“It continues to be bittersweet. Part of me is like, 'I wish there wasn’t a reason for me to be the drummer in the Foo Fighters.’” Josh Freese on getting the call from Dave Grohl to take over from Taylor Hawkins

Josh Freese
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Josh Freese is one of the most talked-about drummers of the last few years. In 2022, he – alongside an all-star cast of musicians – sat in with Foo Fighters at the Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concerts, paying their respects to the late drummer through two emotional, marathon sets.

By May 2023, Foo Fighters revealed that the band not only intended to continue, but had tracked a full album as well as announcing tour dates that summer. Rumours circulated naming potential candidates to fill the drum stool, with Josh Freese’s name a constant frontrunner, and the band finally unveiled Freese as their new sticksman during a streamed performance, Preparing Music for Concerts. 

Now, Freese has sat down with Rick Beato for an in-depth, 90-minute conversation which you can watch below, with topics spanning Freese’s early days as drummer, meeting world-class session players at a young age, his incredibly prolific session career, and landing one of the biggest gigs on the planet.

Josh Freese: Getting the call from Dave Grohl to join Foo Fighters

Straight out of the gate, Beato addresses the fact that Freese has stepped into the position left vacant by his friend, Taylor Hawkins, with Freese admitting that part of him “Wishes there wasn’t a reason for me to be the drummer in the Foo Fighters” describing getting the call from Grohl asking him to be his new drummer as “like being socked in the stomach.”

"It continues to be bittersweet, in the way that part of me wants to say 'I wish I wasn't there at all.' You know? Like, 'I wish there wasn't a reason for me to be the drummer in the Foo Fighters…

“I think that my coming into the band wasn’t something that I wasn’t planning on by any means, even after Taylor’s passing. The first thing I thought was ‘How are these guys going to move on from this?’. Taylor was such an important component to that band, on and off stage. 

He wasn’t just a drummer, he was such a big personality…I wasn’t talking to those guys at that time, just letting everyone have their space. I couldn’t imagine what was going on in that camp, and really, my heart just went out to all of them.

“That summer when they were putting those tribute shows together, I was really happy to be a part of it. To be there with a bunch of fellow drummers, fellow musicians who were all really close buddies of Taylor’s…it felt therapeutic to be able to be around other people who knew him very well. That part was healing in a lot of ways, at least for me…it was special.

“On my childrens’ lives - I had zero plans of being called to be the drummer. Everyone and their mother, my neighbour walking the dog, ‘Hey Josh! Foo Fighters call you yet?’, other drummers, Reddit forums, and I’m going ‘I don’t even know if they’re going to continue on.’

"I didn’t ask them that question…I wasn’t going to be another guy coming at Dave going ‘So, dude, if you need a drummer I’m around, just saying.’ I was busy enough and making a good enough living already that I wasn’t freaked out about it. I wasn’t going ‘God, I hope they call.’ More like, whatever happens is going to happen, and that’s how I like to roll, right?

"Months went on after that LA performance…right before Christmas 2022 I got a missed call from him. I was on a walk with my wife and some of our dogs. I go ‘Oh, Dave just tried calling me 20 minutes ago.’ My wife’s like ‘I know why he’s calling you!’

"I swear to god, that’s not why I thought he was calling. I called him back and we small-talked about Christmas and our kids…just silly small talk, family stuff. I said ‘Hey, did you go record?’ and he goes ‘Yeah, we recorded a bunch of stuff, I played drums, I’m really happy with the way it sounds. We had the drummer talk, and we want you to be the guy.’

“It felt like someone socked me in the stomach. I didn’t go ‘Wow! Yippee, this is so cool!’ I didn’t get excited like that, it was almost more like getting the wind knocked out of me. I was like ‘My god, here we go.’ Because I knew…what do I say, ‘No’?

“It couldn’t have gone down any other way after being asked. Being asked by someone who I’ve respected forever, not just as a songwriter and a singer-guitarist, but as a drummer first and foremost for me. Dave is such a bad motherfucker, man.”

But, as well as talking about his new gig, Josh Freese has a wealth of experience with bands ranging from punk and hardcore heroes to pop megastars and rock royalty from which to draw anecdotes. Here are five other highlights of Beato’s interview.

Replacing other drummers' takes can and does get awkward

There was an urban legend in drummer circles during the early '00s that if you risked taking a bathroom break during a recording session, you could find that your drum tracks had been replaced by Freese by the time you got back. Freese (admitting that he himself has been replaced on songs), addressed the subject of being hired to correct and replace other drummers' parts on record, revealing that it could sometimes get awkward. 

“I’m not going to mention the name of the band, but it was a famous band. They’d made a record, and there was one song that they were just not happy with. I knew the guys in the band, I knew the drummer. Not well, but I knew him. My buddy, the singer - I’m laughing, not that it’s funny, but it’s just one of these… – he goes ‘Hey, can you show up at the studio on Saturday?’

“I’m about 10 minutes away and I get a text, ‘Where are you?’, and I’m like ‘Five minutes away!’. He goes ‘Go to Starbucks and hang tight. We’ve been mixing for two weeks and the drummer hasn’t been by the studio once and he just randomly stopped by on his way out of town.’ 

“Drum Doctors, my cartage company were pushing these road cases in the back of the studio that say my name all over them. The drummer saw and goes ‘What’s going on in here?” and they told him ‘Oh, Josh Freese is playing drums’, ‘I’m like, Oh, man!’. So I’m sitting in the coffee shop going ‘Oh, god. What’s going to happen?’

“There’s been situations before where the drummer will be like ‘Fucking Josh, man’. I’m like, ‘Don’t get mad at me, get mad at your producer or your singer. I didn’t decide that they want me to play on this, they decided. If it’s not me, it’s going to be somebody else because they decided they have to do something to get this track to where they want it.

There was another time at Henson about 25 years ago, I’m recording with the band and as I’m playing I see through the glass into the control room. I didn’t know anyone in the band, I knew the producer, but I see a guy I didn’t recognise come into the control room, all tattoos and looked like he was in a rock band. Then I see the body language and I’m thinking ‘Oh, god. What’s happening in there.’ I finish playing and [mimes the talkback] ‘Yeah man, give us a minute.’ The drummer showed up.

I’ve been replaced in the studio, and it hurt. It doesn’t feel good, you go home and go ‘I’m doing it all wrong, my career is over, I suck and everyone hates me.’ No. I’ve worked with great musicians who have gone into play on something and even to my own ear I’ll go ‘That just didn’t feel right’. Doesn’t mean this guy’s not a fantastic guitar player, it’s just not working for that particular track.”

He once tracked a song using his fingers on an upside down snare drum

From his work with a Perfect Circle, to Evanesence, The Vandals, Nine Inch Nails and more, Josh Freese is known for being a hard-hitting rock machine. But that doesn't mean that he can't be subtle. Here, he recounts how important dynamics and lighter playing are to him. 

"It’s funny because I get hired so often – more so a couple of years back – ‘If you want the heavy-hitting alternative rock drummer, you’ve gotta hire Josh Freese’, right? And it would bum me out because I like playing soft, quiet, sensitive things. 

"I think I like the extremes, I like stuff that’s hardcore and intense, I like stuff that’s really light and beautiful. Then the lukewarm part is just lukewarm…

"Slow and quiet is way more difficult than hard and fast, any day of the week. So for me that’s always a little more interesting. Being a songwriter myself and a fan of songwriters, I love getting a chance to do that stuff. 

"I love the stuff I recorded with Ron Sexsmith, the album is called Long Player Late Bloomer and it’s beautiful. One of the songs, I remember we flipped the snare over and it’s almost like a train beat. I was playing on the bottom of the snare, but because the head’s so thin and just the way the mics were and the amount of compression in the room, I played it with my fingers, I’m not even using sticks.

"The track sounds so good to me, I’m just as proud, if not more proud of a track like that, as I am some hardcore track that really sounds like it took a lot to do. That [dynamic] stuff takes more. It’s like walking a tightrope, it’s just so delicate. The delicate, naked stuff for me, is really challenging in a good way."  

Josh Freese appealed to Sting not to mess with Stewart Copeland’s drum parts on Message in a Bottle

As one of the most widely hired session drummers of the last three decades, Freese knows a bit about drum parts: what's important, what isn't, and what you absolutely must include when you're playing the canon of the biggest-selling artists on the planet. 

During his first rehearsals with Sting, Freese went out to bat for Copeland's drum part on Message in a Bottle, even if it meant disagreeing with Sting 24 hours into his new gig. 

“There’s certain things that you’ve gotta hit, certain marks or figures. And then there’s certain things where I’ll inject my own style into something, I’m not playing every fill like it is on the record.

"I’ll never forget, this one thing in particular. We were playing Message in a Bottle, during the ‘I hope that someone gets my…’  and I’m playing the tom thing. We finish it and Sting goes, ‘Can you not do that tom thing?’. I’m like, ‘Dude. I know that I’m the new guy and I’ve only known you for 24 hours, but I have to play that tom thing.’

"I’ve air-drummed that on my steering wheel since I was 16, as has every other drummer or maybe even non-drummer. It’s just so cool. He’s like, ‘Well, I don’t know…’ Then I go up to him later that day and I go ‘I really want to play that tom thing on Message in a Bottle.’

"I think he appreciated sometimes that I was still thinking about it, that I would care at all rather than like, ‘Ok, I don’t have to play the tom thing. Who cares!’. I felt strongly about it, it’s an important part of the song and it’s going to be sacrilegious to not hit it. It felt like I wouldn’t be doing it justice, it would be a crime to not play it."

That said, judging on live performances, it seems that Sting ultimately made the decision.

Dave Grohl and Josh Freese asked Pat Smear’s permission to use two bass drums, and one of them is 23-inches

During the London Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concerts, Josh Freese wowed millions of viewers with his rock solid playing, and effortless navigation of Van Halen's Hot For Teacher (alongside Wolfgang Van Halen, Justin Hawkins and Dave Grohl), complete with the famous double kick intro and groove.

Fast-forward to his debut with Foo Fighters and one of the first things drummers noticed was the dual-bass drum kit. It's an irrelevant detail to many fans, but one that ushers Freese in with his own identity. However the drummer was initially hesitant to suggest using two bass drums, until his new boss read his mind, but Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear got the final say.

“When we were in rehearsals, I was busting out some double pedal stuff, and Dave was like ‘That’s awesome, I love that double bass thing you’re doing!’. I said ‘Really? I was just kind of messing around.’ and he’s like ‘Do it, do it!’.

It’s so crazy, I showed up one day to rehearsal and we were on the exact same page. I’d thought a day or two before ‘Am I going to have the same setup I always have? Do I dare have two kick drums, is that totally ridiculous?’

I show up to rehearsal and Dave’s like ‘I was thinking about it man, you should just go for it and have two kick drums.’ I’m like ‘No way! I was thinking the exact same thing, I thought you’d never go for it! We ran it past Pat. Pat Smear is like the punk rock elder statesman, if it’s cool with Pat then it’s cool. Pat was like ‘Oh yeah, double kick all the way!’.

My main kick drum is a 23”. DW started making 23-inch kicks a couple of years ago, and I’ve got two or three of them, I really like them. A joke I have with a friend of mine, my old drum tech is ‘I like it because, it’s a little bit bigger than a 22”, but it’s not quite a 24” - it’s a 23”!”

He still gets surprised hearing himself sometimes

It's a well-known story that Josh Freese once forgot that he played on an Avril Lavigne record, but when you've clocked-up circa 500 recording credits, you're bound to let a few slip your mind.

“There’s lots of stories like that, one of my favourite ones I’ll never forget. I was having lunch with my mum about 7 or 8 years ago. I’m in this restaurant, and there’s music playing. Some song…I call a certain style of music NASCAR Rock, you know? Real middle of the road, vanilla, not that interesting…

I’m listening to it and rolling my eyes thinking ‘God, I’ve played on so much crap like this.’ I didn’t recognise the song, then it gets to the chorus and I’m like, ‘Oh! This is me, I know this song!’. So that’s definitely happened more than once.”

Stuart Williams

I'm a freelance member of the MusicRadar team, specialising in drum news, interviews and reviews. I formerly edited Rhythm and Total Guitar here in the UK and have been playing drums for more than 25 years (my arms are very tired). When I'm not working on the site, I can be found on my electronic kit at home, or gigging and depping in function bands and the odd original project.