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Taylor Hawkins

Taylor Hawkins


"I know I've realized way beyond my dreams," says Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. "I've actually been a professional musician since 1994. That's a long time in which I've been lucky enough to keep a gig and be successful at what I do, which is also my passion: playing drums. So I'm very, very blessed to live this crazy, unimaginable life."


Although he's the idol of millions for his drumming prowess, Hawkins' first rock 'n' roll dreams didn't focus on the drums; rather, they were centered on the guitar because, as he puts it, "Nobody looks at the drummer."


As a 10-year-old in Laguna, California, he tried in vain to play his neighbor's six string, but the instrument didn't feel right; it required "too much work." Hawkins' boyhood visions of rock glory might've ended right there. Luckily, however, that same neighbor had a drum set, and from the moment Taylor sat down at the kit, everything clicked; with two sticks in his hands, he was a natural.


"Life started when I began playing the drums," Hawkins explains. "Drums became my coat of armor, my identity. I just automatically fell in love with them and they became everything in my life. I'd look at drum magazines and pictures of drum sets the same way other kids looked at car mags and stuff like that."


Scraping together $150, Taylor bought his first drums from another neighbor. "I'm not sure what brand they were," he says, "but the snare was a Gretsch, which is what I play now."


Completely self-taught, Hawkins favored a French grip over a traditional or German style, and he progressed quickly as a hard-hitting player, moving from school talent shows (he still remembers fellow students cheering his drum solos) to gigging with local cover bands. Queen, David Bowie, Sweet and other '70s-era British acts were huge influences, but Taylor didn't just absorb the drumming on those acts' records, he also developed a deep understanding of the song craft and vocal harmonies that made them work. "Writing good songs is something I've always aspired to do," he says. "It's difficult for some and easy for others. It's a process."


It was Taylor's well-rounded sense of musicianship that got him hired as singer Sass Jordan's drummer when he was just 19. From there, he landed what he considers his "first real gig," playing in Alanis Morissette's band. It was 1995, and Morissette was the hottest act around – her album Jagged Little Pill exploded on the charts and would hit No. 1 in nine countries.


"It was crazy and exciting," Hawkins remembers. "Alanis was huge. I saw the world and played all these festivals over in Europe." During the nearly two years that he drummed for Morissette, Taylor got a chance to hone his immense energy, power and flair behind the kit. During this time, at a European festival, he met up with Dave Grohl. The ex-Nirvana drummer was having success leading his own band, the Foo Fighters. Hawkins greatly admired Grohl, who, for his part, was most impressed by the hot new drummer on the scene. The two hit it off and hung out at various radio station-sponsored concerts and awards shows.


After the end of the Jagged Little Pill tour, Morissette decided she needed an extended break. Quite serendipitously, Hawkins heard that the Foo Fighters' drummer William Goldsmith had quit the band. Eager to be part of the group, Taylor put in a call to a mutual friend of Grohl's to express his interest in being considered. So it was somewhat surprising that when Grohl did call Hawkins, he didn't inquire about his services; rather, he asked Taylor if he had any recommendations.


"I was like, 'Come on, man. I'm your drummer,'" Taylor says. Grohl was initially hesitant – he didn't see why Hawkins would leave a massive artist like Alanis Morissette for what was a still up-and-coming band, but the two got together to jam, and everything fell into place. Just like that, Hawkins secured the coveted throne with the Foo Fighters.


Although Taylor relished being in a band with his new best friend, he admits that it was strange at first to try to "own" the drum parts originally played by Grohl on early Foos records (Hawkins didn't make his studio debut with the group until 1999's There Is Nothing Left to Lose). Even today, he describes the situation as slightly unorthodox.


"I mean, Dave can play all the instruments just as good as everybody in our band, and in some cases, better. When we work on new records, it's very much a team effort. I don't have this attitude like, 'I'm the drummer so I should come up with everything.' It's not like that. Dave has a lot to say about the way he wants the drums to be, but, you know, most songwriters do."


Up until 2006, Hawkins played on a number of different kits, but when the Foo Fighters participated in a VH-1 Rock Honors show celebrating Queen (at one point during the telecast Taylor, Dave Grohl and the legendary Roger Taylor all played "We Will Rock You" together), Hawkins got a chance to sit down at Roger Taylor's Gretsch set when the cameras weren't rolling. "I thought, 'Wow, these sound amazing!' " he says. "And I kind of went, 'Hmm, I think this is going to be my next venture.' "


Today, Hawkins plays a Gretsch USA Custom set with the Foo Fighters. For some recordings, he uses vintage Gretsch kits, but his USA Custom configuration, which has seen plenty of action both live and in the studio, consists of a 16x24" kick drum, a brass black-lacquered 6.5x14" snare, rack toms measuring 5x8, 6.5x10 and 11x13", two floor toms (14x16 and 16x18") and a Remo 14" Rototom above and between the two floor toms.


His cymbals are Zildjian, consisting of 15" New Beat hi-hats, two 18" Custom crashes, a 22" Rock ride, a 20" A Custom crash to the right side slightly above the ride and a 20" EFX high above the far right side. Heads are Remo Coated Emperors, with an Emperor X on the snare, and the hardware is Gibraltar, with the exception of the DW hi-hat stand and the 9000 Series kick pedal. Hawkins frequently mounts a Latin Percussion cowbell to the right of his first floor tom, and he has an LP wood block next to his hi-hats. As for sticks, he uses his own Zildjian Taylor Hawkins signature series, size 5B.


What Hawkins finds especially appealing about Gretsch drums is their ability to deliver consistent sound with a lot of attack in a variety of settings. From club gigs (which the Foos still do from time to time) to arenas to 100,000-plus festival shows, he's most impressed with their rich and controllable output, and the fact that they don't require endless fiddling. More importantly, they cut through the other instruments in a way that is entirely musical.


While Dave Grohl tours the globe this summer with his "supergroup" Them Crooked Vultures (which also includes former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and guitarist/singer Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age), Hawkins is busying himself with his own band, Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders, in which he sings and plays drums. Their second album, Red Light Fever, has just been released to positive reviews (their eponymous debut came out in 2006), and it finds Taylor and company (the band also includes bassist Chris Chaney and guitarists Gannin Arnold and Nate Wood) paying homage to a vast spectrum of classic rock, from the Beatles-esque balladry of "Hell to Pay" to the Queen-like rockers "Way Down" and "Not Bad Luck." Fittingly, Hawkins called in a pair of superstar guests for the latter two cuts, none other than Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen. Yes, it helps to have friends in high places.


When asked which he prefers, live performances or the recording studio, Hawkins admits that he's torn. "With the Foo Fighters, I probably like live more," he says. "With the Coattails, it's a toss-up. I do love the studio with the Coattail Riders because I have a bigger picture of it. With the Foo Fighters, my job is to make sure I have good drum tracks and I bust my butt to nail them. With the Coattail Riders, I'm thinking more wide. I'm thinking vocal harmonies and kind of like getting Gannin to do some cool guitar stuff that I have in my head. That's a different thing, and that's more like painting a picture."


Plus, he adds, singing and playing drums live in the Coattail Riders is physically more taxing. "We ran through the set last week, and at the end of the set my shirt was dripping wet," he says. "So it's not only is it the physicality of playing the drums, but you're singing the whole time; you're taking these breaths and you're singing. It's a challenge."


When hitting the road with the Coattail Riders, Hawkins will be seated behind a Gretsch kit, but it'll be a scaled back version from the one he plays with the Foos. "It's almost kind a Ringo Starr kit," he says. There will be fewer cymbals (an 18" Zildjian Resco crash to the left and an 18" K Hybrid crash on the right, along with a 20" K Special crash/ride), and they'll be lower and flatter so Taylor can be seen singing at the mic. Not only that, but there will be fewer and smaller Gretsch drums, namely a 16x22" kick, an 11x13" tom and a 14x16" floor tom.


Although it's not as impressive visually as his main Foo Fighters setup, Hawkins says the Gretsch kit still takes what he dishes out and puts out sonically in large clubs. Besides, he adds, hauling around his Foo Fighters gear with the Coattail Rider is out of the question: "When we go out with the Foo Fighters, I can do whatever and I can bring whatever I want because everybody's going to have their own tech. With the Coattail Riders, we travel light because we're in a van and carrying 15 drums and big, giant cymbals everywhere is going to be a bit laborious when you don't really have a tech. We have one guy who is not going to carry everything."


Even so, he'll be banging the heck out of his Gretsch set, and utilizing a new trick, tilting the snare away from himself – the better to hit rim shots with.


When asked to name his proudest musical moments, the musician who was crowned Rhythm magazine's Best Rock Drummer of 2005, and who has appeared on a growing number of albums, both as a player and vocalist (Slash, Coheed & Cambria, Queen + Paul Rodgers), lists two: there's the Foo Fighters track "Aurora" from There Is Nothing Left to Lose, which Hawkins describes as a "deep cut," but one that is "our favorite song we ever recorded as a band."


And then there's "All My Life" from the Foo Fighters' 2002 album One by One. "I don't know if I said it to Dave or Dave said it to me, but we said, 'Wouldn't it be awesome to have something like this on the radio?' We never thought we would have something that aggressive and slightly crazy and out of control be on the radio. When that became a hit, that was a big musical moment for me and for us."


Humble and self-effacing to a fault, Hawkins has participated in Guitar Center's Drum-Off a number of times as a judge, and he's amazed at the level of talent he's seen at such events: "It's absolutely beyond me," he says. "I mean, some of the participants are, on a technical level, way beyond me. I like being a part of Drum-Off, though, I enjoy them, but the players are probably looking up at me and going, 'That dude from the Foo Fighters is judging me?' " And with that, he laughs and pantomimes playing crazily a million miles an hour.

 
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