Recording Advice From The Foo Fighters’ Nate Mendel

| Interview, Tips

Nate Mendel has been the bass player for rock icons the Foo Fighters for almost 20 years now. He’s written, recorded, and toured on rock hit after rock hit with Dave Grohl and the gang. With that wealth of experience and knowledge you would expect him to impart some wisdom on how to get great recordings.

Don’t Simply Record Everything

In a recent interview with Musicians Friend, Nate gave this advice to up and coming artists and home studio folk:

Every time somebody has just the germ of a [musical] idea, it’s like “Let’s record that.” And then what you have is this huge backlog of recordings. I think that can turn into a real mess pretty quickly. [Instead] write the song. Remember what it is. Have it sorted out so it sounds good, and then record it. - Nate Mendel, Bassist (Foo Fighters)


Coming from a band that has released at least 100 songs that’s some interesting advice: To not record everything. I can only imagine how many songs Nate and the Foo Fighters have written over the past two decades that have never seen the light of day. All I do know, is that what has been captured in the studio is pretty awesome.

Be Disciplined In The Studio

I think the studio should be a very creative space. I believe there ought to be room for the writing process to take over even in a tracking session. But think great freedom in the studio is actually born out of great discipline both in and before entering the studio. The discipline to write down ideas, demo them, work out solid arrangements, play them for friends, and sit on them for a bit: all of this is critical to releasing a great product.

I think this is what Nate is getting at. The willingness to slow down and actually put some “work” in on the front end of the writing process will only serve you better when it comes time to capture a great recording.

If that means you record fewer (but better sounding) tracks, great. If that means your first arrangement isn’t the final arrangement, good. Whatever it takes to slow you down and think through what you’re writing, because that filter will help you produce the best version of that song possible.

The Assumption Of Recording Advice Sites Like Mine

There tends to be a huge assumption made by recording magazines, videos, and websites like mine: that you already have great songs just waiting to be recorded. It’s as if our role is only to help train you to get a sonically professional recording and mix of your music. I think this is only half of the battle because it’s built on a faulty assumption.

Why assume that you have good songs? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you need more time to develop your writing skills. Maybe you need more on your songs’ arrangements. Maybe you need some feedback from a friend on whether or not the song has potential.

All of this type of “work”, while seemingly unrelated to the sonics of recording, is actually propelling you one major step forward in getting a great recording in your home or project studio. It’s helping you shed the fat of your bad songwriting, leaving only the leanest, and best tasting parts.

Now you’re ready to record!

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17 Responses to “Recording Advice From The Foo Fighters’ Nate Mendel”

  1. Bob Jordan

    Great commentary! I have a couple of songs that are roughly “there” and I was planning to jump in and began recording tracks. I think now that I will spend time with just a guitar and pen and paper first. Thanks for all the insights and great info you freely give us.

    Reply
  2. Rockinrob

    Graham I think Nate is imparting wisdom from one perspective. I know there are some bands that, for one reason or another (mostly touring) actually don’t write anything until they get into the studio, then record everything and listen back for what could be the germ/seed of what could be a song. I understand that if you are doing this within the confines of paid studio time, you can empty your wallet very quickly and the bands that I’ve read about that have done this are very big name acts. I’m a proponent of recording any ideas during a session. I know that like many other musicians I have come up with an idea that I thought was great at the time and did not capture it for posterity sake. Then I couldn’t remember it later. I guess when you play with a prolific songwriter like Dave Grohl that there may be a saturation point where more is actually too much more.

    Reply
  3. Dinosaur David B.

    While all of this is good advice and worth mentioning and repeating, unless you want to start teaching songwriting and arrangement in addition to recording, I don’t think it’s a faulty presumption.

    Any time you’re are providing instruction, there has to be a “point A” to start with, that is based on basic presumptions. If you’re learning how to use your recording software, does the manual teach you how to use a mouse and a keyboard? No. They probably assume you already know that. When providing musical instruction at whatever level, the assumptions is that the student can play their instrument at that level.

    So when dispensing for recording advice, the presumption has to be that the reader going to record a song — whether that song sucks or not. You can tell them all this stuff about how important it is to write great songs, work on arrangements, etc. While it’s all true — and you can even emphasize those things (as Graham does in his videos) where “arrangement” meet “recording technique,” but most people are NOT, and will likely never be great songwriters. And they will probably never know it, either.

    How many people out there will really think to themselves: “gee, this advice applies to ME. My songs suck. I better become a better songwriter before I record my music.” Or is it more likely they’re thinking: “We’ll duh. He’s talking about someone else. My songs RULE.”

    No one thinks their baby is ugly. It’s the job of listeners, and when applicable, A&R, producers, and labels, to break the news the artist that their baby is ugly.

    The thing about Home Recording these days is that it’s cheap enough that it allows ANYONE to make recordings. While that is a wonderful freedom for the musically gifted, it also a pox that allow TONS of musically talentless people to record a lot of garbage.

    Reply
  4. Si CrashLand

    I’m in a punk band and write the bulk of our stuff – this is how I do it:

    When i’m writing I rarely end up with a fully formed song, what I usually get is a riff, or a hook, maybe a chorus…if i’m into it then I record it instantly on my 4 track. I don’t let anything escape and i’m looking to capture the spontanaiety. I build up a collection of ideas on CD and then pass them around the band. From there we sort the good from the bad, and work on the stuff with the most potential.

    We always record, but only for our own benefit. it’s hard to be subjective when your jamming or rehearsing something so we always make sure we track it and then revisit it a couple of days, see how we feel about it and if it works.

    My advice is give it time – very easy to get carried away with the excitement of the moment when your doing it/playing it. Much better to let your opinion form a couple of days later.

    Reply
  5. Lo.mo

    Yup.

    Although, I disagree with Mr. Mendel about the recording of ideas.

    Reply
  6. Joe

    I think this is good advice if you’re a touring or full time musician. I’m not, so for me, if I don’t at least scratch record songs or ideas, they’re gone a lot of the time by the time I could come back to them.
    I could see his point being valid in the days of tape, but who cares if you have a hundred song ideas? Some might suck, or some might be able to be combined etc. Is he talking about “don’t record them at all”, or “don’t go through the full production process”?
    The funniest thing about his quote though, is that although he’s in the Foo Fighters, he has nothing to do with their writing process. If this was Dave talking, it would hold a way different weight.

    Reply
  7. greg

    This approach if totally true for bands, but for electro-acoustic music this approach is the *antithesis* of ‘found sound.

    Reply
  8. Smurf

    I disagree..record everything, always roll tape! Some of my “most popular” songs came from this method.

    If the red light is not on, how will you remember that fleeting riff that you just played? Come on, we have ALL played something in the heat of the moment that when we try to play it again, even a sec later, it is gone?!

    Reply
  9. Jeff

    Like Larry said, different stroke and all that.

    Though I will side on agreeing with Nate M. If it’s not going to stick inside my head, why would it stick in someone else’s. Sure, like everyone, I have had a good idea lost. I think when you record just to ‘get it down’ you are not fleshing out the idea. Just vibing on the ‘ohh, that’s good’ aspect. Not really the actual song within which it will exist.

    I think more recently I’ve stopped thinking of riff and lick orientation and my ideas seem to now spread over possible song sections. My ideas have recently tended to just flow over sections. In context, if you will.

    I think Nate’s point is that ideas need to be songs so work on the songs and not so much the song parts.

    Reply
  10. Andrew Eiler

    Great tip! I wish I would’ve done this more for my current album. I’m going back and redoing lots of things because I didn’t get the arrangement “right” on the front end. For example, There’s a song about creation and for some reason I originally recorded it as a heavy rock song and it did nothing for the lyric. However, I had some outside input on arrangement and we scrapped the original 100% and went for more of a Sufjan Stevens/Bethel Loft Sessions route and the end result is way different, but much better.

    Reply
  11. Patrick

    That advice may work for Foo Fighters – and that’s great, but as I see it, it’s not about recording, it’s about publishing. Sometimes – surely not everytime – good things can happen if you have an idea, just start recording and even be undisciplined (I’d prefer to call it creative experimenting).

    But… if it fails, there is no need to release whatever came out.

    This advice is more of a way to work than a general one. I can see it has benefits for bands, but not every type of music is made that way.

    Reply
  12. Sue Rarick

    It’s probably not cool to say that a lot of well known musicians are well trained musicians that can read and write music. Also a decent studio musician can come up with a riff or idea is able to write it down so it can be repeated. It’s called being professional.

    It doesn’t take all that long to learn something like the Nashville method of writing music. At home musicians can create their own version of the Nashville charting.

    Reply

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