Foo Fighters Talk Grandiose New Album ‘Medicine at Midnight,’ 25 Years of Being a Band, India and More
The American rockers’ bassist Nate Mendel opens about the making of their 10th record, which releases this month
When we get on a call with American rock band Foo Fighters’ bassist Nate Mendel to talk about the band’s upcoming 10th album Medicine at Midnight (out this February), it’s right when Joe Biden is being sworn in as the 46th U.S. President. Over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Mendel says, “It’s a very emotional day in my house right now.”
The band have never let their political views get in the way of their music and have mentioned in the past that they play to everyone. However, they’ve shown their support towards events such as Rock The Vote and the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and were even on the bill for Biden’s I Will Vote concert this past October and even on the lineup for the current President’s virtual inauguration celebration.
Mendel and his bandmates – vocalist-guitarist Dave Grohl, drummer Taylor Hawkins, guitarists Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett and keyboardist Rami Jaffee – spent late 2019 and early 2020 working on the forthcoming record with American producer Greg Kurstin (who also produced the group’s 2017 release Concrete and Gold) at a rented house in Encino, Los Angeles. However, due to COVID-19, the Foo Fighters had to cancel their 25th-anniversary tour plans last year and even pushed the release of Medicine at Midnight to 2021. “After a few months [of the pandemic], we got ourselves together and figured out when to release the album, and then got together and did stuff for the band,” says Mendel.
In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Mendel talks about making the new album in a haunted house, being a band for a quarter of a century, staying optimistic about touring India someday and more.
I want to jump right into the new album Medicine at Midnight. There’s really cool rock stuff going on and on top of that, there’s elements of disco and blues. Then there’s a song like “Chasing Birds,” which is so relaxing. Tell me about how incorporating all these styles came together so seamlessly?
First of all, thank you for saying they came together seamlessly. The idea was to make it a light album. And by that I mean there was some space in this and obviously, some grooviness and you know that it’s anathema for a band like us. That might be too strong a word to veer into something that’s a little bit groovier. Because that’s not really rock music and the last time rock bands really did that was the Seventies. But we wanted to try to do something fresh. So we looked at David Bowie‘s (1983) Let’s Dance record and where that kind of sat with him in his career and how he’d just come off of a darker, more experimental prog period. And then he just comes out with this, sort of light record. I don’t know a better adjective for it to match with these really simple, direct, kind of poppier songs. And that was a template. And then we had to figure out how to do it. So there wasn’t a lot of preparation, before going in to record it. Ordinarily, we will play the songs together as a band, and then just go in and record them, turn the microphones on and let it happen. But on this record, we did it more like probably a pop producer would do things where the tracks were just built up in the studio, kind of like Lego brick by Lego brick. Starting with the drums and then go from there. So it’s a very constructed kind of record and less of a rock record.
I’m aware all the songs were written and recorded pre-COVID, but I was listening to the album and the lyrics are so relevant for these times, none more so than a song like “Waiting On A War.” What do you have to say about this song in comparison to where we are today in the world?
I can completely relate to where ‘Waiting On A War’ comes from and it’s funny how that kind of dovetails with this pretty tragic moment that we’ve just been through, at least in this country. You know, when I was a kid, our big parallel… you kind of forget about this, but, I would have nightmares and dreams of mushroom clouds and deal with a constant background anxiety. And Dave and I are the same age, so that is something that he remembered too, and that feeling of waiting on a war is basically waiting for the other shoe to drop. What’s it like to live in that kind of constant feeling of anxiety, [that] doesn’t seem to cease? So it’s just a bit of a rumination on what that feels like. Of course, living through the last year and waiting for this Trump presidency to end, without meaning to, because we didn’t really know how tragic it was going to become.
You guys rented a house in Los Angeles and set up your gear in there to record the album and [American artist] Omar Hakim came in and played percussion. Apparently, the house was haunted? What were some of your memories of putting the record together?
Well, those are two of the biggies you touched on. Having Omar come in was awesome. Of course, he played on the Let’s Dance record, there’s a couple of slight nods to our inspiration that we included. And one of them, of course, is Omar. I’m so glad I was there that day when he came in. First of all, he’s a gentleman and a lovely man. But to hear his percussive take on the songs is so cool. Because you’re accustomed to what the song is sounding like and then Omar comes in and we just gave him free rein. He brought in every percussion instrument that exists pretty much. I think literally a truck came in and unloaded the stuff. Just his choices of which instruments to play and where to land his notes is so cool. Such a gifted musician and just to hear his take on it was a cool lesson in musicianship for me to sit back and watch. That was cool.
The haunted thing, I’m a skeptic. So I’ll tell you what, the house is creepy as hell. And it’s ugly and it’s beat up and it looks like if anything that’s going to be haunted, it’s this house. So if you’re the kind of person that is open to those kinds of things when your doors close mysteriously and knobs get turned, there’s weird chills in the room, whatever it is, it’s like, ‘Of course the house is haunted.’ Me, I’m a little more of a skeptic so I’m like, ‘Maybe the air conditioning just turned off.’ But I wouldn’t rule it out. The house is really super creepy.
Other memories besides that… It was a pretty direct recording process. We set up the drums in the living room, we recorded upstairs in the bedroom. We had the amps in another room, and we tried to make the best of it. It was a very cool inhospitable environment, kind of the opposite of what you would choose if you could literally go anywhere in the world to record your record. I think next time we should probably go to Barbados or someplace more picturesque and pretty.
Soon after recording the album the pandemic hit and everything stopped, so what did you do with your time during the entire lockdown?
I was just looking at the numbers today, It’s so ironic. I don’t fault anybody who is in charge of asking people to lockdown and setting the rules. But the numbers were so infinitesimal when we were so hardcore locked down. And now we’re going to go to the grocery store and hang out in people’s backyards and stuff and the numbers are astronomical… kind of funny. Anyway, we were not going anywhere or doing anything for a couple of months, the band scattered. We had a record that we just finished. So the sort of obvious go-to thing would be like, ‘Hey, let’s record some music.’ We can’t go play live, why don’t we write some songs? But the rationale for doing that didn’t exist, we had a record in the can, so we didn’t do anything for a few months.
We were scattered apart geographically. So it didn’t really make sense to get together and do a live streaming concert or anything like that. There was such a feeling of disappointment, because we were just set to go out on tour and celebrate our 25th anniversary, big shows planned and this beautiful record. I wouldn’t say we were pouting, but it was just such a letdown. I think that we just kind of retreated to our own corners and dealt with the pandemic independently. And after a few months, we got ourselves together and figured out when to release the album, and then got together and did stuff for the band. Me personally, what I was doing during that time was working on my own music and hanging out with my kids. There wasn’t really much we could do. I made the best of a difficult situation.
You touched upon the band competing 25 years and apart from Dave, you’re the only member that’s been there for all 25 years. What’s a moment that stands out for you from the last quarter-century of being in the Foo Fighters?
I think looking at photos from when we were a lot younger is really kind of funny. I think the hairstyles through the years, pretty amusing. And just kind of a reckoning with everything that we’ve been through. Of course, there’s a million individual moments that were super fun, some of them very public, like being able to play at the White House (2008) and some of them very private, like when we played on this small island, off the coast of France and rented scooters. We grabbed a bottle of wine, one beautiful evening and we took off on these scooters and found a picturesque place and drank wine, listened to music and had fun. There’s just so many amazing moments through the years.
It’s a weird thing to have been a band for a quarter of a century. In a lot of ways, it really feels like a triumph and it’s just strange like that. We’ve seen so many changes in the way things operate. When we started, the whole game was to get a song on MTV. That was it. You wanted to have a thing called a buzz clip and if you had a buzz clip, things were going okay, then MTV was playing your song. Then you go out on tour to support your album and that was basically the advertisement for your album being out. We basically put on an album so that we can go out on tour. So I think that’s one of the interesting things about having been around for so long, is just to see how things are completely different.
It’s funny you mention about getting your song played on MTV because that brings to my next question. The Foo Fighters are known for having quirky music videos. But the last two videos for “Shame Shame” and “Waiting On A War” lean towards a more serious tone. Is that where you guys are as a band right now?
That’s an interesting question honestly. I would say no though, It’s just that we’ve got these different facets of personality of the band and some songs call for one facet and some songs call for another. The simplest answer to that question is, those are the songs that we wanted to release and those songs aren’t conducive to doing a goofball video. Not even the next one that’s going to be out, “No Son Of Mine,” that one also is more of a heavy rock song. A song like “Run,” you can play with that song. That was a goofy, silly video and lyrically, it works. With ‘Waiting On A War,’ no one’s going to be able to put roller skates on and sell that [laughs].
As we speak right now, the presidential inauguration is happening and Foo Fighters are on the bill of artists performing to commemorate the occasion, how do you feel being part of that celebration?
I just have to say, it’s such an honor, this is a very pivotal moment. At our house, it’s very emotional. We just made our way through a firestorm so you can’t help but feel the weight of it. And to be part of this peaceful transition of power, which is a phrase that, unfortunately, is something that’s been on all of our lips recently, is pretty incredible. Of course, it would have been great to have it happen when we didn’t have restrictions with the pandemic and be able to be there in person, that would have been incredible. But I will take it as it is. Very thankful we’re able to participate and very proud.
You said you were working on your own music too, is there going to be some new Lieutenant material coming out very soon?
Yeah, I’m done writing it. That’s been one perk of having the extra pandemic time, is just sitting in the studio writing. So I want to pick a drummer here soon, or a number of drummers and get into the studio. Really excited. I think it might sound pretty, we’ll see, fingers crossed.
I interviewed Chris in 2019 when he put out his solo material and I asked him about India. He said there had been chatter about the Foo Fighters touring here some time ago. We’ve had Metallica, Coldplay, U2 and Katy Perry and a bunch of other international artists tour the country over the last 10 years, when will fans get a chance to see the Foo Fighters tour the country when things are back to normal and safe?
Hopefully soon. Honestly, I’m unfamiliar with what’s happening with music in India, I’ve never been but It’d be exciting to go. This is the first interview I’ve ever done for any outlet in India. So I think that’s a positive sign that you know, there may be an opportunity for us to go over in recent interest in the band.