Any single member of the Foo Fighters could easily rest on his laurels, content and respected for being in one of the last great rock bands to still draw arena crowds. Yet somehow, after more thantwenty years as a band, the members of the Foo Fighter seem to approach music with boundless enthusiasm. Dave Grohl is obviously the most prominent example, appearing in just about every rock doc that gets made and collaborating with numerous bands. But guitarist Chris Shiflett has been on his own musical quest that, at this point, can fairly be called prolific. On top of his work in punk outfits like Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and Jackson United, Shiflett has also been pursuing his passion for country music in recent years, first with the Dead Peasants and most recently under his own name. As if the music itself wasn’t enough, Shiflett also has a podcast called Walking the Floor. To date, he has recorded over 140 episodes featuring his own interviews with legendary country and rock artists as well as more under the radar acts, and every single one of them is well worth a listen.
Last week Shiflett released his new solo album Hard Lessons, the follow-up to his 2017 album West Coast Town. Once again he teamed up with in-demand producer Dave Cobb, but whereas West Coast Town found Shiflett embracing his twangier troubadour side, Hard Lessons is much more rock-oriented with plenty of the blazing guitar solos he has become known for. Lyrically, it finds Shiflett taking a more autobiographical approach to his songs as he focuses on our current tumultuous times and also his own life. Recently, we talked with Shiflett about writing in the moment on Hard Lessons, his chemistry with Dave Cobb, getting into country music, and more.
You did a Reddit AMA the other day. How do you think that went?
It seemed good. I’ve never done one of those before, it was a new experience for me. I realized like halfway through that I was answering all the old questions that have been sitting up there for a while, so then I switched answering to the newer ones.
Was there any question that completely caught you off guard?
No, I can’t say that there was. There seemed to be a lot of stuff that just covered the same territory. I was trying to pick out the ones that were a little more fun I guess.
Obviously it skewed more towards Foo Fighters questions. Have you found that Foo Fighters fans are coming to see your solo stuff or is that stuff resonating with a different audience?
It’s maybe a little more of a mix now. Certainly when I first started doing this thing a while ago it just seemed to be curious Foo Fighters fans, like wherever I’d happen to be you’d get like the 30 most hardcore Foo Fighters fans who would come out to the show. Maybe there’s a little more crossover, like maybe doing the podcast has helped with that as well.
So you don’t have to worry so much about people coming out and yelling requests for Foo Fighters covers all night?
That generally doesn’t happen. I never understand when people do that [as a joke] because it’s not like something I’m hiding from. The funnier ones are like when people ask me like for real, like, “hey will you play ‘Everlong'”? and I’m like “wrong show man”. It’s funny because it’s me and I’m in it but my perspective in it is so skewed because I work on this all the time, and I forget what the perspective of just a casual music fan might be. I went over and did a tour of the UK and some Scandinavian dates a couple months ago, and it kicked off in Dublin. Somebody posted a thing online, it was like this podcast, and these two Irish guys who had come to the show in Dublin were just kind of reviewing and having an honest conversation about it. I thought it was really funny listening to them talk about it, because they were in all sincerity saying like, ‘we went to the show, we didn’t know what to expect. We thought he’d play a set of Foo Fighters songs or what’s he gonna do?’ It struck me as so funny because you think you put something up on Spotify or on Instagram or whatever and the whole world sees it, but the fact of the matter is that the whole world does not see it. The whole world is not paying attention to your every move and listening to every thing you do.
There’s so much out there now.
Totally, people have a nonstop barrage of content.
Your background is in punk and rock and roll. Can you think back on a turning point when you suddenly understood or fell in love with country music?
It didn’t really work that way for me. If you really peel it back, it’s like the origins of that for me are in Elvis, early Rolling Stones, the late 60s/early 70s sort of Gram Parsons era. That’s really where the roots of it lie for me, but more specifically there were like certain points in my life where I remember getting a tape of like Johnny Cash, his Sun Years stuff, and maybe I remember buying like a Patsy Cline greatest hits record, and that was pretty much the extent of my country music record collection for a long time. Then when I was in No Use For a Name the singer was really into Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and Wilco, and turned me on to all of that stuff. If I could point to any one time that really kind of left a big impression on me, that was pretty important. That was when I really started to wind my way back and listen to some of the older stuff. It was really when I made that first Dead Peasants record, that was the first time I ever tried writing and recording in a non-rock dynamic. That wasn’t a country album, but it was a lot of acoustic, Telecaster, pedal steel twangy stuff. It was the first time I ever tried to create something that sounded like that.
You probably wouldn’t be the first person where Uncle Tupelo served as that bridge from punk and rock to country.
Totally. I remember when they were still around and seeing articles in like the Santa Barbara Independent. I had never even heard them and then I read the article and looked at the picture, and I was just like, “what the fuck are those guys all about?” I had no idea how big of an impact their music would have on me.
Throughout the album there is some real impressive guitar playing. Are there any guitar players in the country realm you find specifically inspiring or even find yourself borrowing from?
So many, new and old. All the cats that played on those old records, especially like Don Rich, Roy Nichols, I love those guys. I love Waylon Jennings’ guitar playing, it was really original and one of a kind. You could come to the modern era, you know, Little Joe that played with Sturgill Simpson for a long time and plays with Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, that’s a guy that I’ve watched and listened to and tried to sort of pick apart some of what he’s done. There’s just so many, Marty Stuart. Country has such a great tradition of guitar players and I think the playing is a big part of what has drawn me into it.
Marty’s guitarist Cousin Kenny Vaughan too.
Oh yeah. And what you just pointed out I think is important in the tradition of country music, which is you see these guys like Marty Stuart and Kenny and they’ll just go back and forth taking solos. There’s that thing in country music where they sort of like pass the solo ball around.
Kind of that bluegrass approach.
Dave Cobb produced and played on the album. Did he bring anything out in your music that you hadn’t picked up on before, especially compared to your last album?
Oh yeah, in a huge way. He’s had such an impact on the records that he’s produced for me. He’s not the type of producer that sort of sits quietly in the studio and doesn’t comment on stuff. He’s very involved, he helps you a lot with the arrangement of your songs, he really gets in there and cuts the weak parts out of your tunes and just streamlines them. He was the one who pushed me to make this new record a little more rock and roll, that was very much his influence. I think it had good results.
What’s the back and forth like when you’re going in leaning towards a country sound and he’s telling you to go in a different direction?
It’s funny, and it’s kind of why I wanted to go work with him, to put my faith in his opinion because I trust it. I think it was before I made West Coast Town, I remember my wife was like, “why don’t you do something you don’t normally do and take his advice and listen to him?” In that environment, with whatever success I’ve been lucky to have, it’s not for being a singer-songwriter especially in the style of the records that I make on my own. I have no success in that world so I’m not going into the studio like look at me I’m the big hotshot. I’m going in there like, I’m lucky to be in this room to work with this amazing producer, these incredible musicians, like I need to make sure I’m doing the best that I can here and sort of check my ego at the door, which is not always easy.
The album ends with a huge instrumental guitar jam that feels like the closer of a live set. How did that come about and was that improvised?
Yeah, the end of the song “The Hardest Lessons”, when we were tracking it we just kind of went into this long crazy guitar solo jam thing. I remember when we were done with it Dave was like, “normally people run out of licks but you just kept going.” So we just went for a whole so I thought it would be cool to turn that into a reprise at the end of the album like an old 70s record. I come from a musical background where you didn’t do a lot of that, like let’s just jam man, so it’s fun for me to just kind of stretch out and noodle a little bit.
You weren’t a Grateful Dead fan or anything?
I was not, man, I hated that shit growing up. I have an appreciation of it now, but it took me a long time. You gotta understand, I grew up in Santa Barbara in the 70s and the 80s where there was so much residue from hippie stuff around. Like that whole post-hippie California thing, and me and my friends just pushed against that and hated it and anything that smelled of patchouli. That was definitely not where my head was at when I was a kid.
Do you find that it’s harder to come up with lyrics when you are in a super successful band and have a comfortable life? And is it harder to write from an autobiographical perspective if you aren’t living the wild country lifestyle?
The thing that’s been hard for me over the years is to write about things that are happening right now. I find that lyrically I often draw from like my late teens through my early 30s. I think it has to do with what you touched on, you know – I like my life, I’m happy with beautiful kids and a beautiful wife, a great professional life and all that stuff. I think for whatever reason it’s always been more comfortable to write about sort of the darker parts of life. Oddly, I think this album is a lot in the present tense. And at the end of the day it doesn’t always matter how successful your life appears to be because everybody goes through dark shit. I was having this conversation once with Peter Case, who’s like a great songwriter and someone I respect immensely, and I said that basically I write about the same sort of phase in my life, like my 20s or whatever. He was just like disgusted, he was like, “we’re living through the craziest fucking time in human history and you’re telling me you can’t figure out something to write about right now?” I was like, “god, you’re so fucking right.” I don’t sit down and think about what to write, but with this batch of songs there’s more stuff dealing with right now.
“This Ol’ World” seems like a broad comment on the current state of our country and the world. I know the Foo Fighters have always been cautiously political. Do you feel like you can make more of a statement with your solo material?
With that song in particular I tried a few different approaches. I’ve written some pretty bad political songs in the past that just came off way too finger pointy. Nobody really responds well to that. I was trying to just make that song as broad as possible so that maybe people with different world views would maybe recognize a bit of themselves in it. People assume that if you’re from where I’m from and you do what I do that I’m singing about Trump. Really what I’m singing about is the way the community around me has reacted to Trump getting elected. It’s a funny thing, people have a hard time with politics. If you’re critical of the Democratic party they think you’re a Republican and [vice versa]. For people like me who are neither, it’s tricky.
Yeah, with all of the identity politics.
You just wind up offending everybody. I was out on tour a bunch earlier this year. I tried a lot of different ways to introduce [“This Ol’ World”] and sort of make the point that I just made to you, briefly, in a song intro, and you could just feel every time that anything even remotely political just the air goes out of the room and people get real tense. I think it speaks to the time that we’re in, it’s very polarized out there. If I say something negative about Barack Obama’s policies people assume that I’m a Trump supporter. It’s fucking crazy, like nothing could be further from the truth. The flipside of that is if I say something negative about Trump and his policies people assume I’m some dyed in the wool Democrat, and that isn’t true either. It’s sort of this no man’s land.
What’s it like touring in a van and playing dives, honky tonks, and small clubs when you are used to arenas?
It’s really fun. I love a van tour because you see the world in a very different light when you’re driving around the country in a van then when you’re sleeping in a bunk on a bus. It’s a very different experience – it’s fun, it’s a lot of work, it’s tiring, it’s a different kind of lifestyle. I’m way more hands on, like I’m the guy asking the promoter for towels and water or whatever. I find myself on a constant quest for a cup of coffee on a van tour. I really do love it. It’s not always as much fun for the people that I go on the road with. I think it’s fun for me because I don’t necessarily live in a van tour, it’s like I’m kind of dipping my toe back in that world. It’s kind of hard to keep a lineup together because of that, but I dig it.
You have a pretty prolific podcast. How do you do research and have the time to learn so much about the guests?
I’ll tell you something funny. I have been asked a bunch in the last few months – there’s an internet rumor that I had to choose between being a soccer player and being a musician, which is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, like I wish that were true. Sadly, it is not true at all. I realized that somebody put that on my Wikipedia page. It’s funny, if I know a lot about the person I’m interviewing it’s certainly easier. It can kind of be harder where it’s like Merle Haggard and you’re like where do I even begin? A lot of people I interview now, I don’t know anything about them and it’s the first time I’ve heard them. So I like to listen to their records, read some articles about them. In the past I’ve looked at their Wikipedia page, but I’ve been asked so often about this professional soccer thing now that I realized Wikipedia pages are like a crutch of bad research, so I’m gonna try not to do that anymore. On paper it shouldn’t work and I shouldn’t have time for this, but somehow it just keeps on going. I just interviewed the Lumineers and then I think next week I’m going to interview Robert Earl Keen.
Are there any young or under the radar acts that you are really digging these days?
Yeah for sure. I love Hayes Carll, he’s not under the radar. Quaker City Nighthawks are great. You know who’s fantastic? Garrett T. Capps from San Antonio. He’s got a new record that’s fucking amazing.
Hard Lessons is out now. Check out tour dates below and visit chrisshiflettmusic.com.
July 10 /// Costa Mesa, CA /// Wayfarer
July 12 /// Pioneertown, CA /// Pappy & Harriets
July 13 /// Bakersfield, CA /// Temblor Brewing
July 14 /// Los Angeles, CA /// Moroccan Lounge
Photo credit: Brantley Gutierrez