Following the release of the half rock, half acoustic double album 'In Your Honor' in 2005 Foo Fighters spent the following 18 months touring to support both discs of the album, playing rock and acoustic shows across the world. The tour finally ended 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 two in one set, part acoustic, part rock. The crowd didn't know it at the time, but this action would in a way be a sign of things to come for the band.
A month before those two shows the band had released their first live album, 'Skin And Bones'. The record (and companion DVD Video release) 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 what this release and In Your Honor meant for the future direction of the band and its records, Grohl was unsure. “That's the thing that makes it so confusing. 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,” Grohl explained. “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!”
On February 10th, 2007 Dave Grohl attended the annual pre-Grammy party hosted by Clive Davis, president of the RCA Music Group. In speaking with the host Dave was hit with something of an epiphany. Explaining how he was faced with the constant choice of rock vs acoustic, as separated shows, Davis told him quite simply that he could “do both together”. As if the penny dropped, Grohl decided that the next record would not be half rock, half acoustic nor would it be one or the other. It would instead bring both styles together in one record, and even in the songs themselves.
Pre-production for the sixth Foo Fighters record was set to begin in March 2007 but before that, the band needed to hire a producer. Nick Raskulinecz had produced the previous two records but a change was desired and after some though that ended up meaning a look back to the past. Gil Norton, producer for their second album ‘The Colour And The Shape’ was considered as the man they were looking for.
With all the problems surrounding that record and the issues caused by Norton’s punishing strive for perfection it seemed a surprising choice, but Grohl felt he may help them get out of the comfort zone they had been in ever since.
After building a studio in his basement and then upgrading to a newer facility in California the band had usually been able to record at their own leisure. The group would have barbecues, hang out with friends and record whenever the mood took them. Norton was also the first producer to really show Grohl 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,” as Grohl described.
For this record the band leader didn’t want to make their ‘Back In Black’ by AC/DC, instead 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 Gil in the hot seat pre-production got underway with the first action being to whittle down the “30 or 40 song ideas” Grohl had on the table to a more reasonable number. Over a week and a half, the band and producer selected what they felt were the “most powerful and dramatic” songs. “We wanted the stops to be pin-drop silent before exploding,” explained Grohl. “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 the previous record where songs were clearly divided into two groups, rock and acoustic, this time around everything was grouped together, with song ideas ranging from “wall-of-noise hard shit” to “mellow piano ballads”, and some songs even combining ideas from either end of the spectrum. Songs were chosen not on the dynamics but “by their lyrics, structure or melody,” a process Grohl felt came naturally.
Even with the best demos selected Grohl was still unsure of what the results would be once they all came together. “We didn't have a clue how the album was going to sound until it was done,” he remarked. “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.”
Final recording got underway in March 2007 and one of the first songs to be recorded was ‘Erase/Replace’, a track very much from the “wall-of-noise hard shit” category. The track was recorded with a strong focus on its main riff, something Grohl attributed to his repeated weekly plays of the ‘Kill ‘Em All’ album by Metallica. “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 explained.
As well as the regular four band members the track also featured the first guest of the album, The Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee. Having joined Foo Fighters in the studio for the recording of their previous album Jaffee then linked up with them on the acoustic leg of the tour in support of it. Happy with his contributions the band once again invited him to the studio.
Another track worked on during the opening days of recording was ‘Come Alive’, the first track to feature a strong 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,” explained Grohl. “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 who had also been a part of the extended band during the acoustic tour, multi-instrumentalist Drew Hester contributing percussion. Jaffee again featured on the track, recording keyboards.
‘Statues’ was recorded next, a simple melodic piano focused track written by Dave about him 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,” said Grohl. For his 36th birthday in 2006 his wife had gifted him a piano and whilst he had previously briefly dabbled with the instrument his first feeling was intimidation – “I didn't really understand how they worked.” The already talented multi-instrumentalist was willing to learn and after a quick crash course was soon up to speed - “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.” As well as Grohl’s piano work the song also featured Accordion from Rami Jaffee whilst another guest, Brantley Kearns Junior, recorded fiddle.
With the rough tracks for the song completed Grohl soon realized it was a vastly different performance to anything the band had done before, describing it as a “big departure”. He had no reservations about including the song on the album though, echoing something Nate Mendel had told him about including vastly different songs on the previous record - “that’s exactly why we should put it on the record!”
The next song the band started work on was entitled ‘Let It Die’, a song which Grohl described as being “written about feeling helpless to someone else's demise. I've seen people lose it all to drugs and heartbreak and death,” revealed Grohl, also admitting that Kurt Cobain was “probably the most noted.” Another Nirvana connection on the track came by way of yet another guest musician –former Foo Fighter Pat Smear. Having patched up any past grievances Grohl invited Smear to join the band on their acoustic tour the year previous and had no qualms about inviting him back to a studio session for the first time since 1997.
As well as contributing to ‘Let It Die’ Pat also worked with the band on ‘White Limo’, a track they had first attempted to record for previous album ‘In Your Honor’. Still known at this point by the working title ‘Flagger’ only a little time was spent on this second version; Hawkins recorded drums but only partial bass and guitar tracks were completed before recording was abandoned, the band feeling the song was just too heavy for the overall tone of the record.
The band next recorded basic tracks for the song ‘But, Honestly’ however with only drums, bass and guitar laid down they then moved on to another song, electing to return to the track later in the session.
‘Stranger Things Have Happened’ was a song from the mellow side of their ideas, one Grohl described as a product of “sitting around and doing fuck all for weeks on end.” The track featured two acoustic guitar tracks, recorded with the aid of a metronome. It was decided to include the sound of the device throughout the recording for artistic reasons, as well as Grohl winding it up before he started playing.
Drums and bass were not recorded for the song, but Drew Hester did record light percussion elements. It was however decided the song worked better stripped back, and so the final mix featured only acoustic guitar and Grohl’s vocals.
One evening during recording Dave Grohl made good on a promise he’d made six months earlier. On April 26th, 2006 a small earthquake caused a gold mine collapse in the small town of Beaconsfield, situated in Tasmania, Northern Australia. Fourteen miners escaped the collapse, one was sadly killed, whilst two became trapped approximately one kilometer below the surface. The pair were located a few days after the collapse but the only access possible initially was via a small tunnel, large enough to send food and water whilst a rescue effort could take place. The pair requested several other small items, one of which was an iPod filled with music to help them pass the time and relax a little.
One of the two trapped men, Brant Webb, had a specific request when it came to the music included on the device – the latest Foo Fighters album. News of this soon spread in local media and via a member of staff at the Australian arm of the band's record label, Dave Grohl himself soon caught wind of the request. Unable to help in any practical manner Grohl sent a note of support to the pair, motivating them with the message “there's two tickets to any Foos show, anywhere, and two cold beers waiting for you. Deal?”
The men were successfully rescued from the mine a fortnight after the collapse and on August 31st Foo Fighters announced they were heading for Australia, with three acoustic performances set for October at the iconic Sydney Opera House.
Whilst the other trapped miner Todd Russell politely declined Dave Grohl’s offer Brant Webb duly accepted, invited as a VIP guest. The night before the first show, with Grohl aware Webb would attend the following night's show, decided to write an impromptu 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 he’d dubbed ‘The Ballad Of The Beaconsfield Miners’ was given its debut, describing it as a “folksy, instrumental song with banjo-picking style with hammer-ons and pull-offs.” After the show the pair shared more than a few beers - “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 instrumental piece during this session.
The track had two distinct guitar parts which when played live were handled by Grohl and Shiflett but for the studio recording, yet another guest was invited. Kaki King is an American guitarist who rose to fame in the early 2000s with her unique abilities playing the guitar and other instruments, catching the eye of many musicians, including Grohl. “When Kaki came to our studio one evening, I had the feeling the piece was right for her,” he said of his choice to include her on the track. Whilst almost every Foo Fighters song begins life as an instrumental this would be the first time one would be released in that form, with no vocals recorded. Grohl was very impressed with King’s work on the track, noting that she “shredded it ten times better than I’ve ever played it.”
Recording of ‘Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make Up Is Running) got underway mid-way through the session, a song Grohl described as “A really bright, poppy, late '80s REM song that would have been off their Green album or something.” Whilst aware many would believe the song title to be a negative dig towards certain demographics, the reality was quite different - “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 are 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! The title had nothing to do with the song.”
In mid-April the band took a planned break from recording for ten days but before heading off they and producer Norton listened back to the rough mixes of what had been recorded to that point. The group liked what they heard but Grohl decided they needed “another up-tempo song”, worried that the overall tone of the album was a little too light. During the break, Dave went back over some of the earlier ideas and songs that were left in pre-production, one of which was a track titled ‘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,” said Norton of the track. “The chorus was there, but the verse and middle hadn't been written”.
The song was also relatively low tempo initially and so with a newly reworked, more energetic version of the song in his head the band quickly recorded a demo version, which they then played for Gil Norton once he returned to the studio. “I loved [the demo] so we worked on it the next day and recorded it quite quickly”, recalled the producer. The newly reworked track was fully completed with a vocal track and given the final title ‘The Pretender’. It was, according to Norton, “exactly what we needed to finish the album.”
With the final piece of the puzzle complete, the band was almost done. By the first week of May 2007, all that remained were some vocal takes, keyboard work by Jaffee and a few other overdubs. The following week the final guests of the album arrived at the studio, a fully-fledged string quartet. ‘The Section Quartet’ is based in Los Angeles and most well-known for transforming popular rock and pop songs into a classical music arrangement. Their role on this album was to compose and record strings for most songs on the album, featuring most prominently on ‘Statues’.
Recording dribs and drabs continued throughout May with tracking finally completed by the end of the month, focus then switching to mixing. As this was taking place guest musician Jaffee almost “quit” the band, informing Dave Grohl that with his recording duties complete and forthcoming tours expected to be 100% rock affairs, he didn’t believe his services would be required. Grohl had other ideas – “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,” he told the Wallflower. “So, I don't think you should go anywhere, because we have a lot to look forward to.” Changing his mind rather quickly, Jaffee told him “I’m all good, I’m in”, Grohl now considering him an important, permanent member of the band.
All the songs the band had completed during the main recording session were included on their sixth studio album, ‘Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace’. One of the tracks abandoned and not completed, ‘Once And For All’, did not see release however a complete demo version recorded in pre-production was included as a a B-Side.
Other songs recorded in pre-production without Norton were also released as B-Sides, including a demo version of the song ‘Come Alive’ as well as tracks ‘Seda’, ‘If Ever’ and ‘Bangin’’, which did not make the cut for the final recording session.
Shortly after the main recording for the album was completed the band returned to the studio to record a cover song, something they had always enjoyed doing after album recording sessions to wind down and let off steam. When talking about the musical direction for the album Grohl had mentioned that he wanted to make a record partially influenced by The Zombies' second album 'Odessey And Oracle' and evidently this vision was still on his mind, as the song they elected to cover was ‘This Will Be Our Year’, track nine on the album. Unlike the other extra songs this cover would not be released as a B-Side and it wasn’t until 2011 that it saw release - featured on their covers compilation record ‘Medium Rare’.