As any recording artist will tell you, part of the fun of heading into a project with a new producer is not knowing exactly what sonic pathways you’re going to find yourself exploring, or just what the final result is going to sound like. Case in point: This month’s cover star couldn’t have guessed that a pendulum swing back toward digital techniques would in fact result in his band’s most classic-rock-sounding album to date—and he sure as heck wouldn’t have predicted that he’d be singing lead while an ex-Beatle took his place at the drums. But that’s Concrete and Gold for you: ambitious, unexpected, and a whole heap of fun to make—and to listen to.
Here’s to tearing up the road map.
Taylor Hawkins is an ambassador of all things R-O-C-K. A product and dedicated fan of ’70s and ’80s music culture, his love and understanding of the inner workings of legendary acts like Queen, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and the Electric Light Orchestra makes him the perfect fit for the Foo Fighters, the great alterna-rock-pop band founded and fronted by Dave Grohl—another world-class drummer, who Hawkins shares many artistic qualities with.
Together in the Foo Fighters for twenty-two years, Hawkins and Grohl, joined by guitarists Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mendel, and keyboardist Rami Jaffee, have blazed success after success. And while Grohl’s famous power as a drummer hasn’t diminished since his focus moved to the front of the stage, Hawkins is significantly responsible for making the band’s passionate missives as kinetically grooving as those of the classic rock acts that he and Grohl openly bow down to.
The Foo Fighters’ ninth album, Concrete and Gold, is perhaps the most unusual in the band’s storied career. While it’s been touted as the group’s very own Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—the Beatles’ psychedelic masterpiece—the recording could easily be likened to a Taylor Hawkins record as performed by the Foo Fighters. Presenting the songs of Dave Grohl, as usual, the music is expressed using treatments for which Hawkins is renowned, and that can be heard throughout the work of his side projects the Coattail Riders and Birds of Satan and his 2016 solo release, KOTA. Opener “T-Shirt” recalls Queen transmitted via the ’70s West Coast pop-rocker Andrew Gold, while “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)” is pure sun-streaked Laurel Canyon good vibrations. “Make It Right” summons the power pop of the Knack and the heartland prog of Kansas, “La Dee Da” buzzes backward-beat mad like a warped Thin Lizzy, and “Dirty Water” recalls the folk blues of Canned Heat. Taylor’s vocal cameo, “Sunday Rain,” is a ringer for the Eagles, and the closing title track is all grease and slow electric sludge, with Hawkins’ lumbering beat and Grohl’s sleepy vocal honoring Pink Floyd.
As if to put an exclamation point on the kaleidoscopic nature of Concrete and Gold, Hawkins played six different drumsets on the recording. For our pleasure he even went so far as to construct a Frankenstein kit from all of the pieces. It’s the kind of thing you do when your life’s work is processing the classic-rock generation’s greatest music—and transforming it into one of the finest albums that this generation has ever heard.
MD: So where are you speaking to us from, Taylor?
Taylor: I’m hiding out from my family so we can talk. I’ve been cruising around on my mountain bike, trying to find a good spot to chat.
MD: So you’re in Southern California?
Taylor: I’m in Laguna Beach, where I grew up. I’m right across the street from my parents’ old house. They don’t live there anymore. But this is where I had a lot of my earliest musical memories. I used to sit on the curb and think about music. I remember being sixteen years old and sitting here, sneaking cigarettes, dreaming about faraway lands—and someday being in Modern Drummer. Now I’m talking to Modern Drummer!
MD: Concrete and Gold is like the Foo Fighters doing a Taylor Hawkins record. As with many of your records, there’s a real ’70s focus to some of the tracks.
Taylor: It’s funny that you say that. This is the first record where we’ve used a computer in a while. But I’ve played the record for people who’ve said, “Wow, this is the band’s most ’70s record.” The funny thing is, the last two records we did were ’70s-style, recorded to tape. This time we decided to utilize more of the tricks you can do with Logic and these amazing recording platforms that we have now. So I find it ironic that we actually thought we were making a modern record and everyone says, “This is ’70s rock!” But I’m great with that.
MD: I hear the Beatles, Cheap Trick, ELO, Alan Parsons Project, Thin Lizzy….
Taylor: I’ll take it all.
MD: Even the Eagles, on…
Taylor: …“Sunday Rain.” That’s the song where I sang. It’s funny, because I started layering harmonies on that, and [producer] Greg Kurstin said, “You know, that sounds like the Eagles.” I learned to sing harmony in the back of my mom’s car, listening to the Eagles, picking out all the different harmonies from Don and Glenn and Joe and Randy. That and Queen are how I learned to sing harmonies. A lot of the multilayered harmonies on the album are Dave by himself. But whenever I start layering harmonies, it comes out like the Eagles. That’s what’s in my gut—both in my singing and my drumming. There’s nothing I can do about it.
MD: On which tracks are you singing harmonies?
Taylor: “T-Shirt,” “Concrete and Gold,” “Make It Right,” “Arrows,” and one more. And I do all the vocals on “Sunday Rain.”
MD: Was the Sgt. Pepper’s mindset of reframing the band in anyone’s mind?
Taylor: Only indirectly. When Dave first came to us with the idea of using Greg Kurstin as producer, I had been into his Bird and the Bee record. It’s beautiful. And Greg has this complex yet pop sensibility. The first thing Dave said is, “Let’s see what he can do to our sound.” We’re usually like Motörhead meets the Beatles, but this one is really Motörhead meets Sgt. Pepper’s. It’s hard rocking yet it’s got this shimmering quality, and what really gives it that feel is all the layered harmonies.
MD: And some of the songs are pure pop rock, like “Happy Ever After.”
Taylor: That’s got a Beatle-y thing going on. At end of the day we just try to write good songs. Hopefully they are. Some people have told me it’s taken them a while to totally digest the record. Some people think this is the best record we’ve ever made.
MD: You played a wild assortment of drums—North drums, concert toms, Rototoms….
Taylor: I did use a lot of weird drums on the record, and a lot of different drumsets. We had this studio, EastWest, a huge recording facility—the first time we’d been there. We rented the biggest room and stuffed six different drumsets in there and miked every drum. I had a straight-ahead five-piece kit, a rock kit, a giant 28″ Bonham-type kick drum setup, then a full Phil Collins setup with all concert toms, and a tribal-y kind of setup. Some sets were recorded using the full room sound, some of them were baffled, some were more Beatle-y—we had an old ’60s Ludwig kit set up too. I also played a set from Masters of Maple, kind of a new company from here in the San Fernando Valley.
When we were ready to shoot the Modern Drummer photos, I was like, well, I used so many different drumkits on the record—let’s set up as many drums as we can! So we set up the most insane drumset possible. And that’s what we got. It’s a composite of all the drums I played on the record. Dave came by afterward and said, “Dude, you have to play this set on the road.” I said, “I’d love to, but I don’t think it’s possible!” Maybe Terry Bozzio could play that drumset, but I couldn’t. [laughs]
MD: Where did you find the North drums, and are you playing those on the record?
Taylor: I played them in that long Neil Peart drum fill in “Make It Right.” I bought them on eBay. I just had to have a set of North drums. I always wanted a set, since I saw them as a kid. I also bought a Trixon drumset. They were a German company; I think Ringo played them for a little while. Buddy Rich even had a Trixon set for a while. We recorded those a little bit on the record. James Brown’s drummers used them too. Vox and Trixon were part of the same company. The Trixon kick drums look like mushrooms. They’re pretty cool.
MD: What other drums are in the giant setup?
Taylor: A lot of it was from the Gretsch kits I’ve assembled over the past ten years, since I’ve been playing Gretsch. Most of that kit is actually Gretsch and Masters of Maple.
MD: What does a North drum sound like?
Taylor: They’re really tight, quick concert toms. They’re not loud at all. I think they do the exact opposite of what they were supposed to do, which is one of the reasons they never totally took off. And they’re not easy to set up. I call them “the bell-bottoms of drums.” It’s difficult to find a spot to place them because of the way the bottom bells out.
MD: There are a lot of different drum sounds on the album. The bass drum on the beginning of “Sunday Rain” is really boomy, for instance.
Taylor: I have something to tell you about “Sunday Rain.” That’s not me playing drums. That’s Paul McCartney. Dave is buddies with Paul. Dave had kind of demoed the song. It’s a Beatles kind of song, with a White Album/Abbey Road vibe to it. I kept the drumming really simple in the demo. Then Dave took off to go to write lyrics. We were texting and he said, “You need a new song to sing.” He wanted me to sing “Sunday Rain,” and he wanted Paul to play drums on it. No problem!
What a graceful musician he is. I love that drum track—it’s so un-me. When we play it live I take more of a Don Henley approach. The way that Paul played it, it’s almost like the way Stevie Wonder plays drums. It’s all musical. All feel. There’s no “I’m going to play this fill here.” Nothing like that. Dude, the guy had literally never heard the song before. He walked in, Dave picked up a guitar and said, “It goes like this…verse, chorus, bridge…then we’ll just jam it out at the end.” I stood there with a drumstick conducting Paul. He never, ever heard the song before! He played it twice; what you hear on the record is pretty much the first take.
MD: How was he to work with?
Taylor: Totally great, and so generous with his time. I was trying not to look at him like he’s Santa Claus. And that’s his drumset too—he brought his own drumset and had his tech come and set it up. It’s an ’80s, middle-of-the-road Ludwig kit. It’s not a high-end set. He has storage in L.A., so it just showed up. He also has a bag of cymbals he’s collected over the years. And when he plays the drums, it sounds like him. He’s such an obviously amazing musician, and his drumming is unique, but very real. He worked with Ringo all those years, and I’m sure their styles blended together.
MD: Was there a click running for “Sunday Rain”?
Taylor: No. There are a few songs that don’t have a click track. “Sunday Rain,” “T-Shirt,” “Dirty Water,” “The Sky Is a Neighborhood.” We didn’t do quantizing or anything like that. You can’t quantize stuff if it ain’t got a click track, ya know. We still [go for] a big human feel on the songs. We may have done a move here or there. The good thing about recording with computers is you can move quick. There’s no auto-tuning, though we utilized the things in Logic that let you [manipulate] sound. It’s limitless what you can do now.
That limitlessness can sometimes hinder a good rock ’n’ roll record, though. And we’ve been out of that world for the last eight years. We shied away from computers because we made this record Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace with Gil Norton, and he was into the computers to fix everything. That made us move away from the whole idea of using a computer and rather catch the human feel. I think you can do both. But this record changed because of the drumsets and the tweaking of the drum sounds. I have to be honest—I do my drum track and I’m done. Then I would come back and hear how they’d treat a snare drum sound, and it would knock me out. Greg and the engineers were doing some crazy shit.
MD: There are so many unusual sounds, like the opening to “Make It Right.” Are you playing multi-rods on a suitcase or something?
Taylor: That’s just me playing to a delay. A stick on a hi-hat and sidestick on the snare drum. Playing kind of [straight time] but with a U2/Edge guitar echo on it—16th notes, I believe.
MD: Sometimes the Foo Fighters are like a heavy metal pop band, but no matter how heavy the song is, you ground the band in a very human way that a pure metal drummer probably wouldn’t do. And the drums sound more intimate than ever on the new album. Is it the bigger recording space, how the drums were treated…?
Taylor: It’s all those things. It’s the engineer, Darrell Thorp; it’s the different drums we used; and it’s my love of people like Stewart Copeland and Roger Taylor. And Dave has a lot to do with the drum parts. If he doesn’t like the sound of a ride cymbal, we change it. He’s very involved, but he knows I have my [style]. I love Stewart, I love Alex Van Halen, I love Phil Collins, Stephen Perkins. I like high toms and sounds that poke out, which a lot of people don’t really do anymore. The record sounds more intimate because of the way it was recorded on a lot of levels. It’s such a broad-sounding record; every inch is filled with sound, but there’s an airiness to the guitars that lets the drums have tone. Sometimes when you have three guitars blasting you’re lucky to even hear the drums. But the guitar tones Greg came up with left a lot of room for drum tones. Maybe that’s different from the last couple records.
MD: The drum sound is closer to your records. Your energy, tone, and spirit come across.
Taylor: We all come from the same spots musically. Dave and I both loved AM radio when we were kids. And the Police, Zeppelin, Queen, the Beatles, Soundgarden—those were things that we really bonded over. We both think Matt Cameron is a master. He’s without a doubt one of the greatest drummers ever, end of story. Chris Cornell was one of my big heroes, and his loss is so devastating. I just can’t get over it. The last record they made, King Animal, was a perfect addition to where they were heading as a band. It ranks up there with their greatest records. Matt and Chris together was such a magical combination. Such a great band. They were set to make another record. I’m forty-five, and if you were a musician in our age group and you heard Soundgarden coming up, you knew, whoa, these guys are serious players with a lot of heart and soul.
MD: “T-Shirt” is a great opening song.
Taylor: That’s so wide open and big and slow. I just wanted to support that. Not a lot of thought went into it. What would [Pink Floyd’s] Nick Mason do? I’m washing the ride cymbal on the chorus; at one point I’m playing a cymbal bell.
MD: In “Run” there are twangy Byrds guitars and a massive snare drum sound.
Taylor: I’m playing kind of a merengue beat there. [sings pattern]
MD: At first I thought the first two songs were one song.
Taylor: Yeah, it’s kind of the “We Will Rock You” into “We Are the Champions” approach. [laughs] That’s all live, played straight through.
MD: The groove of “Make It Right” is interesting, with the ghost notes and snare drum accent variations.
Taylor: It’s really not that interesting! I guess the chorus is more interesting. But I’m literally playing [sings beat], like, “When the Levee Breaks.” But all the delays there create this 16th-note “Rosanna” feel. It sounds complex and busy, but what I’m playing is really simple. It’s almost like the Police’s “Walking on the Moon.” Or Queen’s “Loser in the End.” When doing the demo, Dave meant to add delay to the guitar but accidentally put it on the drums. He brought in the idea and I thought it sounded amazing.
MD: At 3:07 in “Make It Right,” you play a fun roll around the whole kit. Concert toms to North drums?
Taylor: Definitely concert toms, but I can’t remember if it’s a North drum. Probably not. It’s 8″, 10″, and 13″ toms and a 16″ floor tom.
MD: The beat in “La Dee Da” sounds backward. Fast cut time, or 4/4?
Taylor: It is unusual, and when Dave showed it to me, it took me a second—well, more than a second—to figure out where the 1 is. And I’ve got to be honest, I’m still not quite sure! [laughs]
Whenever I have to do something in an odd time, or an odd feel…the late, great Chris Squire told me that Yes never knew what time signatures they were playing in. They learned the music; he called it “parrot.” You can teach a parrot to say anything. It has no idea what it’s saying—it’s just saying whatever you taught it to say. Well, I’m not sure exactly what’s happening in “La Dee Da.” I just know how to play it. That song reminds me of the Cramps in the chorus; then it has that weird turnaround. But I don’t know how to count it.
MD: In the beginning of “Arrows,” is that a treated snare drum?
Taylor: It’s a regular drum sound that Greg and Darrell put into their weird little world. I’m not sure exactly what they did. One of Greg’s biggest tricks on this record is his Roland Space Echo. He put Dave’s voice through that a bunch. But that’s not the snare drum sound on “Arrows.” I think it’s just distorted.
MD: “The Line” sounds like a classic Foo Fighters song.
Taylor: We knew when we did it that it’s most like “Best of You.” I don’t want to say that it’s typical, but it does have an archetypal Foo Fighters sound to it.
MD: In general, when you know you’re doing an album, does the band rehearse?
Taylor: Oh, yeah. We do demo session after demo session. All of the songs on the album have been demoed and recorded and rerecorded. We recorded ten versions of “Run” before we came to the final version.
Dave will do a quick demo at his house sometimes. Or he and I will get together and do demos. Then the band will do a set of demos. Then a week later we might change or redo a section. It all culminates to where we feel like the songs are totally perfect and cohesively arranged to be on the final record. We do a lot of prep work. But there are some songs, like “Dirty Water” and “The Sky Is a Neighborhood,” where we didn’t do any demos. Dave presented a song idea; we learned it and played it down.
MD: What does that mean, “the sky is a neighborhood”?
Taylor: I have no idea. [laughs] I asked Dave that question and he said, “I don’t know, dude, I was just looking up at the sky and I thought the sky is a neighborhood.” Maybe there’s a deeper meaning and Dave’s not interested in revealing it. He likes it to be ambiguous so anyone can interpret it for themselves.
MD: What do you practice now?
Taylor: I don’t, really. I mainly practice with my cover band, Chevy Metal. Every once in a while I’ll throw on the Police’s first record or Rush’s Moving Pictures or Soundgarden’s Superunknown and play along. Songs with a killer groove. I don’t really practice as much as I should.
MD: Off the road, do you maintain or stabilize your chops? Or when a tour is over, do you feel like you’ve had enough of the drums?
Taylor: Oh, no, no, no. I keep going. Chevy Metal’s turned into a great cottage industry. But I’m not the kind of guy to woodshed the drums. Never was. I get bored. For the most part interacting and playing with other musicians is what I do.
Fifteen years ago, when we were on a major hiatus, a friend and I started Chevy Metal. We played little Mexican restaurants. It’s grown and grown and now it’s my side band, my drum thing. Dave has played with us a bunch. We played at restaurants and sushi bars. We do rock festivals and corporate shows. Once in a while we’ll play bars around L.A. I do it for fun and to keep my chops up.
MD: Does it demand something different from the Foo Fighters?
Taylor: It demands a lot less as far as taking it seriously. It’s just fun. At the same time, we might learn a song like the Knack’s “My Sharona.” You think, That’s easy—I can play that. But it’s not easy at all! That’s a very difficult song to play on the drums. Bruce Gary was a great drummer who does not get the credit he deserves. He was a master. It takes a lot to get that song tight.
MD: What advice do you give to younger drummers?
Taylor: Kids always ask me, “How can I become a rock star?” I tell them to write their own material, but also do as many cover songs as they can. When you learn the inner workings of a song like “My Sharona” or the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese” or AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock” or Queen’s “Under Pressure,” you’re learning how to arrange songs. And you learn how drums make a song work.
I also always tell kids, “You need as much time on stage as you can get.” If you really want to get great, play all the songs your audience wants to hear. That’s what Van Halen did. They started out as a cover band.
MD: Did Chevy Metal take over from the Coattail Riders?
Taylor: Yes. I did a record called The Birds of Satan, which was an offshoot of Chevy Metal. We also incorporate Coattail Riders and my solo stuff into Chevy Metal. My side projects are ever weaving and moving. But right now my head is in Foo Fighter Land, and will be pretty much for the next six months. I’m always writing and making demos. At some point, after we’re done touring the new record, I’ll make a record. I feel like I have to put a little fork in the road so I have something to say. The Foo Fighters are really there to support Dave’s songs. I did get to write a song on this record, which is amazing. Dave wrote the music for “Sunday Rain,” and I wrote all the lyrics and the bridge and the outro melody.
MD: Do you keep a set of drums at home?
Taylor: I have a couple sets at home and a basic recording studio. That’s where I recorded my last solo record, KOTA. My son is a good drummer; he’s got a great backbeat. If he wants it, he’s got it. You can tell. And my daughter plays guitar. It’s a very musically free house.
MD: As a musician who’s conquered the world, what are your goals?
Taylor: Making the Foo Fighters sound better live. I’m constantly watching our shows the next day on YouTube. I’m always checking my tempos and figuring out how to do things better and make the band sound better. I’m on a constant search for a form of perfection. You never really reach it.
MD: Dave is a great drummer, but he doesn’t have what you bring to the Foo Fighters.
Taylor: Dave’s a much better drummer than me.
MD: But it wouldn’t be the Foo Fighters without your natural-feeling groove, and that really comes to the fore on Concrete and Gold.
Taylor: Check out KOTA. I play everything on it—the guitars, the drums, the bass and keyboards, with a little help from friends. The music is a continuation of the Coattail Riders, and it’s got my signature Eagles and Queen vocal sound. It’s my voice and the way I think musically. It’s more basic, because I’m playing all the instruments. It’s less muso in that regard—no ripping guitar solos.
MD: Is “KOTA” an acronym for something?
Taylor: King of the Assholes. There’s a theme to the record. I live in Hidden Hills, which is in Calabasas. I live around all these strange, entitled, new-money folks. I live next to the Kardashians. I’m a fish out of water, and I don’t know how we ended up there. I find it all hilarious.
MD: Where are you heading next on your bike?
Taylor: I’m going for a surf. I’m going to jump in the water; the waves are great the last couple days. I’ll catch some waves. Hopefully my son is already there. He’s got a pretty knarly board. This is at Thalia Beach; it’s where I grew up surfing. I’ve been surfing since I was a kid. They used to call me “Hawkins Spazz” as I came down the water. “Here comes Hawkins Spazz!”
Hawkins’ Live Setup
Drums: Gretsch USA Custom in hot pink finish
• 6.5×14 USA bell brass snare
• 7×10 concert tom
• 9×13 tom
• 16×16 floor tom
• 16×18 floor tom
• 16×20 bass drum
• 14″ Remo Rototom
• 15″ New Beat hi-hats
• 19″ K Custom Hybrid crash
• 19″ A Custom crash
• 20″ A EFX Custom crash
• 23″ Sweet ride
• 20″ A Medium Thin crash
• 22″ Oriental China Trash
Hardware: DW 9000 series, including 9000XL boom cymbal stands, 5000 single bass drum pedal
Accessories: Zildjian stick bag
Percussion: LP Ridge Rock cowbell, Jam Block (medium pitch), and Cyclops mountable tambourine
Sticks: Zildjian Taylor Hawkins Signature series
Heads: Remo, including Emperor X snare batter and Ambassador snare-side, Coated Vintage Emperor tom batters and Coated Ambassador resonant (on the 13″), Coated Powerstroke 4 floor tom batters and Coated Ambassador resonants, Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter and Custom Ambassador resonant, and Emperor X Rototom batter