"I'm into rock and roll being on the fringe again." That's what Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins told me. He may get his wish.
Rock and roll records in general don't chart like they used to: Badass guitar rock - and Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon and Mumford & Sons are not that - is even more on the decline. Such things as late-20th-century hair metal and childish Guitar Hero video games have trivialized the genre. Hit-song-making is a moving template, and guitar solos are no longer in the formula. Do Marshall amplifiers even go up to 10 any more?
"I think something has happened in the last five or 10 years," says Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl. "A lot of human personality has been taken out of popular music. It's hard to believe that it's made by people."
Of course, much of it isn't. Scrubbed to a digitalized sheen and perfected by software, chart music is highly automated. So the Foo Fighters fight back. On their assertive, muscular new album Wasting Light, the band go old school, recording in Grohl's garage on analog equipment. Heck, those who buy the CD even get a clip of the master tape in the package.
You can call what Grohl is doing raging against the machine. Or you can call it racing against the machine. If it's the latter, he appears to be winning.
Last week, Wasting Light debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart, selling 235,000 copies. It's likely the British ballad singer Adele will regain her No. 1 spot next week, but it does appear that Sony Music's aggressive promotional campaign for the Foo Fighters' latest is working.
Part of the marketing involved the band swooping into Toronto, where it took over a radio station for an hour, played a secret garage show and spoke briefly with media.
When I asked the group about rock's declining fortunes, Grohl had an interesting take: "Twenty years ago, everything was ruled by major labels. But there was a really healthy underground scene surviving in its own independence - its own distribution, its own network of magazines and record labels."
It was, perhaps, a nirvana back then. And then the band Nirvana happened: Two decades ago, the blockbuster Nevermind changed what teen spirit smelled like. The underground went overdog.
Wasting Light was produced by Butch Vig, the so-called Godfather of Grunge who also produced Nevermind and big discs by Sonic Youth and Smashing Pumpkins. In a Guitar World magazine cover piece - pictured are Grohl (with a black Flying V guitar) and Foo Fighters' other two guitarists, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear - Grohl, who used to be the drummer for Nirvana, spoke of simpler days.
After the experimentation of the previous two Foo Fighters albums, Grohl said, he wanted to go caveman. "You miss the simplicity of plugging in, turning up to 10 and screaming your balls off."
Grohl, testicles presumably intact, recognizes that testosterone rock won't likely rule again any time soon, but he's okay with it. "It might not be No. 1 on the radio, and it might not be on television all day long," he says, "but that doesn't mean it's not there."
The famously likeable front man's hopefulness is inspired by the Internet and the easier process of recording now. He has romantic notions of small labels and gritty music scenes. But where do the major-label Foo Fighters fit in?
"We were never cool, but now that we're this big rock band, we're not cool at all," he says with a big toothy smile. "We meet kids in underground rock bands. I'm like Bon Jovi to those dudes."
On the chunky, pummelling new song Bridge Burning, Grohl sings of another time and another place, of lines on the face, and a king of second chances. Could it be that rock is in flames?
"It's almost like we went and messed up an awesome underground scene 20 years ago," he answers. "Maybe we shouldn't mess up the next one."