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Success sent Foo Fighters back to the garage

for Journal Register Newspapers

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When he started recording a solo album after the demise of Nirvana in 1994, Dave Grohl wasn’t expecting Foo Fighters to be an active, ongoing concern 17 years later.

“Honestly, had I taken this whole career thing seriously, I would have named it something else, ’cause it’s the worst (expletive) band name in the world,” Grohl says at the end of “Back and Forth,” the revealing documentary that came out this year to accompany “Wasting Light,” the Foos’ seventh studio album and first set of new music in four years.

Nobody — not his bandmates nor a legion of fans — is complaining, of course.

If the band’s endurance has surprised Grohl, its success has absolutely shocked him. The Foos have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and won six Grammy Awards, along with netting nearly two dozen hits on the Billboard Mainstream and Alternative Rock charts. And for Grohl things reached a particular peak in June of 2008, when his band sold out two shows at Wembley Stadium in London, which — captured in its own video and in “Back and Forth” — got him thinking about where to take things from there.

“The way we were thinking was, after playing to 85,000 people in a stadium, what do we do now? We make a huge rock record in a garage!” explains Grohl, 42. Before tucking into “Wasting Light” he also moonlighted in the band Them Crooked Vultures, with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, and also collaborated with Paul McCartney, the Prodigy, Tenacious D and Slash.

The other band members — bassist Nate Mendel, guitarists Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear and drummer Taylor Hawkins — also spent the interim purusing their own projects.

“After selling out (expletive) stadiums and becoming this big rock band, why would you make a garage record?” Grohl continues. “To me the first hour and 20 minutes of the (‘Back and Forth’ movie) is leading up to that moment, where we go from the stadium to the garage — to me that’s the message of the movie.”

“Wasting Light” was indeed made in the garage of Grohl’s home in Encino, Calif. But drummer Taylor Hawkins, who’s been with Foo Fighters since 1997, clarifies that “it’s a pretty clean garage; it’s a garage connected to a mansion,” to which Grohl, with a slightly sheepish smile, says, “Yeah, it is in a mansion. But it’s still just a garage.”

“We made a couple records in the other studio that we own,” Grohl explains, “and it’s a state-of-the-art recording facility that other bands record in. But (the garage) seemed like the right place to make an album this time. To me, this album is more about the experience, and it became a project.”

And another successful one at that. Released in April, “Wasting Light” is the first Foos album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and it topped the chart in 11 other countries. It’s also spawned two more No. 1 singles, “Rope” and “Walk.”

The album’s 11 songs, meanwhile, fuse aspects of Grohl’s, and the band’s, life and times. The quintet made the album with Butch Vig, who also produced Nirvana’s breakthrough 1991 release “Nevermind.” It was also recorded in analog, to tape rather than on computers, and it features former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic on the song “I Should Have Known” and Bob Mould, a hero and influence during his tenures with the bands Husker Du and Sugar.

Because of all that, Grohl says, “Wasting Light” became “more than just an album” to him and the rest of the band.

“When I look back at the making of the record,” he explains, “I don’t really think about it as this sterile recording process in the studio. I think about it as two or three months where we all lived together and worked together every day, and my children were there and became friends with the band. It was something more than your typical album-making process.

“And that was the intention, to do it in a way that we’ve never done it, that would be special and that would have character so it wouldn’t sound like other things we’d done.”

But rest assured that “Wasting Light” retains the same powerful, in-your-face rock that’s been the Foo Fighters’ stock in trade since Grohl’s first demos in the mid-’90s. And he says the intensity comes from the album’s old-school technology.

“Recording with analog, 24-track equipment, you get a lot more personality and imperfection,” Grohl notes. “With digital recording you have the option to make things perfect and you can manipulate them, and sometimes you suck the human element out of it. With tape, once you hit ‘record,’ it’s really what it is. There’s only so much you can do to correct things and make them sound better.

“So we were rehearsing these songs at our big studio to make sure that we had them tight and ready to record once we got in the garage, and I think all of that rehearsal and all of that preparation made it sound like five people with instruments and songs instead of some massive sonic soundscape. It was just a (expletive) band.”

Hawkins adds that “in a weird way, and subconsciously maybe, it feels safer to go back to kind of how and why you did things in the first place. The place we rehearse is this tiny little room and the P.A.’s (sub-standard) in there and it’s feeding back the whole time and we’re in a tight little room, just like it was in high school.

“And there’s a certain safeness and comfort in that. It takes you out of that whole stadium thing, and you kind of get back to just being a rock ’n’ roll band, and that’s good.”

Mendel, the only Foo Fighter other than Grohl with an uninterrupted tenure in the band, feels that “Wasting Light” actually “isn’t terrifically different” from the group’s other albums. But he does feel that “every song is kind of what we do best — loud rock songs with a nice, strong melody. You can take every one out of the context of the record and it makes sense as a Foo Fighters song.”

Grohl says that being involved in the introspective interviews for “Back and Forth” contributed to the lyrical tack he took on “Wasting Light,” including a track such as “I Should Have Known” in which he sings, presumably to Nirvana’s late Kurt Cobain, that “I cannot forgive you yet” for committing suicide in 1994.

“Wasting Light” has brought the Foos back to the road — in North America until mid-November, then to Australia and New Zealand in December and the rest of the world in 2012.

“To look at a schedule that’s two years long ... kind of scares me,” Grohl acknowledges. “But we have a way of doing it. We try to keep things very simple and do it as much as we can without burning out.

“And if it gets to the point where we don’t enjoy it, we know we have to break the glass in case of emergency and just stop and come back to it later. I think that’s what’s kept us around this long. We know what we can and can’t do, and as long as we remember that we’ll be OK.”

Foo Fighters, Rise Against and Mariachi el Bronx perform at 7 p.m. Monday at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $49.50 general admission floor, $29.50-$49.50 reserved. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

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