Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins on Coattail Riders, Queen, Grohl

With Red Light Fever, Taylor Hawkins and his band, The Coattail Riders, serve up a winner
With Red Light Fever, Taylor Hawkins and his band, The Coattail Riders, serve up a winner (Image credit: Joe Giron/Corbis)

Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins is mighty stoked about Red Light Fever, the second album he's made with his side band Taylor Hawkins And The Coattail Riders. "It's definitely the record where we found our sound," he says.

"With our first record [2006's Taylor Hawkins And The Coattail Riders], I guess you could call it more of a getting-to-know ourselves project. This time out, the tunes were stronger, we were tighter as a band, and hey, I had some pretty cool guest stars helping out."

He isn't kidding. Aiding Hawkins and his other Coattail Riders (guitarist Gannin Arnold and bassist Chris Chaney) are two of Hawkins' biggest heroes, Queen's Brian May and Roger Taylor, along with a new friend, former Cars guitarist Elliot Easton. Oh, and Dave Grohl is all over the album, for good measure.

Recorded in 2009 at the Foo Fighters' 606 Studios, Red Light Fever (due out 20 April) is a one-listen winner. From the unapologetic Queen stomper Way Down to the Beatlesesque ballad Hell To Pay, it's a dozen songs that pay homage to the music Hawkins cut his musical teeth on.

"For me to make any other kind of record would feel kind of forced," he says. "This is the music I love, the pop and rock of the the '70s - well, the '60s too. I was in heaven writing and recording these songs, and I think you can hear how much fun I had making the album."

Since joining the Foo Fighters in 1997, Hawkins has established himself as a force to be reckoned with. Winner of Rhythm magazine's 'Best Rock Drummer' award in 2005, he's worked with a variety of artists (Slash, Coheed And Cambria, Queen + Paul Rodgers, just to name a few). And in 2008 he realized something of a dream when he contributed vocals to an unfinished Dennis Wilson song called Holy Man for the album Pacific Ocean Blue. The late Beach Boys drummer is one of Hawkins' idols, and he calls the experience "scary," but an opportunity he couldn't pass up.

While plans are underway for the next Foo Fighters album (which will see the band paired with producer Butch Vig), Hawkins and the Coattail Riders (augmented by guitarist Nate Wood and Foo Fighters touring percussionist Drew Hester) will be hitting the road this spring. Before getting on the van, however, the engaging, multi-talented musician sat down with MusicRadar to discuss Red Light Fever and talk about what it was like to cut tracks with rock royalty.

Listen to the podcast below and read on for text of the interview.

Download (PC users right-click and Save As...)

The new record is fantastic. What's really cool about it is, it feels like a great record from the '70s.

"Well, you know…it does. [laughs] I shouldn't say 'great' myself. I'll let you say it. But it's just the way it happened. I honestly went into it to make a record with the songs I had written. I had a full studio at my hands, a top-of-the-line studio -

You worked at the Foo Fighters' studio.

"At the Foo Fighters' studio, 606. And I had a very liberal amount of time to make this record. If you average it out, it was a couple of months, with a little bit of time interspersed.

"I just kind of let loose. I said in some other thing that I read that I was having sex with my record collection. I assume, for the most part, that anybody who makes records does that to a certain degree. And I didn't set out like, 'Wow, I want it to sound like a Sweet record or a Queen record or whatever.'"

"I just followed my instincts for music I like, 'cause all I really wanted to do was make music that I enjoyed. I think that's all anybody is trying to do when they're making music. And what I biggest that time period of music: 1972/Trident Studios/David Bowie/Queen/Sweet - that stuff.

"I put a lot of vocal and guitar harmonies on a lot of stuff. And I didn't Pro Tool anything! It was recorded on Pro Tools 'cause, you know, if I tried to do it on tape that would've cost me $100,000 worth of tape 'cause it's really expensive and hard to find these days. If I could've done it on tape, I would've. But we didn't utilize the same things that most people do these days, like Auto-Tuning vocals -

Wait, wait! You mean you actually sang?!

"Yes, I did. And all the drums are actual human takes. They're not manipulated or gridded to put them perfectly in time."

See, I don't think we can talk. You're so old-school, I don't think we speak the same language.

"Exactly. What you're saying…I think that's what makes the record have that vintage feel to it. It's human sounding. Let alone the fact that the harmonies and the stacked the guitars and even just the song ideas are obviously lifted hook, line and sinker from some of those bands I just mentioned!" [laughs]

Taylor Hawkins And The Coattail Riders (from left Chris Chaney, Gannin Arnold and Taylor) Image: Michael Elins

Let's talk about some of the singing and playing on the record. Now, you have Brian May and Roger Taylor from Queen on a few of the tracks…

"Brian is on two tracks. He's on Way Down, so you hear his guitar on there…as well as Gannin - and as well as Dave Grohl, actually! But the main thing that stands out as a real Brian May production is the vocals. In the last choruses this big humungous Queen choir comes in. It was amazing: I would send him the MP3s over to England - he wasn't actually in the studio with me - and then I'd get this like, 'OK, Brian's sending his track today.' And we'd listen to it and it was like, 'Oh my God!' You'd just kind of go, 'Whoa!'

Now, both Brian and Roger are on the track called Not Bad Luck, right?

"No. It's probably a little bit misleading. I wanted to get Roger to sing on it, but I couldn't negotiate the time for it. He was probably skiing the Ukraine or something - something really fabulous that I wasn't doing!" [laughs]

But did Brian put guitar on that?

"No. That's all Elliot Easton. Not all of it's Elliot; the rhythm guitars are Gannin. But the guitar solo is Elliot."

What's amazing is, he sounds like Brian May.

"Part of it is because Elliot and I did those background vocals, which have that great Roy Thomas Baker/Queen/Cars production style to them. If you listen to Cars records, they sound like new wave Queen."

I called Elliot to find out which tracks he's on, but he hasn't called me back yet.

"I wish you had gotten that information. Maybe it's fun to guess. Maybe I shouldn't tell anybody who plays on what. And Gannin, our guitar player, he does most of the playing on the record, and he's majorly influenced by Brian May, as well as Jeff Beck and other people.

"The reason that solo sounds kind of Brian May-ish is because it's melodic. If you listen to Cars guitar solos…I mean, that's why I asked Elliot, because his solos are similar. I don't like guitar solos that are like 'Look at me, look at me!' I like guitar solos that are little songs within the songs. And that's what Brian May is so brilliant at - and Elliot.

"And Roger Taylor sings background vocals on the second song on the record, which is Your Shoes. If you know Queen, you know it's him. I'll play it for my friends who don't Queen that well and they'll be like [laughs], 'Who the fuck is that?! 'Cause it's not you!' And I'll be like, 'No, it's definitely not me.'"

You have worked with both Brian May and Roger Taylor on some of their projects, but what was it like having them play on your record?

"It's nerve-racking sending them a track and wondering what they'll think of it. Brian May is always super-gracious. Roger Taylor will tell me if he doesn't like something - he's a pretty shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy.

"You just hope they don't feel obligated to do it because they're your friends. And I said that to them: 'If you don't like it, I don't want you on it. I don't want you to be doing this as a favor to me.' But they were generally pleased with it. Roger really enjoyed it, and Brian really got into it - as he does whenever he gets into anything."

I want to ask you more about Elliot Easton, whom I consider to be one of the greatest players of the last 30 years. How did you seek him out? How did you get him involved?

"I met Elliot when we were doing a cancer benefit up in Seattle. The second I met him, I liked him immediately. He's funny as hell, he's a smart-ass - I liked him right away. But at that point, I thought the record was done. Then I got an idea for another song and we were figuring out how to put the record out, so I called him. He even helped me write and arrange the song, as well, so I gave him writing credit."

I'm having a little trouble telling which tracks Dave Grohl is on.

"Well, I'll tell you. He plays rhythm guitar on almost 90 percent of the record. And he did it all in one day, as only Dave can do. But when you really want to hear Dave, it's kind of the most 'me and Dave in a band together' - I guess you could say 'Foo Fighters' to a certain degree - it's the guitar solo freak-out thing on the last song, I Don't Think I Trust You Anymore. And that's pure Dave. He wrote that whole thing. He basically gave me a gift. He orchestrated it, orchestrated the drums exactly how he thought they should be.

"Obviously, he's one of the best drummers of all time, but he's also one of the best rhythm guitar players of all time. I really do feel that way. Besides being an amazingly gifted songwriter and drummer, he's like the Pete Townshend of our generation."

Speaking of drumming, you do some amazing playing yourself on this record. One song in particular, It's Over, the intro -

"It's Mahavishnu meets ELO!"

Oh my God, the intro blows me away. It's prog-rock that progresses into a pop song.

"Besides being an amazingly gifted songwriter and drummer, he's like the Pete Townshend of our generation" - Taylor Hawkins on Dave Grohl

"'Why would you do that?' should be your first question." [laughs]

Yes. A) Why would you do that? And B) did you ever think of enlisting one of your other idols, Neil Peart, to play on it?

"I don't know Neil all that well. I've met him a couple of times and he was very sweet and gracious. And I never even thought of asking him, to be honest. I was a little selfish in the drum department. I think at one time I asked Dave to play drums on one song and he was like, "Nope. I'm not playing drums on your album."

Well, it's an amazing intro.

"Thanks, man. That's some of the other influences, Mahavishnu and Brand X - you know, Phil Collins' Coattail Riders band. I like that stuff. It turns into a pop song, but it was meant to be shocking."

Speaking of pop, I know you're a big Dennis Wilson fan, and several years ago you sang on -

"The lost track."

That's right, a song called Holy Man. What was that like?

"It was scary. People hold him in a legendary high regard - he's sort of that other unspoken brilliant guy from The Beach Boys. So I was a little nervous about it; I didn't know if it was such a great idea. But Gregg Jacobson, who was Dennis' co-writer, he was very hip for me to do it. He thought our voices were similar.

"I was nervous about it. Gregg had some poetry written. He's not necessarily a songwriter in the traditional sense. He would just write poetry, and then you'd kind of mathematically figure out how to make it work with the song. Carl [Wilson], long before he'd died, had done sort of a guide for the vocal. So I took little bits of that, I took a lot of the poetry that Gregg had written and I kind of spruced it up and added a few more words to connect all the dots and make it work. That's what it is.

"There's actually a version of it that's never been heard before, which is a shame. We'd sent all the tracks to Brian May and Roger Taylor. Brian put this amazing guitar solo on it and did all these lush, Queen-style background vocal harmonies on it. I have a copy of it - if I see you when we're in your area, I'll play it for you. It really is amazing. The record company didn't want to put it out because they thought it sounded 'too Queen.'"

"He was brute, man. He was better than everybody thought he was...I thought he played great" Hawkins on Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson

Oh my God.

"I think it's a travesty, but whatever. I can't pretend to understand the inner workings of A&R men and that kind of thing. Maybe they were right, maybe it is too Queen. But if you just look at it as a piece of music, it really is amazing."

I'd love to get your thoughts on Dennis Wilson as a drummer.

"He was brute, man. He was better than everybody thought he was. If you want to know what kind of drummer Dennis Wilson was, you have to buy the DVD of [The Beach Boys] at Knebworth in about 1980. He demolishes the drums! I thought he played great. He had style, kind of like Don Henley - not the greatest drummer in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but he has this stiff, '70s bar band style of drumming that gave The Eagles' music character."

Let's talk about your style. Now, you play with a French grip…

"What's 'French'?"

With your fingers on top.

"Yeah, I suppose so. I never thought about it, but I guess I do. [laughs] You're obviously a better drummer than me if you know that!"

Are there any aspects of your playing that you'd like to improve upon?

"Yeah…everything! But I think I'm too old to change. I'm not that old, but I think you learn 90 percent of what you're going to be able to do in your first ten years of playing. Everything else is such baby steps. You know, I wish I had perfect time, and I don't. I'm a spaz and I speed things up. I get excited by the music and I take off."

But that's style, that's groove!

"That's rock 'n' roll, that's feel, and I get that. You know, I wish I could play like Jeff Porcaro, and I can't - I know that. There's lots of things I wish I could do. I wish I could play double bass, but I can't. I've tried, and I just can't do it. I've sat there with double pedals for months - if you don't grow up playing that way, then you don't. And I wish I could play traditional grip, so I could look like Stewart Copeland."

Whom I know you admire.

"He's one of my biggest influences. And he just beats the hell out of the snare drum."

Lastly, let's talk about the next Foo Fighters record. Butch Vig is producing. I've heard Dave Grohl say it's going to be the heaviest record yet. Are you excited? What are your thoughts?

"I don't know if it's going to be the heaviest record. I guess he means by virtue of it being a hard rock record. I was in the studio with Dave last night and we're just barely scratching the surface of what it's going to be. It's a long process. We do a lot of demoing, a lot of rearranging and all that stuff to get the songs where we want them - and Dave wants them, more importantly.

"I'm excited about it. I think this batch of songs that Dave has are awesome. And it does look like it's going to be more of a straight-ahead rock record as opposed to the last couple of records which had some acoustic embellishments and mellower moments. Which is great - I enjoy doing that. I love the dynamics of those records. But I also enjoy the idea of us doing an 11-song rock record, almost like an AC/DC record. It's going to be great."

Liked this? Now check out Dave Grohl's drum setup revealed: Them Crooked Vultures

Buy Taylor Hawkins And The Coattail Riders' Red Light Fever here: HMV, Amazon

Connect with MusicRadar: via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube

Get MusicRadar straight to your inbox: Sign up for the free weekly newsletter

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.