When a young Chris Shiflett dropped out of high school, music was the only thing he cared enough about to do well. Without a backup plan, he stuck to his guns and made good on his ambition, first as the guitarist for No Use for a Name in the late 90s, and then leapt into the big time as the lead guitarist for the Foo Fighters after the recording of There is Nothing Left to Lose. Even with the busy Foo Fighters schedule, he still made time to play in Jackson United and punk rock cover band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. In 2010, he finally got around to recording and releasing solo music, which arrived with a country-influenced twang but still carried some of the snarl of his other outlets.
His latest solo record, West Coast Town, features both uptempo stompers and some self-examining, dark night of the soul type material. He just finished a run of gigs showcasing the new album, which comes out April 14. It's streaming in full at Rolling Stone, so press play over there and check out our chat with Shiflett, in which we discuss developing his singing voice, why you don't play the hardest song you know at the guitar store, and the power he receives from wearing cowboy boots.
AllMusic: When you're writing these songs, do you sit down and say, "OK, it's time to write," or are you less structured?
Chris Shiflett: I always have little scraps of paper with lyrical ideas and things I think of along the way, and I keep a notebook with me most of the time. You have those moments where inspiration hits, but actually finishing a song and putting the pieces together, for me, it’s work, I have a studio back home and when I was writing this record, I was going there every day and grinding. For me, that’s what works, is when I get into that day in and day out sort of process of getting the songs together, and that breeds more and more ideas, and that’s where you get the good stuff.
AllMusic: When you're looking back at those scraps of paper, do they still make any sense?
Shiflett: Sometimes you go back through your notebook and say, “What the fuck was I talking about, what’s that?” It’s almost like somebody else wrote it. There was one song that’s the bonus song if you get it on iTunes, it’s called “Mrs. America,” and that song, I had all these scraps of paper, and I just took a bunch of separate scraps that I liked and I just put them all together, piecing the puzzle together, and it totally made sense, at least to me. I was like, “Whoa, that’s weird,” and they were all years apart, that I wrote little bits and pieces, and when it comes together and you rework it, it’s like, “Whoa, this actually means something.”
Famously, that’s what Bowie would do, he would write a bunch of lyrics and cut them up and throw them in the air and reassemble them all jumbled up, that was a process he used. I’m not sure which phase of his career he started doing that, maybe when he was in Berlin, but that is a technique that people use, just random word splatter. It wasn’t quite that random, but not far from it.
AllMusic: You're known primarily as a guitarist, but when did you develop your singing voice?
Shiflett: You might argue that I have not developed it yet. I like singing, I always wanted to be singing in a band, and I made some failed attempts at it in high school, but I was never really comfortable with it. It wasn’t until I started a band called Jackson United in the early 2000s that I figured, “Fuck it, I’m gonna sing and let my voice be what it is.” I feel way more comfortable singing now than I did back then. It was hard for me to get comfortable with because I was so far down the road of being a musician at that point, and felt really insecure about it. I knew I was pretty shitty, at the end of the day, and it’s hard when you’re known a bit for one thing to try to sidestep into something else that you’re really just not very good at, but that said, that’s half the thrill of doing these solo records and playing these shows, is just raking through that sort of mental hangup.
AllMusic: So now that you're comfortable singing, is there another challenge to check off your list?
Shiflett: Drums are definitely one of those back of my mind fantasy things, “I wish I was a drummer in a band!” I have to do that at some point. But the big one would be pedal steel. I own a pedal steel, and I won’t say I play pedal steel. I’ll be woodshedding on that thing for a long time before anybody sees me play it in public.
AllMusic: There's a certain amount of zen involved there.
Shiflett: That’s why all those guys are crazy, they’ve had to sit in their garage for 30 years and figure out how to do it.
AllMusic: The tone of the album is pretty varied; there's some pretty upbeat stuff, but also some real bummer moments. Is this music your main outlet for getting those bad feelings out?
Shiflett: I do go punch a heavy bag every chance I get, and that helps, but songwriting definitely is a kind of therapy, in a way. I made a decision a few years ago to approach songwriting differently, especially in the lyrics, and this is a key difference between a lot of country music and rock and roll, is that in country music, the lyrics are far more specific, they tell stories, almost like how Springsteen does, even though he’s not country. By and large, that’s one of the key differences, is in the lyrics.
For me to get comfortable doing that, I went on an exploration, I took a bunch of creative writing classes in my free time, I did a couple of songwriting workshops with a guy named Peter Case, who used to be in the Plimsouls, who I’m a huge fan of. Most of the writing I’ve done in the past three or four years was doing that, I took a bunch of creative writing classes, poetry classes, and I wanted to see if I could translate that into my songwriting, at least that’s what I was attempting to do with this batch of songs.
AllMusic: Were you always a guy who cared about lyrics?
Shiflett: Yeah, I think so. I was a huge Jawbreaker fan in the early 90s, and that was all about the lyrics. Their music was awesome, too, Blake’s lyrics were heartbreaking. You always find that when people write very specifically, that’s the stuff you connect to, even though you don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about half the time, or you can infer what they’re talking about. It’s not your experience, it’s not an experience you had, necessarily, but for whatever reason, that’s the shit that you connect with.
AllMusic: Do you go back and listen to those Jawbreaker records now with any different sort of understanding?
Shiflett: I never stopped listening to Jawbreaker, I love Jawbreaker, they’re one of my all time favorite bands, for sure. It’s funny, with lyrics, I remember the first time I went to England, all my Jam records made sense. I was like, “Oh, that’s what they were talking about! That’s what the Kinks were singing about! All right, I get it, Tesco’s! I’m in!”
AllMusic: The album ends on a positive note with the song "Still Better Days." Was it important to close with something optimistic?
Shiflett: It’s funny, my wife’s stepdad, I gave him a copy of the record, and he was like, “I have to tell you, man, your album’s a real downer. I was a little worried until I got to that last song.” I think it’s not my comfort zone to write happy, go-lucky songs about how great my life is, even though my life is great, I love my life, I have a great wife and three beautiful children, everything’s great. But that’s not the part of life that I’m really drawn to document or think about.
AllMusic: Why is that, does it feel cheesy?
Shiflett: I think those songs are much harder to write. “Baby, I love you, you’re the greatest, let’s hold hands and walk in the sun,” it’s just not in me. The last song on the record is me trying to write a love song, it’s a love song for my wife, is what that is.
AllMusic: Do you carry yourself differently when performing these songs, is there a certain swagger to them?
Shiflett: I don’t know, probably. Definitely if I have cowboy boots on, that changes your whole demeanor. That changes your posture in a funny way, you become a different person a little bit. It’s definitely a very different role, you have to be leading the charge. I’ll have to watch some footage of me playing live and have a think on that, I probably am different. You can’t really get away with hiding in the shadows off to the side when you’re singing the songs and it’s your thing.
AllMusic: With all the bands you've been in, how many songs do you think you could play off the top of your head?
Shiflett: Foo Fighters songs alone, there’s a million of them, and sometimes we’ll have these marathon rehearsals where Dave will just be calling out old songs and we hack our way through them, but you have to get through them. It’s funny how your hands will just remember what to do if you don’t overthink it. When you think too much about it, that’s when you start fucking up.
AllMusic: Do you play guitar every day?
Shiflett: Yeah, pretty much. I hate not having a guitar, I’ll bring one on vacation if I can get away with it, and if I’m on tour, I travel with a little travel guitar that I bring with me for the hotel room. I pretty much play all the time, I have guitars strewn all about my house in every room.
AllMusic: Is there something you always play first when you pick up a guitar?
Shiflett: I think the first thing I do when I pick up a guitar is I strum a G chord. I don’t know why, but that’s the chord, that’s the one. That’s the magic chord. And then depending on what I’ve been playing a lot, if I’m in a guitar store and I pick up an electric guitar, it’s always an Ace Frehley lick or something. That’s just where my hands go. A good friend of mine worked at a guitar store when I was growing up, and he taught me a good lesson. He said, “Everybody comes in and tries to play the hardest fucking thing they can think of, and that’s not what you should play when you’re testing out a guitar. Just hit a couple of chords, move around the neck a little bit, and take it easy. Make sure the intonation’s good, make sure it’s not fretting out anywhere, you don’t have to be such a hotshot.”
AllMusic: It's telling that in your free time, you choose to continue doing your job. That blur between career and hobby must make it feel like you picked the right direction all those years ago.
Shiflett: I didn’t realize it when I was a kid or when I was a teenager, but looking back, I was lucky that I always knew what I wanted to do, I just always knew. From the time that you start thinking about, “What am I going to do when I grow up,” when you’re a teenager, I always wanted to be a musician, I always wanted to be in a band, it was the only thing I ever cared about, and it’s lucky that I’ve been able to do it successfully, because I had no backup plan. I dropped out of high school and wasn’t good at anything and didn’t really care about anything besides this.
And it’s tough, because now I’m a dad, and I don’t want my kids doing that, I don’t want them to throw all their eggs in one basket and miss the experience that everybody else has academically and otherwise, but it worked out for me. So I’m conflicted about it, I don’t know that that’s the best way to be. I probably could have and should have done a lot of other stuff along the way that I just didn’t pay any attention to. I guess there’s something to be said for knowing what you want in life and passionately chasing it, but I wish I had paid a little more attention in math class and read a few books along the way, it would have been nice.