15 Years Ago: Foo Fighters Leave Their Comfort Zone With ‘Echoes’
When the Foo Fighters began recording their sixth studio album, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, they did so not only from a position of abundance, but also diversity.
"When we started recording," chief Foo Dave Grohl told Kerrang!, "we let the album dynamic dictate itself … we had a lot of songs to choose from and had a lot of demos which ranged from psycho fucking Nomeansno [punk songs] to sloppy, Tom Petty country, to fucking piano-driven songs!"
The band worked with producer Gil Norton, who had helmed 1997's The Colour and the Shape – to that point the Foos' biggest album. For Grohl, the reasons for bringing Norton into the project were clear.
"I thought about a lot of different producers," Grohl admitted, "but I feel like Gil is the one rock producer that we're compatible with because he's unconventional. I don't know what it is, but he seems to capture the best of this band. So we called him up, and once he agreed to do it, I knew it was going to be our best record in years."
"Gil has a reputation as being a real taskmaster in the studio," Grohl revealed in a separate Kerrang! piece. "He cracks the fucking whip. He accepts nothing but absolute perfection in what you do – whether that means dissonant, noisy chaos, or a perfect pitch, perfect performance pop song, he needs it to be the best. So working with him was Really. Fucking. Hard."
Listen to 'The Pretender' by Foo Fighters
The whip-cracking started before the "record" button was even pushed – in pre-production. Norton was a stickler for getting things tight before beginning any recording.
"[On The Colour and the Shape] he basically showed us what pre-production really is, honing the songs and composition, and arrangements so that it's just airtight when you go into record," Grohl said. "After recording all those demos, we thought that the songs had the potential to be something great and rather than just stay in our own comfort zone, we needed someone to push us out of there."
"We basically played each of these songs a hundred different times, trying every little thing every different way," drummer Taylor Hawkins explained to Drum! magazine. "With [Norton] we took each song down to the studs and remodeled it completely. And sometimes – more times than not, actually – we'd find in the end that the original idea is what we went with. But Gil's whole philosophy is to stretch things out as far and wide as possible to see where these songs could go."
Even as the band developed the new material with their producer, the experience of broadening their stylistic palate on their previous record – 2005's double album, In Your Honor – and the acoustic tour that followed, was still on their minds. The half rock/half acoustic approach on that record had broadened ideas of what a Foo Fighters record could sound like.
"This album is definitely a result of our last record," Grohl said, "and the intention of the last record was to try to broaden the field of dynamic with this band, just to try to make it so … that we could do anything, y'know?"
"We like to experiment with things and take 'em a little bit farther the next time around without seeming contrived," the frontman explained to Clash. "We don't wanna throw a reggae song on side A and then a fuckin' techno song on side B, but we do try to expand somewhat … so that eventually you have this playing field that's a lot wider than before. Because if there's a ticket to longevity, that's it. Once you get to the point where anything's possible then there's no end in sight."
The result on Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace was a set of songs that ranged from intense rock tracks to piano ballads, to even a beautiful instrumental. The first song most listeners heard from the album was the lead single, "The Pretender," which evolved a great deal during pre-production.
"'The Pretender' was first called 'New Song' and then 'Silver Heart,'" Norton recalled to MTV. "Dave had the idea for the song for a while, and we played around with it in pre-production, but we never really developed it. The chorus was there, but the verse and the middle hadn't been written. Not to mention the song was much slower."
At one point in pre-production, the band took a ten-day break, during which Grohl worked on the song.
"On the day we reconvened," Norton continued, "the band had made a demo version of it that I loved, so we worked on it the next day and recorded it quite quickly. The guys were seriously focused ... especially Dave. And when we finished it, we knew it was exactly what we needed."
Listen to 'Cheer Up, Boys (Your Makeup Is Running) by Foo Fighters
While the early title for "The Pretender" didn't stick, another fan favorite track, "Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make Up is Running)," had a chuckle-worthy title that did.
"It was a working title that stuck," Grohl said, "because that was a song that we had demoed and it sounded like this really bright, poppy, late-'80s R.E.M. song that would have been off their [album] Green or something like that.
"I gave it that title," he continued, "because it definitely seemed like the most light-hearted, melodic song of all that we had because there's some heavy, dark shit on the record and then there's some songs that aren't light and breezy, and so we felt like we needed it on the album just to balance a lot of the other stuff out. I kept the title because I thought it was fucking hilarious!"
Listen to 'Long Road to Ruin' by Foo Fighters
"Long Road to Ruin," the album's second single, contained some of the "heavy, dark" content Grohl referred to.
"I've had my share of sin," he noted to Clash. "I've done my time. Just as anybody else you go through your periods where you do things that are bad because they make you feel good. And just like anyone else I ain't no saint. I went to Catholic school for reform, you know? I've never been to church in my life; I wound up going to Catholic school with a fuckin' uniform on for two years because I was getting in too much trouble spray painting shit and taking acid."
Stylistically, one of the biggest surprises was the introduction of piano to the Foo’s sound.
"My wife bought me a piano for my birthday about a year and a half ago," Grohl said. "I've always been really intimidated by them because I just didn't understand how they worked ... I've played 'Chopsticks', but I've never really tried to play a song. Someone said, ‘Okay, see that there? That note is middle C.' I'm like, 'Oh that's a C? Oh, well, that's an E... Fuckin' A, there's a chord!' And then I just started writing songs. Pretty simple; it's not Beethoven."
Modesty aside, piano-driven songs “Statues” and “Home” proved to be two of the Foo Fighters’ most emotional tracks.
Listen to 'Home' by Foo Fighters
"Five years ago those songs wouldn't have been on a Foo Fighters record because I would have been too concerned that it was too much of an abstract direction," Grohl noted. "It was too much of a shift in the band. And now, I just wanna make music. So a song like 'Statues,' or a song like 'Home" [which closes the record], I think those are two of the best songs that the band have ever written, just because after 13 years it's still changing; the band is managing to evolve somehow – we'll just change rather than suffocate in the same fuckin' cage that a lot of bands get trapped in."
One rather intriguing track on Echoes is the instrumental "Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners," a song Grohl wrote in honor of two miners trapped for two weeks more than a half mile underground after the April 2006 collapse of a gold mine in Beaconsfield, Tasmania, Australia.
"After a few days the rescue team made contact with the guys and asked them if they could get them anything until they were able to rescue them," Grohl recalled. "One of the miners asked for an iPod with our last record, In Your Honor, on it. Someone sent me an email telling me what was going on and so I sent them a note and said, 'Hey, I hope you guys are hanging in there. You're in my thoughts and prayers and I hope our music is helping you get through this, and when you come out there's a couple cold beers and a couple of tickets to our show; let's hang out and have a drink.'"
Listen to 'Ballad of Beaconsfield Miners' by Foo Fighters
One of the miners, Brant Webb, took him up on the offer, attending a Foo Fighters acoustic show at the Sydney Opera House. The evening before the concert, Grohl wrote a short acoustic guitar piece to dedicate to Webb.
"He gave me a gift that no one had ever given me before," Grohl explained. "He made me feel like my music is maybe more meaningful than just jumping up onstage after five beers and having lasers chop your head off, you know? So, I felt like maybe what I'm doing is a good thing for some people.
"So I played that acoustic thing, after the show we got fucked up in the bar and I promised him I'd put it on the record!"
Whether because of the diversity in the songs, or the extensive pre-production, or some combination of those factors, the recording of Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace turned out to be a simpler affair than Grohl had imagined.
"It was fucking really easy considering that every other album we've ever made we've done twice," he told Kerrang! "Every [previous] album we've recorded once, [thrown] it away and [recorded] it one more time. This time, when we were finished I thought, 'Wait a second, aren't we supposed to do it again? Wait, we're done, really? Fuck, that was easy!'"
And he could release the record, confident that Foo Fighters fans would want to come along for the ride.
"As a musician you need to do the things that satisfy yourself," Grohl said. "One of the great things about our band is that we've built this little world with our own studios and our own label ... We're able to walk into our fortress, Studio 606, and lock the door and turn everything outside off, and I think it's helped us survive this whole time. So at some point you do turn that off. I mean of course I hope the people enjoy what we do but it's not a main motivation for doing it. It's a challenge."
Released Sept. 25, 2007, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart. "The Pretender" logged 18 weeks at No. 1 on the magazine's Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart – a record that stood for five years. The single also won Best Hard Rock Performance at the Grammy Awards, while Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace took home Best Rock Album honors.