When Dave Grohl joined Queens of the Stone Age in the studio for the recording of Songs for the Deaf, it represented the first time Grohl had become a full-time drummer in nearly a full decade. While he had played drums on all of the Foo Fighters’ records up to that point, the friction within the band at the time saw him seek solace in a different project.
“The thing that got weird with us was: I had, we were making a record and it just wasn’t working out – our fourth record,” Grohl explained. “It just didn’t sound good, it didn’t feel good, we weren’t into it. In the meantime, my buddy Josh [Homme] from Queens of the Stone Age had just bailed his drummer. He said, ‘Dude, I’ve got two weeks. Could you just come do the drums on my record?’”
Adding: “They were, like, my favourite band, they were amazing. We’re good friends, we’ve known each other for 30 years, a long time. I thought, ‘Yes! I get to play on a Queens of the Stone Age record.’ So we go on to record with Queens, and it was kind of the opposite of what we were doing. What we were doing was, ‘Alright, let’s just put this bass down.’ The Queens of the Stone Age thing was this collective lightning bolt, ‘Let’s do this!’”
Homme and producer Eric Valentine had a specific sound in mind for the drums: loud and aggressive, but dead and immediate. They wanted the drums to boom without the crash of the cymbals getting in the way during the mixing process, so an idea was hatched: why not record the drums and cymbals separately.
Cymbal separation is a tricky process in recording, requiring a drummer with an exact sense of timing and precision. Luckily, Grohl fit the bill. In order to not trip up his performances too much, drum pads were added to Grohl’s kit so that he could simulate playing the normal drum part even when either his drums or cymbals were missing. When they got satisfactory takes of both, the two parts were mixed together to create the final drum take.
It’s elaborate and somewhat contrived, but cymbal separation allowed for greater freedom while mixing a song. With someone as powerful as Grohl behind the kit, it was inevitable that bleed would become a major issue. That was fine for some of the songs of Songs for the Deaf, but at least for ‘No One Knows’ (and likely for a number of other tracks on the album), Grohl would have to nail two perfect performances: one without cymbals and one without drums.
Despite the obvious trials that come with the process, Grohl actually used the same technique later on with the Foo Fighters. During the recording of Sonic Highways, Taylor Hawkins’ drums part for ‘Subterranean’ wasn’t quite right. Grohl recalled his experience with cymbal separation and proposed a solution: he would play the cymbals in one room while Hawkins played the drums in another. The band got the results they were looking for, and it was all because Grohl remembered the atypical recording technique that gave ‘No One Knows’ its mighty power.
Check out the isolated drums for ‘No One Knows’