Taylor Hawkins Helped Make Foo Fighters a Real Band
The musical career of Taylor Hawkins, who spent nearly a quarter-century as the drummer for one of the most successful rock bands of its era before his untimely death at the age of 50, was nearly as improbable as that of the band itself. Foo Fighters are a band that started as a literal solo project posing as a band, similar to The Police’s Stewart Copeland hiding behind the moniker Klark Kent for his 1980 album. But the kinship Hawkins and the band’s undisputed leader, Dave Grohl, is what made Foo Fighters something far more lasting than just about anybody could have expected in the earliest years of the group.
Foo Fighters is something of a miracle of a band, one that caught even those involved in the mid-1990s alternative rock scene off-guard. In the immediate aftermath of the inevitable dissolution of Nirvana following the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, Grohl, taking a page from Copeland’s attempt to separate himself from comparisons to his own iconic band, released the Foo Fighters’ 1995 debut album, on which he performed nearly every part himself.
The record produced three top-10 modern rock hits. One of which, “I’ll Stick Around,” was built around the kind of heavy, overdriven guitars around which Nirvana built its reputation, and another, “Big Me,” was the kind of tuneful, R.E.M.-esque jangle pop that seemed likely to be in the songwriting direction that Cobain, who had struck a close friendship with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, was heading. Being reminiscent of Nirvana wasn’t an inherently bad thing – Nirvana was a beloved and critically important rock band, but Foo Fighters needed to create a fresh identity.
Hiring a full-time band – former Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear and the rhythm section from Sunny Day Real Estate, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith – strongly hinted at Grohl’s insistence on forging a new musical direction, but passing the torch to another drummer would prove difficult for him.
Unhappy with Goldsmith’s tracks for the band’s sophomore album, “The Colour and the Shape,” Grohl re-recorded most of the drum parts, and, not content with feeling like a touring drummer, Goldsmith left the band. Foo Fighters then hired Hawkins, who at the time was the touring drummer for Alanis Morissette. In the moment, it seemed like a step down – Morisette was one of the biggest acts in the world, and Grohl both recognized this and was unsure about stealing someone else’s drummer. But even Morissette apparently understood the power of the two drummers’ budding friendship.
Going forward with Foo Fighters, in sharp contrast to the recording of “The Colour and the Shape,” Hawkins had Grohl’s full confidence, with Dave’s drumming cameos being vanishingly rare (an exception came on “Cold Day in the Sun,” but Grohl had a valid excuse; Hawkins had taken lead vocals and rhythm guitar, so it seems only fair that Grohl would in turn get to take his jobs).
As a drummer, Hawkins was among the most acclaimed in rock, with a heavy-hitting style not unlike the one that Grohl employed in Nirvana. And it wasn’t as though Grohl completely abandoned the instrument – he played the drums subsequently with Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age and on countless awards show performances. But while Grohl remained a drummer, he happily bequeathed the title of “Foo Fighters drummer” to Taylor Hawkins.
Beyond Foo Fighters, Hawkins had an extended musical career, performing as drummer and vocalist in his humorously named power trio, Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders, and contributing to albums by such groups as Coheed and Cambria and Eagles of Death Metal. Recently, he was the drummer in the supergroup, NHC, alongside Jane’s Addiction members Dave Navarro, guitarist, and Chris Chaney, bassist.
But ultimately, Foo Fighters were his primary gig from the moment he joined the band in 1997. And as great of a musician as Hawkins was, this is a very rare case where you could easily argue that his contributions as a person meant more to the band than his drumming. After all, in a vacuum, Grohl could have theoretically played Hawkins’s drum parts and they probably would not have sounded that much different. But as Grohl’s spiritual brother, Hawkins was irreplaceable, and when these two finally found each other, each got what they wanted all along: to be in a real rock band.
Foo Fighters occupy a unique space in rock history. They are the kind of band that was appreciated by fans of the more esoteric, artsier alternative groups of the early 2000s, like The Strokes or The White Stripes, but they are also rooted in classic rock and had multi-generational appeal that seemed like a quaint relic in the early 1990s and would have seemed impossible coming from a former member of Nirvana.
Foo Fighters never went pop – “Learn to Fly” and “Best of You” reached number 19 and number 18, respectively, on the U.S. Hot 100, but sonically they were not concessions to mainstream commercial radio – yet they were consistently popular among their core audience, landing 28 top-10 alternative rock hits.
While Foo Fighters made some good records without Taylor Hawkins, it was with him that they became a cultural institution. And Hawkins, the drummer and the man, deserves a remarkable amount of credit for making that happen.