As rumored, the Foo Fighters, who suffered the agonizing loss of drummer Taylor Hawkins last year, will be hitting the road this spring: the Boston Calling and Sonic Temple festivals in May and the Bonnaroo Festival in June were announced on Tuesday, and more dates are likely to follow. But the big question remains: Who will be playing drums?
Hawkins, who joined Foo Fighters in 1997 and died suddenly of undisclosed causes last March when the band was on tour in South America, was not only a stellar drummer but also an outsized personality: With his long blond hair and flamboyant style, he was the visual focal point of the band along with frontman, founder and BFF Dave Grohl. His absence leaves a painful and difficult void that the band can never completely fill, but must if they are to continue as a band. (A rep for Foo Fighters declined comment for this article.)
At the all-star Hawkins tribute concerts Foo Fighters played in London and Los Angeles last fall, the band worked with several drummers, including session aces Josh Freese and Omar Hakim, Darkness drummer Rufus Taylor (son of Queen drummer Roger Taylor) and superstar cameos from Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, former Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Blink-182 star Travis Barker, along with 12-year-old British star Nandi Bushell and Hawkins’ son Shane. But those were special shows; joining a hard-touring band like the Foos is a much longer-term commitment and calls for a musician with the experience and endurance to play the band’s famously two-plus-hour-long shows several times a week. They are big, big shoes to fill.
Based on his work with Nirvana alone, Grohl is indisputably one of the greatest drummers in rock history, so Hawkins himself had a lot to overcome when he joined the band. He did so in stellar fashion: His playing style was distinctive, fluid and powerful, and dramatically different from Grohl’s. He was just as technically adept but more intricate, showing the vast influence of Copeland as well as hard rock drummers. But he could also play in a powerhouse style more reminiscent of Grohl, without necessarily sounding like him.
It seems possible but unlikely that Grohl would take on the role himself; he certainly could, but it’s very difficult to front a rock band from behind a drum kit, and the rest of the Foo Fighters are so accustomed to playing supporting roles on stage that it would be a challenge for them to project Grohl’s level of charisma and excitement on arena, festival and stadium stages. So it seems safe to cross that option off the list.
Looking outside the band, the first instinct might be to consider who might bring a Hawkins level of musical and visual flair to the band. But realistically, a big personality would be just about the worst thing the Foos could do — anyone trying to stunt as Hawkins’ replacement would seem disrespectful. But by the same token, the new drummer can’t be timid or daunted by the role.
It’s possible that the tribute shows were a sort of outsized audition — if a drummer could deliver on those stadium stages, they could probably handle a tour as well — which is why Freese and Rufus Taylor would seem the most likely candidates.
Nandi Bushell and Shane Hawkins may make guest appearances, but they’re not realistic options for a full-time replacement. Veteran session drummer Omar Hakim, who also played with the Foos at the concerts, brings decades of experience as both a jazz and rock drummer (that’s him thwacking the drums on David Bowie’s “Modern Love”), but at 63 he’s significantly older than most of the band.
Taylor, 31, brings with him the legacy of Queen, a band that both Hawkins and Grohl grew up on, and his years in the Darkness (not to mention his family history) mean he’s already an old hand at touring and the rock lifestyle. His performance during the tribute concerts was strong, and his background legacy puts him in a kind of Jason Bonham-in-Led Zeppelin situation without the pressure of a direct family tie. Yet his long blond hair — not to mention the slightly eerie name similarities (the Darkness’ lead singer is named Justin Hawkins) — could make for some inadvertently awkward moments.
Yet multiple sources tell Variety that Freese is a if not the front-runner, and there are many reasons why he would make sense.
He is a longtime friend of both Grohl and Hawkins, and is a veteran session ace who has performed with Guns N’ Roses, A Perfect Circle, Puddle of Mudd, Nine Inch Nails, Weezer, Paramore, the Replacements, Sting and the Vandals — and those are just the rock acts he’s worked with. Over the years he has played with a mind-boggling array of different musicians on more than 300 recordings, from pop to rock to country: His versatility is demonstrated by the fact that at last year’s Coachella festival, he performed with both Danny Elfman, who is both frontman of new wave vets Oingo Boingo and Tim Burton’s favorite film composer, and hyper-pop wizards 100 Gecs — two dramatically different artists that required widely ranging styles, and he delivered with both.
But not only is Freese a deeply experienced and wide-ranging musician who knows the band and its music, his presence would also solve many of the challenges that anyone stepping into Hawkins’ role might face: He is renowned as one of the top session drummers in the business so he’s well-known to musicians, and the fact that he’s less familiar to the public is actually a plus, so there wouldn’t be any associations from previous bands (even though he’s played with dozens). As his long resume shows, he can play in virtually any style — and at 50, he’s of the same generation as the other bandmembers.
Plus, it’s not clear whether the person who plays drums with the Foos on this tour will actually be joining as a full-time member. An extended freelance role relieves pressure in any number of ways: Bands, especially veteran ones like the Foo Fighters, have a decades-long familial relationship that takes time to adopt to.
Looking back decades for comparisons, Kenney Jones was quickly named the replacement for the late Keith Moon as a full member of the Who. Yet he and singer Roger Daltrey didn’t get along — and Daltrey has said he resented Jones being a full financial member of the band as well — and the lineup never quite gelled; the band split (for the first time) three years after he’d joined. On the other hand, in 1975 the Rolling Stones replaced outgoing guitarist Mick Taylor with Ron Wood on an interim basis — yet not only had they been friendly with Wood for years, he toured and recorded with the band before being officially named a member nearly two years after he began playing with them. Nearly 50 years later, he’s still there.
But all of this is merely speculation, with zero input from Foo Fighters or any of the above possible candidates: There are dozens of other possibilities, and it’s likely the band has not yet made a decision. The first of the shows announced Tuesday doesn’t take place for more than five months, which is plenty of time for a professional drummer to clear their schedule and rehearse with the band.
But history suggests that whoever plays drums with the Foo Fighters on this coming tour will be an appropriate choice and welcomed by fans — and it’s just as likely that the band will make the announcement via social media, so everyone finds out at once.