Nate Mendel, From Foo Fighters to Lieutenant: ‘This Is What I Wanted to Say’
For 20 years, Nate Mendel's bass has been the tugboat to Foo Fighters' alt-rock supertanker -- an integral and driving force to be sure, but it's not the captain's seat.
That's fine. The Washington state native and current Los Angeles resident is happy with that role, just as he was handling low end for Sunny Day Real Estate in the '90s, or the Fire Theft in the early aughts. But that doesn't mean he can't find his voice in whatever free time he's got. Despite the relentless grind of his day job -- does Dave Grohl ever sleep?—Mendel's managed to make his very own solo album: If I Kill This Thing We're All Going to Eat for a Week, a pleasantly fuzzy and sweetly emotive nine-song set credited to Lieutenant. We nabbed the man ahead of his band's third show ever, finding a few moments of private quiet amidst the bustle of SXSW.
How does it feel to be the one answering all the questions for once?
I like it, actually. In Foo Fighters, I'm part of a group of people, and I'm not the songwriter, so there's less for me in situations like this. It's nice to be in an interview and have something to say about the songwriting process and the various choices that go into what's going on. And that's the purpose of doing solo records, really, to express, "You know, this is what I wanted to say."
Was there an epiphany moment when you decided, "Hey, I'm gonna do this thing myself. I'm gonna put together a band and I'm gonna sing!"?
It was more of a slow slide. After it became apparent that Sunny Day Real Estate wasn't something I was going to be able to do during Foo Fighters breaks, I started to think, "Wouldn't it be nice to get together with some great drummers and do a record where I'm playing bass and making the structure, adding things on top?" But then it became, "How am I gonna start a band when I don't feel comfortable going in and saying, 'Hey, I'm playing guitar, even though I'm much better at bass.'" I needed to have faith in myself and the only way to do that was to make a record on my own. I did it slowly and learned as I went, instead of jumping in as a fully formed songwriter.
How did Dave take the news?
I didn't tell anybody. I wasn't sure what was going to happen with it, so it seemed easier to make it, finish it, put it out and have everyone discover it, than just to say one day, "I'm gonna make a solo record!" It might be because I live in Los Angeles, where there's a lot of talk of what's going to happen, but maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. But everybody's being supportive, and we've got a history of side-projects. Taylor [Hawkins] and Chris [Schiflett] have been doing records for years, so it's not unexpected. Well, I guess it's unexpected of me, but not unprecedented. Those guys have been really helpful. Like I asked them, "How do you put a band together when you've already written the songs?" Or, "How do you work with our management company, whose priority is Foo Fighters? Can I rely on them for anything?"
Any specific advice from Dave on being a frontman?
He listened to the record and was really complimentary, which is great. He asked how the shows went—the first two that I did in January— and I was like, "Well, I know how to sing, but learning to do it live is difficult. You're hearing it come back through the speakers and it sounds awkward." And he's like, "Oh yeah, I hated my voice for years. There's no trick to it. It's just a matter of acclimating yourself."
The Foos certainly seem like a pretty busy band, you were recently married and you have a young son. How'd you find the time to make an album?
Yeah, between the last Foo Fighters record and Sonic Highways, there was a year or so scheduled when we weren't doing much and I thought, "Great! Now's the time!" I got started writing the songs, thinking I'd record them before we got going, and then I got a call from Dave that we were going to start working on Foos stuff early. So pretty much since 2013, I've been doing both at once. I've actually become very disciplined; that's what it comes down to. I carve out time days in advance: "I'm writing or recording during these hours and everything else is going to have to wait." So there's a lot in my life that's in a state of suspended free fall right now.
In finding your sound, was it hard to shed 20 years of being in the Foos?
Not really, because there's almost no similarity. There were things that surprised me during the process. Like, I approach the bass an entirely different way when I'm recording my own song. It's my musical contribution to the Foo Fighters -- it's an accompanying instrument, but I don't treat it like that because it's what I do for the band. But when I'm writing songs, it gets relegated to that role. I'm not as precious about the bass, because other ideas I have can be transposed to any instrument.
Were you surprised by what came out when you started writing lyrics?
I assumed that I would write about other people and not about myself. Because I've never been interested in that. It seemed trite, like, "How much more can you write about how you feel about a woman? For f---'s sake, really?" I told myself, "I'm not gonna write about that. I'm gonna write about what's happening to the world and how I feel about it. I'm gonna come at things from above rather than beneath." My process was stream of consciousness -- I would write words down, figure out what they meant, then complete the idea. And ... they were about love and relationships.
Can't get away from it.
Yeah, but I did it better than most people, so f--- all y'all. [Laughs]
So did you sit down for a certain amount of time each morning to write?
Somebody told me about a Damon Albarn interview where they asked him, "How do you get stuff done?" He said, "I keep regular hours," and that stuck with me. Nine to five, man. Take my son to school, go home, quick run, then write all day. That's the key, right? When you're like, "I don't feel like doing this today," you do it anyway.
And you worked with a vocal coach, right?
[Ashamed] Yeah. You'd never know it, but I did. I'm a self-taught musician, but I'd never sung before at all. I'm not a person who sings in the shower, I've never done backing vocals, nothing. It never appealed to me for whatever reason. I knew I was behind, so I figured, "Why don't I see if I can skip ahead a few of steps?" It was kinda helpful, but ultimately I realized I'm just gonna have to figure it out on my own.
How does it feel to be the frontman, the boss of your own project?
I love it. I like every single aspect of it. The only part that's troubling to me is that I'm travelling with four other guys right now who are just off f---ing around while I'm here talking about what we're doing. That feels a little uncomfortable to me. If we're gonna play music together as a group, it'd be nice to have their involvement. On the other hand, I've been part of that process for so long and I want to write the songs that I want to write, so, I don't really know what to do with that right now. But I love the freedom. Do I want to play a show? Yes, let's go play a show, f--- yeah. Do I want to do a video? Yeah, I've got an idea, let me see if I can do it on the cheap. I came up with the art direction for the album, too. All of that is part of the process.
You've played in bands forever ...
As long as you've been alive, young man.
Do you have expectations for this one?
No. I'll know a lot more in a month because we're going to go out and tour for the first time. We're going to play small places. Maybe somebody will come and maybe they won't. We'll play to some empty spots, and I'm sure I'll get heckled sometimes, and maybe we'll have a great show or two. But don't know how to front this band right now, at all -- that's just trial and error. What we are live in three weeks is going to be totally different. I want to get to the place where it feels like it did in Sunny Day years ago, where it's like, "I don't care if there are three people or 300, we're going to f---ing slay it tonight." I want to have that confidence, even if I'm wrong. I want to be under that cloud of illusion. When that happens, I'll have goals and aspirations.
Lieutenant's debut album, If I Kill This Thing We’re All Going to Eat for a Week, is out now via Dine Alone Music. You can pick up a copy here, and stay up-to-date with everything happening in the band's world at this location.