On June 14, Chris Shiflett — also known for his work as guitarist in the Foo Fighters — released his second solo album, Hard Lessons. Below, Shiflett discusses the differences between life in a band and life as a solo artist.
I never set out to be a solo artist. All things considered, I’d rather just be in a band. But bands are difficult. Bands have lots of conflicting schedules and priorities. Bands have egos that need considering. Bands have a funny way of falling apart. I should know — I’ve broken up a few. At a certain point, I decided I’d just stick my name on my records. They were always kind of solo records anyway, just made with friends.
I thought “going solo” would be easy. Silly me. All that shit listed above still happens, but now all fingers point at me. The curse of being a small-time artist without a big draw is that it’s hard to keep a line-up together.
Now, I realize that last line is going to annoy some people. “A small-time artist? You’re in the Foo Fighters and you have all the money and resources in the world!” This is a point of great confusion for people. You see, being in a successful band doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t mean I’ll be headlining the Forum anytime soon either. If you don’t believe me, come out to see me play to 27 people on a Tuesday night in Bozeman sometime. It’s fun, but it’s hard work, and not particularly glamorous — say hello to 13-hour van rides, shitty hotels and little clubs that treat you like a criminal for asking for water and towels. Fine for me, but understandably, not always for the guys I’ve toured with over the years.
Making records is different as a solo artist too; I kind of struggle with having too many choices. I think that’s why I’ve enjoyed working with Dave Cobb so much on my last couple records. He’s an infinite well of great ideas. Strong-willed ideas. Focused ideas. “You don’t need that third verse — you already said it better in the second!” He lets you know in no uncertain terms when something’s working and when it’s not. What words you can cut. What chords you can change. How the song would work better with a different groove, fresh ideas that you would never have come up with on your own. And I need that. The studio is confusing. After a few days in the studio it’s hard for me to visualize where my record is headed, hard to see it as a whole.
I remember the day I started recording West Coast Town with Cobb and his crew out at Nashville’s RCA Studio A. I was nervous, as I was working for the first time with a bunch of people I didn’t know — I’d always been a band guy — and these were a bunch of folks with impressive resumes, not the least of which was Dave’s. After meeting the rhythm section (Chris Powell and Adam Gardner), and exchanging introductions and niceties, Cobb asked, “What do you wanna start on?” I picked a tune (“Goodnight Little Rock”) and played them my demo.
Now, Dave had told me not to make demos, but, of course, I didn’t listen. It was exactly at the moment my little one-man-band home recording started playing that I realized why: Dave Cobb doesn’t listen to your demos! Reacting to hearing your songs for the first time is an important part of his process. All I could hear were the flaws — pitchy vocals, horrible drumming, sloppy everything — but they all nodded along politely. I was so embarrassed I don’t think I took a breath for the whole song. As it came to a close Cobb was off to the races, picking up an acoustic guitar and strumming out a rhythm pattern that we all played along to. After a brief discussion on the arrangement, we moved over to the gear, set up in that beautiful classic room, and jammed through it a couple times, working out the kinks. Cobb told the engineer, Matt Ross-Spang, to hit record and after a few takes we had it — no click, loose as hell, rocking. Right then and there I knew we were going to make a great record and I felt my nerves ease away. Pretty soon we were all laughing and goofing like old friends. It’s amazing how your confidence grows when things are working in the studio. I called my wife before we tracked the next tune. I had to brag to somebody about how good it sounded.
With that experience in mind, I wanted to get back out to Nashville sooner than later to make a follow-up. So after spending six months or so intensely writing in the middle of a Foo Fighter tour schedule — in hotel rooms, on airplanes, whenever I had a spare minute — I found myself back in Nashville at Studio A ready to go again. With almost the same crew of players (insert Brian Allen on bass) I was less nervous and more excited. I figured I’d learned a thing or two about the way Cobb makes records and had intentionally gone in less prepared. No sloppy home demos this time around, just quick acoustic run-throughs of the tunes. I needed to make sure I had the words, chords and melodies, but I figured the rest would get hammered out in the room.
It was more or less the same process: play the song, rip the song to pieces, put it back together stronger, track it, go look at vintage guitars at Carter for a couple hours, repeat. We got everything done in about a week and then I went back out on the road, planning to return in a couple months. It was nice to have a little time to work out tweaking lyrics around the new arrangements and woodshed some guitar parts. I’d written with a lot of different people (Aaron Raitiere, Kendell Marvel, Elizabeth Cook, Brian Whelan) for Hard Lessons and recorded with a bunch more. More than any other record I’ve ever made. It’s funny how solo records have become the most collaborative musical experiences for me now.
I recently found my little reference recordings from before we made Hard Lessons and listened to a couple tracks the other day. I’d forgotten how far these songs have traveled.