Chris Shiflett is best known for playing guitar in Foo Fighters. However, he has far more under his belt than that. He has carved out a pretty good career apart from Foo Fighters with three albums (two with The Dead Peasants), and another one entitled Hard Lessons, which is due out soon. By phone, he discussed working with Dave Cobb, performing at the Grand Ole Opry, and his podcast Walking the Floor.
AH: You worked with Dave Cobb on this album. What’s the best thing about working with him? What does he bring to an album?
CS: He brings so much. He’s a great producer. I’ve never really worked with a producer on my solo stuff before. It’s great to have someone who you trust. Having him be the guy in the studio to bounce ideas off and to have help me make the arrangements of my songs better was just incredible. He moves so fast when you’re in the studio with him. You play him your song and then it’s off to the races. You always wind up leaving with something very different than you came in with, which is great. It’s better, stronger.
AH: How do you compare the new album to previous albums you’ve done?
CS: This one is more reflective of all the influences that I’ve grown up listening to. It’s a little more rock and roll, louder, crunchier guitars, that sort of thing.
AH: What was your experience playing the Grand Ole Opry?
CS: I was really nervous. We booked it a couple months in advance. It was just sort of out there on the horizon. Every time I’d think about it, I’d go, “Oh f—!” I was excited to do it, but scared. I went in there playing with the house band, a bunch of people I’ve never played with before. That’s not the world that I came up in. I was definitely out of my element. I was really put at ease from the moment we drove up to the back gate. The security guard at the back gate was like, “Welcome to the Opry. Congratulations on making your debut.” How did he know that? Then we drove in and went to check in. The guy at the counter was like, “Congratulations on making your debut.” Everybody I encountered was so welcoming and friendly and nice. The whole thing was an amazing experience.
AH: When you walk into the building and onto the stage, what’s the feeling like?
CS: I’d never even been there, so I didn’t know what to expect. The room was so much bigger than I imagined it. It holds I think 4,500 people. It’s pretty big. The stage is huge. Not only is the stage huge, but they put you way out front, and the band is tucked way behind you. You’re not really close to anyone else that’s playing. You’re really exposed. When I play my solo shows, I like to have my band real tight and close around me. I want to be able to feel the drums. When I first walked out on the stage I thought, “This is so scary.” There’s the mental side of things. They took the stage out of the Ryman and took the middle part of it to where the Opry is now. You’re on the same piece of wood that Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams stood on. You’ve got that mic stand in front of you with the WSM logo. It feels like you’re stepping into this historical thing. I really had to put all that out of my head and just tell myself, “Go out there and sing your songs. Don’t think about it.”
You walk into some rooms like The Troubadour and there’s a distinct feel even if you can’t describe it.
The Opry has that for sure. You definitely don’t want to be the guy that goes out there and flubs while the ghost of Hank Williams is watching and shaking his head.
AH: In the Hayes Carll episode of your podcast, you talked about the sluggish periods of creativity. How do you fight through those times?
CS: For me the best way when you’re feeling uninspired is to pick up your guitar and play through it. Force yourself to write some BS in your notebook. That’s what has worked the best for me. When you’re feeling uninspired and not playing, you never pull out of that. You have to work at it. Just having a guitar in your hands and noodling around on it. I’ll be sitting there watching soccer highlights on TV at night. I’ll have my guitar sitting there. I pick it up and start noodling around on it. All of a sudden, I’m picking a little thing. I grab my phone and record it and tell myself I’ve got a little part there. That’s how it works for me.
AH: It’s pretty interesting how the phone has changed how people make music.
CS: I don’t know that it’s changed it so much. It’s just become the tape recorder. You’ve got your Music Memo app, and that has taken the place of having a handheld tape recorder. It’s like a podcast. A podcast is just talk radio. It’s just a slight technological variation of it. My podcast is just a talk show that you listen to in a different way.
AH: It seemed like a really easy conversation you had with Hayes Carll even though it went on for more than an hour.
CS: I wanted to interview Hayes since I started the podcast in 2013. I went in there with a lot of questions. Normally I try to keep it around 45 minutes or so. I had just been wanting to talk to him for so long, I definitely drew that one out.
It didn’t seem like more than an hour. That’s due in part to the format and in part because you asked good questions and he was a willing conversationalist.
He was a willing conversationalist. That’s the whole thing right there. It’s really hard to interview people when they don’t want to be there. It takes two. I’m sure I’ve been a dick in interviews over the years. Sometimes you’re in a bad mood, and you just have to do the work anyway.
AH: Who do you have lined up for the podcast in the near future?
CS: Quaker City Nighthawks is coming soon. I have a bunch of people scheduled. It’s been a little rough because I’ve been gone so much that I don’t have a lot in the can right now. I’m going to interview The Lumineers next week. I might be interviewing Ted Nugent.
AH: How does your approach to performing change between Foo Fighters shows and solo shows?
CS: It’s very different because I’m not singing much with Foo Fighters, just the odd backup vocal here and there. That’s the biggest difference. It’s such a different thing to be the singer on tour. On my solo tours, every time I have a little tickle in my throat, I panic. I spend my whole time worrying that I’m going to lose my voice. I’m kind of a shitty singer, truth be told. I don’t really sing right. As far as going up and playing live, it’s a very different thing to be in the middle of the stage with the microphone. It’s really important to connect to each crowd on each night. I want that to be real and sincere. I don’t want it to be too canned and plan what I’m going to say. But I still need to get out there and connect to people. I think about that while we’re playing.
AH: That has to be difficult when a crowd doesn’t feel very receptive.
CS: It’s an interesting thing. Any crowd – if they’re standing in front of you and watching you play – they’re rooting for you. They want to have fun. They’re not against you. When you’re onstage, it’s a very insecure feeling. You can misread a crowd really easy. There have been so many times where I thought, “These people hate me. They’re not buying this.” Then you get offstage and you’ll have your biggest merch night. Everybody in the club wants to take a selfie and tell you what a great time they had. I am constantly battling that.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
CS: I have no idea. It’s really the only thing I ever wanted to do. Not too long ago I was looking through my sixth grade yearbook. I had written in there that I wanted to grow up to be a pilot. I honestly have no recollection of that. I’m quite sure I would not have wound up being a pilot. I don’t know what I would have done. I never wanted to do anything else.
Hard Lessons (East Beach Records & Tapes/Thirty Tigers) will be available everywhere on June 14. Visit his website (http://www.chrisshiflettmusic.com/) to order your copy and check his tour dates.