Taylor Hawkins: how I nearly joined Guns N' Roses and other stories

Taylor Hawkins press shot
(Image credit: Shanabelle/Columbia Records)

If it all goes wrong in music, Taylor Hawkins could carve out a decent career as an impressionist. Right now, The Foo Fighters drummer is explaining how Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh gave him the title of his new all-star solo album, Get The Money, a phrase which in turn was handed down from blues legend BB King

As he talks, Hawkins switches between his own hyperactive Southern California accent, Walsh’s slurred Midwestern croak and King’s deep rumble.

“I was whining about how hard it is touring the world, staying in these 500 dollar hotel suites,” he begins. “Joe said that he’d had the same conversation with BB King. He went [adopts Walsh drawl], ‘Oh man, I’m sick of being on the road.’ And BB went, [King rumble] ‘Oh man, are you getting paid?’ [Walsh drawl] ‘Yeah, a lot.’ [King rumble] ‘Well, shut up and get the money.’ And Joe just said to me, ‘Stop being a pussy, and get the money.’ Simple as that.”

That’s some solid gold name-dropping, but Walsh did more than just gift Hawkins an album title. He’s one of a fairly dizzying and occasionally baffling array of A-list guests who appear on Get The Money. It's a list which runs from ‘that makes sense’ (Dave Grohl, Perry Farrell, Queen’s Roger Taylor, Chrissie Hynde) to the increasingly WTF? (country star LeAnn Rimes, Yes singer Jon Davison, Level 42 bassist Mark King).

It all makes for an entertainingly schizoid album – one that never takes itself too seriously. Or, as Hawkins himself puts it: “It’s the ramblings of a fucking spoiled rock star.”

Despite his protestations, you don’t notch up 20 years in one of the biggest contemporary rock bands on the planet by being a spoiled rock star. Hawkins is funny and self-deprecating, and utterly aware of his place in the Foo Fighters. “It’s Dave’s band,” he says cheerfully. “He’s in charge.”

Grohl appears on several songs on Get The Money, including the Foos-esque opener Crossed The Line. It must have been nice for Hawkins to boss around the guy who pays the wages for once. “Nah, it doesn’t go like that,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know how to boss Dave Grohl around. He only knows how to boss me around. He comes in, says ‘What have you got?’ Then he does what he does, I take it and say ‘Thank you.’”

Hawkins recorded Get The Money piecemeal over the last couple of years between Foos tours. Its anything-goes approach is a world away from his main band’s slick, arena-ready rock. “There’s so much more in my head than being the drummer in the Foo Fighters, musically,“ he says.

Still, being a member of the Foos definitely proves useful when it comes to persuading people to appear on your album. Like LeAnn Rimes, the former Nashville child prodigy turned queen of modern country who appears on the track C U In Hell. Rimes and Hawkins live in the same neighbourhood, and their kids go to the same school. He tentatively asked her if she wanted to sing on this “psychedelic stoner rock song” he had. To his surprise, she said yes. Rimes ended up singing it while laying on the studio floor.

Or his idol-turned-friend Roger Taylor. The Queen drummer adds his throaty rasp to a version of Shapes Of Things, the proto-psychedelic anthem originally recorded by The Yardbirds in 1966 but that Hawkins knew via the Jeff Beck Band version released a couple of years later. “I kept emailing him about it, and eventually he went, [does impression of an impatient Taylor] ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll do it.’”

Taylor isn’t the only hero he’s roped in. Perry Farrell adds his unmistakable kettle-whistle vocals to I Really Blew It, a song which takes a rueful look at the travails of married life and finds the Jane’s Addiction singer delivering the memorable line, 'Eat these balls if you’re going to take ’em.' For Hawkins, it was a squaring of the circle.

“Jane’s Addiction were one of my favourite bands in high school,” he says. “I really wanted to be part of that weird underground Hollywood scene, but I was kind of too young and it was too far away. Jane’s made hard rock weird and interesting again. It had become this plastic-y thing. Hair metal, except nobody called it that then. What started with a great band like Van Halen ended up just… shit.”

Despite the guest list, Hawkins takes on much of the vocal heavy lifting on Get The Money himself. His gravelly, surf-dude voice suggests he could have become a singer in his own right if he wanted to. “Am I a frustrated frontman? Yes, on a certain level.”

Taylor Hawkins and Roger Taylor

Hawkins with pal Roger Taylor in 2006 (Image credit: KMazur / Getty Images)

Hawkins started out in school bands in his native Laguna Beach, and there’s a connection to his distant past on Get The Money. Jon Davison, current singer with prog giants Yes, adds backing vocals to Crossed The Line. The pair have known each other since they were kids, and played in several groups together, the best of which was covers outfit Heavy Industry. “How stupid a name is that?” he says, wincing. “We played high school dances, a wedding. That was absolutely the most successful band we had.”

The pair’s paths diverged after the halcyon days of Heavy Industry. Hawkins passed through “a couple of shitty bands that tried to sound like Jane’s Addiction”, before he landed a gig with Canadian singer Sass Jordan. It was with Jordan that he first visited London, to play the intimate Camden Underworld. And it was via Jordan that he was introduced to a former child star turned aspiring adult singer named Alanis Morissette.

“Alanis had just made this record and she needed to a band,” says Hawkins. “So she hired me as a drummer and kind of put me in charge of getting the band together. She went off to do a bunch of press, then she came back and it just never stopped.”

That record was Jagged Little Pill, the 1995 album that would go on to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. As touring drummer, Hawkins had a prime seat on the rocket as it hit the stratosphere. "We literally went from total obscurity to this insane level,” he says. 

The situation had its upsides: appearing on MTV, getting a decent paycheque. But the speed of the album’s success was dizzying.

“I was lucky in that I was really on the outside of the eye of the hurricane,” he says. “Alanis was living in absolute fucking… it was too much. When you’re flavour of the year, there’s so much fucking pressure. The positiveness of it comes with the negativeness of someone like Courtney Love saying, ‘She’s bullshit’, or whatever. Listen, I was enjoying the spoils of it, but there was a lot of pressure on her.”

It was Morissette who predicted Hawkins’ next move. “We met the Foo Fighters when I was still playing with her, and she said, ‘Dave’s gonna ask you to join the someday.’ She called it a year before it happened.”

Morissette’s prophecy proved to be accurate. Hawkins jumped ship to join the Foo Fighters in 1997, replacing original drummer William Goldsmith.

“I was the drummer in the Foo Fighters, but I didn’t feel like the drummer in the Foo Fighters,“ he says. “I mean, Dave played on half of [Hawkins' first Foos album] There Is Nothing Left To Lose.”

That situation would eventually rectify itself, though not before the Foos endured a period of trauma that nearly finished them off for good. In 2001, Hawkins overdosed and nearly died after snorting a line of heroin. He wasn’t a junkie, he says, but he was partying too hard. While he was recovering, Dave Grohl began playing drums with Queens Of The Stone Age. When the Foos reconvened, there was something wrong. The album they were trying to make was way off target.

“We made this record that took five months and cost a million dollars, and it just didn’t have it,” he says. “Dave was in love with Queens Of The Stone Age, we couldn’t figure out how to be a band. It really did seem like we were going to bust up.”

Hawkins effectively handed in his notice. “I told Dave, ‘I’m outta here. I’ll sell my house, maybe I could get my job back with Alanis, or deliver pizza or sell weed.’”

Instead, they decided to give it one last shot. The pair of them decamped to Grohl’s native Virginia, and redid the whole album in a week. The result, One By One, was far from perfect, but it kept the Foo Fighters together.

“People say it’s one of our worst records ever,” says Hawkins. “And it’s sort of a flawed, weird-sounding, fucked-up album. But it’s got two of our biggest hits on it, Times Like These and All My Life.” More importantly, it brought the Foos together in a way they hadn’t felt before. “That’s when I felt it had finally cemented in a band, at least for me.”

The Foos haven’t come anywhere near close to the edge since. “Dave always says we’re too old to split. It’d be like your fucking grandparents getting a divorce. ‘What? Grandad’s having an affair?!?’”

Hawkins actually had a chance to bail on the Foos even before that. The band were in London in support of There Is Nothing Left To Lose when he got a call from his mom back in the States. Someone from Guns N’ Roses management had called asking for him.

“Axl was trying to get together a new version of Guns N’ Roses, and I think he was checking around for people,” he says. “They wanted to know if I would come in and try out or whatever. It was kind of otherworldly.”

Hawkins did what anyone did: he called Roger Taylor for advice. Here he slips into another impression, that of a well-heeled British rock star. “He said, ‘Mate, let me tell you a story…’”

The story was that, in the early 70s, Taylor was approached by former Mott The Hoople singer Ian Hunter and guitarist Mick Ronson. Queen had supported Mott on tour, and the pair wanted to recruit him for their post-Mott band. They were going to call it Hunter Ronson Taylor.

The drummer considered the offer. Queen had yet to break into the superstar bracket, and the offer was tempting. But he had too much belief in the band to desert it. He couldn’t imagine being onstage and looking up and not seeing Freddie Mercury or Brian May in front of him.

“And he said, ‘I see you and Dave onstage and there’s something you can’t buy there. There’s something between you guys that might not be there with Axl Rose.’ And he was right.’” 

Today, Hawkins talks about his bandmate with the awe of a kid brother. “For all our trials and tribulations, Dave is like a brother. When we walk out onstage, every time we nod and look at each other and go, ‘Alright, here we go.’ We’re getting in the ring together.”

He’s not quite so convincing when he says the Foos operate on flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants approach, especially live.

“Oh dude, trust me, as a live band we are almost always on the edge of destruction. We’re really loose compared to all those other bands with their fucking Macbooks who sound perfect onstage. We’re not. We’re a beautiful mess.”

Hawkins would love to play some of these new songs live, but has no plans to take The Coattail Riders on tour in support of Get The Money, partly because of the logistics of replicating an album that features so many A-list moving parts, and partly because of other commitments. Among the latter is a new Foo Fighters album.

“It’s still a foetus at this point,“ he says. “But things can move quickly with Dave Grohl. To quote [southern rockers] .38 Special, when dealing with Dave Grohl, you hold on loosely but you don’t let go.”

Holding on loosely but not letting go is exactly what Hawkins is doing, whether it’s with the Foos, the Coattail Riders, his other side project The Birds Of Satan or his “professional wedding band” Chevy Metal. “The main thing I learned from Dave is that it’s hard to get to where we are. There’s a lot of luck, a lot of things other than just music that go into why we’re here. Sure we do well, but the key is to never believe the hype and just stay humble.” 

Taylor Hawkins & The Coattail Riders' new album, Get The Money, is available now via Shanabelle/Columbia Records.

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.