As a guitarist in the biggest rock band in the world right now we'd understand if Foo Fighter Chris Shiflett kicked back between stadium tours with Grohl and Co. But he's long had another musical life as a country rock solo musician, and new album Lost At Sea proves just how good he is at it. As a songwriter and singer he continues to grow through his enthusiasm for collaborating with other musicians, and that's even more true of his guitar playing.
Whether he's holed up in Nashville with producer, musician and celebrated country songwriter Jaren Johnston working at Music Row's breakneck speed with session aces or interviewing fellow guitar heroes for his podcasts, 'Shifty' is always listening and learning – honing his craft. So we have an opportunity to learn from him too, while quizzing him on some of the gear choices in his solo career.
Jaren Johnston from the Cadillac Three worked closely with you on the new album, how did that come about?
"I met Jaren the week that Foo Fighters were in Nashville years ago, recording a song and Zac Brown studio for the Sonic Highways record and, and TV show. So that was the first time I ever spent more than like, a night in Nashville.
"I was wandering around, you know, trying to see the sights, and check it out and soak it up. And I went to a Dierks Bentley record release party, and Jaren was there. We met, swapped numbers or whatever. And we just stayed in touch over the years.
"Fast forward to a few years later, I interviewed him for my podcast, Walking The Floor. Obviously, I knew Jaren was from Cadillac Three, and I knew he was a songwriter, and a great singer and guitar player and all that kind of stuff. But I didn't know he was producing bands, maybe until around that time. So maybe that came up in that interview. I asked him around that time if he would get together and write a song with me, and we wrote a couple of songs. And then I asked him if he would produce some stuff for me, where I come out to Nashville and do some recording.
"At that time, I wasn't really thinking about making a record – I just wanted to record a couple songs. But I liked the way they came out so much that once we did it, I was like, 'Oh, we gotta make a whole record like this', with this group of folks and with Jaren at the helm. He's such a talented guy, and, and he's just a great producer, you know, so it was great to work with him on it."
What was it like for you to immerse yourself in that Nashville way of working – was it quite impactful?
"Yeah, in a lot of ways. When I made West Coast town, that was the first time I made a record out there. I hadn't written much with other people, just a handful of tunes, up to that point. So that trip was the first time I ever sat with some other songwriters and wrote some songs.
I always feel with my own songs, I sort of get them as far as I can get them and it's nice to have another perspective, to take them somewhere else I couldn't take them to
"I went out a few days ahead of making that record and wrote with Aaron Raitiere and a couple of other people. We didn't actually use any of those songs for that record, but I did use a couple of them for my next record [2019's Hard Lessons], but that kind of introduced me to that thing. There's that whole Nashville songwriting culture – Music Row – where you're writing with a couple of other people over the years, and also through my podcast, I've gotten to know a lot of songwriters and a lot of musicians out there. I've written a fair amount with folks out there, and it's great – I love that side of it. I always feel with my own songs, I sort of get them as far as I can get them and it's nice to have another perspective, to take them somewhere else I couldn't take them to.
"This new record was the first time I recorded on that sort of Nashville schedule. When you make records with Dave Cobb, it's not quite that thing. We're all sitting in the room playing together, but you're not doing that thing of like, we start at 10 and end at one – whatever the schedule is. And for this record, that is how we cut the basic tracks. Sometimes we would do double sessions. I think I went out there on one of the trips and we did two sessions in a row basically and you track five songs, or something like that.
"But it is remarkable, the talent level with the players out there, and you just get so much done in such a short amount of time. It's so different to how I came up making records. In rock 'n' roll, and in LA, which is probably where I'd worked the most, it's just a different tempo. A lot of sitting around thinking about things, what should we do – let's work on the tones, you know. And in that Nashville style it's just boom, you just get in there and you just get going. And it's fast. You're playing with a bunch of really great players. And for me, I'm always just trying to hold down my end of the room. And I'm not even really thinking much about what anybody else is doing. It always sounds a million times better than my shitty demo. So I'm always super excited because all of a sudden, you put these ideas in the hands of these great players and it becomes this collaborative thing. And I just love it."
Do you give the other players quite a free rein in the studio, and then kind of edit things later to your own tastes after you get different tracked options from them?
"I really deferred to Jaren with the folks that he hired for the band. Some of them I knew but he's worked with all of them frequently so they've got a rapport. He's in the control room giving advice to everybody about how to approach it, and making suggestions. I don't remember really telling anybody to do anything. But to be honest, it just sounded great. And you get a lot of different flavours tracking that way.
"We had three guitar players on the tracks including myself, so by the end of getting a song done, you've got a lot of different looks from the other guitar players in the room. With Charlie Worsham, he's playing acoustic guitar, he's playing mandolin and he's playing banjo – he's doing all this different stuff. So when it comes to mixing it, you can say, 'Let's drop that thing that Charlie did into the chorus, and let's do this other thing in the verse'. So there's a there's a lot of that kind thing – like a big, big puzzle."
Tom Bukovac features on a few songs and he's obviously a fantastic guitar player. Did he come in quite prepared after hearing the tracks beforehand or is he more instinctive?
"That's a good question because I don't know for that first session. He played on the first session I did, which was Dead And Gone, and Black Top White Lines and I don't know if everybody had been sent the demos before the session or not. I suspect they were but I don't honestly remember.
"Somebody charted it, and especially on a song like Black Top White Lines, there's a lot of different guitar things happening and overlapping each other. I think I'm the one playing the kind of Magnum PI part in the verses. Then I remember I played the riff an octave up.
"Buk is such a cool guy and just a good presence in the room. That's the first time we ever played together. I'd known him a bit prior to that but we'd never worked on anything together, so it was great."
You've had huge success with the Foos but even from your podcasts it seems you're very open to learning and absorbing new approaches and perspectives as a musician. Do you think you're more like that now than ever?
"Oh without a doubt, I just love getting exposed to musicians that are such great players and do something totally different than what I do. I love to just be a sponge in those rooms. Even with Charlie, I was like texting him the other day; 'How do you play that acoustic thing in Damage Control?' It's my favourite part of the song, I've got to sit down and learn how to play it."
I think that's kind of music in a nutshell. One of the great byproducts of this whole thing is you get to be in the room with all these cats and take a little bit of this and a little bit of that from everybody
"I think that's kind of music in a nutshell. One of the great byproducts of this whole thing is you get to be in the room with all these cats and take a little bit of this and a little bit of that from everybody. A little bit of what everybody's doing rubs off on each other."
Does that also pose a challenge for when you have to recreate these new songs live and decide what guitar parts you focus on?
"Oh yes, no doubt. That's a big challenge when we go out, because we've been doing some of these songs for a while now. It's like this in any band, it's like this in the Foo Fighters, when when you make a record, and then you have to play the songs live.
"You have to figure out who's playing what, and you can wind up playing something that somebody else played on the record. In my solo thing, I gotta also sing it, so I have to play around the vocals.
"We've been doing a thing for the last year or so. I got an Ableton track setup and so we stemmed out pretty much everything from my last few records. So that's been fun to sort of figure out – ok what can I actually do live? To try to figure out how to incorporate that into our live show, which is really fun.
"It's an amazing tool we didn't have a few years ago, or at least I didn't have it. I was always scared of it, or just thought it was lame. And now I've got it in my own thing, and I love it.
"We're on a shoestring budget, and you can't afford to bring out on six or seven-piece band. That would be my preference, but financially it doesn't make any sense. So if you've got your pedal steel, your keyboards, your second guitar and your percussionist on a laptop, it's finding the balance between the actual live thing that we're doing and, and bringing in that stuff.
"But it's a lot of fun. And I think it just makes it a better show, you know, but most people in the crowd aren't really even aware of it, or care. But it's all about what makes this the best experience in the room when we're playing shows."
Since you stepped into the role of a lead vocalist, do you think that has changed your guitar approach at all? Do you think that you might be a better guitar player as a result of being able to write vocal melodies and that affects your approach to melodic hooks?
I would say my guitar playing has probably influenced my singing more than the other way around
"I was just talking about this the other day in my interview with Charlie Starr. I wish I could sing with the reckless abandon that I can play guitar. Wouldn't it be great. I remember a vocal coach I worked with saying something like that like – sing like you play guitar, where you're not thinking about what you're playing and just doing it. Sing like that. But maybe someday.
"I would say my guitar playing has probably influenced my singing more than the other way around. But I think going out and playing live, they sort of both suffer. If you could just sing you'd be a better singer, and if you could just play you'd be a better guitar player. So it's that balance, and when those two things are in line it's great. And when they're not…
"It's funny how it's going out fronting a band that made me realise I don't breathe when I'm playing a guitar solo. Because every time I come back for that third verse, or the final chorus, after the solo I'm completely out of breath. So I've had to try to get better about that. And I think that makes you a better guitar player.
"I think it's also figuring out you gotta relax to be a good guitar player. I grew up playing intense, loud music where you're trying to muscle your way through shit. I think as I've gotten older, I've realised that doesn't work the best for me and if you're breathing and trying to relax, you're just playing better."
Singing and playing can be especially tiring on tour, so is nice to go back to the Foos and just be a guitar player for a while and have that mix?
"One hundred per cent. I mean, going out and doing my solo tours makes me always makes me appreciate how great we have it in Foos. Not only that thing that you're talking about, the musical side of it, but just the luxury of it all. To have a great crew – you don't have to worry about changing your string, driving the van and all that sort of stuff. To be in a nice, comfortable hotel room. I come back from one of my own tours, and I'm like, 'Oh baby I'm home!'"
I don't care if you're having the worst day of your life, you can't get up on stage and be like, 'This f*****g sucks'
It must also keep you grounded that you're still in touch with kind of where you came from as a musician.
"Absolutely. Every show on a solo tour there's always some hurdle you have to get over or there's always something that goes sideways you have to just deal with and overcome. And we've had some f*****g shockers recently with things like stage sound – just s**t the people in the crowd don't give a f**k about and you can't let it drag you down.
"I don't care if you're having the worst day of your life, you can't get up on stage and be like, 'This f*****g sucks. My in-ear mix is terrible waah waah.' Nobody cares, and they pay their money so you just can't bring that into the room. We always kind of laugh about it afterwards. I'll just say to my band, 'I'm so proud of us. We got through that with a smile on our face. And the crowd had a good time.'"
Talking about stage sound brings me to the Strymon Irdium amp modelling pedal that you used on your solo tour instead of a traditional amp. You're obviously used to using tube amps as part of a bigger rig with the Foos but do you think you could use an amp pedal like the Iridium if you weren't using in-ears?
"That's a great question and I haven't used it with a powered speaker. I'm on any ears all the time, whether it's in Foo Fighters or my solo thing, which I do mostly for vocals, not so much for guitar – actually, in ears to me kill guitar tone. Which is also why I got the Iridium. The reason I switched to that was because, again, we're just on a shoestring budget when I'm going out and doing solo shows. And you're at the mercy of wherever you're playing and bad power and a front-of-house guy that maybe doesn't like you to whatever. And it would just always sound terrible to me coming back in my in-ears when my amps were mic'd up.
When it goes sideways, for whatever reason, all of a sudden you don't have any of your coping skills that you've learned for the last 40 years on what to do in a live situation when something's going wrong
"The Iridium was the first amp modeller that I took out. I think it's still the only one that I've actually gone out and played shows with. And the reason I use that one is because I think it sounds great. It's really simple – it's just laid out like an amp. And that's been the thing that I've sort of figured out with this new way of doing my solo thing. When it works great, and it works great most of the time, not just the Iridium, but the Ableton and the in-ears and the whole thing, it's amazing. It's wonderful and you sort of cut out the middleman and I'm just getting that great tone right in my ears and I love it. When it goes sideways, for whatever reason, all of a sudden you don't have any of your coping skills that you've learned for the last 40 years on what to do in a live situation when something's going wrong.
"If I'm just playing through an amp, and I've just got a wedge, if it's terrible I can turn my amp up. I can just stick my finger in my ear and hear my vocal and get through it. You just have those ways of dealing with it that you've learned over time, or even just the ways of coping with it even if it's just terrible. And you just get through it. But when it comes right into your brain and things are happening that you don't fully even understand, that's when you get a little lost.
"But with the Iridium I just love the way it's laid out. It's really simple. You know, I know what bass and mid and treble do. I know what a volume knob does."
Do you feel it helps to get around the inconsistencies that can happen with mic'ing and the venue's sound engineer and their personal preferences?
"It should get around them. What I have found is that if your sound guy is messing up the pre-fader / post-fader situation it can get really f****d up and a lot of front-of-house people seem to not be able to resist EQ-ing it in a different way. I have to have this conversation with everybody; 'Just send it back to me direct. I don't want any special sauce on it. Just exactly how it comes off my board. And that's it.' That's the whole point."
You're using a Fender Deluxe Reverb model on the Iridium. What is it about that kind of amp that works so well for your solo music?
"Oh, man, that is the classic country amp. You can't beat a '65 Fender Deluxe Reverb. I have a couple of them that I've used forever with my solo stuff, as well as a great old '65 Princeton Reverb that I'll use from time to time, which saves you little van space when you're doing it that way.
"There's something about putting the Tele in front of one of those things that is just magic. They're made for each other. And I've been using that Wampler Tumnus – it's kind of like their Klon, and I love the way that hits it with the Tele. I don't even really grit it up too much, it just gives it that hair you want. It doesn't take over your tone – it just kind of beefs it up a bit.
The Klon is a bit of a rabbit hole players get obsessed with, but the Tumnus is a great affordable alternative. is great. Have you ever compared it to a real one?
"I've never A/B'd it, and I don't have one of the original Klons, but I do have one of the KTRs – the red one. I use that in my Foo Fighters rig too, and it's fantastic. But Wampler sent me some pedals, and that Tumnus was one of them. I plugged it in, and I just like to mess around with pedals and see what how they work and everything. I don't know man, something about that one – it just it just spoke to me."
It's a ridiculous guitar that we're building – Floyd Rose, one pickup, one volume
Your signature Fender Tele Deluxe was inspired by a Warmoth guitar that you put together, do you still tinker with guitars?
"It's funny you ask. My buddy who I've been taking my guitars to for years is building me a total hotrod right now. I don't even know what I'm going to use it for. I'm just gonna play it in my living room or something because I don't think I could get it onstage at a Foo Fighters show.
"It's a ridiculous guitar that we're building – Floyd Rose, one pickup, one volume. The whole deal. Excellent. I don't know exactly what it's going to work for because I'm not really doing divebomb solos in either thing that I do but it's going to be the guitar that I sit in my bedroom and figure out Jake E Lee solos on, or whatever."
You played humbucker guitars for years but eventually came around to Telecasters. Was your signature model like the bridge between those worlds and is the Tele the main guitar in your solo world?
"Pretty much always. I mean, I record with a range of guitars – mostly that Butterscotch Tele that I've got is what I used for most of my new record. But I think I also played my signature model with the P-90s. And I'm sure I must have played a Les Paul on there somewhere… the slides solo on Weigh You Down is definitely my Les Paul because that's my guitar that I have jacked up for slide.
"I love a classic Tele sound. That Paisley one that I've been playing a lot for a while, I put the Lindy Fralins in, I forget what they're called – Vintage Tele pickup in."
That's the guitar that says Fender on the headstock but isn't one?
"Correct. But I will tell you, we were just out in Chicago for Riot Fest and I went by Chicago Music Exchange and I actually bought a proper '68 Paisley telly. So I have that in my possession and I might leave the fake one at home for a while."
Compression is a big thing in country guitar – do you use one yourself?
"I do. I don't quite have a handle on that. I only really use it when I've got a real clean tone. Because I just don't like the way a compressor pedal hits overdrive – I just don't like it for me. But it's great when there's that real compressed tone that you hear on a lot of '70s and '80s [records], and even beyond. That real kind of fuzzy thing that it's just kind of soft-sounding that you hear on a lot of those Merle Haggard records from the '80s or whatever."
Country music has always embraced great playing – great ripping solo sections
Country music isn't part of pop culture in the UK, but it does have a growing audience. It's still easy to gravitate to rock and assume that's the first place to find electric guitar-playing talent. But would you say country music has always been where some of the greatest guitar playing could be found?
"Oh yeah, country guitar playing is amazing. In rock 'n' roll music or modern rock, whatever you want to call it, I think there's a lot of great guitar playing now – lead guitar playing and stuff. But the kind of guitar playing that I grew up listening to got pretty taboo through a lot of the '90s and early 2000s. And that never happened in country music.
"Country music has always embraced great playing – great ripping solo sections and all that sort of stuff. Nowadays this thing called Americana sort of came out of country music – this big umbrella word of traditional guitar playing. Anything with a bass, drum, keyboard and a singer gets called Americana now. A lot of it isn't country at all. So you can make an argument that Americana is rock 'n' roll or whatever. But there's so much overlap, and so many country players that rock music was a huge influence on and vice versa. So I would tell people, put down your biases, and just listen for the rippage!"
Lost At Sea is out now on Snakefarm Records. Chris Shiflett and his band will tour the UK and Ireland in March 2024, playing the following dates:
20 – Academy, Dublin
21 – The Limelight 2, Belfast
23 – Queen Margaret Union, Glasgow
24 – Academy 2, Manchester
25 – O2 Academy 2, Birmingham
27 – Electric Ballroom, London
More info at chrisshiflettmusic.com