Following release of the half rock, half acoustic double album 'In Your Honor' in 2005 the band toured heavily in support of the whole record, playing both rock and acoustic shows across the world. The tour finally came to an close in December of 2006 with two back to back shows for KROQ's annual 'Almost Acoustic Christmas' event at the Gibson Amphitheater in Hollywood, California. On both nights the band took advantage of the rotating stage at the venue to play a half acoustic, half rock set, a fitting end to such a varied tour and whilst the crowd didn't know it at the time, a sign of things to come.
A month before those two final shows the band had released their first live album, 'Skin And Bones'. The record (and companion DVD Video release, itself accompanied by a second DVD featuring the bands 2006 Hyde Park show in some regions) did not feature one of the bands many rock shows, it was instead an 'unplugged' release featuring a compilation of songs recorded during three acoustic shows in August 2006 at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, California.
When asked by UK publication NME what this release and earlier half rock, half acoustic release In Your Honor meant for the future direction of the band and it's records Grohl seemed unsure. "That's the thing that makes it so confusing" he told them. "Usually when you have a string of rock records you think, 'Alright, let's make a rock record!'. Now that we've split into two directions, we've hit this schizophrenic mark. We can do one of two things. We can make a beautiful, song-based album, or we can make the craziest, thrash-metal shit you've ever heard" he continued before joking "Who knows, maybe we'll make a folk record!".
After just a two month break by March 2007 Grohl had seemingly made up his mind and pre-production began for what would be the bands sixth studio album. Before that could commence however the band had to make a decision on who would produce the record. Rather than electing to stick with Nick Raskulinecz who had produced the previous two Foo Fighters records they instead looked further into to the past, to 'The Colour And The Shape' producer Gil Norton.
Explaining one reason for the decision Grohl noted that Norton was the first producer he had worked with that had really shown him the true meaning of pre-production, "honing the songs, compositions and arrangement so that's it's just airtight when you go in to record". Another reason cited by Grohl was requiring someone to get them out of their comfort zone. Since last working with Norton in 1997 Grohl had built a studio in the basement of his Virginia house and then upgraded to a private studio facility in Los Angeles. This allowed the band to record two albums at leisure in their own time, "having barbeques and recording when we felt like it". That wasn't an environment and attitude Grohl thought would suit what he had in mind for the next record however. "On the acoustic tour I started writing on piano and imagining string sections, swarms of echo guitar and four part harmonies" he explained.
According to Grohl this time he didn't want to make AC/DC's 1980 hard rock album 'Back In Black', he wanted to make a cross between a NoMeansNo (A Canadian punk rock band) album and 'Odessey & Oracle', the 1968 album by English pop rock band The Zombies. "We needed someone to break us out of our comfort zone, so we called Gil" remarked Grohl.
With a producer selected pre-production began in March 2007, Norton flying from his home in the United Kingdom to join the band at the studio. Grohl stated that the band had "30 or 40 song ideas" when they started recording and once Norton arrived the group got together and over a week and a half whittled the large number of demos and ideas down to "the most powerful and dramatic songs" according to Grohl. "We wanted the stops to be pin-drop silent before exploding" he explained, adding that "If we had a beautiful melody, we'd throw a fucking string quartet in there. So we did everything we could to really magnify all those elements and that was fun". Unlike 'In Your Honor' which featured two very separated works of music with clear direction for each side the band took a different approach this time around.
With demos ranging from "wall-of-noise hard shit" to "mellow piano ballads" songs were chosen to record based not on either of those dynamics, rather simply selecting songs "by their lyrics, structure or melody" according to Grohl, describing the selection a "natural process".
Before recording started Grohl claimed they didn't know how the end product would sound. "We didn't have a clue how the album was going to sound until it was done" he noted, adding "We demoed so many songs before we went into the studio and all of them were so different. Some of them were really slow acoustic songs and others were really heavy songs with these big ass walls of guitars".
One of the first songs the band worked on was 'Erase/Replace', a track very much from the "wall-of-noise hard shit" category. The track was recorded with a strong focus on one guitar riff, something Grohl attributed to weekly listening of a certain Metallica album. "I still listen to Kill 'Em All' once a week" he told Kerrang Magazine. "There's a part of me that will never lose the love of riffs, that's where a song like this comes in. As a drummer and a guitar player, the rhythmic quality of a decent riff is like a cannon to me. I can write riffs all day long because I look at the guitar like a drum set. So, just as I'll sit at a drum kit and play beats, I sit with a guitar and try the same thing. That's what I was doing here" he added.
As well as the usual four band members the track also featured the first guest of the album, The Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee. Jaffee had been drafted into the band as an extra musician during the 2006 acoustic tour and was an obvious choice to help the band during studio recording, adding keyboards to this particular track. In a first for the band this track featured backing vocals, provided by drummer Hawkins.
Another track worked on during the first few days of the session, 'Come Alive', was also the first track to feature a mixture of quieter and louder dynamics in one song. "On the last album we split the acoustic side and the electric side into two albums. Here, we've split it into one song" said Grohl of the track. "This is about reawakening after becoming a father. Anyone who's a father understands how the world becomes a different place when your child is born. I just feel and see everything differently now" he added, describing the subject matter of the lyrics in the song.
The track featured another guest musician from the acoustic tour line-up, multi-instrumentalist Drew Hester proving percussion as well as Rami Jaffee again adding keyboards to the track. A demo version Come Alive recorded earlier in the session before Norton arrived was released as a B-Side to the first single from the album. This early version was very similar to the final version featured on the record with the main differences being more prominent bass guitar and less obvious vocal looping on the main 'Come Alive' lyric, repeated several times throughout the chorus.
'Statues' was recorded next, a "simple melody with piano track" written by Grohl about he and his wife, Jordyn. "To me there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing the headstones of a husband and wife side by side in a graveyard." he told GQ Magazine. For his 36th birthday in 2006 he was given a piano by Jordyn and despite having played one very briefly whilst recording an acoustic version of 'Times Like These' Grohl claimed he was intimidated by them - "I didn't really understand how they worked" he stated.
He did however add that he'd "played Chopsticks" but never tried to play a song. Grohl being a many of many talents it didn't take him long to pick it up however. "Someone said, 'OK, 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" he recalled, adding "[It's] pretty simple; it's not Beethoven". As well as piano the track also featured Accordion from Rami Jaffee as well as fiddle, provided by another guest at the session, Brantley Kearns Jr. Once the track was completed with all of these element Grohl realised it was very different from anything the band had put out in the past, describing it as "a big departure". His mind was quickly swayed however, stating "that's exactly why we should put it on the record!".
Next up was 'Let It Die', According to Grohl "a song that's written about feeling helpless to someone else's demise. I've seen people lose it all to drugs and heartbreak and death". He had experienced this several times in his life but Grohl accepted that "the one that's most noted is Kurt." This track also featured another "guest" musician, the former full time Foo Fighter Pat Smear recording guitar on the track, the first time he had recorded with the band since he left in 1997.
Recording continued with the tracks 'But, Honestly' and 'Home' recorded. The next track to be worked on was 'Stranger Things Have Happened', a mellow track which according to Grohl was born as a "product of just sitting around and doing fuck all for weeks on end". The track was recorded with only guitars, vocals and percussion elements which were not included on the final mix.
As it did not feature on the bands whiteboard it is unknown at what point in the session the instrumental 'Ballad Of The Beaconsfield Miners' was recorded. The track was written by Grohl after a Mine collapse on April 26th in Beaconsfield, a town Tasmania, Australia. Following the collapse two miners became trapped 1km below the surface and operations began to rescue them. A small hole was drilled and filled with a pipe to allow food , water and other items to be delivered to the pair whilst the larger operation to free them took place.
The pair requested several items one of which was an iPod with music. One of the miners, Brant Webb, had a specific request for the music on the iPod. The latest Foo Fighters album. With heavy media attention on the collapse and recovery operation Dave Grohl soon caught wind of the request (via a member of staff at the Australian arm of the band's record label) and sent a message of support to the pair, the note ending with Grohl telling them "I want you to know that when you come home, there's two tickets to any Foos show, anywhere, and two cold beers waiting for you. Deal?".
On May 9th, two weeks after the collapse the two men were safely freed and five months later, with Foo Fighters booked to play two shows at the famous Sydney Opera House , Brant Webb took Dave up on his offer of free tickets and beers. The night before the show with Grohl aware Webb was attending he decided to write a song to play in dedication. "he definitely seemed like a hero. He gave me a gift that no one had ever given me before. 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" Grohl said of Webb.
The track was performed at the show the next night, a track Grohl would later describe as a "folksy, instrumental song" with "banjo-picking style with hammer-ons and pull-offs". After the show, whilst sharing the promised beers with Webb Grohl claimed that "we went and got fuckin' wasted in the hotel bar and I was like, 'Dude, I promise I'm going to put this on the record'". Despite his apparent lack of sobriety when making the promise he stuck by his word, recording the track during this session.
The track had two distinct guitar parts and when played live they were handled by Grohl and Shiflett however when it came to the studio version yet another guest was involved. "That's me and Kaki King, a brilliant guitar virtuoso from the USA" Grohl said of the studio recording. "When Kaki came to our studio one evening I had the feeling the piece was right for her" he continued, noting it was the first time the band had kept a track as an instrumental piece on one of their album, most songs starting out that way but having vocals added. Grohl was quick to praise King's work on the track - "I showed it to her once and she shredded it 10 times better than I've ever played it".
'Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make-Up Is Running)' came next, a track Grohl would describe as "A really bright, poppy, late '80s REM song that would have been off their Green album or something". Speaking of the unusual title of the track Grohl noted "I gave it that title 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!" clarifying in another interview that "the title had nothing to do with the song".
In mid April the band took a break from recording for 10 days but before doing so they listened back to the monitor mixes for the tracks they had recorded to that point and Grohl decided that they "needed another up-tempo song" according to producer Norton. During the break Dave decided to go back to the demos and reworked one of the unfinished ideas, 'Silver Heart'. "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" recalled Norton. "The chorus was there, but the verse and middle hadn't been written" he added.
The track was also much slower at that point so Grohl spent some of his time over the short break developing the song and quickly the band recorded a demo of the now fully formed, up-tempo track. After the short break the band and producer reconvened at the studio and played the demo to Norton. "I loved [the demo] so we worked on it the next day and recorded it quite quickly" he recalled. The track was finished including vocals and given a new title, 'The Pretender'. According to Norton they "knew it was exactly what we needed to finish the album".
Two more tracks were recorded at the session, 'Flagger' was a track first recorded during recording sessions for the previous album, 'In Your Honor'. The track was never finished during that session and that remained the case during this session, only drums and a guitar track from Grohl recorded. When talking about the musical direction for the album Grohl had mentioned that he wanted to make a record partially influenced by English pop rock act The Zombies' second album 'Odessey And Oracle' and evidently this vision was still on his mind when it came to recording the final track of the session, a cover of track three from Side B of that album, 'This Will Be Our Year'.
Whilst the track was not included on the album nor featured as a B-Side to any of its single releases it was eventually released by the band in 2011 on 'Medium Rare', a covers compilation album released specially for the Record Store Day event that year.
On May 4th 2007 guitar tech Joe Beebe made a post to his website noting that recording was "going great" and that only vocals and some keyboard work from Rami Jaffee remained to be completed. Beebe also noted that a string quartet would be coming to the studio the following week. That string quartet were 'The Section Quartet', a four piece based in Los Angeles, CA most well known for transforming popular rock tracks into classical musical arrangement.
It's unclear how many tracks the four piece recorded on with only confirmation of 'The Pretender' featuring their presence. Recording is believed to have come to an end by late May or early June, Beebe posting a message on May 27th that "actual tracking is slowing down and focus is on mixing" but that "there's still a few songs left to record".
Shortly after recording for the record was complete Jaffee almost "quit" the band, wanting to return to his main band The Wallflowers. Grohl had other ideas though. "I want you in the band, and I don't know if you know how it works around here, but once you're in, you're in, so I don't think you should go anywhere, because we have a lot to look forward to." he told Jaffee. 'I'm all good, I'm in." was the response, Jaffee now considered a full Foo Fighters member by Grohl.
Whilst all of the tracks recorded are grouped into this one session it's likely they weren't all recorded during the main session for the album. The tracks primarily released as B-Sides, 'Bangin', 'Seda' and 'If Ever' are credited as being produced by the band themselves and not Norton.
It's likely these, along with the demo versions of 'Once And For All' and 'Come Alive' were recorded at the start of the session in pre-production, before Norton arrived. The engineering credits are also different, all engineered by Drew Hester and John Lousteau with the exception of 'Seda', engineered by Nick Raskulinecz.