By Max Stewart
Chris Shiflett is a self-described “Honky tonk and roll guitarist”, with feet firmly placed in both the Rock and Country music worlds (one foot wearing Vans, and the other foot wearing an ass-kickin’ cowboy boot, obviously). Sure, he is probably most well known as lead guitarist of the world-conquering Rock titans Foo Fighters, but he also hosts a podcast called “Walking the Floor” in which he has interviewed legendary Country and Americana acts such as the late Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Brad Paisley, and even Mike Ness of Social Distortion. And on April 14th, Chris Shiflett will release his Dave Cobb-produced Alt-Country album, West Coast Town.
Shiflett is no stranger to stepping into the spotlight as frontman having been the Singer / Guitarist of Punk band side-project Jackson United from 2003 – 2008. But his knack for leading the Honky-Tonk swing became clear after the release of 2010’s Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants and 2013’s All Hat and No Cattle (a nod to the heyday of twang with a batch of Classic Country covers of Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, amongst others).
Shiflett indicates in our conversation that his latest release West Coast Town is his most proud effort in terms of songwriting to date, and if the two first singles are any indication – “Sticks and Stones” and “West Coast Town” – I think there is no question that he is right (“Throw your bottles, sticks and stones. You’ve made it clear where I can go”).
Shiflett’s U.S. tour to promote West Coast Town kicked off this week in Portland (3/21), with dates that include Nashville (4/9), Atlanta (4/10), New York (4/6), Bozeman, MT (3/27), and Ketchum, ID (3/28). The shows feature opener Brian Whelan, who actually co-wrote four songs from West Coast Town. Check out a full list of dates here:
I got to catch up with Shiflett before he hit the road, where we talked about his new record West Coast Town, how he got into Country music, why Johnny Cash and Muhammad Ali are actually similar, and the steep learning curve to overcome when writing a Country song. Shiflett is the most level-headed and down-to-earth musician you could imagine, especially given the fact that he is in one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
Keep the honky-tonk-n-rollin’ dream alive and be sure to pre-order the album and look out for it on April 14th!
MS: First off, I am a big fan of the ‘Walking the Floor’ podcast. It has really helped bring me into the Country music world “through the back door” since by definition I am a Rock N’ Roll fan who has in the past few years really gotten into Country thanks to musicians like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, and I think your breadth of interviews have really furthered my understanding and appreciation of the genre.
What was your first introduction to Country music having grown up around the Southern California Punk scene? And at what point did you realize you wanted to put a podcast together that focused primarily on Country and Americana interview subjects?
CS: Well, you know, it was really a slow progression for me. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when I got into Country. I think probably like a lot of people I knew the obvious stuff when I was younger. I remember getting a Johnny Cash Sun Records cassette when I was about 18, and that was probably the first Country record that I owned by myself. You know, I grew listening to Rock, Classic Rock, Heavy Metal, Punk Rock, stuff like that. But there was something about those early Rockabilly recordings. Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and all that stuff. And Johnny Cash was obviously a part of that. And I have come to realize as I have gotten older and gotten to know music what an anomaly Johnny Cash truly was.
Even though he’s probably the most well known country music artist ever, he’s kind of like Muhammed Ali. When you watched Muhammad Ali, he was really fighting like nobody else he was like a freakish, heavyweight fighter. He had a style that nobody has ever really been able to recreate and nobody had done before. So yeah, I just kind of got into it over time, little by little.
Probably a big push in that direction was when I was in [punk band] No Use For A Name [from 1995 – 1999], the singer of that band Tony [Sly] was really into all the Alt-Country stuff that was going on like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, Whiskeytown, Old 97s, all that stuff. And that was all bubbling up. And that got me more into that sound. And you know, I am a huge Rolling Stones fan. And a lot of those bands sound more like the Stones than they sound like Buck Owens or something, but they have all of that in there. So.. it was just one of those things, kind of little by little, over time I just got more and more into. And you know how that goes when you get into something, I don’t know if you’re like me I want to know everything about an artist when I get into them and I want to own all of their records and figure it all out. And that’s just kind of how I was… and then I started my podcast a few years ago (2013).
There was a point I was down in Austin one night, watching a friends band called Heybale that has a long time residency at the Continental Club on Sunday nights. And Heybale are a bunch of AMAZING players, they are just incredible musicians and they do all old Honky-Tonk covers. Just a whole set, hours of Honky-Tonk covers. And I remember sitting in the room thinking ‘I love this music so much, but I don’t know how to play it’ (laughs). When I tried to play it, it just didn’t sound right. And it hit me that I had to form a Country cover band and just kind of live in that music for a while.
So I did that for a little while, and I wound up making a record of Country and Honky-Tonk covers (2013’s All Hat and No Cattle). When that record was coming out, one of the guys at the label suggested I put out a podcast to try and help promote it, which I did. And I pretty quickly learned that I really enjoyed doing the interviews and talking to other musicians that I look up to and am a fan of. And nowadays I have been doing it for so long, you can’t always get the interview with Dwight Yoakam or whatever. So I wind up talking to a lot of musicians that I don’t really even know their music, but I get to know their music by doing the interview and by doing a little research and finding out what they’re all about. That’s been a real education, too.
I think that’s really cool you have talked to some musicians that have been slugging it on the road for years and are still trying to break through. And those type of interviews are just as interesting from my perspective as someone who has had major success such as Steve Earle.
Yeah, I am really fascinated by the experience of younger musicians trying to make it now. It is so different from when I was 20-something first making records and first going on tour. The whole business has changed, the world has changed. I am just fascinated by their stories.
As it relates to the new record, West Coast Town, I am really enjoying what I have heard so far. “Sticks and Stones” has a great feel to it, almost an Old 97s or early Wilco vibe. It’s got that distorted rockabilly snarl to it.
Oh cool, yeah. Hey man, I’ll take it! (laughs).
Were there any major music inspirations that contributed to your writing for this new album in particular? Or anyone you may have been listening to more of when you were writing?
Really, to me, it is a mix of a lot of different things. It is equal parts Stonesy-Rock N’ Roll, Bakersfield sound Honky-Tonk, and Punk Rock. I don’t know if there was any one person or another that I was listening to when I was writing. I mean there probably was but that was last year and I am senile and I don’t remember (laughs). Yeah, but, I wrote and wrote and wrote for about 3 months straight leading into making that record. I am the type of person that isn’t the most disciplined musician in the world. If I don’t have a deadline, I tend to not really finish stuff like I should. I had ideas that had been sitting around for a little while. But once I booked the time with Dave Cobb I was like, ‘Fuck, I gotta get my songs together.’ (laughs)
And sitting down and really hammering those ideas out just lead to more ideas and I just wrote and wrote and it was great. It was a really good feeling to go into a recording session with a surplus of songs and not be really stressed. And to kind of have too have too many words, we were cutting shit out, and leaving stuff on the editing floor. That was a nice feeling going into it.
Sturgill Simpson said that working with Dave Cobb (who has also produced Shooter Jennings, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson) is a remarkable experience and Cobb would oftentimes purposefully evoke emotions, maybe get him riled up so that he could capture a certain feeling on a take. What was your experience like working with Cobb as a producer and were there any major takeaways?
Well since I never worked with Dave before and I didn’t really know him before I made the record, I had only interviewed him the one time [on ‘Walking the Floor’], I didn’t really know what to expect. But I was really blown away by his process, it is just so great and so fun, but he keeps it moving the whole time. He makes it so you never feel like you’re never stressed or working too hard, but you’re still getting a ton of shit done. I mean we made the whole record over the course of 3 weeks. Recorded and mixed, in the can, and over.
I don’t remember or at least I don’t know if he was manipulating me emotionally.. (laughs)
He could have been doing it and you didn’t know it!
Right, if he was, I didn’t catch on. Well, there was a point, it was pretty funny, like a week and half into making the record. He was kind of trying to get me to do something, I don’t even remember what it was, and I was kind of pushing back on the idea a little bit. And I forget what he said, but he kind of gave me shit about it (laughs). And that was the first time we had broken through the polite veneer of ‘We don’t really know each other’ kind of thing. And I remember I just laughed and said, ‘Oh shit, the gloves just came off. We just got real, alright let’s do it.’ But you want that sort of thing [from a producer].
He wants to make a good product and push you to make your best record.
Yeah, it was really great. I had never worked with a real producer on my solo stuff, so to have somebody like Dave that can just take your songs to another place and another level and make them better. I just can’t overstate how big of an impact he had on this record, it was amazing.
It comes through in all the other records he’s produced, so I am really looking forward to hearing the full album.
In terms of songwriting, Country songs at their core are driven by lyrics and storytelling (see “West Coast Town”) as opposed to Rock songs where oftentimes the riff and melody carries the song, did you find the process for writing the songs for this album was maybe more difficult than for a traditional Rock record like maybe with your band Jackson United?
Absolutely, and I am really glad that you touched on that. That was the hardest thing for me to adjust to and it took me a long time, and it is maybe why it took me a few years between albums to write a new album of original material because I struggled for a couple of years wrapping my head around writing lyrics that really told stories instead of just poetic, mumbo-jumbo which is what I really had always done in the past. Words that sounded nice together and maybe on some level meant something, but when you read them it’s just kind of vague.
But that is the defining difference between Country music and Rock music, I believe, is lyrically. And especially, nowadays, stylistically they are not really that different you know? Country, Pop, Rock, it’s all pretty closely related. But it’s the lyrics. I would have ideas or a theme of something that I wanted to say in the song. But once I broke through that discomfort and started to write like that, the ideas just started coming.
That is absolutely the thing I am probably most proud of for this record, I feel it has the best lyrics that I have ever written. When you make a record, there is always elements of it that makes you cringe a little bit (laughs). I just don’t feel any of those moments on this record. Maybe other people will, but I don’t.
Well that’s great. That segues nicely into another difference in Rock and Country style, as it relates to guitar playing. Sometimes in Rock, guitarists have the ability to lean on the distorted sound as opposed to Country which is a much more twangy, cleaner tone and the guitar parts are often more precise and crisp.
I know you have been playing Country guitar for a while with the Dead Peasants, but is it difficult to adjust your headspace from Rock to Country guitar both in the studio and live?
Yeah, it is but I mean have kind of wrapped my head around the single coil, twangy, a lot less gain thing. I really love that sound.
It took me awhile to get comfortable playing with that tone. And the Honky-Tonk lead guitar moves around the chords a lot more than you would with Rock N’ Roll, and that can be difficult. When it comes to recording leads, I kind of work them out, you know? I really seldom just press record and wing it. I mean there is something to say about that too, for sure. But you know, in a 3 minute pop song, I tend to work the lead part out. I want it to be an important part of the song. I think of myself as lead guitar player first, it’s a love of mine.
And it’s something that (laughs) went out of vogue when I started playing in bands that you would have ever heard of. So for my new record, it was important for me to put together some leads that I would really feel good about.
Well since you did the lead guitar parts, did you happen to incorporate any of the old school Nashville session guys on West Coast Town while recording in Nashville?
Yeah! Well, I had mostly new school Nashville session guys. So I had Chris Powell on Drums, and Adam Gardner on Bass. Those are guys that Dave Cobb uses a lot. And Dave Cobb was on Acoustic Guitar and I was on Electric Guitar. And that’s how we tracked basic tracks, for everything. No click track, just live in the room, all four of us, boom. Then we brought in a Keyboardist Michael Webb. A Singer named Kristen Rogers did all the harmony vocals on it, which was great. And then we had the classic Honky-Tonk element of the album was that Robby Turner came in and did all of the Pedal Steel guitar for the album (who has played with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Prine, Paul Simon). That guy has really deep roots in the country world, and was just a joy to work with.
Wow. Any of those players going to be joining you on the road or what is the plan for the band on the tour?
Unfortunately, I can’t afford to take those motherfuckers on the road (laughs). They’re expensive and I’m not popular (laughs). And they all live in Nashville, anyway. But, I have got some friends of mine from out here in L.A. that are going to come out and do the shows with me. We are touring as a tight little four-piece: two guitars, bass, and drums. And, yeah man, leaving Sunday to start the tour. Fingers crossed!
Well it should be a lot of fun. What can fans expect from the new tour? I know the tour itself will be before the album is released on April 14th but will be promoting the new album heavily. Should fans expect any tunes from 2010’s Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants or 2013’s All Hat and No Cattle?
Well, we’ll see. I think I am going to be throwing together pretty much the whole new record, and then throwing in some cover tunes on top of that. That’s how we’re starting it, and we’ll see as things move along how they go. You know, Atlanta is the last show, so who knows what we’ll be doing by then! But yeah, gotta throw some covers in there so people know some of the tunes.
Looking forward to it, good luck!
Right on, man. Thanks for having me!
West Coast Town (To Be Released April 14th on SideOneDummy Records)
- Sticks & Stones
- West Coast Town
- Goodnight Little Rock
- Room 102
- The Girl’s Already Gone
- Blow Out The Candles
- I’m Still Drunk
- Tonight’s Not Over
- Still Better Days
Chris Shiflett 2017 U.S. Tour
Mar 21: Hawthorne Lounge, Portland, OR
Mar 22: Sunset Tavern, Seattle, WA
Mar 24: The Big Dipper, Spokane, WA
Mar 26: Missoula Winery, Missoula, MT
Mar 27: The Eagles Ballroom, Bozeman, MT
Mar 28: Whiskey Jacques, Ketchum, ID
Mar 30: Pappy and Harriets Pioneertown Palace, Pioneertown, CA
Mar 31: Museum Club, Flagstaff, AZ
Apr 02: Resident, Los Angeles, CA
Apr 03: Casbah, San Diego, CA
Apr 06: Rockwood Music Hall, Stage New York, NY
Apr 09: The High Watt, Nashville, TN
Apr 10: Eddie’s Attic, Atlanta, GA
Apr 22: Fingerprint (Record Store Day), Long Beach, CA
May 27: BottleRock Festival, Napa, CA
Get tickets here: http://www.chrisshiflettmusic.com/shows/