Founding Foo Fighter Nate Mendel talks to Scott Kara.
Once Dave Grohl had written, recorded and played almost everything on the Foo Fighters' debut album in 1995, he needed to find a band. It took him a few years to settle on the right recruits, and there were a few turbulent times and even some deception in those early years, but the first on board - and a constant ever since - was bass player Nate Mendel.
Grohl and Mendel had hardcore and punk in common. Though Grohl had become famous in Nirvana, he grew up on a steady diet of punk, metal, and Led Zeppelin, and started really making a name for himself in Washington DC hardcore band Scream. Mendel was a veteran of the hardcore, DIY Seattle music scene before joining the Foo Fighters. He was in several bands, including straight-edge band Brotherhood, who was an influence for Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham, the front man of Canadian band F***** Up who support the Foo Fighters in Auckland next week.
"They got me through high school," reckons Abraham.
Mendel, on the phone from Salt Lake City ahead of the Foo Fighters' second visit here this year, has a little chuckle about Brotherhood these days. "For some reason you could base a whole genre of music on, 'Oh, we don't drink beer'. But I wasn't a straight-edge guy; they were missing a bass player, I was friends with the guys, and I did a record with them."
He then went on to form Sunny Day Real Estate, which became a successful band in its own right, signing to iconic Seattle label Sub Pop. "Back then that was a big deal, 'Oh, major label, major label ... " remembers Mendel.
But early in 1995 Sunny Day split up, and Mendel and the band's drummer William Goldsmith joined the Foo Fighters. Though Mendel describes it as a natural progression, he admits it was also "weird on so many different fronts".
"As much as Dave had had success with Nirvana, he wanted to step it back a bit and let the band grow organically and not just try to be Nirvana II, or to step straight into that level of success or commercialism. We wanted to tap all that down a bit."
When they started out, the Foo Fighters didn't travel on buses, preferring the humble tour van. They also had a minimal road crew and played modest-sized venues.
There were troubled times early on, as warts-and-all documentary Back and Forth from earlier this year points out.
Goldsmith quit during the recording of second album The Colour and the Shape (after Grohl re-recorded the drum parts for the album without telling him), and guitar players Pat Smear and Franz Stahl (Grohl's old Scream bandmate) came and went. Although as of 2007, Smear has been back in the band.
"We have had a tumultuous past," says Mendel. "We started off with all this attention, rather than having years writing songs together and getting to know each other, so it's become a part of our history. But we've had a stable line-up for 13 of our 16 years."
They have been solid for a long time now - with drummer Taylor Hawkins joining in 1997 and guitarist Chris Shiflett in 1999 - but Mendel says the dynamic within the band has been a constantly changing one over the years.
"It started off as Dave's band. And then we very much became a band who were trying to develop an identity and things were relatively democratic and then as Dave began to understand the dynamics of running a band, and being the songwriter, then he felt more comfortable being more authoritative, and being more direct in what he wanted - saying, 'This is how I want this to sound'. So then it fluctuated back to being very Davecentric and the rest of us are supporting players. And that relationship moves around between those two poles."
After 2007's Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace, Grohl felt like he needed a break from the Foo Fighters, during which time he went off and formed Them Crooked Vultures. And the other band members felt the same, with Mendel touring with a reunited Sunny Day, and Shiflett and Hawkins both doing various solo projects. "It just felt like the right time," says Mendel. "We had done three albums back to back and toured hard, but more than that, I think we needed people to have a break from us. You know, we show up in a town and it would be like, 'Oh, the ****** Foo Fighters are here again'," he laughs.
And the break did them good with this year's Wasting Light arguably the band's best album. "It's as good as it's ever been. We've got Pat back in the band which feels really good. We're writing good songs. And we're doing bigger shows than we have ever had.
"The only thing that's weird about that is that we are older now and we've been doing this a long time. So you take that into account and deal with it and do what you can to keep it fresh and keep it fun so we can do this for as long as we can."
Foo Fighters live in New Zealand
January 1996: Support Sonic Youth at Auckland's Logan Campbell Centre and Wellington Town Hall
February 1998: Headline Auckland Town Hall and Wellington Town Hall after release of second album The Colour and the Shape.
January 2000: Big Day Out Auckland January 2003 and Galatos (pre BDOut show)
January 2003: Big Day Out, Auckland
November 2005: Mt Smart Supertop, Auckland and Queens Wharf Events Centre, Wellington
May 2008: Two nights at Vector Arena, Auckland
March 2011: Christchurch earthquake benefit, Auckland Town Hall, raising $354,000.
December 2011: Last show of the year at Auckland's Western Springs.