“We had two minutes to set-up, then got up and did our shit. I was like, ‘Okay, that’s what you do here.”
Nate Mendel is not used to the frantic scheduling of South By South West, and it’s probably been some time since he’s had to personally assemble his stage equipment. As bass player for international rock giants Foo Fighters, his is a well-oiled machine that no doubt leaves little room for spontaneity or error. But then, Nate is not here as part of his hard-rockin’ day-job, and it’s his embracing of change that finds him walking (largely unrecognised) through the streets of Austin.
He’s here under the guise of Lieutenant, a solo project that’s been five years in the making, which finds him stepping out of his comfort zone and into the spotlight, centre stage. The debut album, ‘If I Kill This Thing We’re All Going To Eat For A Week’, is out now on Dine Alone Records, and finds Mendel taking refuge from the Foos’ bombast in a more reflective, melodic indie outing. When Clash caught the band mid-week at SXSW, they were only three gigs old. Nate, understandably, looked shy yet assured on stage.
The next morning, the reality of going solo begins to hit hard - the prospect of press time and a handful of interviews lingers, but this time there’s nobody else to answer the tough questions. Is this a situation he’s comfortable with yet?
“I’m not uncomfortable with it, but it’s new,” he says. “I’m in a band with some pretty heavy extroverts, so when it comes time to do press they take up a lot of air space. So I’m just getting acclimated to having that space to fill… I like that happening - the responsibility of it,” he smiles. “It’s a different angle on making music. It’s really all on me, at this point, where I’m used to that responsibility being largely on Dave [Grohl’s] shoulders, but filtered through the rest of the band.”
Here in the maelstrom of new music showcases that is SXSW, in a downtown hotel where managers mingle, networkers network and weary revelers crumple onto couches, Nate may be an old dog, but he’s excited by the opportunities his new tricks are presenting here.
“There’s a little bit of a push from name recognition, but you realise pretty quickly that it’s a pretty level playing field,” he says, surveying the view from the windows behind him. “Like, there’s a thousand bands here, and I just feel like what we’re doing is just one of those grains of sand out there that doesn’t have any particular pedestal. (Laughs) But I like that, you know?”
“I think that the record that I made is interesting and I want to go out and figure out how to perform it live and do it in front of people, and hopefully generate a bit of an audience for it, like everybody does. And I like doing it in this kind of… I don’t want to say competitive environment, but that’s kinda what it is - I mean, you’re basically competing for people’s attention, and I like the challenge of that. ‘Alright, well, why should we care about what you’re doing?’ And you’ve got to figure out a way to make it compelling. So that’s cool.”
The first big question he faces from Clash is: how the hell did it take five years to make this record?
“I didn’t decide to make a record until a couple of years ago, with real focus,” he says, revealing that though the songs have been crafted over that long period, it was only more recently that he harnessed his intentions to polish them up and pull them together. “And as soon as I culled the best ideas from that herd and focused on them, then it happened pretty quickly.”
Not purely a solo mission, however, ‘If I Kill This…’ is awash with contributions from friends, including guitars by Helmet’s Paige Hamilton, Josiah Johnson from The Head And The Heart, and fellow Foo, Chris Shiflett, plus additional vocals by Nate’s ex-bandmate, Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk. Though all add to the album’s innate depth and broad textures, it was Enigk’s input that helped most in enhancing what Nate felt was the album’s challenging obstacle.
“I sent the record to Jeremy and I said, ‘What do you think, man?’ He’s like, ‘I think it’s really, really good. I like it a lot. The weak part is your vocals.’ I’m like, ‘I know, that’s why I sent it to you.’ I’d never recorded my voice before. On demos, a bit, but no one else is in the room. So I thought, ‘When I get an engineer, they’ll know how to make it sound good.’ But you still have to sing it. So I had to find it. That was hard. That was difficult.”
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The sound throughout ‘If I Kill This…’ is built on a grand scale. Having clearly enjoyed helming the creative process, Nate has explored textures, layers and styles to produce elaborate yet immersing songs, whose emotional core is all the more accessible through his modest vocals. ‘The Place You Wanna Go’ rings with Beach Boys harmonies, while ‘Rattled’ runs with Weezer-like riffs; the lilting ‘Some Remove’ is a warm, woozy, self-assuring hug, while ‘Sink Sand’ is somewhat more sombre. Its diversity and cohesion is a credit to Nate’s development as a team leader, and though there are moments where confidence and/or inspiration begins to thin, his ambition is to be applauded.
Bringing the album to life was naturally the next step. The group of musicians here in Austin with Nate has only recently been assembled - he only met the drummer a month ago - but the intentions are for the band to be an ongoing concern with a stable line-up (“A singer-songwriter and his group of hired musicians to me is always less compelling than a band,” he asserts). Overcoming his reservations about his voice in the studio is one thing, but how does he feel about doing it live? How’s it going to compare to being off-centre with the Foos?
“Oh, a stadium Foo Fighters show is far less challenging than playing to 30 people with this band,” Nate laughs. “Yeah, this is ten times more harrowing. Not that I mind it. Actually, I enjoy singing in front of people. The few times I’ve done it, I like it. But the challenge is in not having full confidence in it. How do you put on a good show with that knowing that you’re not at the top of your game? I think the key is just getting to the top of your game as quickly as fucking possible.”
After Texas, however, Lieutenant aren’t going to have much time for anything - the Foo Fighters’ summer tour starts in Europe next month, hitting the UK at the end of May and again in June, and will stretch all the way to October, having taken in Japan, North America, and their first trip to South Korea. Realistically, Nate reasons, there’s little chance of him doing any more writing or recording this year, never mind letting the world hear Lieutenant live.
Laughing off the suggestion that perhaps Lieutenant could support the Foos on tour, he considers whether the Foos’ staunch fan base would even like the album. “I haven’t talked to Foo Fighters fans about this, so I don’t know,” he chuckles. “The answer to that is I don’t know. I have assumptions… People say to me, ‘Oh, I’m surprised - it doesn’t sound like the other music that you’ve done.’ Well, man, that’s sort of the point.”
As the lure of the sun’s rays outside tempts Clash back into the 6th Street circus, Nate rounds up on his side-project’s fate, as the thought of putting it back in its box after these intimate dates plays on his mind. Is there life beyond the Foo Fighters? Can Lieutenant compete? The answer, Nate concludes, is that they probably won’t have to.
“Obviously Lieutenant is not going to be in the same league of stuff that Foo Fighters are doing,” he rationalises. “And there’s so much music out there, and people don’t really care about rock music that much anymore - it doesn’t have the same currency that it once did - so you know that the pool you’re looking at is, ‘Okay, I hope this is a record that somebody finds and it’s that obscure record that they like.’ That’s my game. This is not going to be a popular band, but I do want to make music that a handful of people find and appreciate. That would kinda be my goal.”
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Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Katherine Squier