Exclusive: Foo Fighters Bassist Nate Mendel Talks New Lieutenant Solo Project

Nate Mendel
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Nate Mendel performs at the O2 Arena on Aug. 15, 2012 in Prague, Czech Republic. 

Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel did not exactly step into his new solo project, Lieutenant, brimming with confidence.

"Oh, I didn't go into it with any confidence at all," Mendel tells Billboard with a laugh. Despite tenures not only with the Foos but also Sunny Day Real Estate and the Fire Theft, Mendel says that, "I hadn't done any part of putting together my own record before. I'm learning to play guitar, sing, write songs, record -- all of it at one time. So I had no idea how it would turn out, and I knew that, having been doing music for so long, there would be an expectation of some kind of quality for what I'm going to put out, because I have all this experience. I didn't have the luxury of being 17 and, 'Oh yeah, I made a record. It's terrible, but I'm 17.' So I was very self-conscious about the process and just thought, 'OK, I'm gonna make this, and if I like it I'm gonna figure out some way to get it out.

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"And I was happy with the way it turned out, so it went from there."

Still, Mendel wasn't up to releasing something under his own name. "No, I don't think so," he says. "Maybe if I'd come into it with more experience as a songwriter, I'd feel more comfortable doing that. I chose the hiding under a band name route."

Lieutenant -- which releases its first album, "If I Kill This Thing We're All Going To Eat For a Week" on March 10 -- was born during the Foos' down time about five years ago, when Mendel "started kind of playing around with the guitar and recording some little ideas." His initial thought was that "maybe I'll do a record where I play bass and I get other people to sing," but he eventually decided to handle those chores himself, working at Dave Grohl's Studio 606 with good friend and drummer Joe Plummer from the Shins and Modest Mouse. "I ust narrowed the options down to it needed to be me who's gonna sing," Mendel explains. "So I just picked, like, the best few ideas I had and spent some time working them into songs, took some vocal lessons and, y'know, just tried to put myself in the mindset of someone who's playing songs rather than playing bass in a band." 

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He also got help from Foos bandmate Chris Shiflett, Sunny Day Real Estate partner Jeremy Enigk and Helmet's Page Hamilton, but Mendel says it was Head and the Heart's Josiah Johnson that really instilled him with some confidence when he came in to sing on the track "Believe the Squalor." "I've got a lot of respect for (Johnson) as a musician, and he said to me, 'I don't know what it is about this song. It just got stuck in my head and there's something compelling about it,' and he agreed to sing on it. At that point I was like, 'OK.' That was a stamp of approval that I needed to feel like I'd done something worthwhile."

Lieutenant is becoming a band for its inaugural tour, which beings with a pair of shows March 18 and 19 at South By Southwest and then plays a dozen more dates before wrapping up April 8 in Los Angeles. "I've done two shows and they were fun," says Mendel, whose touring Lieutenant includes Fleet Foxes' Christian Wargo on bass, Snow Patrol's Paul "Pablo" Wilson on guitar, Toshi Kasai on keyboards and Jorma Vik of The Bronx/Mariachi El Bronx on drums. "The thing that was surprising to me was the band felt as much like a band as it did, 'cause nobody was involved in making the record. I figured people would come in and be minimally invested in it, and the thing tat's been fun about it is hanging out with a group of guys and having them be invested in the songs and doing this band and enjoying it and having a good time as a group of people. It jelled pretty quickly, and that was surprising to me."

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It's also given Mendel the impetus to continue Lieutenant as more of a band effort than a solo project next time out. "I am a band guy," Mendel notes, "so it would be nice if some of these guys playing out on this tour wind up recording on the next record and contributing and turning it into more of a band over time. I think that would be nice. I'm not going to try to strategize how that happens; we're gonna get out and play and take it one step at a time and then see what happens from there."

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Mendel will return to Foo Fighters for the group's European tour, which begins May 25 in Sunderland, England, with the North American run starting July 4 in Washington, D.C. He says "there's been a couple ideas floating around" for the group's next project, too, but adds that, "I'm not sure what it's going to be, and it's probably not going to be anything that's been planned so far. The ideas shift. But I know (Grohl's) always thinking about the next thing, for sure. And we've always got the backstop of just doing what bands do and just writing a bunch of songs and putting out a record; if that turns out to be the best idea I don't think it's the worst thing in the world. The idea that you're gonna go out and top an HBO television series that tries to cover the musical landscape of the United States, that's a pretty tall order."