Alternative Press 1996
Fifteen years ago, Chrysalis Records circulated pins that proclaimed "Blondie is a group," because everyone assumed the star was Deborah Harry and the other members just her back-up band. The Foo Fighters might be Dave Grohl's first band since Nirvana, but the one-time drummer of the 'Band That Saved The World' wants to be known as just another infantryman now. But no promotional pins are needed to prove this is a band. Grohl enlisted three friends with reputations of their own: Smear, his Nirvana colleague and former Germs guitarist, along with the former Sunny Day Real Estate rhythm section of Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith.
All four carry the scars of tragedy and disappointment. They've all watched troubled friends and bandmates succumb to extremes, whether drugs or religion, destroying their bands in the process. But each one is also a survivor, determined to make things work this time. It's like a relationship where the members have been burned so badly before that they don't want to inflict any pain on one another. But the Foo Fighters don't talk about pity. They don't like to talk about the past. They're not in denial. They're just the happiest, most secure and down-to-earth band this side of a musical twelve-step program.
"This feels like the first band I've ever been in," Grohl says.
Of course, it's not. But Grohl, 26, had to figure out how to be something other than the "former Nirvana drummer." History didn't offer many positive role models: Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr became a mere session musician after the Smiths splintered in 1987, playing with The The, the Pretenders, Talking Heads, Bryan Ferry, and even Paul McCartney. Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook was last spotted on Edwyn Collins' last U.S. tour.
Grohl had similar choices. After recording the Backbeat soundtrack with members of Soul Asylum, R.E.M., Sonic Youth and Gumball, he spent a month as Tom Petty's drummer and was even given an offer to join the band full-time. But Grohl also had a secret. Even during his pre-Nirvana days, Grohl would return home to Seattle or his parents' house in Washington D.C. and record his own songs on a basement 8-track. D.C.-indie Simple Machines released a cassette of some of those songs in 1991, but Grohl had always kept his side project quiet because he didn't want anyone else to hear him sing. So Grohl had to decide whether to join Petty--a musician he admired greatly--or pursue his own songs.
"I didn't want to be a drummer for hire at 26," Grohl says, explaining his decision last fall to form a new band. He sits in a rooftop restaurant in Stockholm on the eve of his new band's longest European tour yet. "By the time I was 40 I would've been on the Jay Leno show. I was really torn. Within a week with Tom Petty, I already felt like I was in the band. They were so incredibly accepting I didn't feel like I was just for hire. It had been so long since I felt like I was in a band. At the same time, I was getting ready to record the Foo Fighters stuff. It was play drums with Tom or do something I had never done before. I thought I might as well try something new while I'm young."
It's not hard to understand his decision. Bands have been Grohl's second family for the last ten years, from tiny D.C. pop and hardcore bands to legendary punks Scream and Nirvana. And from someone who learned about punk rock growing up around Dischord and the D.C. hardcore scene, it's also not surprising that the Foo Fighters started out as an entirely DIY affair, with Grohl playing all the instruments on the band's dynamic debut.
While Grohl has long recorded his own songs, he always saw them as little more than experiments. Only one, "Marigold," became a Nirvana song, as a European b-side.
"I always tried to keep them sort of a secret. I wouldn't give people tapes. I always freaked out about that. I have the stupidest voice. I was totally embarrassed and scared that anyone would hear them," he says. "I just wanted to see how poppy or how noisy a song I could write. It was always just for fun. You could do anything you wanted. Now I have to actually write songs. In the back of my mind I know I'm going to actually do it rather than just record it and lose the tapes. Big difference."
Grohl did give one tape to his friend Jenny Toomey, soon to be of Tsunami and Simple Machines Records fame. Toomey found Grohl and Barrett Jones recording in a D.C. studio one day when she dropped by to give Jones a copy of a 7-inch he engineered. "I don't even remember if they asked me to stay, but I did. The songs were really great," she remembers.
After some cajoling, Toomey convinced him to let her release that very same tape, called Pocketwatch, as one of the first of eight cassettes in Simple Machines' Tool Set. (It's still available for $4 mail order.)
"It's a great tape. In some ways I think it's better than the record," Toomey says, praising the tape's mix of acoustic songs, distorted pop and thrashy noise. "There's more variety. There's a formula that goes through [the new record] that doesn't necessarily manifest itself in the tape we have. He'd play these noisy Melvins-like songs with his sneaky, sinewy melodies and this great voice coming over it. And his lyrics are just heartbreaking."
Grohl has never had the same faith in his singing and songwriting skills. But after five months of sitting around the house following Kurt Cobain's suicide in April 1994, Grohl realized the time had come to go back in the studio. So he grabbed his friend Barrett Jones again and rented a week's worth of time at a studio in Seattle. At first, he thought these recordings would be as low-key as the Simple Machines cassette. Grohl planned to have some fun, start his own label, and release the songs anonymously on vinyl only.
Again, Grohl made just a few cassettes and circulated them among friends and family. Amazing things happened. Friends loved the songs. Record labels started calling with contracts. And Dave Grohl realized it was time to put a band together again.
Winter 1994 wasn't the happiest of times for William Goldsmith. His band Sunny Day Real Estate has splintered after one album on Sub Pop, high-profile national tours opening for Velocity Girl and Shudder To Think, and considerable MTV play for "Seven." No one was getting along with guitarist Dan Hoerner anymore, and singer Jeremy Enigk decided to become a born-again Christian. Not wanting to play in a grunge Stryper, Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel departed.
The band played their final shows in D.C. that December, and everybody went their separate ways, except Goldsmith, who stayed in D.C.
"It was a low point," he says. "When something's done, it's done. I wasn't depressed because I thought the band was doing well. It was completely gone towards the end. It was really bad. I was just thinking, 'What the hell am I going to do?' That was all I had pretty much been doing. I had finally focused on one band and now that was over." A friend of Grohl's wife, Jennifer, passed the Foo Fighters tape on to Nate and William. But neither of them knew what to expect. They weren't sure whether Grohl was looking to put a full-time band together, or if he was, whether or not he would call and ask them to join. "We listened to the tape and we liked it a lot, but we didn't know what would happen next," Goldsmith says. "Then I was in D.C. that week after our last tour and he called. It was a great phone call. He was like, 'Oh, so your band's in the shitter.' I told him yes. He said, 'All right. Let's play.'"
"William was not a happy man in Washington D.C.," remembers Grohl. But Grohl also remembered seeing Sunny Day Real Estate twice on one of their last tours, and he was impressed with Goldsmith's energy behind the drums. "My main concern wasn't finding someone who could do everything exactly as it was on the tape, but someone who had really good energy. There's not very many of them. When I saw Will play, I was really amazed. So I called Nate and Will and when we got back from that tour we started playing. After the second or third time in William's basement, we had the songs down."
Grohl knew Pat Smear should be the final piece. He'd been thrilled when Cobain had brought Smear to a Nirvana practice one day and introduced him as the new second guitarist, after also considering Eugene Kelly (Vaselines/Eugenius), Mudhoney's Steve Turner and the Melvins' Buzz Osborne.
"We couldn't have found anyone more perfect [for Nirvana] than Pat," Grohl remembers. "He showed up and he had the same effects pedals that Kurt had, and Kurt had really obscure, old, extremely hard-to-find pedals. He had this facade. He played all sloppy. But when we were mixing the album, he showed us all how to play 'Blackbird,' one of the most intricate Beatles songs."
Smear was one of Grohl's favorite guitarists since his days as a teenage hardcore fan in D.C., and Grohl had memorized almost every Smear line in the L.A. punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. However, Grohl didn't think Smear would want to join the Foo Fighters. So sending him the tape took considerable courage. But Smear knew right away he wanted to join. Typically reticent around writers, Smear lights up and nods when asked if he'd planned on playing with Grohl all along. "Poor Dave," Smear says, when told of Grohl's nervousness as he window shops along the streets of Old Town. "I started preparing as soon as I got home."
"I called Pat up a couple weeks after I gave him the tape," Grohl adds, "way before we had a tour booked, probably before we had even played with each other. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was working on his guitars."
The conversation went like this:
Grohl: "For what?"
Smear: "For tour."
"That's when I knew," Grohl says. "Someone's looking out for us. We've got all the right pieces. It's nice."
It almost goes without saying that these four have seen their share of misfortune. If any band deserves a problem-free path to success, it's Foo Fighters. Sunny Day Real Estate already seemed on the verge of wider recognition before Jeremy Enigk left the band. Germs' singer Darby Crash recorded "Suicide Madness," and then died of a self-inflicted overdose in 1980, reportedly in response to Sid Vicious' own drug-related death a year earlier.
There's no getting around tabloid culture, the devourer of downfalls of the rich and famous. Cobain's death catapulted Nirvana from MTV Unplugged to Inside Edition. Cobain's personal demons became headlines. Everyone had an opinion on the meaning of his suicide. Obvious elegies followed: "Voice of a generation." "Slacker poet." "Tortured grunge icon." Others weren't as kind. Rush Limbaugh called Cobain "a loser." 60 Minutes' Andy Rooney temporarily cast aside monologues about toilet paper, refrigerator lights turning on and off, and rush-hour traffic, spending a few minutes talking about Cobain. About how all suicides were cowardly. About how he'd love to have the years Cobain so cavalierly threw away.
Jerry Garcia died equally alone and addicted, yet President Clinton and members of Congress mourned him as a good-natured teddy bear, a spiritual singer deeply attuned to his muse and the best of '60s values. But Cobain's death became a political statement kicked around by politicians and columnists, many of whom probably never listened to his music.
But while everyone spouted off about Cobain for the last year, Grohl and bandmate Krist Novoselic kept their mouths shut. Neither will ever be able to escape Kurt. Even walking the cobblestoned streets of Old Town Stockholm, t-shirts bearing Cobain's visage and the years "1967-1994" stare out from souvenir stands. If Grohl notices them, he says nothing. Certain things he won't talk about, and understandably so.
"I don't want to go anywhere uncomfortable," begins a fairly innocuous question to Grohl about whether going back into the studio was at all cathartic months after Cobain's death. "I won't go there. Believe me," Grohl interrupts before the question is even asked. Later that night over drinks and house music at a club called Berns, Mendel says, "Afterwards, there were people talking about it that just had no business talking about it. It was as if they had to have something just to put out a paper. He decided somebody had to just shut up. So he did."
Still, every lyric of every Foo Fighters song has been hyperanalyzed on the Internet for hidden messages about Cobain, even though more than half of the songs were written months--or even years--before Cobain's death. A line asking, "Am I the only one who sees/Your rehearsed insanity?" fuels speculation that it's about Courtney Love. Grohl won't say, but it somehow seems doubtful. Why would he take such an obvious shot at Love after being so adamant about not talking about her? Not to mention that he would hardly be the first to comment about Love's "rehearsed insanity."
Then there's the record cover, which features an antique toy spacegun that many thought in bad taste after Cobain's death. "It didn't have anything to do with, like... that," Goldsmith says, waving his hands "no." "It was all pretty much based on the whole Foo Fighters thing--Roswell, the space stuff, an antique Buck Rogers raygun. It's really a completely separate thing. Dave wasn't even conscious of that."
Only four songs--"This Is A Call," "I'll Stick Around," "X-Static," and "Wattershed"--were written after Cobain's death. And these were done quickly, often scrawled down just before Grohl went in to record his vocals.
"By no means am I a lyricist," he says. "But a lot of times, the things you write down spur of the moment are most revealing. Now I look at them and some of them seem to actually have meaning."
But Grohl says he was too busy in the studio jumping from instrument to instrument to think about any of the events of the preceding months. And from here on out, the Foo Fighters are a democracy, with everybody writing songs. "I had seven days to record fifteen songs," he says. "I was just concentrating on everything being as together as possible, having everything be tight and in sync. There wasn't too much time spent sitting on a chair thinking."
Regardless of whether events of the past year are referenced in Foo Fighters songs, the members' experiences have, ironically, loosened up this quartet and taught them that they should enjoy playing music and touring.
"The four of us just decided that we wanted to get together and try to be happy and to support each other," Goldsmith explains the next day as he waits for Dave to buy a bratwurst in Old Town Stockholm. "We try to take things with a grain of salt and have fun and not freak out. We just try to have a good time. It's stressful, but it's really fun. The best part is having a band that's not so dysfunctional."
"It's weird. It's sort of double-sided," says Grohl, measuring his words carefully. "Everyone has so much baggage. There's Pat and his past, these two and where their band was going, me. You could either look at it as a blessing or a total thorn in your side, I suppose. It just means that everybody's good. Everybody knows what they're doing. After playing music for so long and being in different situations, you learn to deal with everything, whether it's being fucked up or being away."
Support back home helps as well. In October, Mendel married a close friend he's known since high school. Grohl is very close with his family in Washington, and married his long-time love, Jennifer, nearly two years ago. In fact, it was his family that turned him on to punk rock in the first place. The teenaged Grohl knew nothing about it until he visited his cousin in Evanston, Illinois. She took Grohl to his first show--Naked Raygun--and taught him about 7-inch singles, Dischord and Minor Threat. Grohl went back home to D.C. and started going to shows soon thereafter, and before long, was playing in a series of bands, from Freakbaby to Scream.
But while the foursome are committed to having fun, nerves can still get in the way. Goldsmith was so nervous drumming with Grohl that during the band's second practice, he sent himself to the hospital. "I was playing and a stick snapped in half, spun up and stuck into my head between my eye and my nose," he says. Blood went everywhere, but it was too dark for anyone to tell just how serious the injury was. "Dave just laughed. He said, 'Well, you're bleeding a little bit. Come into the light.' I did, and he screamed, 'Don't look in the mirror!'"
They've also learned that the best way to keep control of a band's growth is to build momentum slowly. Wanting to control expectations and their own queasy stomachs, the Foo Fighters played their debut show at a friend's house in Seattle.
"We bought a keg so everyone would get drunk and be like, 'You guys are really good,'" says Grohl, clapping wildly and doing his best impression of an inebriated concertgoer. They were even more nervous when they did their Seattle coming-out party at the Velvet Elvis before real paying customers. "Afterwards you think, 'We did it. We pulled it off.' Fifteen minutes after that show was over, Pat and I grabbed each other and said, 'Let's go play somewhere else now.'"
But most of all, this is a band of real, emotionally grounded people. Goldsmith is a free spirit who lightens things up with practical jokes; he's not above grabbing a camera and heading into the shower to photograph unaware bandmates. Mendel is the intellectual of the group, soft-spoken and well read, with books on the bedside table and a Harper's Magazine that he brings on the road. Smear is the supermodel as rockstar, with absolutely fabulous style, perfect hair and the only person who could combine an all-black outfit with lime green boots and turquoise socks. And Grohl is profoundly down-to-earth, a personable guy long captivated by the power of music, catapulted by circumstances beyond his control into a prominence he never dreamed possible. He's comfortable ordering sushi in a Japanese restaurant, but winces when he realizes he could have eaten at a hot dog stand nearby instead.
"It's like the Brady Bunch," Grohl quips. "Everybody has their role."
A hysterical scene ensues, as all four argue over who would be which Brady. Nate ends up as Marsha, smart and reliable. Pat, of course, is Alice. Dave is Jan. And William draws Peter, which sends Grohl into a perfect Butthead impression.
"Huh-huh. You said Peter," he cracks.
A few hours later, after tearing through the Offspring's "Gotta Get Away" during soundcheck, Grohl's a little more pensive. For one thing, he's been playing with the soundboard, and somehow he's managed to press the wrong button and now he can't find the program for the light show. Grohl seems delighted to be playing smaller venues again and having more control of his band. Nevertheless, the unassuming Grohl downplays Nirvana's role in bringing alternative music to the masses.
"It's weird. It's still hard to think that anything has changed," he says. "A lot of things that we wanted to change are still there."
Like what? Major labels? MTV?
"Oh, everything," he says succinctly. "So it's strange in that way. But we never considered ourselves anything special, really. We were just a band and we had fun playing. We didn't even dare to flatter ourselves so much as to use the pre-Nirvana, post-Nirvana phrase. We thought that was kind of silly. I think it was time for something to happen and it happened. If it didn't happen to us, it would have happened to someone else."
Someday, he figures, he and Krist Novoselic will play together again. They're still in close contact, and have even recently written some songs together.
But while Nirvana paved the way for new alternative bands that led to the creation of modern-rock radio and the near-death of classic rock (or at least dozens of new bands that sounded like classic-rock bands being marketed as alternative on those same old stations), Grohl says he misses the sense of community of the scenes where he once lived in D.C., Olympia, and Seattle.
"I really don't understand it anymore. In D.C. everything was at such a personal level," he says. "In Seattle, after 1991 things got so insane it was hard to consider it a music scene anymore. It was just a circus. One of the good things about punk rock bands becoming popular is that people are realizing that you don't have to be Yngwie Malmsteen to be in a band. People are realizing that anybody can pick up a guitar and just do it. That's a great inspiration."
And he does give back to the D.C. scene that inspired him. He's one of eight investors in the Black Cat club, which provides local and indie bands a place to play. Friends say that this is one of dozens of examples of Grohl quietly using his new success and wealth to support his friends, family and local music scenes.
"He's very low key. Success hasn't changed him at all," says Dante, who runs the Black Cat and has known Grohl for nearly ten years through the D.C. music scene. "He's the same guy he was when I first met him, except he has to put up with a lot more people bugging him."
"He invested because he liked the concept of the club," he says, adding that the Foo Fighters have already played the club twice, once with Mike Watt and once for a surprise summer show. "He knew this might not ever make a lot of money, but he thought it was important for D.C. to have another club."
Pat Smear has been involved with punk rock for parts of three decades now, but he's too polite to offer any pointed opinions. "Love them. Love them all," he says of the new punks, as he starts to hum "Gotta Get Away" again.
Smear doesn't like to talk to the music press. But he's not a haughty punk and he doesn't have an attitude. He wanders Stockholm's streets in search of a vintage Barbie store he knows is somewhere in Old Town, politely asking shop owners for directions. He stops outside every music store window to check out the guitars, since his favorite model, Hagstrom, is manufactured in Sweden.
Watch him mingle with teenaged fans and it's obvious Smear gets as much pleasure from the kids as they get from him. Whenever anyone takes his picture, Smear trains his camera right back on them, building a collection of snapshots of fans around the world. (The collection just started with Foo Fighters. Had he started back in the Germs days, Smear quips, "That would have been ugly.") When they ask for autographs, Smear sometimes asks for theirs. It's blind adulation that runs both ways. Some Swedes sign right on his neck. During dinner, a teenage girl nervously asks to show him the pictures she's taken of Mighty Mighty Bosstones, L7 and GWAR. He pages through her album approvingly, and gives her a photo pass for the show before she has a chance to ask.
Then it's showtime, and the soldout Cirkus, cracking with adolescent energy, seems ready to burst. When Foo Fighters take the stage, Dave is a compelling, charismatic frontman for someone who was stuck behind the drums until last winter. With a Flying V strapped around his neck, Grohl's sweaty, stringy hair flies everywhere and his smile spans the club. Goldsmith pounds hard enough to topple his drum kit. Smear and Mendel bounce in place, anchoring the sides. "Butterflies" segues into "I'll Stick Around," Goldsmith announcing the next song with the ferocious opening burst, and the crowd surges towards the barricades. A stage diver loses a sneaker onstage. Grohl, legs spread in a heavy metal pose, fingers flying, crouches and surveys the wreckage. In the midst of the chaos, a red-headed teen lands onstage and moves toward him slowly, planting the tiniest, sweetest kiss of the back of Grohl's sweaty yellow shirt before leaping into the crowd a step ahead of security. The band encores with a brilliant cover of Gary Numan's "Down In The Park," their '80s roots clearly showing through.
"Ever seen a punk rock meet and greet?" Grohl asks after the show, as he cracks open the backstage door and enters the lobby where the remaining fans wait. Smear's already been signing autographs; he probably started right after the end of the last song. He also brought down a cooler of beer and soda from the dressing room for the kids.
"Did I take your picture?" Smear asks one autograph hound.
"I did?" he asks, confused.
"Before the show," she responds. Satisfied, Smear signs happily.
Grohl, meanwhile, is fighting off the advances of aggressive adolescent girls.
"I'm not going to kiss you on the mouth," he explains to one, who won't take no for an answer.
"Then how about a tongue kiss?" she asks. "Or how about signing my breast?" she proposes, unzipping her shirt.
"I'm blushing. I'm not going to do that," he says. "Pat, do you want to kiss some people?"
After signing each autograph and granting every request for a hug, Grohl retires to the dressing room, where Beavis and Butthead plays without any sound. But the quiet doesn't last long. To the ire of the road manager who wants to start the almost ten hour trek to Oslo that night, Smear invites up all the kids, who proceed to lay waste to the rest of the food and beg Grohl for a piece, any piece, of his clothing. One girl feeds Dave a cracker, and after he takes a bite, pops the other half in her mouth. Another girl stands closely behind him, ready to leap for a strand of his hair.
"Think they get a lot of heavy metal bands through here?" Grohl asks, as the last of the kids are shooed out the door a half hour later. He hums the Offspring song again, which has become the day's theme: "Gotta get away from here."
"It's really flattering, but it can get really crazy," he says. "I mean, I'm just a guy in a band."
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