If you flip on any rock station right now, there's a good chance you'll hear a Foo Fighters song. You'll probably know the words, and before long, you'll be air drumming along and banging your head. For nearly two decades, the man inspiring your steering-wheel drum solos and keeping the hook-heavy rock anthems in time has been Taylor Hawkins. New for 2013, Gretsch has created a signature snare that captures his sound, the backbone of the Foo Fighters. We caught up with Taylor between rehearsals for his performance at Rush's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and discussed the inspiration behind the snare, his evolution as a drummer and his lack of patience when it comes to tuning his drums.
Musician's Friend: Tell us how your new Gretsch signature snare drum came about.
Taylor Hawkins: Gretsch came to me and said "Do you want to do a signature snare?" And I was like, "Well, I guess." I didn't really have a "signature" snare, but I did find one that I liked that I used all the time. So basically we modeled it after that. I just liked the way it sounded. They sent me a couple of prototypes based on that snare. Well, me and my drum tech, Yeti. His name's actually Chad, but we call him Yeti because he's a big man, big dude.
MF: What is it about Gretsch drums that you like? What made you decide to switch back in 2007?
TH: I used them in the studio all the time, whenever we would do session work or something. There are all these different people that do drum rentals for albums, basically a bunch of older, classic kits-'60s Ludwig kits, Gretsch kits, that kind of thing. So I just found that I kept using these Gretsch kits. I liked the way they sounded. Phil Collins plays Gretsch. I always thought that was cool. But I just kept going back to Gretsch every time we would record. So I was like, f**k it man, why don't I just play Gretsch?
MF: Do you experiment a lot when you go in to record or do you find your sound and just roll with that?
TH: It depends. When we did our last record I was just one of three drummers in the room. There was Butch Vig, who's a drummer and a producer, Dave Grohl, who's the guitar player, singer, writer and, first and foremost, a drummer, really. So I'll tell them if I'm hearing something. There have been times where I've said, "Let's try this" and it really works. But when you're a drummer and you're in the studio, for the most part your job is to make the songwriter happy and somehow get to his vision. When your chief songwriter is a drummer as well, he's even got a slightly more in-tune version of what he might want to hear.
MF: How does your setup in Foo Fighters differ from Coattail Riders or any another project you're a part of?
TH: That usually comes down to economics to a certain degree, because with Foo Fighters I can bring anything I want. I can bring f*****g timpani drums. You can do anything within reason.
When you're doing something like the Coattail Riders or other little things I do for fun on the side like Chevy Metal, I usually go really small. Small four-piece drum kit, two crashes and a ride, maybe a cowbell. I always like to have a little something to kind of throw people's ear off for a second. Some little bit of color.
MF: Somewhere between when Wasting Light came out and when you were doing Sound City Players you decided to go without the bottom head on your toms.
TH: That was kind of a progression. When I started the Wasting Light tour, it was kind of like Neal Peart's kit. My main toms had bottom heads and the other ones were just concert toms. I got a perverse sort of humor out of it because most people look at them and go, "Why are you doing that?"
But I will tell you our sound engineer, he loves it because it basically subtracts one element of the tuning process. A lot of times when you're out there line-checking you're going "duum, duum," and you're getting a "wwwrrrrm." You have to adjust and tweak and tune the bottom head. Maybe the bottom head's too loose, whatever. I don't know s**t about tuning. I wish I did, but I still don't after all these years. I'm too ADD for it. I'm like, "All right, f****r. Just crank it up. Let's go." Sound City I did it and made all the other drummers play it. I know all the other drummers and they all kind of laughed. They just know it's me, you know.
A lot of my favorite drummers came from a period where they were playing concert toms and I like the way those drums sounded. I love Phil Collins' drum sound. And I'll tell you, you sit behind them sometimes and you go, "These sound like s**t," but then you go out in the house and they just cut through. Just one note and it's all punch. When you've got walls of guitars and difficult rooms, big echo chambers and s**t, what you really need the most is just a direct punch. So they really work that way.
MF: Because you were playing behind, what, four guitar players at a time for Sound City? And in Foo Fighters you've got three.
TH: Dave likes to add a guitar player every tour. [laughs]
MF: Right before you joined Foo Fighters you played with Alanis Morrissette.
TH: I did? [laughs]
MF: What were some of the adjustments you had to make with that transition, if any?
TH: When you're a kid-I don't know about everybody else, maybe only I was like this-but when I first started playing drums I set my drum set up like Roger Taylor. I wanted to be Roger Taylor. I wanted to wear my hair like Roger Taylor. I wanted to BE f*****g Roger Taylor. After that, I discovered early U2, the first couple of U2 records, War, October, Boy. I wanted to be Larry Mullen, Jr. I set my drums up like Larry Mullen, Jr. I played-thought I played-like him. Then I wanted to be Stewart Copeland somewhere in there. Set my drums up like Stewart Copeland. Played like Stewart Copeland. That's the one that really fit me personally. I mean, I'm not by any means as creative or as amazing as Stewart Copeland, but that was probably the one that stuck with me the most.
After that I got into Neal Peart. I set my drums up like Neal Peart. Tried to play like Neal Peart. My point is I tried to be all these drummers for a year or whatever and then I would get into something else. Then in high school I discovered Jane's Addiction and they saved rock and roll, man. They're like amazing musicians, yet they'll f*****g burn your house down, too. And they looked like freaks. Your parents would hate this band. They're everything rock and roll should be. So I wanted to be Stephen Perkins. I got into that sort of syncopated, tribal-y kind of funk thing.
That kind of spread over to when I joined Alanis. With Alanis I adopted that sort of style for her music, which actually fit good because her music was sort of dance-y or had like-I don't know what you would call it. Hip-hoppy little drum beats under her poetry and whatever.
After that I joined the Foo Fighters and it was just so completely the other way around. It's like one second you're doing funky, syncopated little groovy beats. Next thing you know you're doing slamming, fast-paced straight, tight, crisp punk rock-pop. At first it was a major adjustment. But Dave had the foresight to know that I could eventually get there and make it comfortable, but it took me a long time. It's funny, though, when you look back at all of the things that you loved and you tried to be when you were a kid, all of that's in there somewhere, rolled into one with whatever natural instincts I have. I think that's what everybody is to a certain degree.
I'm still such a super fan. I still get really excited about a drummer and almost try and see what I can steal off him, you know what I mean? I see Jon Theodore play drums and I'm just like, "I'm going to steal something. Sorry, bro." [laughs] "I don't know what I'm taking, but I'm taking something." The guy from The Killers (Ronnie Vannucci Jr.), I love him. I think he's a great drummer. He's like the new Bun E. Carlos to me. You don't really hear it on the records, either. They're buried under a lot of keyboards. But when you see him play live, you're like, "Oh, you're great."
MF: Do you have any advice for those bands still jamming in the garage, hoping to get a name for themselves?
TH: One thing I always tell kids starting bands is learn as many songs as you can and play live as much as possible. Write songs all the time and keep writing and learn that craft, but part of learning that craft is learning other people's stuff. I remember seeing this picture of these lists of songs that Van Halen used to have in their practice room, because they played everybody's backyard party and shit back in the early '70s. They would do everything from current rock hits, Deep Purple or whatever, to Frank Sinatra songs. You can imagine David Lee Roth doing that. They would do them their own style and they literally had like 350 songs on the wall. That's how they got so good, I think, because they were just playing all that.
If I could go back to my 13-year-old self right now I'd say, "Keep working on songs with your buddies. They're going to be really bad. They're going to be lame. You don't know s**t about anything yet, but you can learn the craft and while you're at it, learn every song that's on rock radio right now and then go learn some of your parents' old songs. Learn all the stuff so you can play every dance, every birthday party, every Bar Mitzvah, every whatever." That's how you get good.