Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #134. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Chris Shiflett is a rock ’n’ roll God by trade (you might know him from this up-and-coming indie band, Foo Fighters), but when he whacks on a cowboy hat and hoists up a semi-hollow, you best damn believe he can slam out one hell of a country jam. Hard Lessons – Shiflett’s second solo album – is packed to the rafters with them. Australian Guitar heads out to the paddocks and giddies up for a lesson of its own.
Words by Sarah Comey.
In over 20 years of rock ’n’ roll ravishment, Chris Shiflett has donned many hats. He cut his teeth on punk in No Use For A Name (and later fronted Jackson United with his brother Scott); got his skank on with Me First And The Gimme Gimmes as a bonafide ska lord; and made the leap into chart-crushing, stadium-stuffing rock with none other than the goddamn Foo Fighters. But if there’s one genre Shiflett has a particularly squishy soft spot for, it’s country.
Though he’d first dipped his toes into the yee-haw pool in 2010 with Chris Shiflett & The Dead Peasants (and their eponymous debut album), it was 2017’s West Coast Town that saw him cannonball in from the diving board. Produced by Americana legend Dave Cobb, the LP offered Shiflett a tour through a world he’d never traversed, shaking up what the Californian axeman had come to recognise as the ‘typical’ album-making process. A Nashville native with a penchant for improv, Cobb’s world is one with laws a little looser, and social norms a little more ambiguous – something Shiflett was unprepared for, coming from two decades of work with on ultra meticulous major-label blockbusters.
So, coming into his latest album – the sharp, searing and sonically sexy Hard Lessons – Shiflett was no longer a tourist on foreign land. The obvious metaphor here is to say that he “knew the ropes”, but truth be told, he didn’t. Not for a lack of trying – there were just no ropes for him to know.
“West Coast Town was an interesting record for me because I’d never worked with a producer on my solo stuff,” he says. “And Dave Cobb has a really particular way of making records – it’s unlike any process I’ve ever been a part of in making a record before. So having done it once, I felt like I kind of knew what to expect a little bit more; I was a little better prepared going into this one. But by ‘better prepared’, I mean that I was less prepared – I’m used to demoing things a bunch of times and having everything really laid out before I head into the studio, but he doesn’t really work like that.
“He’s way more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants; I’ll play him a song on an acoustic guitar, and he’ll just start coming up with arrangement ideas, groove ideas and different chords – he’ll change the lyrics and do this, that and the other – and it’s just real fast and in-the-moment.”
Obviously, that’s not to say Hard Lessons was a rushed job. The studio sessions were breakneck-paced and chaotic in all sorts of ways, but thanks in part to them being split in half, Shiflett was able to gel with and pore over the songs until they’d become fully realised.
“This record was a little different because I didn’t make it all in one sitting,” he continues. “I went in for about a week in March of last year and we got all the basic tracks done, and then the Foo Fighters were in the middle of a touring cycle so I was back out on the road, and then we went back that May to finish it off. And I liked that, because it gave me some time to sort of mellow with the arrangements that we’d come up with – really think about them – tweak the lyrics a bit and do some stuff like that. It was kind of nice, y’know? It slowed things down a little bit, just so that I could live with them and make sure we had the arrangements that I felt good about.”
As we’ve come to expect from Shiflett’s output, the arrangements on Hard Lessons are nothing short of jaw-dropping. His riffs are slick and his solos red-hot, and with the record showcasing his fretwork truly unrestrained, it offers a blunt and uncut look at his entire musical palate – from punky juts to epic rock ’n’ roll payoff moments, to the quaint twang of a country romantic.
“I’m just in a very different role with my solo stuff,” Shiflett explains. “In the Foo Fighters, there’s a lot of us – there’s three guitar players, so there winds up being a lot of guitar tracks; you’re trying to find a tone and a part that kind of slots in and works for whatever song you’re recording. Whereas on my solo records, most of the time it’s just myself playing the guitar – there’s Dave Cobb playing the acoustic guitar on most of the songs too, but as far as the electric stuff goes, it’s just me – so I have a little more room to go exploring. It’s almost like I’m playing over myself.”
The end result is an album that plays faithful to Shiflett’s influences, and feels wholly authentic in its country-driven characteristics – but also shines a spotlight on what Shiflett does best. And what he does best, of course, is those big, fat, mind-melting rock riffs. Funnelling those into the atmosphere of a country record, Shiflett’s guitar work on Hard Lessons is filthy and ripping, which he explains was exactly his intention.
“I love sitting down to learn some Brent Mason licks and just kind of tweaking out on something like that,” he says, “But when you put it through my filter... Y’know, I’m a rock ’n’ roll player – there’s just no way around that. I can play country licks no problem, but when it’s me who’s playing them, it’s just going to feel more rocking than it would if a country guitarist were to play them. That’s just who I am as a player. And so I tend to work solos out in that way a fair bit, but there’s also some stuff on this record that was definitely a lot more free-wheelin’ than I’d normally do it.”
As for the guitars he used on Hard Lessons, Shiflett stepped away from the ’63 Fender Esquire he swore by to record West Coast Town, instead opting to broaden his horizons a bit. “I played some of Dave Cobb’s stuff on this one,” he says. “He’s got a bunch of beautiful guitars. There was an old Goldtop that I played a lot on this record. I also had my Fender signature model – it’s this red Fender Masterbuilt Telecaster Deluxe that has P-90s in it, and it just soared. And then for amps, I mostly just played through a Marshall JCM800. We had another Marshall in there – I want to say it was a JMP, but I don’t remember exactly... Cobb just has a bunch of great amps, so we took full advantage of his collection.”
When it comes to the rock ’n’ roll crunch that’s slicked over the whole record, the secret weapon was undoubtedly that JCM800. “Before we even started,” Shiflett explains, “Dave Cobb was saying to me, ‘Y’know, you should get a Marshall JCM800 – that should be the amp you play on this record.’ So on our first day in the studio, we looked on Craigslist and found one, and as soon as we plugged it in, it was like, ‘Boom. Alright. There’s our tone.’ That just set the stage for the whole record. And it’s definitely crunchier and more rock ’n’ roll than [West Coast Town] as a result, that’s for sure.”