Foo Fighters, from left: Chris Shiftlett, Pat Smear, Dave Grohl, Nate Mendel, and Taylor Hawkins
From his proto-emo explorations with Sunny Day Real Estate to
his post-grunge grooves with the Foo Fighters, Nate Mendel has
learned loads about the dominant traits of great rock bass
playing. Pay attention, kids.
How did you first come to play bass?
When I was 13 or 14 I had a friend who
played guitar. He got it into his head that we
should start a band. He suggested I play bass,
and I said, “Okay, that sounds good!” That
was at a time when I was first starting to go
out and buy my own records and form my
own taste. I was really into the Police—especially
Ghost in the Machine [A&M, 1981].
How did you go about learning to play?
I knew a guy who played in a local
band, and I took a couple lessons with him.
But then I just started to experiment and
figure things out on my own. All through
high school I played in punk rock bands—
mostly in a band called Diddley Squat. We
did a couple of tours around the country in
a van. It was part of the punk rock scene,
so it was do-it-yourself on a pretty small
scale, but it was a lot of fun.
After that, I moved to Seattle and joined
Christ On A Crutch, another punk rock group
that did a lot of touring. I was in the band
for three or four years, and at the tail end I
was becoming more enthusiastic about hardcore
punk rock and wanting to play more
intricate, interesting music. That’s when I
formed Sunny Day Real Estate.
Which bands were making a mark on you?
My musical education was pretty limited—
it was all hardcore punk rock, like Minor
Threat, Black Flag, and Bad Brains. Instead
of studying the bass playing of someone like
John Entwistle, which would have given me
a foundation on how to play, I just wanted
to play a lot of notes really fast. That was
pretty much the only goal.
At that point, how did you understand
your role as a bass player, and how did you
go about playing that role in Sunny Day
When we got together, we were influenced
by the music that was coming out
of the Washington D.C. hardcore scene,
especially bands like Rites Of Spring and
Hayden. At the time, people were becoming
more experimental within underground
music, and not just thrashing out hardcore
songs. That’s what we were listening to, but
we didn’t sit down and strategize the kind
of music we were going to play. We just got
in a room and started making noise.
Some of the arrangements worked out
well and may seem fairly sophisticated, but
it was really just trial and error. It wasn’t
developed to a point where I would have
understood my role in the band, per se. In
retrospect, I can look back and realize what
an incredible opportunity it was as somebody
forming my own identity as a player,
because William Goldsmith was an incredible
drummer—so passionate and so creative.
We really played off each other. If he did
something cool on the drums, I would try to
come up with something that accentuated
that. He’d hear me fiddling around with a
part and he would do the same.
Writing was a labor-intensive process,
but it worked out well. We wouldn’t look
at the song as a whole; we’d play one part
of a song for an hour, and then somebody
would take it off into another direction. It
was jam-oriented, as opposed to being a situation
where a songwriter would come up
with a chord structure and then bring it to
the band. We had two guitar players who
liked to play intertwined guitar parts, so it
wasn’t always clear what the root chord
was. So I had a lot of freedom to come up
with interesting bass lines.
How did you come to play with the Foo
Dave Grohl recorded what turned out
to be the first Foo Fighters record in early
1994; Sunny Day broke up later that year.
Dave’s tape was circulating around town,
and I knew there might be an opportunity
to try out for the band. So I started listening
to it and playing along. From my perspective
at the time, the music seemed rudimentary;
I wasn’t mature enough as a musician
to know that a well-structured pop song
should be simple.
At any rate, I was excited to maybe have
an opportunity to make these songs as complicated
as I could and put as much bass on
there as possible, because that’s all I heard.
Basically, I came into the band wholly unprepared
to play in it. You can kind of hear that
on the first few records, where I’m trying to
inject as much of my personality as I possibly
could. Since then, I’ve realized that
what I need to do is alter the way I play
bass so it works in this band, so I can support
Dave’s songs as best as possible.
How has that approach changed the way
I’ve always played with a pick, but up
until the fifth Foo Fighters record, I never
played downstrokes—I would alternate my
picking. But with this kind of music, you
need the consistency and percussive sound
you get from playing with downstrokes.
The other thing I’ve done is learn how to
play tight and lock better with the drums.
It comes down to subtlety and nuance;
that was something I didn’t grasp early on.
On the live album Skin and Bones,
the band was going for a stripped-down
acoustic sound. How did you change your
playing to adapt?
I downsized to a combo amp, but it didn’t
change the sound much. I tried to play more
fingerstyle. I wasn’t comfortable with that
at all at the beginning of that tour, but by
the end, I had become fairly proficient at it.
You formed the Fire Theft in 2001. How
was it different from what you were doing
at the time with the Foo Fighters?
I did that with William and Jeremy from
Sunny Day Real Estate, and it was more
fluid indie rock as opposed to the heavier,
pop-oriented rock that the Foo Fighters
did. Those guys had started working on a
record, and about halfway through the process,
they brought me in to it. By then, the
basic structure was pretty well ironed out
for most of the songs.
When we were doing Sunny Day Real
Estate, it was a bunch of guys in a room
hashing it out. But by this point Jeremy
had become a more confident and mature
musician, and he was very much the key
songwriter. There was still the freedom to
play whatever I felt like, and there was
room to add different melodic elements in
that band. Stylistically, it fell somewhere in
between early Sunny Day Real Estate and
the Foo Fighters.
When the Foo Fighters played the VH1
Rock Honors show in 2008, you took on two
songs by the Who: “Young Man Blues” and
“Bargain.” How did you approach recreating
John Entwistle’s parts?
That was a tough one, because you can’t
replicate what he did unless you spend
hours and hours figuring out his gear, his
technique, etc. Basically, I just listened to
the records, and I tried to get as close as
possible to playing what he played. My
basic goal was to keep up and to not make
a total ass out of myself. As the Foo Fighters
have had opportunities to play shows
like the VH1 Rock Honors, we’ve had a
few of these kinds of challenges thrown our
way. I always feel like I’m playing catch-up,
because I’m not a particularly special musician.
But I’ve gotten pretty good at thinking
on my feet.
To mark this year’s Record Store Day on
April 16, the Foo Fighters released Medium
Rare, a limited-edition compilation of cover
tunes you’ve done over the years. Are there
any particular covers you feel most at home
You basically form your identity as a
musician when you’re young, and for me
that meant playing in Sunny Day Real
Estate, a rock band that thought playing
covers was a crazy idea. Then I got into the
Foo Fighters, which plays a lot of covers. It
was a good six or seven years into the band
before I actually let on that I wasn’t really
fond of playing covers. But I think we’ve
been pretty successful at doing them and
making them interesting. For me, the best
thing to do is to make it sound as little like
the original as possible. I think our version
of [Gerry Rafferty’s] “Baker Street” turned
out really well.
How did Wasting Light come together?
We took a nice break before doing this
record. Dave went out and recorded and
toured with Them Crooked Vultures. About
a year and a half ago, he was on the road
and starting to think about doing the next
Foo Fighters record. He sent out this manifesto
email that basically said, “This is how
I see this next record happening.” It had all
these ideas—we’d get Butch Vig to produce
it, it would be all analog, we’d do it in Dave’s
garage, and we’d make a documentary film
about it. From that, we had a template for
what we wanted to do. Dave had most of
the song ideas sorted out by last summer.
Part of recording on tape is that we would
need to know the songs before we went in.
In the past, we’d often come up with parts
in the studio, and the songs would evolve.
For this one, we did enough pre-production
and rehearsal that we could have done the
record live. That’s what Butch demanded,
and that’s the nature of recording to tape.
We started recording in September in Dave’s
garage at his house, and did a song a week
for about 11 weeks.
You’re most often seen playing various
Fender Precision Basses. Which basses did
you use to record the album?
I played all of Wasting Light on a Lakland
[Bob Glaub Signature]. We tried a few
different basses, but we found the sound that
worked best. We’d change the EQ to get the
bass to fit in the mix. I love Lakland basses,
and I’m using them on tour for drop-D tunings
right now. But I’m a bit more comfortable
playing Fender basses, so I’ve gone
back to playing those for most of the set.
Aside from your basses and Ashdown
rig, are you running through any effects?
I use a Fulltone overdrive pedal on one
song, but I’m not using many pedals these
days. Now that we have three guitar players
[Grohl, Chris Shiflett, and Pat Smear],
there’s a lot of distortion going on. So I try
to keep it clean and stay in line with the
kick drum. That way, I know that even if
we’re playing a big, echo-y venue, at least
the bass will come across with some bite
The album’s second single, “Rope,” has
a riff that’s particularly intricate.
That song has been around for a while.
Taylor [Hawkins] sometimes comes up
with a rhythm on drums, and then bases
a riff around that—that’s how it happened
with this song. I think he had that rhythm
in his head and then figured out the chords
and the structure. When we first heard it, it
was just Dave playing it on the guitar; then
we started jamming around with it. Taylor
and Dave usually work on the drum parts
together. Taylor comes up with ideas, and
then Dave will say, “I want to hear it like
this,” or, “That’s cool what you’re doing
there—try it this way,” and we just build it
up from there. Since Dave’s a drummer, he
has the advantage of rhythm being second
nature to him. It allows him to do things
that are a bit more complicated without
having to think about it too much.
“I Should Have Known” is another interesting
one, as it has both you and Foos guitarist
Pat Smear playing bass.
Right. On the record, that’s [Nirvana’s]
Krist Novoselic playing bass. Live, Pat plays
his part on a double-neck Hagstrom, which
is awesome. We’re playing pretty much
the same part; I’m just adding some passing
notes and following the drums a little,
while Pat plays it straight.
Motörhead is opening up for the Foo Fighters
on a bunch of live dates. Dave seems to
have a close relationship with Lemmy. Are
the two of you friends, as well?
I like Lemmy, but he and I aren’t exactly
tight; if I were to design two people to be
polar opposites, I’d probably come up with
Lemmy and me. I really like his music, and
I like that he walks it like he talks it. A lot
of people who look like Lemmy turn out
to be the sweetest people you ever meet—
but Lemmy is actually kind of a badass,
and I appreciate that about him. Plus, he’s
got his own style of playing. He does it his
own way, and I think that’s cool.
Are there any other bands you’re playing
with that are particularly cool?
Right now the opening act is Biffy Clyro,
a Scottish band that’s one of the most popular
groups in Europe. They’re absolutely
great—a creative, heavy trio that puts a lot
of thought into the music.
Starbucks. Microsoft. Foo Fighters.
Is there something in the rain-inundated Seattle aquifer that infuses its homegrown
organizations with superhuman powers? Say what you will about software
and Frappuccinos—in the case of the Foo Fighters, world domination
comes courtesy of crushingly catchy, good old fashioned red-blooded rock &
Formed in 1994 by frontman Dave Grohl—who had already been anointed as
a savior of rock for his role as the drummer in Nirvana—Foo Fighters made light
work of its utter domination of the rock charts throughout the ’90s and ’00s,
racking up Grammy Awards and selling records by the boatload.
Just as Grohl’s Nirvana pedigree no doubt unlocked doors for the band
when it first formed, bassist Nate Mendel’s powerful presence brought the band
a different sort of cred; after years touring the country in a variety of hardcore
and indie bands, Mendel had built a reputation as the anchor of Sunny Day Real
Estate, a Seattle-based band cited as being one of the first to bridge the established
grunge scene with the embryonic genre that would become known as
emo. With Sunny Day Real Estate, Mendel crystalized a style of playing that was
both heavy-handed and fleet-footed, rooted in punk rock but prone to melodic
flights that encircled the band’s airy arrangements.
Earlier this year, the Foo Fighters released Wasting Light, its seventh studio
album. A few dates into a world tour that’s likely to last most through most of
2012, BASS PLAYER caught up with Mendel to talk about the genesis of his understated,
Basses ’71 Fender Precision Bass,
Fender Custom Shop Precision Basses,
Lakland Bob Glaub Signature
Studio rig Ashdown ABM-900 and
Ashdown Classic 8x10 cab
Live rig Two Ashdown BTA-400 heads
and two Classic 8x10 cabs
Picks Dunlop Tortex (.88mm)
Strings GHS Bass Boomers (“I just read
an article that Klaus Flouride used
Rotosounds on the Dead Kennedys
records, so I’m going to try them to see
if some of that can rub off on me!”)
Effects Fulltone Bass-Drive