Nate Mendel: Foo Fighter to Frontman
For their eighth studio album, Foo Fighters decided to shake things up a bit. Instead of setting up camp in a single studio for weeks or months, the band figured they’d take their songs on the road, getting inspired by historic music scenes, and recording each track in a different city. For Nate Mendel, this meant honing his instincts, writing commanding rock lines within demanding time constraints, and pushing the boundaries of his foundational role in a band that now includes three guitarists and a keyboard player.
But rather than simplifying his playing, Mendel ended up infusing more of his personality into last year’s Sonic Highways than anything he’d ever done. Guided by longtime producer Butch Vig, Mendel used his signature Fender Precision and Ashdown distortion pedal to build a gritty tone capable of going toe-to-toe with Dave Grohl’s speedy guitar work, matching the deep baritone playing of guitarist Pat Smear, and complementing drummer Taylor Hawkins in a way that makes it clear why Foo Fighters have dominated rock for the last 20 years.
As if that weren’t enough, Mendel decided in early 2015 to step into the spotlight by starting his own band, Lieutenant. His ten-song debut as a leader and songwriter, If I Kill This Thing We’re All Going to Eat For a Week [Dine Alone], conjures his old band, emo pioneers Sunny Day Real Estate, while revealing his penchant for melodic crooning and a laid-back sway on songs like “Belle Epoque” and “Believe the Squalor.”
As Mendel jumps back and forth between arenas with Foo Fighters and smaller venues with Lieutenant, the sideman-turned-frontman couldn’t be happier. Whether he’s cranking out rock anthems to a sea of fans or humbly doing his best to win crowds and hit vocal cues, 46-yearold Mendel is taking it full on and seeing where the road will lead him next.
How did the band decide to record each song in a different city?
Dave conceptualized the whole thing while we were doing the tour for the Sound Citydocumentary. We went out and did a bunch of shows with people in that film, and backstage, Dave had the idea of going all around the country, writing songs and recording them there. It was difficult to plan the logistics, but we cut it down to eight songs for our eighth album, and the idea just developed over the next few months.
Did this new process change the way you wrote your parts?
It was pretty much the same as anytime we get together and write and record: The structure is set before we go in. We’re not jamming these songs and writing them out; Dave has a pretty good idea of what he wants a song to sound like. There are some areas left for other members of the band to insert their personality and come up with moments that really add to the mix. When Dave is planning what each song is going to sound like, he’s not necessarily thinking about where the bass could help the song. That’s my job. I have my spaces to push the song along and give the bass prominence.
Did you try anything new on Sonic Highways?
I wasn’t overly experimental. It’s funny; a few times, Dave has brought us in and told us we were really gonna stretch out and get experimental, but he’s just an economical pop songwriter at heart, and it’s hard for him to do anything else. So that’s why we never put out a psychedelic Foo Fighters album. There isn’t a lot of space in our music for bass effects, so I like to try subtle things. I find out what works, and once I’ve defined what’s going on, I add stuff.
What was the biggest thing you took away from the sessions?
In this band, I’ve been methodical about writing lines—but because we were working quickly, it made me more confident than ever that I could come up with a part quickly. This process reaffirmed my ability to do that.
After all these years, how is working with Butch Vig?
It feels like home. Butch is such a master at what he does, and he knows exactly what I’m going for. Our engineer, James Brown, is also a bass player, so that helps me a lot. I look to him as much as I look to Butch for affirmations or ideas. I always look in his direction when I’m playing and he gives me a headshake or a head nod. But most important, we trust each other. We go back many years, and our relationship is very intuitive. We all know what the songs need, and it’s a very effective collaboration.
With three guitarists and a new keyboardist, is it hard to carve out space?
I do have my own space, right between the melody and the percussion. It is getting a bit more cluttered, and when the keys cover a deep frequency, either I won’t play or I’ll play something to counter it. Pat Smear has been playing a lot of baritone guitar lately, finding his space, and he’s diving down into my range a bit. We like to double each other’s parts to make the riffs more powerful.
What’s your idea of perfect tone?
I like a very classic bass sound with a bit of growl, and without the high-pitched, metallic attack. I like to think of my ideal tone as a piece of wood—I want it to sound solid and thick and dense. I keep it simple: no heavy effects, compression, or crossovers. If you find an amp that can handle a heavy attack without breaking up, which is fairly challenging, and if you add a little preamp to a bass that produces a solid tone, you’re pretty much there.
Do you play with a pick or with your fingers?
I play with a pick and sometimes I’ll switch to my fingers, but I’m not fully comfortable playing like that. Little pick-up notes and quick picking that ties in rhythmically with the drums—that’s what I go for. I don’t use a lot of heavy downstrokes, although we have sections that call for that. People who are well trained in picking give me a hard time for starting phrases with an upstroke. I don’t know why, but it works for me a lot of the time.
What do you like about playing with a pick?
Foo Fighters has loud guitars and loud drums, and there’s a lot going on, so using a pick gives me precision and clarity. It allows me to lock in with the drums to create something rhythmically sharp and round, rather than muddy. We play a lot of big venues, so playing with a pick spreads my sound farther. Having strong definition in the mids helps power that, too.
You seem to use minimal left-hand movement.
I try to use my pinkie as much as I can; it keeps me from moving my left hand so that I can stay in 1st position. I use my ring finger and my pointer finger to make long stretches, and that makes me play more comfortably and relaxed. It also helps me move up the neck faster and add different notes while giving me more flexibility.
What was the motivation behind your new project, Lieutenant?
I’m not sure if I’m going to get any better at playing bass, although I’m going to continue working at it. I know what I can do with that instrument, so I figured I’d play around a little with guitar and keyboards. I started writing ideas on instruments that I’m not as comfortable on, and all of a sudden I had a lot of different parts for songs, so I decided to keep developing them. It led to an album’s worth of ideas.
Did the writing process come easily?
Somewhat. I was trying to write things on guitar and I would get excited about an idea, so I’d start recording a verse-to-chorus concept, and then, while working on that, another guitar idea would pop in my head and I’d work on that. I ended up with a huge log of ideas. But I’ll never forget what Dave told me one time: “Riffs are easy, songs are hard.” I thought I had a bunch of great song ideas, but at that point, they were only riffs. The real challenge is to turn them into four-minute songs.
Did that process make you a better bassist?
I finally did learn a little theory through playing piano, so now there’s a bit less note-hunting on the bass. Knowing more about chord theory helps me write bass lines. When my contribution to a song isn’t coming just from the bass, it changes how I look at the bass parts. On this record, I approached it so much differently than how I would with the Foo Fighters. Usually, Dave brings in a song and I’m meant to just play bass on it. I’m playing only one instrument, and it’s an accompanying instrument, so I need to do everything I can to make that one instrument impactful. There’s almost more freedom to having the bass be just one component to my songwriting. It makes me reach even further.
How did you get Christian Wargo from Fleet Foxes to play bass in your touring band?
I like and respect Christian, so I went right to him when I first started Lieutenant. I’ve never been on the other end of working with a bass player, and he’s not really a rock bass player. His stuff is more held back than Foo Fighters—it’s more of a ’60s folk style of playing, like Crosby, Stills & Nash. He plays with his fingers, sings harmonies, and does the background thing. He told me he was down to do this but that I would have to have to show him how to play rock bass.
Do you approach a Lieutenant show differently than a Foo Fighters concert?
With the Lieutenant stuff, I’m not worried about the audience; I’m only worried about how we sound and how my vocals sound. At this point, the Foo Fighters know how to play together as a band, so it’s all about making each show great for the venue we’re playing and for our fans.
How do you prepare for the marathon-length Foo Fighters arena shows?
I don’t have a routine or anything like that. In fact, it’s the culture of our band to not be overly fussy in preparing for things. Dave says that the best way to prepare for a show is to be having a good time and be laughing before you walk out there. If you’re fussy and everything has to be perfect—lights like this, this amp here, everything the same every night—then you’re setting yourself up for failure. We’re playing a lot of longer shows, and it can be demanding to play for three hours. I’m just mindful to stay relaxed through it all.
What is it like being in a rhythm section with Taylor Hawkins?
That’s just what drums sound like to me; there’s Taylor, and everyone else is different. Ryan Goldsmith, Sunny Day’s and Foo Fighters’ first drummer, was much more collaborative. He wrote to match my playing, and we’d come up with rhythm section parts together. Taylor is very accustomed to guitar players, so he listens to Dave. That’s pretty much what he has in his monitors, so it’s my job to follow. To a bass player, that might not be the most ideal position to be in, but it’s what we do, and it works for us.
How did your time in Sunny Day Real Estate shape you as a bass player?
That’s where I learned how to play. It was the first time I toured professionally. It taught me what a practice was supposed to look like, what it was supposed to sound like, how long it should last, just stupid things like that. Those habits are with me to this day, even after doing Foo Fighters for 20 years. I still feel like rehearsals should sound like you’re in a basement, because that’s what I did in Sunny Day.
How has your playing evolved to this point of your career?
When I was younger, I had this naive enthusiasm about playing my instrument. I wanted to try everything possible on bass and play as many notes as I could. But over time, I’ve figured out that there’s so much magic in the space between the notes and in subtlety, so I’ve re-engineered my way of thinking. Now I have a more measured approach for note choices: when not to play, what type of sound fits the music best, and so on. There’s also the mental leap of going from “what can I do to make this song my own?” to “what can I do to make this song the best it can be?”
What advice would you give to another bass player?
Know what you want out of music. Is playing music in and of itself fulfilling, or do you want it to be your career? If you’re playing professionally, you’ll probably want to learn theory. But if you’re playing for fun, just start a band with your friends, focus, and work hard at it. Don’t let little impediments get in your way. It’s collaborative. Take other people’s ideas into account, even if you have to put your own ones aside sometimes. That’s how bands stumble and fail—when everybody fights to get their idea on top of the pile. Do what’s best for your band, and always do what’s best for the song.
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