Touring for the second Foo Fighters album 'The Colour And The Shape' came to an end in August of 1998 with an appearance at the Reading Festival in England. By that time a lot had changed for the band; Pat Smear had left in September 1997, replaced by Franz Stahl, Nate Mendel quit the band only to reconsider his decision the next morning and the band had left their record label, Capitol Records. The band had a clause in their contract that enabled them to leave should president Gary Gersh leave the company, an event that duly occurred in July of 1998.
Rather than immediately try to find a new record label the band decided instead to start rehearsing and planning recording of the third Foo Fighters album without one. This gave the band complete freedom to do what they like, then think about finding a label once they had completed an album, a situation Dave enjoyed. "We were left completely to our own devices". Unlike the time leading up to recording 'The Colour And The Shape' where many songs had been written on the road whilst touring and honed in sound checks Grohl said he did not have as much ready this time. "We hadn't played any of these songs live. We hadn't even done many of them at sound checks. So we went into a rehearsal space for about a month, coming up with ideas, and maybe had like four or five ideas, and wrote the rest of it in the studio".
The four of them booked into the Barco Rebar rehearsal space in Virginia in the fall of 1998 to begin hashing out ideas but it didn't take long for Grohl to realise there were problems with the new look Foo Fighters and in particular, new guitarist Franz Stahl. "When we started rehearsing we were in a tiny practice space, and in those few weeks it just seemed like the three of us were moving in one direction and Franz wasn't" he later recalled. "I think the problem with Franz is that he couldn't find his place within the three of us and... it just didn't work out. He was one of my oldest friends and we wanted it to work so badly, but it didn't" he added.
Stahl was fired by Grohl soon after and that left Foo Fighters once again without a second guitarist. However rather than hiring someone else to join them straight away they decided instead to continue writing and practicing as a three piece, even toying with the idea of remaining a three piece permanently. According to the owner of the rehearsal space the band were there for 3 months for 40-60 hours each week.
By mid 1998 Dave had moved away from Los Angeles and bought a house back in his home state of Virginia, getting away from what he called "The Hollywood Element" and a city he claimed to despise. Around a year prior to this, In mid 1997, Grohl had been contacted by Verbena, an Alternative rock band from Alabama (who at the time were label mates with Foo Fighters at Capitol Records) who had wanted him to produce their second record for them.
Despite admitting that "I really don't know how to produce anything" Grohl agreed, but it came with a stipulation. " I said that I'd do it if they got Adam Kasper, who has worked with Soundgarden, to record it."
Grohl first became aware of Kasper's talents (and vice versa) during what turned out to be the final Nirvana studio session in January 1994. "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" recalled Kasper of that session. "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".
It was in the process of working together on the Verbena record that Dave had an idea to build his own studio. "Verbena were given a budget to make their record that was just about enough to build their own studio, so I said to Adam, 'I'm going to build my own studio too!'", he exclaimed.
Fast forward a year and Grohl decided to make that idea a reality and naturally hired Kasper to help. "He's a really, really super nice guy. It doesn't seem like he's working. It seems like he's lazy, like he doesn't want to work, but there's something that he does, in just setting up microphones and letting you go, that brings out the most in your music, and the sound of your instrument. He's really great." said Grohl of Kasper.
The pair worked together building and fitting out the studio in the basement of his house, something Grohl said was a lot easier than people may think. "That was so easy. People imagine recording studios to be these, you know, gymnasium-sized technical nightmares. But building one is the easiest thing in the world. All I did was soundproof, put in hardwood floors, get a bit of equipment and that was it, job done. There was no acoustic engineering, no science to it at all. Why would you want to spend thousands on a studio in Los Angeles that'll suck all the life out of your record? Christ! If I can do it, anyone can".
Grohl wasn't kidding. For soundproofing rather than use expensive material specifically made for the job they used sleeping bags.
The recording equipment purchased for the new studio and used during this session was mostly all vintage. "My tastes are usually along the vintage analog type of gear" Kasper told Robyn Flans of Mix Magazine. "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.
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. We shopped around and travelled to different studios for five months until we found a mixing board from Nashville, a tape machine from New York and so on." On the outboard UREI 1176LN Peak Limiter compressors were used with DBX compression along with a mixture of Manley & LA Audio tube amplifiers.
The band and Adam were very keen to keep recording 'old school', electing not to use Pro-Tools or any other digital manipulation tools, recording on analogue tape. "I didn't want to use any of the computer Pro-tooling or editing things that most people use because a lot of the time that will suck the life out of the song. The more you manipulate it, the farther away you get from the core of the music" recalled Grohl. "So we really try to strip down and keep it bare and raw. There's a lot of stuff on the new record that is just flawed, you know, but in a beautiful way". Whilst he gave no specific examples of these flaws he did say that there were "little drum things here and there, little guitar things here and there" and that is was in direct opposition to the recording of 'The Colour And The Shape', everything recorded over and over with multiple takes to get it just right. "This time we thought it would sound like a bigger record if we left the warts and all in it. So we did". Rather than focus on perfection they focused on building and forming the songs.
With everything in place writing and recording began in March of 1999. The general approach to recording was laid back simplicity with no pressure from a record label or anyone else, just Dave, Taylor, Nate and Adam in his personal home. "We told everybody to 'fuck off', built our own studio in my house in Virginia and took as much time as we wanted." is how Dave bluntly described it.
Thanks to the lack of a label and freedom of using their own studio a lot of the songs were written and structured in the studio. "[Writing in the studio] is something we would never dare to do had we been somewhere we had to pay for. Having a studio in your house gives you the freedom of changing things at the last minute, and re-recording and lets you spend time arranging. It gives you much more freedom." he told Revolver Magazine. "We didn’t have anything demoed, we didn’t really know what was going to happen, we had no idea what kind of album it was going to be or what kind of songs we were going to wind up with at the end of the day" he added.
Despite mentioning in several interviews after the record was completed that writing was mostly done in the studio some songs were written beforehand. In an interview with MuchMusic at the Edgefest festival in June of 1998 Grohl said that he had eight new songs written. "Well lyrically it's kinda spotty, it's all over the place. We have one new song called 'Fuck Around' which is really good. It's kinda like the summer anthem. Things are coming together well".
As with the previous record song writing for the band started out with just Grohl and his acoustic guitar. "I'd sit around with an acoustic guitar and come up with a melody, and then they'd wind up sounding like train wrecks" he joked. Grohl would then take these basic ideas to Mendel and Hawkins to work them into more fully formed songs. "Okay, which way are we going to fuck this song up?" he would ask the pair. "We wanted to see how far away from our original notion we could get. The most obvious and natural thing for us to do would be to put down a distortion pedal, have the pedal off during the verses, click it on during the choruses, play a little bit faster, and really bash it out" he recalled.
That was the approach taken with the previous record but for these songs Grohl wanted to try something different. "We thought, 'What happens if we have a song where the dynamics don't go from quiet to loud? What happens if the riff in the verse is the same as the chorus, but we just turn it into something else when it hits the chorus? Tom Petty does it all the time, and it seems to work for him'" he thought, adding "So maybe we would try to create contrast between a verse and a chorus by adding another guitar that complements the riff that runs through the whole song".
Whilst the approach to arranging the songs was a little different one thing didn't change, the songs still without vocals until the very last minute. "I never sing the songs for the guys before we learn them, so they always begin as instrumentals. I can hear what I'm gonna sing in my head, but they have no idea--they're trusting me to be able to throw it together towards the end" Grohl recalled, going on to explain the exact process for recording - "Once we get a song together, Taylor and I will come up with a good drum arrangement. After we put the drums down, I'll put down a couple rhythm guitars. After that, Nate records his bass, and I start doing a couple guitar overdubs here and there".
Only then were vocals recorded by Grohl, occasionally followed by a few overdubs like some percussion or extra guitar parts. Grohl claimed that they would have all of that done for a song in "about a day and a half" and noting that they recorded for several months that meant most songs were re-recorded and tweaked several times. "We would record a song and think, 'Wow! That's kind of cool!'. Then, a month later, we would think, 'Let's take another stab at it; I wanna change this one part,' and do it again. Or, we'd go in to mix it and think, 'You know what? Let's just record this one more time' and then spend another day and a half re-recording and mixing it" said Grohl.
In previous recording sessions the band followed the general convention of recording the drums and bass of a track first, adding the guitars over that and then finally adding the vocals and any other overdubs. However as noted above during this session for most songs the three would work on the basic arrangement together then Grohl and Hawkins would record the basic drums and guitar tracks, leaving Nate to come in last and add his bass track.
Thanks to their chemistry this unconventional method worked for the band. "Nate, Taylor and I have a wonderful relationship. I usually come up with a song and I don't have to tell Nate anything; and Taylor and I have respect for one another because we're both drummers. I let him pull me in one direction because he's great at arranging music" Grohl recalled. "He always takes a song from A to B because I think he's spent so many years listening to Queen! I usually just give suggestions. I think the problem with Franz is that he couldn't find his place within the three of us and... it just didn't work out" he added.
"With Nate, when he does his bass tracks, we just leave the room. We don’t give him any direction, we let him do what he’s there to do. And when he’s finished, he comes up and says, 'Okay, I’m done.' That kind of freedom that you give someone is sort of the ultimate, I suppose. With Taylor when he and I go down to write and arrange a song -- because he and I do most of the arranging -- the idea is for me to try to relay or communicate what I hear in my head to him and vice-versa." recalled Grohl who had plenty of praise for Mendel and this way of working. "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". Producer Kasper was also very complimentary of his work, adding "The bass stuff is so non-standard not root note kind of stuff; it's really cool parts, which you don't get with a lot of bass players".
Grohl recorded the guitar tracks during the sessions using a variety of guitars, mostly classics and mostly Gibsons including his treasured red Trini Lopez. Rather than bundle on lots of effects and use distortion pedals as in previous recordings he elected to keep it simple and the result was a "cleaner, fatter, more natural overdrive" according to Grohl.
"Sometimes we'd double a track using an old Pro Co Rat, and then hard-pan the parts so that a super-distorted guitar was in the left channel and a grindy guitar was in the right. Then we'd sprinkle in lots of clean guitar overdubs. So rather than play through a distortion pedal and an amp with its volume at 5, we wouldn't use a pedal at all. We cranked up the amp to 10 so that it sounded like the speakers were screwed up. I enjoy the sound of a guitar breaking up because the speaker is getting its ass kicked" he added.
A Vox AC30 was used for amplification for most of the session as well as a Fender Twin Reverb, a Marshall JCM 900 and a Mesa Boogie Maverick. For microphones on the amps Shure SM57s were used. "That's usually the mic they use on the amps when you play live, so why not use it in the studio as well?" thought Grohl. Compared to the precise, perfection striving approach to recording with previous album 'The Colour And The Shape'
Grohl and producer Adam once again stuck to the simple and 'real' mantra. "For the most part, Adam and I didn't spend more than ten minutes getting a sound. We'd just plug in and say, 'Throw up a mic, and let's do it!'. Adam is so good and quick that he doesn't need to do any measuring, calculating, or science -- he can just hear it. But he has worked with producers who spend three days getting a rhythm guitar sound, and that would make me go postal." said Grohl. "We'd do a take and walk away, bump into the mic, turn the amp off, bump into the knobs, come back to finish the guitar track, and not even really worry about it. In fact, if you listen closely, you'll hear that every song starts with a guitar riff that has this jangly tube rattling in the background. That's the Vox AC30. We kept promising we'd replace the tube, but we never did. And now I like that sound a lot." he added.
All of the guitar tracks were recorded by Dave in the control room with Adam rather than out in the room by the amps. "I think the best way to get a sound is when the producer and the guitarist are working together to hear what's really going down on tape".
For recording the guitar tracks on 'Stacked Actors' Dave tuned the low-E string on his guitar down to A, 'Headwires' is in dropped-D tuning as is 'MIA' however he also tuned the B string down to A for that track. The main riff for 'Stacked Actors' was originally not created with a Foo Fighters track in mind. "I came up with the 'Stacked Actors' riff when I was asked to write some songs for Ozzy Osbourne six or eight months ago" Grohl explained. "I was trying to come up with riffs that I thought would sound cool -- Ozzy circa his "Crazy Train" era -- and I was just fooling around when I tuned the E down to A. But I loved how sludge-heavy the guitar sounded, and I decided to keep the riffs for myself" he added. A ProCo RAT pedal was also used on the track.
'Breakout' was recorded with his Gibson Trini Lopez, Grohl's favourite guitar that he describes as "the world's most beautiful guitar" which "sounds wonderful clean and it sounds wonderful dirty". The guitar was running through an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man Pedal and the AC30 amp. He used the same combination on 'Next Year' but to get a cleaner sound boosted the treble on the AC30 and kept the volume low.
Grohl described that song as "the classic sound of the Trini Lopez -- it's clean with just a slight touch of distortion." For 'Headwires' the main riff and harmonics were played with a Gibson Explorer through the same Memory Man/Vox AC30 setup. On the choruses however Grohl switched to a Gretsch Duo Jet and Pro-Co RAT effects pedal and for the "high, picking part in the middle eight" a Gibson SG was used, again with the Memory Man and AC30.
On the track 'Generator' Grohl used a Talk Box, a vocal effects unit that can shape the sound of the guitar, controlled by the mouth. It was made most famous by Peter Frampton in the 1970s with the track 'Show Me The Way'. For the intro of 'Ain't It The Life' Grohl used the Gretsch Duo-Jet equipped with a whammy bar. "That's the first time I've ever used one of those in my life. I never knew what to do with it, but that song just seemed like it had to have it." he told Guitar One Magazine in 1999.
In the same interview Grohl also had fond recollections of the general recording and feel of the song. "That one was pretty funny. I'd sing it to Taylor, and he'd go, "Oh man! That's gonna be great! It's gonna sound like the Eagles!" And I'd be like, "Fuck it! I hate the Eagles!". He also described how he recorded the guitar lead - "I split the lead in it--I played slide on a Tele [Fender Telecaster] for the first half of the lead, and then the acoustic finishes it off. It turns into some Jimmy Buffet song (laughs). We were laughing hysterically, just because it's so cliché, in a way. But it worked".
Drumming duties during recording were split between Grohl and Hawkins but only once Grohl had convinced Hawkins of his abilities and assured him he wanted him on the record. "I think it was important to him that I played some of the drums on that record because I was having a hard time in the studio" recalled Hawkins. "It was when I was still messing around with drugs and I remember just wanting Dave to play the drums on everything. And he wouldn't allow it. He really pushed me and pushed me to finish it and do the work. It's good that he did that because it really gave me confidence in the end. I was really lacking experience at that time, and I had no confidence being 'Dave's drummer'. " he added.
With Hawkins clear on what Grohl expected of him and wanting to avoid any repeat of the messy situation which led to William Goldsmith leaving the band during recording of 'The Colour And The Shape' the pair agreed on who was doing what beforehand. "Taylor and I, started assigning songs to each other. Like, 'Hey, why don’t you play on this,' 'Okay, well, why don’t you play on this?' recalled Grohl. "Basically, instead of each of us recording a version, we assigned songs to each other so that there wouldn’t be any weirdness." he added. "I played on about four or five songs" he told Sway Magazine in 1999. "There were just some things that Taylor does better than me and some things I do better than Taylor and we sort of met in the middle. He does over half of the record and I do a couple of songs".
Hawkins also commented on the arrangement in an interview with 'Drum!' magazine, stating "Dave could have done it a lot quicker and it would have been just as good if not better in some places, but because he and I are so close he wanted me to do the songs." Taylor and Dave played the drum tracks on an old Gretsch kit and a Drum Workshop kit was used for some parts but they also used various different snares, depending on what the song called for, including some of Matt Cameron's Soundgarden kits.
"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" recalled Kasper. "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" he added.
The liner notes of the record did not state who played what, the decision not to include the information Grohl's choice according to Hawkins. Despite this the pair have revealed some of the tracks they played on following release of the record. In the official 1999 documentary for the album when talking about the mixing of 'Learn To Fly' Grohl talks about a few places where "I'm washing on the crash [cymbal]" confirming he played that track.
In the interview with 'Drum!' magazine mentioned above Hawkins revealed that he played on most of the softer songs - "Basically the more mellow or mid-tempo ones I played really well. I almost felt like handing Dave all the faster and crazier songs, and I wanted to do the jazzier, freakier ones" he explained. "I feel like I added some things, like on the song 'Aurora', which is totally me. It wouldn't have been like that if Dave played it. But I also listen to this record and hear things that I played that I feel were a little sloppy". The interviewer also mentions that Taylor pointed towards 'MIA' being him but it is not directly mentioned by Hawkins.
For Grohl's vocals, all of which he recorded sitting on his couch, he experimented with a few different microphones and effects but again all natural, Grohl using his tried and tested technique of doubling the vocal tracks. The microphones used were Neumann's, the u67 and u47 tubes. Dave and Kasper would work together deciding which songs needed which treatment. " 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", Kasper recalled.
"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" he added.
It isn't clear exactly how many songs were recorded and finished at this session however in home video footage shown in both the 1999 documentary for the album and the 2011 'Back And Forth' documentary a white board can be seen in Grohl's house which shows a list of songs they were working on. There is a total of 19 song titles although some of them are indistinguishable due to the quality of the video and photographs.
Also many of the titles listed are early or working titles for songs we know better with other titles. Song titles listed on the board that are either working titles or songs not released include 'New Wave', 'Now or Never', 'Show You Better', 'Fuck Around', 'They Never Threatened Us', 'Human Fade', 'Try Me On', 'Long E', '7 Corners', 'Call Me Up', 'Oh Yeah' and 'Echo in A'. There are three entries that cannot be distinguished and the others are known song titles, 'Breakout', 'Next Year', 'Learn To Fly' and 'Fraternity'.
Given knowledge of the final songs, interviews where Grohl has spoken of the songs and what can be seen on the whiteboard some educated guesses can be made regarding some of the working titles. 'Stacked Actors' features guitar with the E string tuned down to A along with an echo effect which could mean 'Echo In A' is a working title for that track. One column of the whiteboard is headed 'Crazy 1' and only two songs have an X marking indicating the tracks which feature that instrument, they are 'Breakout' and 'Show You Better'.
It is well known that Grohl used a talkbox on the track known with the final title of 'Generator' but the device can also be heard very faintly in 'Breakout' during the bridge section of the song. It is therefore likely that 'Crazy 1' refers to the talkbox and that could indicate that 'Show You Better' is an early/working title for 'Generator'. Another hint that point towards this theory is that the talkbox was made famous by Peter Frampton on the track 'Show Me The Way', the title 'Show You Better' could therefore be a play on that title. This is not confirmed however.
The lyrics 'Now Or Never' feature heavily in the track known as 'Gimme Stitches' and it's therefore very likely that 'Now Or Never' is indeed a working title for that track. It is likely two of the indistinguishable entries are the cover songs 'Have A Cigar' and 'Iron & Stone', both recorded during this session. The 'X' markings on the board suggests a complete version (Drums, Bass, Guitar, Vocals) of 'Learn To Fly' was recorded at this session however in the 1999 documentary for the album there is video showing Grohl recording vocals for the song at Conway Studios.
The liner notes for the single release of the song also suggests there was "additional" recording at Conway Studios. Therefore whilst it cannot be confirmed it suggests that at least the vocals were re-recorded at Conway, possibly as well some further overdubs whilst some of the recording from this session was used. For more information on the recording at Conway Recording Studios click here.
Furthermore in the 'Back And Forth' documentary a still image is shown which features a second, smaller whiteboard. Whilst being even harder to make out it can be seen to say "List as of 3-18-99" and there are two columns of track titles, some of which can be distinguished such as 'New Wave', 'Breakout', 'Show You Better' and the basic idea 'Pink Floyd Song'.'Fraternity' is another song listed as being recorded in full at this session and that version of the track was released first on the Australian Special Edition of 'There Is Nothing Left To Lose' and then as a B-Side to the 'Generator' CD Single.
Ten tracks recorded over the three months were released on the third studio album, 'There Is Nothing Left To Lose'. The two cover tracks, Pink Floyds 'Have A Cigar' and The Obsessed track 'Iron & Stone' were released as B-Sides to the 'Learn To Fly' single. The remaining tracks have never been officially released and do not circulate at the present time. Details on the second recording session at Conway Recording Studio can be found below.