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(Photo by Joey Martinez.)

OH, HE PLAYS IN THE FOO FIGHTERS? Why didn’t you say!

No one, least of all the man himself, is going to pretend that if Chris Shiflett was some other charmingly amiable, obviously talented 52-year-old singer/guitarist/songwriter (with a fifth album out now of punchy country/rock and occasionally chilled coastal pop), that ABC radio, commercial TV or some rent-paying freelance journalist would be spending much time opening a door to him.

The fact the aforementioned C. Shiflett for just short of 25 years has been the lead guitarist and backing vocalist in Foo Fighters – a band you may have heard of, with considerable sales and a frontman whose lineage goes back to the dawn of modern rock (or the early ‘90s as people born before 1980 know it) – doesn’t hurt. Doesn’t get you space necessarily, isn’t going to get you sales on its own, but it does get you a peek inside that door.

But once he’s in, once you’ve realised the songs are more than decent, the performances high grade, and you wouldn’t kick the album out of bed if it farted, Shiflett can begin to intrigue. Take for example Damage Control, one song that stands apart from the crowd on his new, independently released album, Lost At Sea.

It is not just rhythmically but lyrically odd in this company, less a character-driven country song and more something that comes directly from him, set to a real coastal laid-back Jimmy Buffett vibe. Is this some belated sign that he has been a Buffett devotee in his time?

“Not at all,” Shiflett says, without offence taken at the suggestion of a hidden past as a Parrothead. “It’s funny because that’s the only old song on the record: it’s gotta be at least 15 years old or something. To the point where I wrote it but it almost doesn’t make sense to me. I know what I was writing about, I was going through some shit – I wrote it right about the time that I got sober and it was kind inspired by that – but that feels like a very long time ago to me, it almost feels like a cover song, lyrically.

“But musically, I was really trying to land it in late-stage Clash. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song that had those Clash reggae stabs. But then it became something really different when we got it in the studio. One of the hookiest parts, musically, is the acoustic guitar part, that is I think what takes it into maybe what you are hearing, that laid-back coastal thing. But I was trying to make it sound like The Clash.”

From Sandinista to Margaritaville … Am I the only one trying, and failing, to picture Joe Strummer on a li-lo sipping on frothy cocktail? That’s some journey, but The Clash is an interesting example in comparison with Shiflett and his Foo friends.

The English quartet didn’t do side projects and solo albums: there were either in the Clash or they were out, and those were the hard rules. Now there are a lot of fans who see that is the only appropriate way, spending a lot of time worrying when side projects happen that their favourite band may now split or not be the same again. But you must wonder why it doesn’t happen more often, particularly among those who aren’t the group’s public faces, and may have more time to sit around and twiddle their thumbs between major projects.

Does Shiflett have a theory as to why more people don’t do it? Are there benefits other musicians are missing?

“I’ve always been pretty active outside of our band, and I know for me that’s a real positive. I think it’s good for any musician to play with lots of different people and play lots of different styles, get out of your comfort zone or whatever it is. It’s just good to play a lot,” he says. “But I understand why people view it that way [as a dangerous action for a band] because so often a side project has been the beginning of the demise of the band. Think of Van Halen and David Lee Roth or even Duran Duran went out and did their projects. That is the reality.

(Is this the first time that Van Halen and Duran Duran have appeared in the same sentence, and not with derision? That said, apologies for bringing to mind those solo albums. No one needs that in their life a second time. Let’s return to Shiflett.)

“I just don’t see it that way. I like writing songs, I like playing guitar, I like singing. I just like doing all that stuff and I like developing different outlets for doing that. And it’s good for your soul to get back in the van from time to time and try to win a crowd over, try to hustle to sell a couple of hundred tickets. It ain’t easy.”

It’s good for the soul to do it occasionally – while Foo Fighters are in Australia next month, Shiflett has two gigs of his own, in Sydney and Melbourne, in rooms considerably smaller than the stadiums – but maybe it’s not that good for the soul to be hustling that hard all year round.

“Hell no,” Shiflett laughs.

In any case, back to those times where someone might otherwise be twiddling thumbs while a big band’s album/promo/tour cycle is in layover. Shiflett said in an interview not that long ago that after watching one of his children begin to learn the piano he was emboldened to take some music lessons himself, in his 40s. This past year he’s also begun a podcast featuring guitarists he admires showing him how they did what they did, And of course there’s the new album where he’s co-written with some artists more experienced in the story-telling-in-the-country-music-manner.

So, is this like that “lifelong learning” we hear about all the time from futurists and educationalists?

“Yes, but I came to it ass-backwards because I was really terrible student when I was down. I dropped out of high school and never learnt much anyway, and I was really lazy when it came to guitar lessons,” Shiflett says. “I think the older you get, just more and more you become really aware of your own mortality and a window that’s perhaps getting smaller and smaller. And other shit creeps into your life: you have kids, you get married, adult stuff. So for me, I started to feel maybe in my mid-30s that I needed to be a little more pro-active. I wasn’t particularly scientific about; I just knew I needed to play more.”

Must make it easier to get the kids learning if you’re willing to do it too.

“I used to look down my nose at people who I thought were really well-educated musically, coz to me and the stuff I was into, those players – to put it in a way I would have looked at it in my teens and 20s – I thought they just played like pussies and I …” he puts on a serious grinding guitar hero face and practically growls, “I played fucking hard and mean.”

This last bit is said with a laugh that is semi-embarrassed but very self-aware. Looking back now, he knows that what may have looked like confidence bordering on arrogance in young C. Shiflett, was really “being insecure and fronting, like ‘fuck that shit, they suck!’ But really somewhere inside knowing I was kind of a hack.”

Fronting wasn’t just ego though, it was a bit of self-protection. No Use For A Name, the punk-sourced band he was in immediately before Foo Fighters, was part of a very competitive scene that in retrospect felt more like “a bunch of boys trying to puff their chests out and one-up each other”.

I’m guessing showing vulnerability, talking it out with the boys, was not a smart idea.

“That’s a distinctly modern approach,” he laughs again. “That was not the approach in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I was a young dude.”

That young dude would not have made one, let alone five country rock records, or accompanied Paul McCartney and Rick Astley on stage. Hell no. But then that young dude probably would not be getting interviewed right now either.

Chris Shiftlett plays: Workers Club, Melbourne, December 5; The Great Club, Sydney, December 7.

Lost At Sea is out now



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