Foo Fighters’ ‘Pretender’ Had To Hustle To Be A Contender: Behind The Grammys

'Dave [Grohl] thought we needed another uptempo song,' producer Gil Norton says of originally slow Record of the Year nominee.

The Foo Fighters have been down this path before — and we’re not just talking about the Grammys .

Back in 1996, they convened in a Seattle-area studio with producer Gil Norton to begin work on an album that many still consider their crowning achievement, The Colour and the Shape. Of course, at that time, the Foos weren’t the Grammy-winning rock machines they are today, rather they were an entirely different contraption. Up until the recording of Colour, they had primarily been a solo vehicle for Dave Grohl. This was to be their first go-round as an actual band, and, well, things weren’t exactly going according to plan.

The initial sessions disappointed Grohl, so during a break, he famously took the rough mixes back to his home in Virginia and decided to write an entirely new album. He then reconvened the Foos — minus drummer William Goldsmith — at a studio in Hollywood and re-recorded the album, with him on drums. This angered Goldsmith (a percussionist of such high caliber that he had been known to hold up live sets by his former band, Sunny Day Real Estate, so he could reconfigure the cymbals on his kit), who bolted from the group soon after hearing the new songs.

And on top of all that, somewhere between Seattle and Hollywood, Grohl and his wife, photographer Jennifer Youngblood, decided to separate (they would divorce the following year), making the entirety of Colour a rather horrible situation for pretty much everyone involved.

So why, more than a decade later, after wrapping a nearly-two-year tour in support of their 2005 album, In Your Honor, did the Foo Fighters decide they wanted to work with Norton again? And why, after producing a string of critical and commercial successes like Dashboard Confessional’s A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar and the Distillers’ Coral Fang (not to mention three albums for the Pixies, back in the day), did he agree to take them up on their offer?

“Well, I think the big difference this time around is that the Foos have been touring and developing their sound for quite a number of years now, [and] we both knew we had to cement all the great things they’d done so far, bringing it to a new-but-familiar dimension,” Norton said. “Dave and [bassist] Nate [Mendel] had been through it with me before, so they found it familiar. I think [drummer] Taylor [Hawkins] and [guitarist] Chris [Shiflett] were a little nervous at first, but they both got really enthusiastic about being challenged to perform in a different way than they had on their previous albums.”

And we’re willing to bet that everyone was happy that they let bygones be bygones. The end result of the Foo/Norton team-up was Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, an album that showcased the softer side the band had explored on Honor, while also giving its much-heralded muscular side an extra punch.

Case in point: the first single, “The Pretender” — a loud/soft dynamo that spent a record 18 weeks atop Billboard‘s modern-rock singles chart and earned the Foos nods for Record of the Year, Best Rock Song and Best Hard Rock Performance at Sunday’s 50th Annual Grammy Awards. (Echoes is also nominated for Album of the Year.) Not too shabby for a song that wasn’t even supposed to make it onto the album in the first place.

” ‘The Pretender’ was first called ‘New Song’ and then ‘Silver Heart.’ Dave had the idea for the song for a while, and we played around with it in pre-production, but we never really developed it,” Norton said. “The chorus was there, but the verse and the middle hadn’t been written. Not to mention the song was much slower. In April, we had a 10-day break, and we were listening to the monitor mixes for most of the album. Dave thought we needed another uptempo song, so he spent his time over the break developing ‘Silver Heart.’

“On the day we reconvened, the band had made a demo version of it that I loved, so we worked on it the next day and recorded it quite quickly,” he continued. “The guys were seriously focused … especially Dave. And when we finished it, we knew it was exactly what we needed to finish the album.”

And though Norton claimed that he had no idea the song would go on to set records and rack up Grammy nominations, he did make it sound like the band left plenty more “Pretenders” on the cutting-room floor. After recording, scrapping and then re-recording an album with Norton more than a decade ago, it seemed like everything about the Foo Fighters had changed. Personally, professionally and creatively, there was too much good stuff to go around on Echoes.

“Dave spent every minute in the studio on this record. He’d be recording guitar overdubs, and he’d be playing all these off-the-cuff riffs, which he used to call ‘spare riffs,’ ” Norton said. “Generally, these were amazing pieces of music in their own right. Most bands would’ve died to use them.”

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