Gear Talks: Chris Shiflett

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Gear Talks: Chris Shiflett

Chris Shiflett
Words by Lewis Noke Edwards

Having come up in the California punk scene in the 90s in No Use For A name, Shiflett joined the Foo Fighters in the early 2000s.

Chris Shiflett is the guitarist’s guitarist. Since his early days, he’s contributed to a whole list of bands and albums, including his own solo ventures since 2017, and even these are predated by two studio albums with band Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants.

Read up on all the latest features and columns here.

His most recent solo album, Lost At Sea, is available now and ties together the Nashville rock and alt country sound of his previous solo albums. All his influences in a melting pot, Lost At Sea is 10 songs of punchy, rocky, country inspired guitar goodness, and we had the chance to chat with him about the making of it.

We begin by chatting about writing his own music. Having been a member of multiple bands with some huge personalities, surely this would be a different approach?

“This one was definitely different because I wrote a bunch of stuff by myself that wound up on the record. But then I wrote a bunch of stuff with other people… most of the rest of them were one off co-writes, and I haven’t really done that before.”

“I’ve written with other people, but you’ll write five songs or something and three of them go on your record, stuff like that.”

He’s open and polite, ready to speak about how the record came together. Despite being the driving force behind his own solo music, he’s also very open to ideas and input from other people, all in the pursuit of the best possible outcome.

“I’d write with my friend Kendell Marvel and he’d go ‘Oh, you mind if Cody Jinks jumps in there?’ and that was just one day, and wrote “I Don’t Trust My Memories Anymore”.”

“Wrote a couple times with Jaren [Ray Johnston] with a couple different people, and the song that we wrote with John Osborne was one of those, and that wound up on the record.”

Chris seamlessly shifts into answering my next question here, explaining that he generally likes to go into co-writes with ideas already cooking.

“I like going into co-writes with ideas, generally. But with both of those ones I just mentioned, those weren’t my ideas that we wound up writing. It’s fun. It’s really different from just kinda sitting there, notepad and guitar, you’re figuring out how to connect the chorus to a bridge or whatever.”

I push this question a bit harder, asking how prepared his own ideas are when he enters the sessions.

“Just for me, [a process that] tends to work best, you come up with a few different ideas. It’s so funny that balance, I’ve bought in ideas with people to co-write with and they’re like ‘Well, you already have a song.’ y’know?” Chris chuckles.

“So maybe it’s a guitar riff, maybe it’s just a hookline. Maybe it’s just a concept. Maybe it’s a sketch of a first verse and a chorus, just something that you can hang your hat on to.”

“I also find [that] if I’m gonna then go and record the song, it’s easier for me to kinda wrap my head around it if the lyrics are something personal to me.”

Again, Chris has seamlessly pushed the conversation along my line of questions. He really is a pro. I push the subject of recording, asking about the process once songs are written.

“I probably demo’d most of the ideas just sitting around my studio alone. The actual recording of the record was done in three trips to Nashville when I got together with Jaren and all the folks that played on it. We would cut basic basic tracks, and then the next day go in and cut most of the lead vocal.

“Then I would take that back home with me and maybe record a guitar solo, or maybe some guitar bits if there was overdubs. Then Jaren would mess with it and he’d record a bunch of stuff on it and we’d just sort of tweak it until it got to where we wanted it to be with most of ‘em.”

I pivot a bit here, confirming the songs were finished-ish when they got to Nashville, but with some room to move.

“Yeah, it always changes a lot in the room, and that was true for pretty much all these songs. I tend to be kinda lazy on my demos.”

“I feel like if I can make one of my crappy demos resonate with me, then I figure once you get in a room with a bunch of great players and a good producer and a good engineer, then you’re gonna get something.”

I jest here, saying that maybe instead of lazy, he’s intentionally leaving room for magic in the studio.

“Yeah,” Chris laughs. “I tell ya, one of the most magical parts of this album, that’s different from really any other solo record I’ve made is the way that we cut it, there were three of us playing guitar on each session.”

“So it’d be me playing, and then you’d have Charlie Worsham, who was on all of it, and he’d be doing all the acoustic stuff: mandolins, banjo, acoustic guitar, just all the acoustic stuff was Charlie.”

Chris goes on to name a couple of Nashille’s best session musicians as lead guitarists on various sessions.

“That was really cool, because if it’s just me playing all the guitar on something, I get a little lost. It’s hard to react to your own stuff, y’know? It gets a little boring to my ear.”

“So having all these other people record all these other takes, and very different types of players, is really to me where a lot of the magic came from. A lot of discovery.”

I’m interested now into how much Shiflett was pushing players to go a certain direction, was he producing per se or mostly hands off?

“I don’t remember specifically, really Jaren was the one leading the charge, directing people what path to go down. I’m sure we talked through some of it, but honestly most of the time I just wanna get a good take on my track.”

“And I’m not so much worried about what anyone else is doing, you’re kinda clocking it. But it’s great because they’re all doing multiple ideas, so you wind up having a lot to pick and choose from.”

“Jaren was the one selecting what wound up [on the record], but then he would send it all to Reid Shippen. And I remember Jaren telling me that liked to not really give Reid a lot of instruction, just to see what he heard. All of a sudden the guy mixing your record has no baggage, y’know? He wasn’t there when it was being tracked. He [Reid Shippen] is just hearing to his ear what sounds good.”

Chris goes on to explain that after all was said and done, takes and layers were picked through, they obviously had to learn the songs and re-listen to what they’d played on the day of the session that was ultimately selected for the master.

“Sometimes I don’t even know if my guitar’s on right now in this verse of the song!” he laughs. “So I gotta sit there and I gotta crack open the files and listen to what the other parts are and try to work out a version [of it]. It’s a funny thing man, I dig that part of it.”

“Like ‘Did I play that?! Or did Nathan play that?’ I don’t know.”

Chris jumps back to having a mixing engineer come on with fresh ears.

“As musicians we all go into it with a lot of baggage. It’s impossible, you’ve probably been sitting with that song for weeks or months or whatever, and you sort of have this idea of what you want it to be. It’s hard to let go, you never know how other people are gonna hear it.”

“More and more, and especially with this record… “ Chris interrupts himself here to imitate his past self believing that you had to make a record all by yourself, had to have control and oversee the whole process.

“More and more, I just try to let go of that side of things and accept that my idea is not always the best idea, and oftentimes it’s the worst idea in the room.”

We’ve established the workflow for Lost At Sea, how does this compare to his work with the Foo Fighters?

“It’s a very different approach. Over the years with Foos, we tend to record… you record a song until the song’s done. It might take a week or whatever.”

“When I first joined the band, [on] earlier records we’d do all the drums, then you’d do all the bass.”

“I think, if you’ve got the budget, that is a wonderful way to make records. Just record a song, and when the song’s done, you stop and move onto the next song. Of course you can always go back and tweak, but you pretty much get the song done.”

“It’s cool because you stay in it that way. As opposed to recording batches of instruments and having to go back ‘Oh what was I gonna do on that one thing?’ It’s nice to be able to chase it down as it comes to you.”

“With my own records, I don’t have the budget to do that. This new one was quite the opposite, we’re going in, we were recording basic tracks, doing those three hour Nashville session. Some days we’d book a double, y’know, you do your three hours, have lunch, then do another three hours.”

“It is incredible how much you get done in three hours, especially when you know that’s all the time you have. And you could only do that with a bunch of those cats that are used to doing that, with that sort of pressure… no one’s gonna buckle.”

We shift here to Chris’ podcast, Shredding with Shifty. He invites players on and for lack of a better word, jams with them. I ask where the idea for the podcast came from.

“I actually pitched the idea, must have been a couple years ago, when it first came up. It was an idea that I’ve had for a minute, I didn’t think it was gonna happen. We couldn’t get anybody to finance it. I thought it was just kinda gonna go away.”

“And then they called me up out of the blue one day, said ‘Hey I think we’ve found some financing for it. You still wanna do it?’ And I was like ‘Yeah, absolutely!’”

A selection of episodes of Shred with Shifty are available now, featuring guests like Mike McCready, Brad Paisley, Nile Rodgers and Lindsay Ell to name a few.

“This one kinda asks a lot of guests,” he begins with a smile. “You have to have your guitar, you have to… ideally you should go back and try to remember how you played the guitar solo, although most people don’t really remember and that’s fine too.” he laughs.

“It’s a funny thing… it’s such an obvious idea, you almost can’t believe that it didn’t already exist. It also made it kinda hard to sell people on it, because they’re just like ‘Huh? You’re doing what?’”

“I’m like ‘I watch people explain how to play guitar solos wrong on YouTube all the time!’” he chuckles. “I thought it’d be cool to hear it from the actual people.”

We chat here for a moment, agreeing that Mixdown Magazine as an idea is exactly that: a niche interest with devoted fans of the minutiae of making music and the equipment used to do it.

“Well yeah, it’s an interesting thing that people who aren’t musicians… I see comments all the time like ‘I don’t play guitar but this was a really fun interview!’ And I think there’s also that thing, people do like to hear people who they perceive as experts on whatever topic it is, to discuss the nuts and bolts of it.”

“I don’t even really think of myself as an interviewer, I just wanna have a conversation with folks.”

Purchase Lost At Sea here. Catch Chris performing songs from Lost At Sea on tour in December.

With the Foo Fighters set to hit Australia for six huge stadium shows this Nov/Dec, for the very first
time, fans will also get the chance to catch Chris Shiflett performing songs off his new & previous records
over two special solo acoustic shows in Melbourne and Sydney. Don’t miss: