Midway through a cover of the Buck Owens tune “King of Fools,” Chris Shiflett glimpses at an audience member watching television near the bar. When the song is over, he points to a TV facing the stage and yells, “Holy shit – is that Shark Week?” After a chuckle from the crowd, he adds, “How can we compete with that? I don’t even want to pay attention to us!”
Clearly, this is not Wembley Stadium, where Shiflett’s other band, the Foo Fighters, rocked out before 86,000 people in London a few years ago. This is SLO Brew, a college bar in San Luis Obispo, CA, where, on a night when Cal Poly students are still on summer break, about 60 people have showed up to see Shiflett’s side project, Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants, crunch out several honky-tonk country tunes.
“Nobody really knows who we are,” Shiflett admitted to Rolling Stone a couple of hours before the show. “And I feel if 20 people come, they almost look at me and go, ‘Awwwww.'”
But unlike Wang Chung, who appeared here the previous night, Shiflett’s days of playing club gigs are numbered.
“We actually just started making a new Foo Fighters record within the last few weeks,” said the band’s lead guitarist. “We’ve started rehearsing.”
When frontman Dave Grohl announced last October that the band was going on hiatus – “I’m not sure when the Foo Fighters are going to play again,” he wrote on Facebook – many thought the band was finished.
“I knew we weren’t done, but I just thought it’d be a little longer,” Shiflett said. “But whatever – it’s good. It’s good getting back to work.”
Still, when the Foo Fighters last performed – a year ago, with Grohl declaring the band wouldn‘t play again “for a long time” – Shiflett quickly returned to a side project he’d formed in 2010. While his debut with that band featured alt-country originals, this time Shiflett found himself veering toward more traditional country.
“I was out on the road, and I’d listen to old honky-tonk country all the time,” Shiflett said before his show, eating pita bread and carrots on the venue’s second floor. (His band, buddies from his native Santa Barbara, sat at a table nearby.) “I never played it, but I was like, ‘We should go immerse ourselves in that music and just live in that for a while. Just learn a bunch of old honky-tonk songs we love, go play some shows, and kind of do that for a while. I feel like the only way for me to internalize something is to do it a bunch.”
Shiflett has had side projects before, but they were punk bands, such as Jackson United and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. Still, punk and honky-tonk do have a history, particularly in Southern California, where Dwight Yoakam played to punk crowds during his formative years.
“Honky-tonk and punk rock to me are kind of kindred spirits,” said Shiflett, who played in the band No Use for a Name before he joined the Foo Fighters. “You can’t quite put a finger on it. Maybe it’s just sort of a fuck-you attitude. It’s that rebellious streak.”
Soon after Shiflett and his band began performing the honky-tonk tunes, they decided to record some. The result is All Hat and No Cattle, a new album of covers by artists like Owens, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings.
While most of the songs channel the Bakersfield Sound popularized by California country acts dating back to the Fifties, there’s no twang in Shiflett’s vocals and no tear-in-my-beer sadness He does dress the part: shortly before the show, he ditched a Rolling Stones T-shirt in favor of a long-sleeve button-up shirt and cowboy hat. And while he has quickly mastered the country licks on guitar, his up-tempo covers feature a sly rock edge, evident in his version of Jennings’ tune “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?,” a two-chord song that Shiflett ended with a rollicking jam, complete with Stax-style horns.
“I think this is almost just an extended exercise in guitar playing for me,” he said. “Because I love country pickers.”
Finding himself on a roll, Shiflett had planned to release another album of originals with the Peasants, until that other band came calling.
“It was a very short hiatus,” he said with a smile. “We’re going to start recording the new Foo Fighter record at the beginning of next year.”
Don’t expect his country foray to influence that album much, though Shiflett joked that he might try to get a banjo part in there somewhere. “I’ll see if I can slip one in on the next album when no one’s looking,” he joked. “Dave will go, ‘Who put that fucking banjo on there?'”