Six months ago a new Foo Fighters album seemed as likely as a "Learn To Swim With Barrymore" video. Grohl was apending more time wrangling with Courtney Love over the Nirvana back catalouge and drumming for other bands than writing songs. So how come the Foo Fighters have pulled off their best album yet?
Dave Grohl is not one of life's suit-wearers. In an airy penthouse suite atop London's Metropolitan Hotel he peruses the racks of menswear with the evident distaste of a man who, a decade after grunge's zenith, still occasionally rocks the lumberjack look. Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett is more enthusiastic, shucking off his shirt to reveal a gallery of tattoos, notably a gothic "lust for life" arcing across his abdomen. Bassist Nate Mendel quietly rifles through his CD wallet for suitable background music before settling on Roots Manuva. Drummer Taylor Hawkins, meanwhile, amuses himself with unflattering impressions of The Strokes, the traditional US rock star "comedy" British accent, and a drum beat constructed entirely from armpit farting noises. As for Grohl, frowning over the clothes rail, it may clarify the Issue to know that a) a German stylist - recently tried to get him in a whistle so nasty he nearly left the building, and he's still trying to get over the experience, and b) the last time he did actually wear a suit was in court.
Dave Grohl was the drummer in Nirvana
for less than four years. He has been the
frontman of the Foo Fighters for twice that,
selling almost eight million albums and
building a fervently loyal fanbase. But when
you've been in arguably the most significant
band of the last ten years, the past has a way
of sucking you in, whether you like it or not.
On May 7, 2001, Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain's
widow, filed a law suit attempting to dissolve
LLC, the company she established four years
earlier with Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic
to oversee Nirvana's music. Plans for a 45-
song box-set and greatest hits package to
mark the 10th anniversary of their seminal
Nevermind album were put on hold. (Now,
after yet more court wrangles, that greatest
hits package should be in your stocking
So Grohl has spent the last year and a half
in and out of lawyers' offices and court
rooms, while also moonlighting behind the
drumkit for California's Queens Of The
Stone Age and playing on records by David
Bowie and comedy rock duo Tenacious D.
Somehow, he also managed to complete the
Foo Fighters' fourth album, One By One,
despite a tortuous recording process which
came close to wrecking the band. For a man
with little taste for drama he's seen more of
it recently than fans of The West Wing.
Whatever the legal intricacies of the battle
for Nirvana's legacy, you can understand
why public sympathy favours Grohl and
Novoselic. While Courtney Love's every utt-
erance has a similar effect on your average
music fan to Freddy Krueger's customised
glove slicing down a blackboard, Grohl is
plainly a nice guy. Sitting down to talk in the
bar of The Metropolitan a few days earlier, he
is magnetic but goofy with it, thanks to his
lolloping six-foot frame and huge, toothy,
gummy grin. Tribal tattoos spiral up his arm
from his leather wristbands into the arms
of his white T-shirt and his face sports a pair
of unfashionably meaty sideburns. At 33,
there's still something of the gawky high
school kid about him.
On the table sits a pack of Marlboros and a glass of sparkling water. No coffee. "We were in Germany the other day and in an effort not to fall asleep because of the [slipping into a convincing teutonic drone] Germans' monotone questions which are slightly insulting but meant to be complimentary. I was drinking like ten, twelve cups of coffee. Then I go to my room to take a nap and I'm glued to the fucking wall. Waah!" The teeth and gums appear. "It's like taking much acid."
These days, coffee is one of the Foo Fighters' only vices. Last time they were in Britain, a year ago, they had to cancel a number of festival dates after drummer Taylor Hawkins had what he refers to as a "happy nap'. A collapse originally blamed on that old rock standby "exhaustion", it turned out to be down to painkiller addiction. and a spell in rehab followed. Now, says bassist Nate Mendel, the band are "fucking boring. When you turn 30 you start talking about working out and tofu and shit."
This state of affairs suits Grohl just fine. "We talk about the right things to do when you're in a band. In Nirvana I learnt all the wrong things to do." Such as? "Use your imagination," he grins cagily. "There are lots of open doors that you want to stay away from, lots of crossroads where you definitely want to go to the right and not the left. You just figure those things out."
For all his experiences in Seattle, Los Angeles and the world's arenas, Grohl's heart still belongs to suburbia. He lives outside Washington DC in Alexandria, Virginia about a mile away from his old high school. David Eric Grohl was born on January 14, 1969 in Warren, Ohio to a German-American political journalist and a language teacher of Irish descent. A few years later the Grohls relocated to Washington DC just before the Watergate scandal broke revealing a family trait for moving to the right place at the right time. Later, Grohl Senior became a sought-after speechwriter, once turning down a job with Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole.
"My dad was a really straight dude but he was a jazz freak," says Grohl fondly. "He was a flautist. I was always surrounded by culture and music and literature so I was definitely the exception in my neighbourhood. I didn't grow up a complete idiot."
When he was 17 Grohl lied about his age to get a job playing with Washington DC hardcore punk band, Scream. When they split up four years later a friend told him that a new Seattle group, Nirvana, were looking for a drummer. The rest you probably know - and if you don't then Grohl is not the man to tell you. When he does mention his old band, it's not to reference their post-Never- mind supernova but the early days. If he refers, unprompted, to Cobain, the memory is always a simple, happy one.
"It's funny," he reflects, chewing on a club sandwich. "Music has changed so much in the last ten years. In the Eighties, there was never, ever the slightest chance that your band was going to become famous. You were playing punk rock, you were playing in squats, you were stealing food and sleeping on people's floors. Nowadays when you graduate high school you have three options: you can go to college, appear on The Real World, or start a band, make a video and hope that MTV plays it. Nowadays you see a band do their first tour on a bus!" He shakes his head. "It's so different now it makes me feel old. And I'm only 33."
What changed it all of course was Nirvana. Grohl thinks the box-set, when it finally appears, will tell the story of how "crazy acid-drenched punk rock insanity" some- how gave birth to platinum-selling alt-rock and hence, eventually, to the likes of Nickelback. Even ten years on, Grohl wriggles with ambivalence about the change. Despite his natural charisma, he was never a born rock star. Before Nirvana shows he would suffer panic attacks. "I still do," he says emphatically. "I mean I have general anxiety anyway. I'll have a panic attack in traffic. I'll have a panic attack on a plane. I need to know there is a way out. When you're playing live there's no way out, man. Once you're up there you've got an hour to fill and you'd better do it." After Cobain's suicide, Grohl did not set out to repeat the Nirvana effect. The first Foo Fighters album, released in 1995, was a collection of self recorded demos originally intended to be completely anonymous. It was just a way to keep busy. "Because for a year after Nirvana I didn't know what to do with my life. I wasn't sure whether I was going to pack it in and become That Guy. Or go and play drums with someone else and become That Drummer."
No review of that first album, however flattering, could resist a reference to Ringo Starr's wretched solo career, or indeed any drummer with front-of-stage ambitions. Grohl accepts that "most people see drummers as cavemen. How difficult can it really be, just beating the shit out of stuff?" At first, he felt that the leap was "a big fucking scam". "I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to act. But then I realised, why am I trying to be something else? It's not that big of a fucking deal. I can't imagine being the flamboyant decadent front-person of the band because I'm not like that."
Despite writing most of the songs, Grohl splits the songwriting credits four ways. Still infatuated by the camaraderie of band life, he strives for as much equality as possible while still being the one who calls the shots. "True democracy rarely works for a rock band," offers Taylor Hawkins. "It usually ends in fisticuffs and breaking up. And Dave is usually right."
The Foo Fighters are an eclectic bunch, Nate Mendel joined in 1995 when the frontman of his previous band became a born- again Christian and renounced the evils of rock. "I wanted to fucking murder him," Mendel recalls evenly. A dry, quiet character, his idea of a good day out on tour is mountain biking to the nearest museum. "I've never really liked the aesthetic of rock," he sniffs. "The live-fast-die-young credo I always thought was kind of dumb. Y'know, I went college. I could have been an historian."
Chris Shiflett is the most recent recruit catapulted from audition to tour in the space of a week back in 1999. He's gentler and less assuming than you'd expect someone with 'Gimme Gimme' tattooed inside lower lip to be. Born and bred in California he gets up at five every morning to go surfing and work out. "If I can manage to take my girlfriend out to dinner and be in bed by nine o'clock I'm fucking happy," he smiles. "It's not very rock'n'roll but it works for me."
Then there's Taylor Hawkins, a man for whom your average drummer joke might have been written. He jitters constantly in his seat, waving a Parliament cigarette around for 20 minutes without ever lighting it. When an attractive woman enters the bar, he leaps into gangly life. "Uh!" he grunts. "Wooo! Damn! Oh, she's with a man." He slumps back. "I have a girlfriend, but there's no harm looking. You gotta love the ladies." Indeed. Hawkins lives in Topanga Canyon, LA, which is "like Surrey but not. Maybe the hills of Surrey. Are there hills in Surrey?" Recruited from Alanis Morissette's touring band, he talks like the Foo Fighters', and Grohl's, biggest fan. "We've never communi- cated perfectly," he says. "I'm fucking flat-out emotional, say everything, and Dave's guarded a little bit. But put me and Dave in a car on a road trip and it's Dumb And Dumber." No prizes for guessing who's who.
Although Grohl skims over the problems that plagued the recording of One By One, his bandmates do not. After two months of tense, largely fruitless work last winter, Grohl called a band meeting to declare that he was taking a break to play with Queens Of The Stone Age. "I remember thinking, 'Oh shit'," says Shiflett. "It's like breaking up with your girlfriend. You say, 'We should take a break'. And what you mean is, 'I don't want to go out with you anymore.'"
Mendel simply says "it was hell". Hawkins, characteristically, is more animated. "There was a lot of me which was like, 'Fuck you, man! This is your band. You're the leader. Be the leader!' I was pissed about that. But in hindsight, he was right."
After that impromptu hiatus of a couple of months, One By One was recorded in a break- neck 14 days. It's an urgent, intense album with an unlikely cameo on one song by extravagantly coiffed Queen guitarist Brian May (Hawkins is a Queen nut). It sounds like a band playing at the height of their powers. Like a handful of other unpretentiously impressive bands, the Foo Fighters become more valuable with age and perhaps nobody is more surprised by their continued success than Grohl himself. "It's funny to think that, that demo tape eight years ago would have brought me here to London in 2002 talking about our fourth album," he says, not with phoney "aw shucks" modesty but genuine bemusement. He gestures around the bar and, beyond it, to the unlikely trajectory of his life. "I didn't imagine this."
In the penthouse suite a few days later, Chris Shiflett holds up the cover of a recent issue of Arena and asks Grohl something along the lines of, "Did you really go with Katie Holmes?" Grohl maintains a gentle- manly silence, to which Shiflett responds with the succinct, but envious, "Bastard!"
If there was a dalliance with the winsome Dawson's Creek star, it evaded the gossip columns. Grohl has had some high-profile partners, including rock star magnet Winona Ryder and former Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa AufDer Mar, but is currently marking his first anniversary with an MTV producer called Jordan, who's "a doll". He has a second home in Los Angeles, a few blocks away from Jordan's family and a far cry from the "fucking shag cabin" he inhabited there in the mid-Nineties, before returning to Virginia. "I enjoy that normalcy," hesays. "It makes me feel like a good person. I'm the only person I know who says, 'I can't wait to have children.' I don't know anyone else like that and there sure aren't a lot of those people in Los Angeles."
Another benefit of steering clear of LA's celebrity haunts is that it minimises the risk of bumping into Courtney Love, a woman whom he must sometimes feel he can never escape. In July, when the Foo Fighters played T In The Park, he announced, "I've been pretty nice about this Courtney Love stuff for a while, but now that shit is really pissing me off." Since then, he claims, things have changed. "I'd come to think of it as this end. less battle that I dealt with every day that made me so angry it squeezed my stomach. But I think what I've realised in all of this is that the most important thing is the music. Nirvana stood for a lot of things. One of the things it didn't stand for was litigation. When I look back at Nirvana I just think about the music and the people who were my friends."
Will you read Kurt's diaries when they're published? "No," he says as if the idea is absurd. "I wouldn't read a friend's diary. If he was alive he wouldn't let anybody read it."
Do you think your obituary will read "Foo Fighter Dies" or "Nirvana Drummer Dies"? 'Who knows?" he shrugs. "It'll probably just say 'Musician'. Hopefully. That's what I'd like for it to say." Then, as he gets up to to leave, he can keep a straight face no longer. "It'll say Nirvana," he laughs. "Come on."
Words: Dorian Lynskey
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