Known for his distorted, heavy rock-'n'-roll guitar sound in the Foo Fighters, Chris Shiflett is feeling "not just a little bit, but a lot, out of my comfort zone."
And that's intentional.
Last month, in a side project with a new band, Shiflett released Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants, an alt-country album that forgoes his signature aggressive playing for a mellow, at times pretty, acoustic guitar sound. Melodic electric guitar and keyboards provide a backdrop for the melancholy pedal steel guitar, and Shiflett's vocals, although not polished, are emotive and sincere.
"You know there's a feeling when you're a kid, and you first started playing guitar or whatever your instrument is, (or) that feeling (I got) in high school when I first started playing with other people. I don't know, it's like crack," Shiflett says on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. "It's like you're always chasing that first high, and it's never quite the same, you know, 'cause you're never quite that innocent."
But Shiflett, 39, who has played with the Foos for 11 years, is finding new inspiration in his side project. He is taking guitar lessons again and has bought a mandolin, a banjo, a dobro and a piano.
"I think I wanted to do something different," he says, "and this was sort of toward the end of the last Foo Fighter touring cycle. ... I think, as a guitar player, I felt really stagnant a couple years ago. I just felt like I hadn't learned something new in a long time."
Shiflett has traded sold-out Foo concerts at big arenas, rocking out as a sideman, for shows in small bars, in front of small crowds that might hope to hear Foo Fighter tunes. But the challenge is part of the excitement, Shiflett says.
"It's that thrill where you're like, you know, you're going to play a show and you're kind of like, 'Are we going to pull this off?' I don't really know, and you don't. You sorta fall on your face a lot, and that's what's great about it."
Shiflett is fairly new to songwriting and singing: He began writing in his mid- to late 20s and started singing in 2003 with another side project, a rock band called Jackson United. "I was ... terrible," he says. "I was so nervous and insecure about it that it was really like a challenge. But that's kind of why I did it."
For all of his highs outside the Foos, Shiflett concedes that he's lucky to be in such a successful band.
"It's because of the Foo Fighters that I get to make my records and someone wants to put them out, and I can't pretend that I'm not assisted by that, so I can't complain about it," he says. "On the other hand, you know, it can be a little silly sometimes when people will compare your work outside the Foo Fighters to the Foo Fighters. It's a different group of people and a different person writing the songs, and it's kind of crazy in my view. But that's how people know me, so you have to sort of take it for what it is."
The Dead Peasants project won't have much time to develop. The group might tour again, overseas for a couple of months this winter, but in the fall, the Foo Fighters are back in the studio and will tour after that, most likely until 2012. That's OK with Shiflett, who says he has achieved what he set out to do with the Dead Peasants.