Back & Forth:
With a Cali Punk Pedigree and a Longstanding Gig as Foo Fighters’ Lead Guitarist, Chris Shiflett is Now Being Hailed as a Rising Country Rocker
For nearly 20 years, Chris Shiflett of the Foo Fighters has reigned as one of the last gun-slinging lead guitarists standing in mainstream rock.
As a West Coast punk veteran of such bands as No Use For a Name and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, he belongs to another impressive lineage as a country-leaning solo artist. Like John Doe, Mike Ness, Greg Graffin, the guys from Camper Van Beethoven and numerous others, Shiflett took a liking over time to telling three-minute stories that owe more to Johnny Cash than Darby Crash.
Shiflett’s county, roots and Americana appreciation goes beyond 2017 solo album West Coast Town. His unquenchable curiosity about the nearby sounds of Bakersfield and Laurel Canyon also comes across on his podcast, Walking the Floor. Through interviews with everyone from lesser-known country and folk upstarts (Lillie Mae, Joshua Hedley, Charlie Crockett) to superstars ranging from Brad Paisley to Cindy Wilson of the B-52s, he introduces his rock and country audiences to the storytellers behind a wide range of genres.
Stomp and Stammer recently chatted with Shiflett about anti-hometown angst, touring in a van and how a punk rocker learned to love country music.
Just listening to your album West Coast Town, I can’t help but think about how some of us developed this angsty view of our city or county that nobody from outside those places would find rational. Even though it’s writing what you know by looking at Santa Barbara and that area, it feels like a very universally-themed album for the reasons I just described.
Right on, that’s nice to hear. I mean, it’s an interesting thing with songwriting, and I had somebody comment on this years ago. The more specific you are, somehow the more relatable it is.
As you’ve grown up, has your perspective on your home town changed?
Oh yeah, quite a bit. When I was growing up, I thought Santa Barbara was the lamest little town without much going on. All I wanted to do was leave.
What’s funny is I grew up in Northwest Georgia, and every year as a teenager someone I knew would hatch a plan to move off to California as if that would solve their problems. Here you are singing songs with a similar slant, but as someone from California.
The grass is always greener, right?
What’s it like to go back to touring in a van, considering that’s probably never required for your main gig.
It’s something I’ve always gone back to, even through all the years of Foo Fighters stuff and touring that way. On the breaks, I always go off and do little club tours, little band tours. It’s never something I’ve gotten that far away from. But it’s fun. You see the country differently when you’re in a van and you’re taking shifts driving. You’re more engaged in the travel part of it.
Is there a difference in perception between when you were a young punk rocker who had to travel in a van and your current situation where it’s a choice?
My life is so different now and the way I live is so different now from those days that the dynamics are very different. We’re on the road at 7 in the morning and on top of it. It’s the more responsible version of a van tour, I’ll put it that way.
I had a similar conversation with Brent Cobb recently. He goes from opening for Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton in hockey arenas and amphitheaters to playing the same clubs on solo tours as my buddies in garage bands. You’re probably on a similar venue-size roller coaster.
Big time. This run of tour dates sort of came together in a really peculiar way. I was planning a solo acoustic tour with Elizabeth Cook and Kendall Marvel. We were starting to map those dates out, and then Blackberry Smoke offered me a couple of weeks of dates with them. I couldn’t turn them down, and I knew that I couldn’t go do that solo acoustic. I had to have a band with me. So I took that tour, and then they offered me another week of shows that’s kind of in the middle of the stuff with Elizabeth and Kendall.
It has created this odd back-and-forth with two different routings overlapping. Some of it’s with full band, and some of it is just me with an acoustic guitar. The routing is crazy. Getting everybody from point A to point B is a little nuts, but they were two tours where I had to do it. I’m sure it’s going to be great.
How did you develop an interest in country and folk music? Is it something you grew up around, or did you discover it later as a record collector?
If you really want to trace it back, I think it begins with early Beatles and Rolling Stones records that were kind of an introduction to me to rockabilly. When Stray Cats came out, I loved that sound and I always loved rockabilly. Then somewhere in my late teens, I remember getting a Johnny Cash cassette tape of Sun Records stuff. That and Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits were probably the first things I listened to that were really country music.
I always kind of liked it, but I didn’t know what was what or who to listen to. It was really later on in my mid-20s when I was playing in No Use For a Name… The singer for No Use was into all the alt-country stuff of that era, like Son Volt, early Wilco records, Whiskeytown and that sort of stuff. I got into it more that way, and I kept on peeling it back. It’s an endless rabbit hole.
What can you tell me about the new album that’s coming out later this year?
It’s produced by Dave Cobb again, and it’s most of the same folks playing on it. It’s definitely more rocking and more guitar-driven than the last one. I recorded it last year between Foo Fighters tours. I’d dart out to Nashville for a week or so and work on it. I got it all done in the middle of our crazy touring schedule, and I’ve been getting ready to put it out and doing all the stuff that goes along with that. I can’t wait for it to be out there finally.
By more rocking, is it more bluesy like Chris Stapleton or more West Coast like Dwight Yoakam or maybe a little bit of both?
Kind of neither. Maybe a little bit more of the Stonesy side of my guitar playing. Before we started making the record, Cobb was like, “I hear you playing a Marshall on this record. That’s what the sound should be like. Play county music but with a big, blown-out Marshall.” That’s what we were aiming at.
Whenever you make a record, you know what it sounds like to you. You don’t know how anybody else is going to hear it. On my last record, it depended on people’s context. Rock people heard it as a country record. Country people heard it as a punk rock record. To me, it was neither, or maybe it was both at the same time. But this new record is definitely more rock ‘n’ roll.
We’ve still got a bunch of pedal steel and some twang on there, but there’s a lot of big guitar tones and ripping leads.
I’m really excited to go play it live. I’ve been playing my new songs a lot over the past six months or so acoustic. This’ll be the first run of dates where I’ll have a band that can do it more like the album sounds.
When you come up with a song idea, do you come up with lyrics or a guitar riff first, or does it depend on the song?
It really varies. It seems to me like the songs I write that are the best all come together in the same breath. A lot of times, I’ll have some chords and a melody that I’ll come up with, and maybe I’ll have words that I wrote down that are the jump-off point for something. Maybe I’ll have to shape them to the music.
Do you come up for riffs for Foo Fighters?
Nobody really writes in Foo Fighters except for Dave.
How did you become a podcast host? Was it just a good way to promote yourself while meeting cool people like Dave Cobb who’ve helped you in the long run?
Absolutely. That’s how I met Dave. I just called him after I interviewed him and said, “Hey man, I’m going to make a record. Will you produce it?” He was like, “Totally!”
I started it as a way to have a direct pipeline to people who listen to my music. Over the course of doing it, I’ve realized I really like doing the interviews. And like you said, how else am I going to get in a room and ask a bunch of questions of Merle Haggard or Jason Isbell or Dwight Yoakam or some of these cats?
Most guests are country artists, obviously, but you’ve had Manny Pacquiao, Ace Frehley and a bunch of people on, and that’s just two recent guests who weren’t country people. Is it important to you to diversify and not paint yourself in a corner, or are you just interviewing who’s interesting to you without a lot of thought to the show’s format?
I started it with the intent of keeping with interviewing musicians who are country, roots or Americana. But Ace Frehley is the reason I started playing guitar, so when the opportunity came up to interview him, I wasn’t going to pass that up.
What inspired you to interview Pacquiao?
I’m a huge boxing fan. Massive. I also interviewed Bob Arum a while ago and Freddie Roach and Robert Garcia, so I’ve interviewed a few different boxing folks. I figure anything that’s a passionate interest is going to be worth interviewing someone about.
I guess likewise, if you don’t care as much about something, you won’t want to do an interview. If you’re not a football fan, you won’t be contacting Peyton Manning.
I’d be out of my depth because I don’t know anything about it.
But I tell you what, when I started the podcast I was like, “Who can I get to?” I got to a handful of folks. Some of them I just cold-called. Some of them I knew. Some of them were friends of friends. It got to the point where we got to know all of the publicists and started to get pitched. Nowadays, a lot of the folks I interview aren’t people where I was necessarily familiar with their music until I interviewed them. That is actually one of the things that I enjoy about doing it. It keeps me turned on to new music all the time, and I get to meet these cool artists I might not have come across otherwise.