Foo Fighters’ Guitarist Chris Shiflett Heads West. By Brian Wise.
“Maybe one of us will accidentally kill themselves. You never know, we could start a new thing at the Best Western.”
Foo Fighters’ guitarist Chris Shiflett might be busy readying the band’s new album and rehearsing a couple of Mexico City gigs for December, but the break since the band’s last live shows has not found him idle.
The Californian born and bred 42-year-old Shiflett, whose previous bands include punk rock outifts has been going country with his side project The Dead Peasants, whose album All Hat and No Cattle was released a few months back.
Shiflett and his band mates – including longtime friends in bassist Jeff Gross and guitarist Luke Tierney, along with Mitch Marine (drums), Marty Rifkin (pedal steel), and Derek Silverman (keyboards) – step into old country , as opposed to alt.country mode, for an album of covers from legends such as Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Faron Young, Don Rich (the rousing opening ‘Guitar Pickin’ Man’) and Wynn Stewart, along with lesser known writer Del Reeves.
They even squeeze in one original song, ‘A Woman Like You,’ that demonstrates that they had been pretty much immersed in the genre prior to the recording of the album, which was done live (only some vocal and pedal steel parts were overdubbed) with all the members together in a Los Angeles studio.
When I catch up with Shiflett by phone, he is about to head a few hours out of LA to Pioneer Town, an old Western movie set (remember The Cisco Kid?), where he was scheduled to play Pappy & Harriet’s club.
Where’s home, Los Angeles?
Los Angeles, California, yeah. Where the beautiful people live, you know.
Well, you’re heading down to Pioneer town to play Pappy and Harriet’s.
Exactly. We’re very much looking forward to it. They do a thing down there every year that’s like Camper Van, Beethoven, sort of like a three day festival. It’s awesome! They call it Camp Out. We played it last year and we’re happy to get invited back to it this year. It’ll be our third time at Pappy’s in a year. Such a great venue, I mean it really is and beyond just how cool the whole setup is there, I mean the old movie set Western town, all that stuff. The people that run it are just fucking great. Everybody there is so cool to the bands – from the sound man to the gal that owns the place to the people that wait on you, everything. It’s just great.
Very appropriately for the music that you’re playing, it’s not that far from Joshua Tree.
Well, every time we play out there, at the last minute, I go, ‘Ah fuck, I should try to get us rooms at the Gram Parson’s motel’ and then it’s always booked up. So, I have failed again. Instead of staying at the Gram Parson’s suite, we will be staying at the Best Western. Oh well.
Not quite the same thing but that’s OK.
No, but maybe one of us will accidentally kill themselves. You never know, we could start a new thing at the Best Western.
It might surprise people who hear this album to know the other band that you’re in, can you tell us about this because this is almost about as far away from that as you could possibly get.
It’s funny – and I totally understand that people would think that. Of course, people would think that. It makes perfect sense but I would say if you knew me, and you had to drive around in my car and listen to my iPod, that it wouldn’t surprise you.
Other people in interviews ask me, What does the rest of your band think about this? Don’t they think that’s weird and I’ll say, No, they know me. They know what I listen to.
I’ve always liked old rock and roll and rockabilly and Gene Vincent, Elvis, Eddie Cochran and that sort of thing since I was little. Really, I grew up with some Kiss and Black Sabbath and stuff. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve been listening to country for 40 years or whatever because I haven’t been.
I did like a lot of things that were closely related and then when I got a little older, when I was in No Use For A Name, I got turned on to all the country stuff that was going on at that time like, Whiskey Town, Uncle Tupelo. It was right when Son Volt and Wilco put out their first records.
There was all that stuff happening and that sort of led me down the path of it. I remember one time asking a buddy of mine who was a country musician, ‘I really like old country music but I just don’t know jack shit about it. What should I get? Where should I start?’ He gave me some pointers, that was years ago and it just sort of started there.
That twangy, Americana sound, just appealed to me and you know how it is, when you like something, you just want to keep digging back and figuring out what that person was listening to and it just leads you back to Buck Owens and Hank Williams and all that stuff. That’s what it’s done for me.
When did you decide to get a group together to play this sort of thing? You have played in other outfits where you played other people’s material but when did this finally kind of gel so you got this together.
Well, I made an album in 2010 that was called Chris Shiflett & The Dead Peasants and, in fact, at the time, I didn’t have a band or anything and I kind of put it together in this studio. It was all based around the acoustic guitar and a lot of Telecaster and a lot of pedal steel and piano and that sort of thing. It wasn’t really a country record but it was kind of a step in that direction. There was a lot of pedal steel on it and it had that, whatever you want to call it, Americana kind of sound. Then, after I put that out, while we were touring for that, our pedal steel player just started hipping me to all this great music.
I remember we were talking about it on tour, how to be great together, I said, ‘We really should go play Bakersfield.’ I was really digging the Bakersfield sound and a lot of the music that was associated with that. I remember at a certain point, I just thought, ‘You know, we need to just learn a bunch of old country songs and just be a cover band for a while.’ I kind of envisioned that being a start, you know, we could maybe just do like a residency somewhere and learn a bunch of Honky Tonk songs and just do that for a little bit.
We had so much fun, we did do that. We never did do a residency or anything but we were still playing gigs and it was really fun and it was also fucking hard because it was so out of my wheelhouse.
It was really uncomfortable at first. But uncomfortable in that way of like, ‘Fuck, I really want to figure this out, I want to make it so this is comfortable.’ Then I can feel as good doing this as I do plugging into a fucking Marshall all cranked up.
The more we did it, the more we just started having fun with it and then it hit a point where it started to sound pretty good then we thought, ‘Well, we should record this.’
We did and we made this record and then here we are. The next thing we’re going to do is definitely go back and make another album of originals. I’m just looking forward to seeing how this whole project has influenced us. I just want to see what that’s going to sound like when we do our own songs again. I think this has kind of pointed us in a different direction.
When you’re playing with this outfit, what guitars do you play on this as opposed to playing with the Foo Fighters? Do you play different sorts of guitars. I’d imagine that it obviously takes an entirely different style of playing.
It does and pretty much most of the time, we’re doing like a duel Telecaster-attack kind of thing. My friend Luke Tierney also plays guitar in the band. Most of the time, we’re both playing Teles through deluxe reverbs which is just that sound. That really is just the Bakersfield sound in a nutshell.
Sometimes, I switch it up and I’ll strum an acoustic here and there but most of the time, I’m just doing the Telecaster which is a trip because I really never played single-coil pickups, ever. I was never comfortable. I was always in rock bands and punk rock bands and stuff like that.
My first guitar was a Les Paul and that’s the sound that I was always, by far, the most comfortable with. Humbucker pickup, cranked up with hot amp gain on it and so, for this thing I turn my Les up to like five and it starts to break up just a little bit but it’s pretty clean and twangy too because it’s a single coil. It’s a different animal.
One of the great things about this album – and I mean this as a compliment – is that it’s only 27 minutes and 41 seconds long, just like the old LPs we used to get in the 60s and 70s.
Yes, I mean the songs are all like two and a half minutes long. There are no epics.
You get those early Beatles albums and other country albums and they only go for about 28 minutes, wouldn’t they?
Yes, it’s kind of refreshing, I like that. You know, initially I was going to make it like a six-song EP. That would have been like 15 minutes or something, that would have been really short.
You can’t lose your attention in 27 minutes, can you?
That’s a good unintended consequence. You cannot get sick of this record.
How did you choose the songs? There’s one original on it but I assume there must have been some of your favorites that you’ve been playing a lot.
That’s exactly what it was. We had learned a ton of songs, we must have learned like 30 or 40 songs and we just kind of went with the ones that had gone over the best live. It’s interesting because since we recorded the record, we’ve learned a shit ton more songs and there’s songs that we play now that I kind of wish were on the album because things just keep growing and changing. I have to be vigilant and not record another album of those covers. The next one’s got to be originals again and then maybe we’ll do some covers after that. It’s fun.
You have chosen some of the great country writers. You’ve obviously been listening pretty carefully and sort of doing a bit of research and studying what you’ve been playing.
Yes, for sure. When we first started assembling the songs, I had this big, huge, master list. I just went through all my records and I just went, ‘What are all my favorite songs off every one of these records?’ I put together just this massive list of songs and then that was the only fucking thing I listened to for like a year. I’d just listen to those songs over and over and over again and that was it. I just put on in the car, on the way to a job, on the way home . I just went through them relentlessly. I wanted it to be instinct. I wanted it to be a natural reaction to my guitar playing.
I didn’t want it to be like, ‘Oh look at me, now I’m playing country, isn’t this cute?’ Really, the point of this to me – outside of let’s make an album, everything will be fine – was I want to live in this music, I want to be this music. I want this to be the thing that comes out of me naturally. It’s helped to do that.
The Faron Young song, ‘Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young.’ You were talking about Gram Parsons before and your interpretation of that seems kind of inspired by Gram.
Gram Parsons and the Burrito Brothers and his solo records have certainly been an influence on me, no doubt, but he’s an interesting character. If you listen to his records, he’s sort of like this guy that had this great unfulfilled potential and had these really good ideas. This is just my opinion, obviously, there’s a lot of people that think the guy is a god.
He was at the forefront of pioneering that country rock sound, which I love. I think it’s great but it’s also so sad in a way. This is a guy that……….I get the sense that from his records that they’re not quite as good as he could have been. Maybe he didn’t put as much into them as he should have. People tell me they’re offended by that but when you compare his version of some of those country songs to the country music that actually happened at that time, I get the sense, what could it have been if he’d just buckled down and worked a little harder. I don’t know, that’s my take on it.
I mean I love his music, don’t get me wrong. I love his music but there’s just things like unfulfilled to me.
Let me ask you about a couple of others. ‘Pop A Top’? I’m sure I’ve heard Dale Watson play that song.
Yes, I love that song and when we recorded it, I only knew the Jim Ed Brown version (I believe it was the Jim Ed version), the old version, but Alan Jackson or somebody covered it not that long, maybe ten years ago and had a big hit with it but I didn’t know that at the time. I probably wouldn’t have put it on the record had I known that it’s so recently been a big hit.
I do love that song. I love the Jim Ed Brown version of it. It’s such a classic. We tried to recreate that ‘Pop a Top’ sound which is kind of fun. We built that out of a bunch of different sounds that we recorded. Just laid it all on top of each other – now it doesn’t sound Poppy enough. We’ve got to make that be a little gnarlier, so we’d open a natural beer or open a can of root beer and we’d line it up and that’s what we used.
A lot of people might think that ‘Good Time Charlies’ is that classic ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues’ but this is a completely different song. Can you tell us about this Good Time Charlie?
Yes, you know that, you’re right, everybody thinks that that’s what it is but it’s not, it’s by this cat Del Reeves. I don’t know if he lived in Bakersfield or not, I don’t know much about him personally. I have a couple of his records. He’s definitely associated with that Bakersfield sound and he had a variety show – all of them had variety shows back then. He was on TV and he was another one of those guys kind of like Wynn Stewart, who was big regionally but didn’t break too big to the national prominence. My buddy, Eddie, who plays guitar for the Mavericks – he actually hipped me to that song.
We’re guitar players and every time I see Eddie, I talk to him about country pickers and just whoever our favorite guitar players are – shop talk and talk guitar – and he’s like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to check out Del Reeves’ ‘Good Time Charlie,’ his guitar playing is fucking awesome.’ So I did and I loved it. We love Good Time Charlie. It’s a great guitar song.
You sound like a real music fan going on a journey of discovery. You hear one guitarist and somebody recommends someone else and then you find other things
I definitely am and I’ve got to say, there was a time a few years ago when I felt like sort of really stagnant in my guitar playing: musically stagnant. It’s kind of a boring, geeky thing but I started taking a bunch of lessons and tried to learn some different things and digging into country guitar playing, for me, pulled me out of sort of a period where I just felt unmotivated as a player. I never really felt like that before but all of the sudden, I did and that’s what pulled me out, listening to old country pickers, trying to figure it out.
It’s fun and with You Tube, there’s like eight million people that want to show you how to play everything, so it’s great. I’ll be on tour and I’ll just fucking geek out in front of my computer for hours. It’s awesome.
The album means with that eternal question. Are you sure Hank done it this way? The Waylon Jennings song. I guess that’s a great question to ask at the end of the album. Great song to put on the end of the album.
Yes, I’m pretty sure Hank did not do it that way. That song’s pretty much our set closer every night because it turns into a big jam fest at the end. That was one of the funnest ones to record because after we got the basics down I called these horn players and had them come in. I was thinking I wanted them to have a Stax style horn line thing going on in there. It’s like the one, if any song on the record could qualify as going into an epic kind of thing, it would definitely be that one. It just turns into a big free for all at the end.
You’re doing dates in the States, is it likely that you’ll come out to Australia with this band?
I sure hope so. We haven’t gotten any offers yet and at the moment, I’m pretty busy with Foo Fighters but we’re still doing shows and it’s something I plan to do for a while. If not, in the near future, we definitely, at some point, have got to come down. I would love to get this band on the road in Australia. So much fun.
Finally Chris, I should ask you about the title of the album, All Hat, No Cattle. A few years ago, Randy Newman wrote a song called ‘Big Hat, No Cattle.’ Can you explain the expression to us because it’s a peculiarly American expression.
Yeah, I always understood the expression to meaning somebody that’s kind of full of shit. We’re kind of like, ‘Oh that guy’s all hat and no cattle.’ You know, he’s a bullshitter. I thought it was just kind of silly and tongue in cheek and considering we’re doing album of covers – and also sort of stylistically not what people want to associate with me – it was just a little dig at ourselves, really.
ALL HAT AND NO CATTLE TRACKLISTING:
1. GUITAR PICKIN’ MAN (Don Rich and The Buckaroos)
2. GOOD TIME CHARLIES (Del Reeves)
3. POP A TOP (Jim Ed Brown)
4. HAPPY PART OF TOWN (Wynn Stewart)
5. SKID ROW (Merle Haggard)
6. LIVE FAST, LOVE HARD, DIE YOUNG (Faron Young)
7. PLAYBOY (Wynn Stewart)
8. KING OF FOOLS (Buck Owens)
9. A WOMAN LIKE YOU (Original)
10. ARE YOU SURE HANK DONE IT THIS WAY? (Waylon Jennings)