“I had no masterplan. I just knew I had ideas that weren’t going to fit with Foo Fighters” – hmv.com talks to Nate Mendel
For all the years the Foo Fighters have been stomping across the globe, selling millions of records and tickets as they go, we’ve largely known them as Dave Grohl’s band. He’s the mouthpiece, the driving force, the powerhouse frontman, a character so big it’s hard for the other members to get much of the spotlight.
Bassist Nate Mendel has been with him the entire time, recruited to help tour the group’s first album, which Grohl recorded himself back in 1995, but he’s only just ready to step out on his own with his debut solo album.
The album, which was recorded at the Foo Fighters’ own Studio 606 in Northridge, California as the band were writing Sonic Highways, is less bombastic and, understandably, less focused on making a stadium full of people pump their fists. It’s full of the best of the great American songwriters, with vintage Tom Petty, The National and early Bruce Springsteen all key influences.
It sees Mendel singing and turning for the first time in decades, becoming the mainman after more than 20 years at the side of the stage.
To help record the album, which is wonderfully titled If I Kill This Thing We’re All Going To Eat For A Week, which is released today (March 9th) under the name Lieutenant U.S., Mendel roped in some famous friends, including Foo Fighters’ guitarist Chris Shiflett, Sunny Day Real Estate’s singer Jeremy Enigk and The Shins drummer Joe Plummer.
We spoke to Mendel, currently touring Australia with the Foo Fighters, about why he’d decided to do a solo record, working double shifts, singing frustrations, why he’s a new convert to the power of the lyric and Glastonbury…
When did this album start? Have you been working on this for a long time?
“I started on it maybe five years ago? I had a couple of songs and I was looking for something to do in breaks between Foo Fighters records. I was ready to go forward with it and then I did a Sunny Day Real Estate reunion that distracted me for about a year and a half. I didn’t want to not play music for a year or year and a half when I’m not with the Foo Fighters, I thought that would be Sunny Day Real Estate, but we couldn’t keep it together, so I went back to work on this record and it took about a year to get the songs together.”
When did you get other musicians involved?
“Doing the band beyond just me is quite a recent thing. I really didn’t know what was happening with the record or if it was going to come out or how. I took it one step at a time, write the songs, record them and then figure out how to put them out into the world. If that all went well, I’d put a band together and go play live. There was no grand vision. I had no masterplan.”
What made you seek something outside of Foo Fighters and Sunny Day Real Estate?
“I just knew I had ideas that I knew weren’t going to fit with the Foo Fighters. My style is overly melodic and I had a sense of melody that I wanted to pursue, I basically tried to turn it into songs, it took me a while to get there, I’m 20 years into life with the Foo Fighters at this point.”
How quickly did you record the songs?
“I got some good advice from Chris Shiflett (Foo Fighters guitarist) and Taylor (Hawkins, drummer in Foo Fighters), who have both done projects outside of Foo Fighters. I was constantly asking them about it and Chris said to me ‘Go into the studio with everything mapped out, you haven’t got time to go in and noodle around’."
Did you take his advice?
“I did. I made sure I was well prepared, but even so, as soon as I had the drum tracks down I get a call from Dave (Grohl) and it’s time to go and start work on Sonic Highways. We were on a Monday to Friday schedule so I’d do this on the weekends, it made for a very busy end to 2013.”
How did you find going between the two?
“It was a little bit difficult. My mind was wrapped up with this record and then I’d have to go and focus on bass parts. There was so much more going on with my record, so it took some mental energy to switch back and forth and focus on the Foo Fighters. This was all happening during the writing process.”
Did you ever think ‘Man I wish could just relax this weekend’?
“It did get a little tedious, but I had the backwind of this being my first record and just really wanting to finish it. I was a little burned out by the end though.”
You’ve got Chris Shiftlett and Jeremy Enigk from Sunny Day Real Estate on there, did you just call and ask them to come help out?
“Pretty much, they were people I thought would be interesting and could add something. My biggest collaborator was Toshi (Kasai, producer for the likes of Helmet and the Melvins), I hired him as an engineer but he really got involved with the project and I needed as much help as I can get, so he collaborated with me a lot, he was a real co-conspirator.”
How did you find writing lyrics? That can’t have been your job in your other bands…
“Not at all. I wrote lyrics in my first punk rock band when I was a kid, but they were all about hating teachers. Actually, I’ve always been kind of a lyrics sceptic, it’s the most important part of listening to music for a lot of people, but to me it’s right at the bottom of my list, I’m a player. I’d always thought if I want to read someone’s thoughts, I’ll read a book or an essay, I’d always had a dim view of lyrics.”
So did that change?
“Well first I had to figure out how to sing, that came first. I figured it would make it easier because I’d just find things that work on guitar and because I think most lyrics are crap anyway I’m going to give myself a total free pass. But once I started I found myself liking it and it actually became my favourite part of doing the record. I think they’ve come out better than I expected.”
Did what you ended up writing about surprise you?
“I tried to do it in a real stream of consciousness and not go in with any fixed ideas. I was surprised I ended up writing love songs and songs about relationship strife because those have always been a real non-favourite of mine.”
“I think they usually sound trite, but of course they are very important to most people. I was surprised I ended up focusing on that, but it was what was happening in my life at the time, I was wondering what to do with a relationship and what to do with it, whether to end it, you can really hear that.”
Did you find yourself forcing yourself to write? People who are lyricists tend to be permanently scribbling things down…
“No, I’d never want to do that. I don’t like the idea of going back to lyrics that are six months old. I’m more of a sit in a field and be struck by lightning kind of guy. Sometimes you have to force it and I think I like that process.”
Did you speak to Dave or Jeremy about lyrics?
“I didn’t talk to anyone about lyrics, I did get some advice from Jeremy about singing, I sent him the rough mixes of the record and he wasn’t very fond of the vocals. I understand that, he’s an excellent singer, he told me I needed to put some drama in there, that was his contribution.”
Was it strange singing for the first time in the studio?
“It was strange and frustrating. I enjoyed everything except singing, you can’t see inside your throat, you can’t figure out why something isn’t working, it’s really frustrating.”
Where did the title come from?
“I was at a party and Jim Roeder, a friend of mine, gave this speech and it was part of it. I went straight up to him and said ‘I have to get your permission to call my record’ and he, half-drunkenly said ‘Yeah, sure’. He clearly didn’t think I’d follow through with it, but I did.”
Why did you choose it?
“It’s just a title I liked it. Looking back on it, it’s got a nice existential ring to it. I like it because it kind of signifies that there’s no such thing as ultimate success, you have to keep going.”
What are your plans for taking the record out live?
“We’ve got a US tour planned, it’s about three weeks and then I’ve got eight months on tour with the Foo Fighters so I’ll start to figure out what I’ll do when that slows down.”
It must be a little frustrating, you must want to go out and play the songs for longer than three weeks?
“It would be. But I’m pretty enthusiastic about going out with the Foo Fighters, it’s not like I’ve got a project due at work and that’s keeping me back. I’m doing music I love, which is lucky, else I’d be chomping at the bit and going insane.”
Did you ever consider having Lieutenant open for the Foo Fighters? Do double duty?
“No, I have a little bias against that, when a band comes out to play I want to be seeing that musician for the first time, it takes away the mystery.”
Also the Foo Fighters are playing long sets these days, you’d be exhausted…
“Everything else aside, that’s probably the main reason for not doing it.”
Has making this record given you the urge to do more?
“I’m writing new stuff. I want to continue doing this. I like the process, I like the challenge, I don’t excel at it right now and I want to keep going on.”
The breaks between Foo Fighters’ records are probably long enough to get it done right?
“If I get the timing right. That was some more advice I got from Chris, he said you should be writing and planning to record as soon as the Foo Fighters stop because you want your record to come out when we’re not doing anything, as opposed to what’s happened this time when I’m promoting the thing in the middle of the biggest tour we’ve done in years.”
Is writing on the road not an issue for you?
“It is a little. It’s snippets here and there, we’re moving around too much to be able to finish anything, the most I can manage is little placeholders, like notes to remind myself.”
How much are you looking forward to Glastonbury?
“It’s the show we’re all looking forward to, we’ve not been there for years, it’s a legendary festival and we’re really excited. We’ve got Wembley too, which is going to be insane.”
Finally, you get off the road in the US in October, is that it for this run with the Foo Fighters?
“I think we’ll continue to do things, but not at the same rate as we’re doing them now, there’ll be a big enough gap to fit some Lieutenant stuff in anyway.”
Lieutenant U.S.’s debut album If I Kill Thing We’re All Going To Eat For A Week is out now in hmv stores and you can preview it on the right-hand side of the page.