‘We Don’t Know How to Phone It In’: A Final Visit With Taylor Hawkins

Popular on Rolling Stone

At the rear of Taylor Hawkins’ Los Angeles property, past the swimming pool, is a guest house he converted into a rock & roll clubhouse and studio straight out of his teenage daydreams. His drum kit is there, along with a formidable collection of guitars and basses. Rock memorabilia (posters, custom drumheads, gig flyers, even a Rolling Stone special issue on Guns N’ Roses) covers every surface, from ceiling to floor. “My wife hates this place,” he said with a laugh.

On the afternoon of June 15, 2021, with a Foo Fighters club show looming that night — their first real public performance since the pandemic started — Hawkins sat in that clubhouse for what turned out to be his final in-person Rolling Stone interview. He was barefoot, in canary-yellow board shorts and no shirt, per usual. On a shelf directly above him sat a Freddie Mercury drumhead and a bright yellow vintage Tower Records banner, with the slogan “No music, no life,” printed in red type.

After the conversation wound down, Hawkins drifted over to his drum set, put on headphones, and played along to Alex Van Halen’s manic drum part on Van Halen’s “Out of Love.” “This is how I practice,” he said, laying his sticks down after performing the entire song at an unwavering, stadium-worthy level of intensity. Portions of the conversation appeared in last year’s Foo Fighters cover story; here’s the full interview, for the first time.

You said your son is a big Nirvana fan, right?
My son loves Nirvana now. I didn’t ever see Nirvana. I’m so fucking bummed. I texted Dave. He didn’t text me back, of course. But I said, like, “Now I can love Nirvana again. I couldn’t because you were in the band and that’s weird.” It’s like watching your parents have sex. You know what I mean? “That’s your life. I’m not going to talk about your life before I knew you.” It’s kind of weird. I mean, he knows I respect that. I do think they were the Beatles of alternative rock, without a doubt. And now I can watch those videos with my son and we can be like, “God, they were so fucking badass.”

How are you feeling about tonight’s show?
I’m really nervous about tonight, because we haven’t done anything. I’m hoping we’re OK. Still having a hard time playing certain songs again.

Really?
Oh, yeah. I have major stage fright, major, major, major. Like today is, like, I’m in hell right now. The last year and a half, other than watching the world crumble on the news, I’ve been on the road for 28 years. So I say this with a heavy heart, for the rest of people that fucking.… And I was glad I could keep people, help my family and everyone, make sure everyone was OK. That’s been such a fucking blessing. But I’ve been on the road 28 years, literally, so I had a year and a half off from this feeling I have today. 

Eddie Van Halen said a lot of his substance abuse was because of performance anxiety.
Oh, because he was fucking scared, dude. Scared. Just scared. I’m still, I’m just not having a good day. I feel like everything in my body is wrong. My leg doesn’t feel right and all that kind of shit. Like all these kind of crazy psychosis kind of things that you go through to get yourself prepped enough just to play a little club show.

(To hear the full audio of this interview on our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, press play above or listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.)

What are the hardest songs to play?
“Rope,” because I sing and play drums on it. I sing and play drums on a lot of stuff, just background vocals, but because that’s a kind of a duet in the verses, and the groove has got that weird.… Just for some reason, my brain and my mouth and my leg and my hands, they’re not talking to each other correctly. Like the computer has a glitch right there. I need to go to the Genius Bar and get that fixed somehow.

It’s funny, because I was talking to [Matt] Cameron about that this morning. He’s like, “You’re doing a show? Fuck. What the fuck?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I’m scared, actually.” I was feeling nice not doing anything. It’s nice being a loser for a year and a half; it really was. Dave used to freak out about stuff like that, but he doesn’t anymore. He really got over that. He used to get pretty bad nerves as well. He just drinks [laughs], which helps too, I’m sure. I can’t do that and play drums. I can’t do that.

So you have to be totally sober in order to do that?
Oh, my God, dude. You see what I do. Yeah, for good results, yeah. I mean, some people are fine. 

Weed affects your perception of time, obviously.
Oh, my God, dude, that would be the worst. I’ve made that mistake before, dude, back in the day, back in the Nineties. Because when you’re in high school, you sit in your jam room with all your buddies and you get fucking baked and you do bong rips and you jam out to fucking Zeppelin songs or Jane songs or Police songs or whatever. And you write your songs and you’re all tripped out. You don’t want that onstage. I don’t know motherfuckers who can. Some people do, and more power to them. But fuck that shit. So yeah, I’m petrified right now.

At the Foo Fighters’ Madison Square Garden show, June 2021 Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone

Yeah. Are you totally sober in your life or just when you’re playing?
I don’t want to go into all that. I just lead a really healthy lifestyle. I’ve been down that road with people so much, and it’s been, like, a thing. That’s kind of been an arc of my life so much. It’s like my story — and the band too, almost sometimes — is my big fucking fuckup in London 20 years ago. [Hawkins overdosed in 2001, leading to a two-week-long coma.]

You feel like people get it already?
Yeah, I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want my son reading it. Listen, for anyone out there who has problems and their fucking life is a mess, yeah, I get it. You know, my life has been there plenty of times, so I get it. I don’t want that to be the centerpiece of my story.

But basically just whatever you’re doing, you’re healthy.
I’m healthy. Do I look OK to you?

Looking good, man, yeah.
Was I playing drums OK yesterday? Was I singing OK yesterday?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.
No, I’m good. I got the message, which was very important. And I’m lucky. I’m just lucky that I did get the message at the right time. So yeah, I’m healthy. I’m good … I get sinus infections really bad. And I just found out from my doctor, got all my blood tests and my heart everything checked and he goes, “Dude, you’re in amazing shape. Your heart’s big, because you exercise a lot. It’s like a runner’s heart.” And that’s fine. The only thing is, he said, “I think you have sleep apnea.” And my wife’s always saying you snore and you fucking make weird noises while you’re sleeping and stuff. 

Have you always had this level of anxiety about shows?
Always. Always. Always.

“I definitely was like, ‘We got to practice more. We got to have better lights. We got to make it a show.’ That’s me. I come from Queen and Van Halen and stuff, as well as the Police.”

You said last night, it’s about disappointing yourself. Where does that come from?
I just have this idea of perfection in my head, how it should be. The dynamic of the band has changed over the years. Whatever Dave says is good with me, I’m fine. But when we were younger and I was just like, “You know, we got to fucking be good. We got to be a fucking arena rock band. We can do it.” And Dave already did it in Nirvana without even thinking about it. And the Foo Fighters were getting there, but it really was important to me that we maximize our potential as a live band and come up with cool endings and things like that.

And it was already happening. Dave was already there, but I definitely was like, “We got to practice more. We got to practice more. We got to practice more. We got to have better lights. We got to do that. We got to make it a show, you know?” And that’s me. I come from Queen and Van Halen and stuff, as well as the Police. And Dave comes from that too, just in a different way. 

Maybe you helped to unlock that in him.
I don’t know. I would never take full responsibility or any major responsibility. Dave is obviously a brilliant human being, and the reason we’re here kicking is because work ethic is a big part of it.

Pat and Nate were telling me about that, how you used to say, “We can be better.”
Yeah. And we did, we had the Queen Live in Montreal video. It was that Chili Peppers tour [in 2000], which is really when we became.… They were like, “What should the lighting rig be like?” I just showed this video. I said, “It should be just like this.” And we showed up, and the Chili Peppers were nice enough and our friends, but they were like, “You guys just do what you want. Do your own production and we’ll do ours.”

The Chili Peppers were the headliners, but we were definitely helping out, selling a few tickets here and there. And we showed up to preproduction and they saw that, and they were like, “What the fuck?” And Chad Smith’s looking at me, like “you fucking son of a bitch.” I’m like “Does it look like anything to you?” “It’s fucking Queen. You took Queen’s lighting rig.” I’m like, “Yes, we did.” And then we had dry ice during “Everlong,” shit like that, like a Rush dry-ice moment. And all of it with us is tongue-in-cheek. But everything with Queen was tongue-in-cheek, too. I mean, I’ve developed, and Dave just continues to develop in every way.

How did Dave react when you were saying, “We can be good, we can do better”?
Well, we were younger, so it was actually a conversation. We wouldn’t have that conversation now. We were doing good, but we weren’t where we are now, and we certainly couldn’t play arenas. We couldn’t do that until [2002’s] One by One, was the first time. 

It’s not a rock & roll fucking conversation, dude. It really isn’t. And it’s not punk rock, and I’m not trying and I never tried to be punk rock … I let those guys be punk rock. They’re fine, and they can handle the punk-rock side. That’s good. I mean, I love the Sex Pistols and I love the Clash. And I love Bad Brains and I love Jane’s Addiction. And I love post-punk stuff. I love the Police. I love all that stuff. But I wasn’t one of those guys trading Black Flag records.

You just come from a different place, yeah.
Yeah, I grew up in Laguna Beach, where everyone was listening to reggae. So I hid my Van Halen records and Queen records and stuff like that. It was the preppy era, and Orange County was very fucking beach volleyball. The Police, that was fine. I love the English Beat and I love Madness and I love the Specials. I love all of that.

But how did those conversations go with Dave?
I don’t remember. It was so long ago. I just think he was probably like, “OK, whatever.” But I’m like his little brother, so I’m sure I didn’t really bend his ear that much. But I think when we get onstage together that just naturally we become hams. And I’m fucking goofing around and he’s goofing around, and we push each other in that department, not push each other in a negative way, but in a more, like, “Let’s take it to the next level. Let’s see how far can you go in this jam.”

There’s times when we get in jams and it’s a lot like the Who, a lot like Keith Moon and Pete Townshend. When he has his guitar and I’m on the drums and me and him do one of our fucking epic drum-rhythm guitar battles, where he’s playing drums on the guitar basically, and I’m playing drums, and everyone else is kind of going, “OK, see where they go.” Those are the great moments. So yeah, he gets it. He loves Led Zeppelin. He loves all that stuff. And he loves Queen. He loves everything I love, but you know how it is.

Well, again, I feel like you helped open a doorway there.
Our manager would never agree. “You know, everyone else likes punk rock, while you were listening to Winger.” I didn’t listen to Winger, asshole. I love [John] Silva. He is the best in the business, as you can see. But he and Dave almost co-manage the band, because Dave … a lot of times people are like, “God, your promotional tactics are so fucking amazing. You just must have the best management in the world.” I’m like, “Well we do, but we also have Dave, whose mind never stops.” It just doesn’t. It never stops.

He definitely thinks of how each album can be an event in some way, right?
Yeah. Well, if you think about it, it started with the videos. Each video should be an event, should be either really funny or something interesting. Make a moment. Dave loves to grill. The reason Dave loves to grill is because there’s a beginning and a middle and an end to the project. And he is very, very focused when he is focused on what he wants to do.

So when we make an album, he shows up with the charts, these are the song ideas, here are some demos, blah, blah, blah, blah. Work our way at it. It’s all very well-prepared and well-thought-out and well-constructed. And it’s because it’s just like when he does barbecue for 75 people, and he doesn’t mind that he doesn’t get any sleep for 30 hours, he’s fine. Sits there and smokes cigarettes and texts and fucking check the beef every fucking half an hour or whatever.

Wait, Dave pulls all-nighters to barbecue?
Oh, dude.

What the fuck is that?
You don’t know about that?

I know he barbecues, but I didn’t know he stays up all night to do it.
No, dude, it’s literally 30 hours. He stays up for 30 hours sometimes without drugs. Well, nicotine, but yeah, no, without drugs. Maybe a little bit of booze or whatever, but no, he’s a fucking beast. He is a beast. There’s no competing. You won’t win. You can’t compete with Dave. He’s the winner.

Was that something you had to learn firsthand?
Yes, I did. Yes, I did, because I was a loudmouth kid and I was like, “I have ideas, I have ideas.” And finally I just went, “You know what? You have the best ideas. And if you want an idea, you’ll let me know.” And when he wants an idea — he said like the last album, “Hey, I got this song, ‘Sunday Rain.’ I want Paul McCartney to play drums on it. I want you to sing it and write it. Here’s the music. Here’s a little bit of a melody idea if you want it.” And I did. And I have a song on a Foo Fighter record with me singing my lyrics, putting my Eagles and Queen harmonies all over it, with Paul McCartney playing drums. I have my own Wings song, because of Dave.

So I noticed with Dave, it’s the best way to work with him. And even when we’re writing songs, I just try not to say too much anymore. I don’t want to get in the way of his process. And when I do really think I have an idea of something and he is stumped on something, which is very rare, I may say, “Hey, maybe this.” Every once in a while it flies. And sometimes like, “No, I don’t like that.” OK. And I don’t get butt-sore about it, and I move on, and I come back to my mansion next to the Kardashians, and I make fucking records with my goofball friends that nobody gives a fuck about.

How long did it take to come to that very healthy position?
Oh, it was a real moment. It was when we were doing Coachella and he was playing with Queens of the Stone Age.

Which is right after you guys had a big famous argument.
Yeah, right. All that shit. It was a pivotal moment in the band’s career, and it was definitely a make-or-break moment. We hadn’t finished One by One, because it wasn’t going so good. I was still coming out of my fog from London. And I was still coming out of my fog from thinking that this should be a complete democracy. We were doing Coachella, and we had a big argument, because I was being a fucking smartass and know-it-all, thinking I know what was right. And he just fucking said, “You know what? I’m going to tell you right now. This is how it is. It’s my fucking band. If you don’t like it, fucking beat it.” And I went, “All right, I quit.”

But we still had to do Coachella. And he was just looking at me like “Yeah, sure you do.” And I came in the next day. “That’s fine. I’m not going to be in it anymore. Nyah, nyah, nyah.” And he’s like, “Yeah, whatever. OK, we’re going to do this Coachella show and we have to do that, and we have to finish a couple songs. We have to finish ‘All My Life,’ and we got to write a couple more. I have a week in D.C. We’re going to do that, and then I have to go do a Queens of Stone Age tour. And that is after the Coachella thing.” So I showed up to Coachella. I finally went and saw him play in Queens of Stone Age, because at first I thought he was making them a big band. He was. And then I also had to deal with the fact that “Oh, there’s the best drummer in the world again.”

Drumming again, yeah.
And I’m the douche little dumbshit behind him that just fucking does whatever I’m told or whatever and tries to play “Everlong” as good as him, and I can’t. And I went and watched him play with Queens, and it meant a lot to him. I didn’t know it at the time, really, but it did. He’s said before. He never said that to me, because we don’t have those kind of conversations. This would be uncomfortable and weird. But I think it meant a lot to him. I may be revising this. He may feel totally different about this, but this is my reality. And then we played that next night, and he was the front guy again, and we fucking killed it.

We were amazing. We started the set with “All My Life,” which no one had ever heard. After the show, I remember going for a walk with him and him going, “We’re going to go back to Virginia. We’ll finish this record, and then we’re going to go on tour, and we’re going to be a band. It’s going to be awesome. Another week with Queens of Stone Age. It is what it is. Just let’s do this.” We got to Virginia, and me and Dave recorded that whole record in five days. And then Nate. We brought it back here and Dave went on tour. Nate redid his bass. [Chris] Shiflett did some leads and some other guitar things. I did some percussion while he was on tour with Queens of the Stone Age. And then we had One by One, which you know, is a sound of a band clawing for their life.

You can’t fuck with “All My Life” and “Times Like These,” though. I mean, those are two of our biggest songs ever. It’s not the best-sounding record we ever made. It’s definitely kind of hard on the ears. It was one of those times when everything was louder. Who can be louder? Remember that period, the mastering of 2000-ers?

After we did that album and did our first headlining slot at the Reading Festival, that’s when the fun began. And that album is where I could figure out how to be myself in the Foo Fighters on a record. I did all the drums on that record. [1999’s] Nothing Left to Lose, I did half the drums. I was still figuring out how to record.

How did all of that work on Nothing Left to Lose?
I’ll tell ya, that’s a whole other story. William [Goldsmith] tried to record drums for that second record. We all know it didn’t work out for various reasons. He just wasn’t really ready. But Dave didn’t fire him. Dave said, “I want you to stay in the band.” And he didn’t, and that’s all on him. Dave feels bad about the way it happened. He’s expressed it plenty of fucking times. But I feel bad that Dave gets the … Dave, he shouldn’t be demonized for that, because all he was trying to do was make sure his band could still exist. And the version that they had, he knew it wasn’t good enough. And I was so scared when we went to go do Nothing Left to Lose. I had red-light fever so bad.

“I did half the drums on [Nothing Left to Lose], because Dave fucking held my hand through it. That’s why we’re here today, because he knew he wanted me there as a friend, as a family member, as his younger brother.”

Well, because you knew.
Because the last guy fucking … so how am I going to make it through this? And I didn’t know how to. And the producer, Adam Kasper, was like, “Oh, can Dave just play drums?” I could just hear it in his face. I mean, he was a nice guy, but he had Dave Grohl. He’s like, “Why is this kid trying to learn to play to a click track right now in front of me? Let’s get this record done.” And at one point I just said to Dave, “Listen, dude, I just don’t think I can do this.” And I was battling the demons a bit back then as well. I was just so scared.


And he said — it kind of chokes me up — he just held my hand through it, and he’s like, “You’re going to play some drums on this.” [At this point, Hawkins’ eyes visibly tear up.] And I did half the drums on it, because he fucking held my hand through it, like that older brother, best friend does. So there you go. That’s why we’re here today, because he knew he wanted me there with him as a friend, as a family member, as his younger brother that he can fucking rubber-finger any time he wants, that ultimately totally looks up to him and wants to make him happy. And also, he knew that there was just something we create onstage. And I know that.

There’ve been some records where I’ve really got to get in there a lot and show what I do on the drums. But a lot of times, they’re Dave’s demos that I’m just recording on a certain level, and that’s fine too. Not always my favorite, but I get it done if he has a certain thing in mind that he wants, for sure. And then we get the record done and we go out and play it live, and we fucking just lose our minds up on stage in front of people and fucking leave every bit of our fucking sweat and souls and blood and sore necks and back problems and tendonitis on the stage for everyone to fucking come see.

Was it a triumph to have done just the half of Nothing Left to Lose?
Yes. I was surprised I did that.

So it wasn’t like, what about the other half?
No. Hey, I’m on half a record. Oh, my God. Oh, my God, I made it. I’m on half a fucking record. I’m fine with this. So yeah. And that song we played yesterday, “Aurora,” which is one of my favorite songs that we’ve ever recorded in my life —

That’s one of the greatest songs, yeah.
That’s me playing drums on that. That was another one of those first moments where I do my little snare roll-y things that he doesn’t really do, and he pushed me to do that. Like, “Be you, do your little marching scenario things that you love to do and that you do just from listening to a lot of Big Country or whatever the fuck.” U2 and Big Country when I was 12 or 13. At the end, I start doing that stuff, and that’s not a Dave thing, that’s me. And that was a moment where I —

Well, he never practiced his rudiments enough, did he?
He’s such a unique drummer, and he’s such a unique musician. That’s why when I have to play “Everlong” or “Monkey Wrench,” I’m just like, “Well, it’s just never going to be as good. It’ll be different, but it’ll never be as good.” Because Dave has a certain sound that he does when he plays drums that is all his own. And I just don’t sound like that. And that’s OK, because I’m me, damn it. I’m me. But Dave has fostered that, he really has. He made sure to give me enough space to grow, no pun intended. We should play “Enough Space.” He gave me enough space to grow and be a musician.

And now after watching Dave for all these years, I can come in here by myself or with an engineer, and I can record a fucking demo. I could play you one I did the other day. I learned to do that from Dave. So I can put down a drum track. I can put down some scrappy guitar tracks. I can put down a Steinberg bass track. And I can lay vocals and pepper it with harmonies, and I’ve made records on my own. And I learned that from just from watching Dave.

You’re really guzzling water right now.
You can see I’m doing everything in my power to put as much water in me tonight. Water and pushups and lifting. I won’t be tired. My muscles will be tired, but I won’t be tired. I will be, because the adrenaline takes half of your energy away from you right away. And then it doesn’t necessarily give it back to you until maybe the second half of the show. But no, it will be interesting to know how everyone feels after tonight’s show, because it’s really a killer, man. It really is. We did that show, the vaccination-concert thing, and we didn’t practice very much for it. And we were “OK, we were fine, but we could have been better.” I mean, I didn’t even think about it, but all of a sudden I saw like two and a half weeks of rehearsals before this, and I was like, “Oh, good, good, good, good. We need to rehearse. This is good.” So we’ve been really rehearsing.

“You have to get up there and kick ass for two and a half hours. And we don’t know how to phone it in. Unfortunately, we’ve never learned that.”

You haven’t really rehearsed that rigorously in a long time, right?
Well, it’s been a while. It’s been a while since we really had that time. It seems like just because of all the other projects that Dave has, as far as filming stuff and doing all these other things, it just seems like, yeah, that we just kind of are always in this race to get this done and the video done. And then we have kids and all of us have children going to school back and forth. You know, it’s a race to try and get practiced up enough to get to that point you are in when you’re halfway through the tour, when your muscle memory kind of takes over.

It’s still tiring even then. I was talking to Matt today, and I was like, “I’m lowering my hi-hats and snares, so to be a little bit more economical.” But you see, I’m still a spaz; but I’m trying really hard to figure out how to continue to keep the intensity of a young man in a 50-year-old’s body, which is very difficult. I’m not whining, I’m really not. As you sit in my mansion in the hills, I’m not whining. I’m just saying it’s fucking hard work.

It’s one of those things people don’t think about, either. They just think that we fly around everywhere, which we do, in really nice hotels, which we do, in big backstage areas with tons of food and people asking what we want, if you want a sandwich every five minutes, which we do. We have all that, but it still doesn’t change the fact that you have to get up there and kick ass for two and a half hours. And we don’t know how to phone it in. Unfortunately, we’ve never learned that ability. I don’t know how someone really could. I really don’t know.

We’ve now seen lots of rock bands keep playing when they get older, but the thing is, your brand of music is probably more intense and more physical than a lot of the classic-rock guys.
I mean, I look at Metallica and I say, “Oh, my God, I feel bad for you guys for writing those songs when we were kids.”

What’s the difference in drum style between you and Dave?
There’s a simple way to put it. If he is the disciple of John Bonham, I’m a disciple of Stewart Copeland. I mean, that is really kind of the easiest way of putting it. I’m on top. I push just more like that, where Dave is not lazier in the sense of being a lazy person, but his feel is …

Behind the beat?
… behind the beat more. I mean he’s actually got more of the preferred feel for a studio drummer or something like that.

But can you consciously shift and go behind the beat as necessary?
Yeah, I can play slow songs behind the beat, no problem. I’ve never been great at playing midtempo songs. I tend to push them to a point of them getting out of the midtempo. It was never my goal to sound like Dave. I mean, as much as I love his drumming and totally wish I had some of the skill set that he has as a drummer, just that behind-the-beat, giant thing that he does — no one could play Nirvana the way he plays Nirvana. And like I said, when I have to play his songs from the first two records, it just doesn’t sound like him, and that’s fine. They sound like they were recorded off the One by One album or something and that’s just the way it is. And I think that in itself lends itself to us what we are as a band, which is a very organic, especially live, band.

The funny thing is when Dave has a guitar in his hand, he’s not necessarily that behind the beat either. He’s not necessarily rushing it, like, either, but he doesn’t mind playing guitar like that. Like, his feel as a guitar player is much more comfortable on top than when he is playing drums. Naturally, his feel on drums is a big behind-the-beat feel. But on guitar, it’s fine. Another brilliance of Dave is he fucking lets things get to a certain level of good or whatever. And then, he’s like, “All right, stop.”

We really are an organic, live, tight, loose band. Like, all of our favorites. Like Queen, like Led Zeppelin, like Rush, like Van Halen, like of them. Then you go listen to board tapes from Van Halen, and they’re not perfect at all. Nothing’s perfect.