FOO FLYING WITH THE FLY FOOS
June 12, 2005
I feel like the winner of an MTV prize. Here is my itinerary:
Whisked by limousine from my home to an airport in Van Nuys, where I will meet the Foo Fighters. We board their Gulf Stream IV jet, which will take us to San Francisco to attend a concert there before flying to New York to participate in an MTV special event. Duration of adventure: thirty hours. Professional obligations: none (almost).
Now look at the itinerary of these young professionals who are my hosts. They just returned from a trip to Japan and Australia. Last night they played the Tonight Show. Tonight is the gig in San Francisco (for 12,000 fans). Within an hour of the last note of the show, they are airborne for New York. Arriving at 9:00 AM, pretty much sleepless, they get half an hour in their hotel rooms before going live in front of the cameras to host MTV for TWENTY-FOUR HOURS! The event is called “24 hours of Foo”. For them it will be fifty hours without sleep. For the last twenty-four of those hours, they will be holding the attention of worldwide MTV viewers, pretty much with only their charisma and what’s left of their vitality. A long day, even for soldiers like these guys.
But I’m whistling a happy tune as my car pulls up to the plane. Charter jets are not just about lavish leather lined luxury. The main deal is the pulling up to the plane part – dispensing completely with the airport terminal. Ten yards from car door to plane door.
Dave and Jordyn Grohl are the first Foo Fighters to arrive. As bandleader, Dave sets the example. But always one step ahead is the bands tour manager, the bear-like Gus Brandt, and his black clad assistant, Nick Flynn – who ushers me on board.
As the bandsters show up, we luxuriate in the rarefied atmosphere of Million Air. No shit, that’s what the charter company is called. Things wake up when Taylor and Alison Hawkins arrive. As in many bands, the drummer is the life of the party. As in many bands, Nate Mendel the bass player is the mysterious one. Chris Shiflett the guitar player, is already at the gig – he’s playing earlier in the day with his side project band. As an hors d’ouvre to the MTV marathon, Chris is playing two shows today, with two different bands! This rock star thing can sometimes look just like hard work.
For me it’s a vicarious thrill to ride along with this team. Back in the day, when this was my life, I didn’t enjoy it so much because even for a hardened pro, there is constant pre-show tension that dampens any day-of-show activity, no matter how exotic.
Flying up to Frisco is a breeze and soon we are arriving at the gig. It’s an all day radio station sponsored affair (kind of like the KROQ/Incubus thing) with bands playing all day and the Foos headlining.
As the van pulls into the back-stage enclosure, the huge stage is booming and the crowd is roaring. There is the usual horde of tattooed stage crew heaving gear around, and the scaffolding reaches right up to Rock Heaven.
The band zone is a cluster of trailer/dressing rooms like circled wagons. It is populated by a happy throng of strangely clad, unnaturally hued musos, and their (often weirder looking) friends. The Foos have many chums amongst the other bands and our arrival is greeted with fraternal warmth and intricate handshakes all round. The last person anyone expects to see trailing in the Foos’ wake, is me. But these are all muso types back here and I feel the love of my kind, even though they’re all strangers and I haven’t heard of a single other band on the bill.
There are two bands to go before show time so Taylor and I wander over to inspect his drums, which are set up on his riser back-stage. By now he has persuaded me to join them for one song during their set and so I had better check out his sticks and kit to see how dented my knuckles are going to get.
Every drum-set is different. Unlike guitars, which are pretty standard, drum sets are very personalized for the height, arm length and physical style of each drummer. Playing someone else’s kit isn’t like driving someone else’s car; it’s more like wearing someone else’s clothes. But you don’t just look funny; you dent your knuckles.
I’m kind of long armed; I sit back, on a high seat and flail most comfortably at distantly placed cymbals and drums. Since I play orthodox grip, my snare is tilted away from me. Matched grip players tilt the snare toward themselves. Taylor is a matched grip forward leaner, on a low stool.
But I hate to be precious about these things. I always respect the musicians who just plug-and-play so I try to shun public tweakage. I spend hours at home tweaking my kit but this is Taylor’s gig and the guy who’s name is on the ticket is the one who has to shine. So, despite my misgivings about how close his cymbals are, I declare the kit to be playable and we head back to the dressing room.
Pre-gig tension. Almost every performer of every kind suffers from it. Everyone in the dressing room is up beat but there is a shortness to the laughter and a distraction to the banter. Everyone is twanging their instruments, warming up their fingers. Dave is reminding them about recent adjustments to the arrangements. He has decided to start the set with the first song on their new CD, a song that they haven’t rehearsed or played live before, so now they run through the tune acoustically just to tune it up.
The lads have got it into their heads to play an old Police song called “Next to You”. It’s probably the most scorching Police track that they could have chosen. It was an epic even when I was twenty-four. I darkly suspect Taylor of thinking “Here’s one the old bastard can’t play any more.” But it turns out that he knows the words to this one and he’s going out to the front of the stage to sing it while I hit his drums. So we run this song down one time, with me clacking sticks on the table and them strangely able to play the whole song from memory. They remember it better than I do.
Gus gives them the nod, and it’s show time.
There is always an exited thrill in the wings as a band emerges from its trailer and mounts the stage. It’s dark but there is enough light for the players to plug in and find their spots. Actually, most bands these days don’t plug in with wires anymore. They have radio connection from axe to amp and they could play the show from the dressing room if they chose.
The band starts up with a mysterious wind of noise, Dave is shouting something and the crowd is roaring. The band kicks in, the lights flare up and the show is on. This band has the most gigantic array of backline speaker cabinets that I’ve ever seen. The amp stacks tower over the players, rising to at least twenty feet. It’s an iron curtain of sound. These stage speakers are very directional, so from the wings, the volume is not too extreme, but it’s kind of muffled. They run through their set briskly with hardly any gap between the songs. They keep the pace up and the crowd rages along with them.
Then I see Taylor jump off his riser and go downstage to the mic, and he’s looking over his shoulder at me. It is a mere three feet from the darkness of the wings to the blazing light of the stage and it’s now time for me to jump in.
Brat-un, Brat-un, Brat-un, Brat-un, Brat-un, Brat
da Dada Dada
Chug, chug, chug, chug…
My left knuckle slices the hi-hat on its way to the front tom. My right stick snags the ride cymbal on its way to the floor tom. I can hardly hear the band through the din of the house monitor system. The seat is so low that my right ankle is at an uncomfortable angle on the bass drum pedal. This all seemed comfy enough tapping around earlier back-stage, but now that there are twelve thousand people in front of me who have been revved up by an energetic band, larger gestures are required.
“Plug-and-play”, I mutter to myself as I shake off the adversities and put up as much of a fight as I can. I just have to unleash the hounds, even if they’re going to crash into things. At least I’ve been in training for my upcoming summer shows, so I’ve got enough juice to bluster through the song with enough energy to drive the band. I’m actually beginning to enjoy the show when suddenly we’re at the end of the tune. I’ve got four Foo Fighters staring at me with an urgent look that says, “Oh Sun God of the Immaculate Rock Valhalla, you idiot, WE’RE AT THE END OF THE SONG! So we hit the grand washing up and crunch to an orderly halt. Thank you very much! And I’m headed back to the dressing room. Well it wasn’t a performance worthy of legend, but if I worried about that, I wouldn’t ever play.
We get five minutes to yuck it up in the dressing room. The lads are bitching about the house monitors, but with post-show endorphins kicking in, they are laughing as they bitch. Of course they all tell me how great I was (what else are they going to say?) and I razz Taylor about his potential as a front man (I was actually too deep into my private Idaho to notice how he did on the mic). This is on the bus back to the plane; Gus has us moving pretty briskly along the itinerary. We’re on our way to New York.
On the Foo Jet, dinner is served as we rise out of the Bay Area and head East. The conversation among the band, as it ever has been among bands, is about other bands. You can tell how well things are going by the attitude towards the competition. The Foos talk mostly about bands they like; struggling bands gripe about bands they hate.
One by one the travellers peel out of the conversation to get some sleep. Problem is, there’s nowhere to peel off to. The seats are way luxury lined but they aren’t beds. The cabin goes dark and quiet. It’s one of those nights when you’re trying to get to sleep forever, and then you wake up and think great, I slept! But your watch reveals that only five minutes have passed.
Finally, I can see a grey light sneaking into the cabin from cracks in the shades. It’s dawn over New Jersey and we are going down. Everyone rises from our slumber party to nibble some breakfast as we taxi up to the vans. By the time we get to Manhattan the sun is blazing and it’s rush hour.
The Mandarin Something hotel is a supercalifrajelistically deluxe wedge of skyscraper that is poised like an axe over Central Park. Gus has put me in a corner suite with living room, dining room and bathroom complex. These fancy hotels can be ridiculous. In the bathroom suite, there is a coffee table book called “The Art of Shaving”. Call room service and a Vassar accented voice says “Thank you for calling In Room Dining, my name is Kimberly and I’m your dining communication liaison. How may I make your day special?” OK, I’m exaggerating a little but the obsequiousness does make you want to shout, “Fuck you Kimberly, send me some eggs!”
Still, it’s a pity that I only get to spend two and a half hours in this Xanadu. A few dark snarls would abbreviate Kimberly. There is a TV in every room and the view is terrific.
Two hours later, there is a soft ringing in my ear. It’s Kenneth, welcoming me to a Mandarin morning on the occasion of my 12:00 PM wake up call. Would I like breakfast, newspaper, a shoeshine, taxi or string quartet?
The Foos have already been on the job for a couple of hours when I get to the MTV studios on Times Square. Actually, they are down at street level in the MTV store, hamming it up for the cameras and throwing swag to “fans” from central casting. Actually, these are real MTV prize-winners.
And now for the reason they flew me all this way. Dave and Taylor and I are going to engage in a drum off with some street drummers. Out on the sidewalk are the local heroes and a cluster of Tupperware. They are already blasting, so us white boys sit down, grab sticks and pick up the groove. In a heartbeat, we are woven together in a tapestry of rhythm. The guys on my left and right are as culturally removed from me as Egyptian sailors but we are soon reaching into each other’s souls as we respond to the pulse. It’s a dialogue that’s clear and deep. Each of us is a spoke in a spinning wheel. We give and take. We support and challenge. We are one.
I know this sounds like hippy shit, but banging these plastic buckets on a grimy New York sidewalk really has got us all completely enthralled. My sticks are a blur and my heart is soaring with joy. Never mind the heat and sweat; all of my being is just a vehicle for this gift of rhythm.
Eventually, there is an MTV producer with headset and clipboard shouting, “We are CLEAR” which means that the eye of MTV has shifted to scan other horizons and we are off the air. This is only momentary for the Foos. They are immediately hustled off to the next location, with a brief backward “Yo!” to our new drummer dude brethren.
MTV is a fortress. We have the heavy heavy “Artist” laminate passes so we are rushed past the many layers of security by men with walkie-talkies. Trailing along is I, going, “fuck, Fuck, FUCK!” My hands are shredded. In all the time-honoured locations, the skin is shaved down to the pink.
The penalty is that from now until August, my hands will be the focus of constant and tedious attention. Working up the calluses is a careful process and this blows it completely. I won’t be able to look at a drumstick without strapping up with full armour plating, and the next few months are full of drums for me. Why didn’t I wear my FUCKING gloves!?
The cameras are on Chris and Nate now. They’re doing a barbeque on the roof. They officiate spring break type competitions while cooking burgers. It’s just like a real roof party, but with cameras and flinty eyed production crew prowling though the throng. The throng itself is curiously pleasing to the eye. The idea is that MTV throws the boys a twenty-four hour party and provides them with sets and toys. It is hoped that the boys will partake thereof and enjoy it all as photogenically as possible. Doesn’t sound like too much of a Dark Deal with the Devil, does it? Roll the cameras, let’s party!
Downstairs is a soundstage rigged for fun. As well as drums, amps and music toys, there is ping-pong, foosball, pinball, videos and all the very latest in indoor entertainment. A team of professionals has spent weeks dreaming up party tricks to keep the lads and their audience entertained. The coolness of it all hits me at the point where I’m goofing off with Taylor and he’s laughing about something, when I look over his shoulder and out the picture window to see him goofing off and laughing on a huge screen that covers the entire face of the opposite building. I give him a poke and he youches live around the world.
Just as this Midsummer Night’s Foo is getting started, it’s time for me to bail. Gus gives me the nod for my 7:00 PM flight back to LA. After tearful embraces with Chris, Dave, Taylor, Nate and Gus; Nick guides me through the layers down to the sidewalk. Just like that, I’m out of the band bubble and on the streets of New York City. Times Square, in fact.
But the limousine door is open and I’m on my way home.