We've never been critics' darlings or anything," says Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett with a half-hearted laugh, perhaps acknowledging the understatement. "We try not to worry about those things. But it is nice when they appreciate something you do."
For Wasting Light, the seventh studio album by the Dave Grohl-led Foo Fighters, most critics have indeed expressed their appreciation. Hailed as a return to the group's mid to late '90s heyday by the likes of Spin, Alternative Press, and the All Music Guide, among others, Wasting Light also became the first Foo Fighters album to debut at #1 on the U.S. Billboard charts this April.
"I don't see it as disrespect for our other albums necessarily," Shiflett says. "It is definitely fair to say that this is a more consistent 'rock record.' We tried a lot of different things the last few albums, but this one is a return to the rock — which apparently a lot of people were hoping for."
Founded by Grohl as, more or less, a quasi-anonymous one-man band after the tragic demise of his previous group Nirvana in 1994, Foo Fighters began as a poppy but aggressive post-punk project much in the spirit of Nirvana: heavy, melodic guitars with minimal solos, screamed choruses, and that familiar pounding rhythm. But after two albums — 1995's eponymous debut and the now classic 1997 follow-up, The Colour and the Shape — Grohl started to get itchy feet as a songwriter and began to mellow out on subsequent classic-rock-tinged hits like "Learn To Fly" and "Times Like These." And while this progression was met with mixed critical reaction, the group's mainstream popularity grew — substantially.
Now an arena-headlining act with a documentary film, an acoustic album, rumored stints in rehab, and just about every other rock cliché you can think of, Foo Fighters (Grohl, Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel, drummer Taylor Hawkins, and guitarist Pat Smear) are more than mere rock stars. They are a bankable commodity. Foo Fighters turned a few heads locally by filling FedExForum to capacity on their last visit to Memphis in 2009, but the fact is that the band had been doing so in arenas across the country for several years prior.
"We have great fans," Shiflett says. "I was worried about having taken such a long break between albums [the group's previous offering, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, was released in 2007], but it's really nice to still be able to sell albums and concert tickets after so much time off."
According to Shiflett, members of the group often recharge their creative batteries by working on side projects with different musicians during the longer stretches of downtime. And while Grohl's side projects (Them Crooked Vultures, Probot) and outside forays (Queens of the Stone Age, Tenacious D) have certainly been the more highly publicized, both Shiflett and Hawkins have produced fine solo works in recent years. In addition, Shiflett is a member of the punk rock supergroup/coverband Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, along with members of NOFX and No Use For a Name.
"It is really important to play with other people and appreciate other styles of music. It makes us appreciate what we have with each other in Foo Fighters," he says.
When Foo Fighters finally did reconvene in 2010 to begin work on Wasting Light, the mission was clear: make a rawer rock album. To achieve that end, Grohl penned his fiercest collection of songs since The Colour and the Shape, and the group hired veteran producer Butch Vig, helmsman of such notable '90s artifacts as Nirvana's breakthrough Nevermind and Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins, to record the album in Grohl's garage entirely to analog equipment. The result is the most immediate and satisfying Foo Fighters album in years.
"Butch was great," Shiflett says. "We'd worked together on the Greatest Hits album [for which the group recorded two new songs with Vig] and toured with his band Garbage a few times, so there was a comfort level. He's very easy to work with. I tend to be insecure in the studio, but over the long process we got to know each other really well. That helped me a lot."
When they return to FedExForum this Friday night (along with British hard-rock legends Motörhead and Scottish alt-rockers Biffy Clyro), Foo Fighters will be in the midst of a grueling run of international tour dates that will carry the group well into next year, with very few breaks along the way. But don't expect the rigorous pace to slow them down anytime soon.
"What we have together is very special," Shiflett says. "It takes years and years to develop this kind of chemistry. I don't really see a reason for it to stop."