music that has been recorded in the last five years has fallen victim to production," Grohl explains. "I feel that people are relying too much on things like Pro Tools or Autotune for vocals and drums, and I'm a drummer! I miss hearing a song on the radio that speeds up in the chorus or has a mis-hit on a snare in the second verse. I miss all the things that made John Bonham, Keith Moon and Stewart Copeland some of the most memorable, influential drummers in history. It's a drag that people have become so concerned with perfection. I think it has something to do with the concern that something that isn't pristine and perfect isn't safe.
"The biggest challenge of this record was trying to get everything to sound good and not using those things," he continues. "We left a lot of glitches in. What some people would call a mistake, we called charisma. What some people would call a glitch, we would call personality. At the same time, we didn't just throw down 11 songs and say, 'Here's your record.' We really focused on arranging, the placement of instrumentation, where things were going to fly in, how one instrument could complement the other, and the movement of the song from point A to point B. If it was going to go to the second verse, it was going to have to feel like you were in a new place."
Grohl's creative process was a little unconventional. Instead of the usual sequence-recording drums and bass first-they primarily recorded drums and guitar, adding the bass last. "Nate was left in the hot seat, because after Taylor and I would come up with the arrangements and accents, Nate would have to come in with his bass and find his place in the middle of that," Grohl notes. "He is a genius. He can sit upstairs all day long while Taylor and I are mapping out a song, and then he'll come in and tie it all together."
"The bass stuff is so non-standard," Kasper adds. "It's not root note kind of stuff; it's really cool parts, which you don't get with a lot of bass players.
"We recorded everything with either ribbon or tube microphones," he continues. "The guitars were [played through] Vox amps mainly, although with some Mesa Boogie stuff, usually recorded with ribbon mics through the Neve. We had an old Gretsch drum kit and a lot of different snares from various places, including Matt Cameron's Soundgarden stuff. [Kasper recorded Soundgarden's last album.] Dave had a few different ones too, and we would just change things up depending on the song. We'd mix it up as much as we could and recorded it with a lot of tube mics and compression here and there, to taste. Dave's room wasn't huge, but it was big enough to get a pretty roomy sound. I would place the room mics fairly close and low to the drums, and I used old tube mics and would compress those. If I wanted a roomier sound, I would use more compression.
"For outboard gear, I used mostly 1176s and dbx compression, different old ones and a couple of tubes-a Manley and some LAs and things like that," Kasper explains. "We mixed and tracked two songs in L.A. at Conway- 'Live-in Skin' and 'Learn to Fly'-and we mixed the whole thing on that SSL 9000 they have."
Kasper and Grohl agree that Grohl's vocals are probably the biggest difference in this recording from any others. "There's not a lot of screaming on this record," Kasper says. "Dave really was trying some different approaches vocally, which I thought was a very bold jump. We did the vocals in the control room together. We used old [Neumann u] 67 and 47 tubes, and we would go through and sing and double and comp and do everything without Pro Tools, just old-style. usually I will get the track up in the headphones for myself and I'll sing something and make some noises to get the sound I think will work with the track, depending on if it's really bright or warm or compressed or not. Sometimes I'll put the effects right on it, which is what I did with some Soundgarden stuff. We went right into an Echoplex and put it to the track that way, so when you're singing it, it is kind of close to what it will be. In this case, Dave would sing a take, listen to it and realize, 'oh, we need to make it thinner,' or 'We need more distortion,' and we'd tweak it like that. We'd go through and double things where they needed to be and stuff like that."
There were approximately 21 songs that the group worked on before finally narrowing it down to the 11 for the album. "This album was probably the most fun I've ever had making an album," Kasper says. "There was the pressure to make a good album, but none of us really thought about it. It was really just a bunch of us hanging out and recording. There were no executives breathing down our necks, and no one questioned what we were doing. They just let the creative process take its own shape."