There was a moment in the Chicago episode of Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways documentary series where Taylor Hawkins notes, “I don’t care about the blues, really. When I think about Chicago, I think about Cheap Trick.” He laughed, “That’s about as deep as I go!” And was unlikely that he cared about the city’s indie rock figurehead, Steve Albini, who sat down for a rare interview in the episode. But that moment, as much as any of his drumming performances, sums up Taylor Hawkins.
It was that attitude, along with his arena-ready drumming, that propelled the Foo Fighters from being a club band, to one of rock’s most reliable amphitheater, arena and stadium headliners over the past twenty years. Taylor Hawkins wasn’t trying to be a musicologist, and he definitely wasn’t worried about a silly and antiquated concept of “indie cred” — he loved rock and roll with no shame. And, thankfully, with no irony.
Dave Grohl’s songwriting has always been very catchy. The Foo Fighters never really had to “go commercial,” they always had radio-ready songs. But Grohl came out of Nirvana, a band whose frontman struggled with worrying about credibility with the underground. That kind of cache is something that any artist loses when they get too big. You’re no longer part of a scene. At some point, you belong to the world. But the musicians Grohl invited to join the original Foo Fighters showed that “cred” was still important to him. Pat Smear, of course, was from Nirvana’s touring band; before that, he was a member of L.A. punk legends the Germs. Bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith were from Sunny Day Real Estate, a Seattle emo band from the days when “emo” was still years away from the pop charts. And while artists from the emo, punk and indie scenes might have adored the Beatles and The Who, they were suspicious of the mass appeal that those artists, and their peers, enjoyed. For much of the ’90s, “arena rock” was seen as “sell-out music.”
Enter Taylor Hawkins. Before joining the Foo Fighters, he played in Alanis Morissette’s backing band. He met Grohl while playing for Morissette, and when Grohl asked him for advice when looking for a new drummer, Hawkins volunteered for the gig. In hindsight, it’s an obvious move. But at the time, the Foo Fighters were not as huge as they are now, and Alanis was one of the most popular artists in America. But Hawkins wanted to be in a rock band, and a big one. The dude loved Queen and Rush, two groups that epitomized the type of arena rock that seemed unfashionable in the ’90s. It’s fitting that he and Grohl presented both of those bands at their respective inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and that he’s jammed with members of both bands. And of course, last year, the Foo Fighters joined Rush and Queen in the Hall of Fame. But without Taylor’s drumming and his attitude, the Foos might have winced at the spotlight of superstardom. With Hawkins, they ran to take their place in that spotlight.
I remember interviewing Dave and Taylor in 2002, before the release of One By One. I’d seen the Foo Fighters in a number of contexts: from their pre-Taylor era opening for Mike Watt in a small New York club called Tramps to opening for The Rolling Stones at Giants Stadium. I noted that my most recent Foos gig was at an amphitheater opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Dave said, “I can’t believe we’re going to headline those places now.” Taylor replied, “I can.” Grohl might not have been able to do without at least one bandmate who was excited at the prospect of being an actual arena rocker.
The other thing that needs to be mentioned about Hawkins is how well he handled getting one of the toughest gigs in music: I mean, can you imagine being Dave Grohl’s drummer? It surely wasn’t always easy, but damn, he made it look that way. He also made it look fun, and rightfully so. It was always cool to see Taylor come out and sing and let Grohl behind the kit for a song, but it was clear that Hawkins was the band’s drummer, and no one else. And he loved the gig.
I remember seeing him at a Soundgarden show at New York’s Irving Plaza, a small club. He was with someone who appeared to be a handler, who seemed to be stressing about getting Taylor to the VIP section or something. I overheard Taylor say, “Don’t worry, I just want to watch the show.” And that was another cool thing about him. Some superstar musicians seem to get a bit jaded. That didn’t seem to be the case with Taylor Hawkins. He never seemed to lose his love and enthusiasm for rock and roll, and music in general. From the stage of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he campaigned for Jane’s Addiction, Soundgarden and George Michael to be inducted.
The Foo Fighters will most likely go on, but wow, those are huge shoes to fill. Taylor wasn’t just a drummer, but — in the parlance of the times — he was a vibe.