Guitar Hero

British GQ, June 2018

Once the rock-steady heart of disaffected youth, the unrelenting talent of Dave Grohl might have been lost with his friend and frontman Kurt Cobain. But nine records, a quarter century and uncounted air miles later, the second greatest band of that generation is still on tour. GQ joined the Foo Fighters’ hard-talking figurehead backstage in Buenos Aires to talk pre-gig tear-ups, punk-rock heirs and dreams that died, came true and live on.

‘ These are my last rites.’
Dave Grohl 0n the cover of British GQ   Not song lyrics, you understand, but the final words Dave Grohl says to me in the Foo Fighters’ dressing room before he walks out to give his three-hour sermon for the rippling, 50,000-headed hydra at the José Amalfitani Stadium in the Liniers neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  Unlike other rock stars old enough to know better – Grohl is now an utterly disreputable 49 years old – backstage there’s no stretching out, no gargling with cider vinegar or sipping Pepto- Bismol, no downward dog or warrior two, nor any cold-pressed acai shakes to be taken prior to “house lights out”, that split second of total darkness that signals to the crowd the moment has come to “totally lose their shit”, as Grohl puts it so eloquently.
  “We ain’t Maroon 5!” he chuckles in mock horror when I wonder how grand the band’s rider has grown since going from punk-rock poverty to selling more than 30 million albums and playing at the White House (twice) for President Obama.
  Instead, the frontman’s strict pre-performance prep, those “last rites”, consists of a can of Budweiser no sooner than an hour before stage time, then up till the moment he goes on he’ll shoot consistently staggered shots (I counted five and partook in three) of Jägermeister, coined “RockQuil” by Grohl. Although there are other, faster, substances floating about this evening, Grohl himself admits to me that he has “never once taken cocaine, heroin or speed. Sure, a little weed every now and again. But can you imagine me on amphetamines? I never shut up as it is.”
  Next, he’ll suck up one last Parliament Light, take two lasts swigs of beer, followed by three tablets of nicotine gum before Gus Brandt, the Foos’ long-standing, ever-stoic tour manager, pokes his head from the other side of the black curtain that separates the band from the rest of the labyrinthine backstage city and informs Grohl and the rest of one of the biggest, hardest- working, not to mention highest-earning rock bands on the planet (Grohl alone is worth more than £200 million), “Five minutes, guys. You ready?”
  Ready? Grohl is on a permanent countdown to launch. He is, was and always will be in PSR – a positive state of readiness. The atmosphere in the Foos’ dressing room since we arrived at the venue around two hours ago – running red lights from their hotel, the Four Seasons, in a convoy of nine blacked-out Mercedes-Benz Vito Tourer people carriers with 12 accompanying police bikes and two squad cars, sirens screaming and lights flashing – has been akin to a house party just before the cops shut it down, always about one round or one hit shy of someone getting hurt.
  Tonight, Grohl’s conversation unspools and tangles like one of those TDK cassette tapes your father used to record old songs off the radio. Topics include why the cast of Big Little Lies reminds him of “all the weird parents from my kid’s school back home in Los Angeles”, whether or not I think he looks like a golden retriever (actually yes, he does, although there are echoes of an English springer spaniel about him too, especially the ears), plus a lengthy anecdote about him wandering around Reykjavik drinking something called Black Death (Brennivín, it turns out, is an unsweetened schnapps made from mashed potato), which made him “not woozy drunk but turn-the-tables-of-theworld- over drunk”.
  Grohl’s freewheeling enthusiasm for life, that whole charming raconteur shtick, is for real. One can’t help but feel, however, that calling him “the nicest man in rock” – as almost every journalist has, since forgiving him for daring to make any music after Nirvana – is utterly disingenuous. He’s way smarter than that. Anyway, since when was calling someone “nice” considered a compliment? Aren’t school children always told “nice” is the laziest adjective they can possibly use to describe someone? If you need one word to describe Grohl, it should be the absolute antonym of “lazy”.
  I’d witnessed Grohl in all his high-speed spit-balling, beer-bombing, cigarettehoovering glory only a week prior to our time in Argentina, backstage at the Brit Awards, where the band picked up yet another gong to throw in their backyard trophy landfill, a landfill that must now – having started the Foos nearly 25 years ago, after the death of Kurt Cobain in April 1994 – be a metal mountain of twisted accolades the size of Texas, eight Grammys included.
  Topics broached in London were: Nirvana’s last trip to South America in 1993, where, while drumming, Grohl bit down so hard on his tongue it looked like “a freshly sliced slab of rare sirloin” for days afterwards and how on the very same trip he, Cobain and bass player Krist Novoselic went to “the most expensive steak joint we could find just to spend the record company’s money”. Cobain, a vegetarian, was a little horrified at the way his bandmates could choose which cow their meal came from with the help of colour photographs.
Dave Grohl in British GQ   Grohl also spoke of how he once used his time on a long-haul flight to try to learn Dutch, with the help of an audio programme he found at the dusty end of the in-flight entertainment system. On another flight there was also a close encounter with Cate Blanchett (he’s spent a lot of time airborne one way or the other these past three decades) and gazing at her ethereal beauty felt like putting his head in the mouth of a unicorn, a sensation quickly spoilt, however, when he spotted the actress later on with a Korean face sheet applied, thus resembling “Anthony Hopkins from The Silence Of The Lambs. But, you know, still really pretty.”

Back in Buenos Aires and Grohl is fidgeting, grinning and, yes, still talking, just to the side of the vast stage. He’s with his band – Taylor Hawkins (drums), Pat Smear (lead rhythm guitar), Nate Mendel (bass guitar), Chris Shiflett (lead guitar) and Rami Jaffee (organ and keyboards) – and has changed from black jeans, black Old Skool Vans and dark denim shirt into black jeans, black Old Skool Vans and black T-shirt. His brown hair is shoulderlength and tangled. It’s grown-up rock hair. Like Grohl’s late hero, Lemmy. Or Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist from Metallica. Or Slash. It’s hair to shred to. The rock purist’s idea of what a haircut should look like on stage. (Essentially, not a haircut at all.) As the house lights cut out and the stadium goes black, Grohl, with his Gibson DG-335 electric guitar (in Pelham blue) slung over his shoulder, runs – from a standstill to a full sprint like a US Marine getting off a hovering chopper in enemy territory – into the crowd’s wall of noise. As I catch sight of the faces melting with euphoria, I’m reminded of yet another story Grohl told the day before, something about a dream he had when was he was a 12-year-old punk-rock kid playing chords out of a Beatles songbook in his room in Virginia, Washington.
  “You know, I get very lucid dreams, have done my entire life,” Grohl recalled. “When I was a eleven or 12, I fell for this new girl in my school, Sandy Moran. She was, you know, ridiculously hot, as all new girls inevitably are. She had blonde hair, ice-blue eyes, the full ticket. I was in love with her. Eventually, we got it together. I asked her out, she said yes and we were going steady. It was for, like, four days or something – ridiculous. Anyway, three or four days later she broke up with me and the very same night I had this dream. I was in an arena full of people and I’m at the front, shredding some guitar lead. The audience is going totally nuts, loving it. Then, at the front, I look down and there she is, Sandy, right in the front row. And you know what? She’s crying her eyes out. Bawling. Like a baby. She looks up to me and mouths, ‘Dave, why did I break up with you?’” Grohl has told this story a few times. Why not? It’s pretty funny. Yet, as ever with him, there’s always more to tell.
  “The funny thing is that actually happened. We played a show in Washington, DC a couple of years back. It was like a school reunion, about 400 of my old pals were there on the guest list. I hear from someone that Sandy wants to come down... Sure as hell, one hour 30 minutes later I am on stage in my home town, same as the dream I had 35 years ago, I’m ripping a guitar lead and I look out into the crowd and there she is: front row. Sandy fucking Moran. She’s not crying this time, though. She’s just looking at me, shaking her head, like, ‘You asshole.’”

It’s two nights prior to the stadium show and I am sitting next to Grohl in a restaurant called Fervor, which translates, suitably enough, as “fervour” or “enthusiasm” in Spanish. Sharing the table are various members of the Foos’ touring caravan, management, security, plus the support band for the South American leg of the tour, Queens Of The Stone Age, including lead singer Josh Homme, who is at once both incredibly friendly and also incredibly intimidating.
  Grohl has ordered the “skirt steak”, which he’s guessing are short ribs. When Grohl isn’t touring and making music he likes to barbecue. He takes it very seriously. “I have spent far too long lost down a YouTube wormhole, watching videos on how to make the best spice rub for the perfect brisket. When I get back to LA I’m taking a butchery course.”
Dave Grohl in British GQ   He’s into the tech of it all too. “There’s this one grill that I’m after,” he says with the sort of longing rich rock stars usually reserve for Basquiat prints or Patek Philippes. “Man, what a grill. I kept dropping hints before Christmas to my wife. I wasn’t being very subtle about it either. I go down on Christmas morning and she hands me this envelope. In my head, I’m like, ‘These must be the keys to the grill, right?’
  “Anyway, I open up the envelope and it’s an order form. You know, like the payment confirmations you get if you buy something on Amazon. You know what it was for? A toilet. One of those Japanese toilets that surprise you with a jet of water up your ass every so often. I’m like, ‘You gotta be kidding me?’ So I just went online and bought the damn grill myself. Merry Christmas to me.”
  Japanese “smart” washlets, state-of-theart barbecue tech, a sprawling home, recording studios in two different places in the same city, a beach house in Hawaii, more than 30m Foo Fighters albums and more than 75m Nirvana albums sold – doesn’t sound particularly punk rock does it? Is there, within Grohl, some kind of conflict – a skirmish between the musician who’s worked his ass off since he was 16 and now wants a chrome grill the size of a Cadillac to home cook his own brochette on and the hyperactive drummer boy whose ferocious playing and independent will kicked this whole journey off to begin with?
  “It depends how you define punk rock,” says Grohl. “You know who Lil Pump is?” he asks. Actually I do, I say, somewhat proudly. He’s the so-called “Soundcloud rap star” who overdosed on Xanax and coke late last year. “No. That was Lil Peep. Lil Pump is from the same genre, that slow-cooked emo hip hop thing. Anyway, he has a song called ‘Gucci Gang’. It’s hilarious, the video has tigers and bags of weed and blue Lamborghinis in it. Yet for my eldest daughter, Lil Pump is punk rock. In 2018, music doesn’t – and shouldn’t – sound like it did when I was 14. I guess for me punk rock is about a state of independence and if that’s Lil Pump then so be it. It’s about being free to do whatever the hell you want to do.”
  You know, I say casually, that sort of ideological rhetoric would go down well with young voters were he to stand for office. “Taylor and I talked about this the other day. He said, ‘You need to be president and run for office.’ Fuck that. And that’s my quote, right there. I’m not doing an Oprah. I’m not going to go, ‘Well, you never know.’”
  For someone who has gone around the world as much as him, has Grohl... “Felt the impact of Donald Trump in regards to what other countries feel about Americans?” he interjects. “Of course. I remember when we were touring in the Nineties, people would come up to me and still spoke of wanting to come to the US, to see Texas and see the desert, to walk around the Big Apple. The American Dream was still tangible, still desirable. Today, the American Dream is broken. I’ve probably travelled internationally more than our current president and the one thing I understand that he doesn’t is that the world isn’t as big as you think it is. It is all in your neighbourhood. India, Asia, Iceland aren’t other solar systems. I am ashamed of our president. I feel apologetic for it when I travel.
  “Listen, who cares what I think about guns or religion, but the thing about Trump that stings the most is this: he just seems like a massive jerk. Right? I know a lot of wonderful people who don’t share my politics and you can bet tomorrow night in the stadium not everyone will share the same opinion or hold the same views. But when I sing ‘My Hero’ they will all sing it with me. In the three hours that I am on stage, none of that matters.”

Foo Fighters in British GQ During the course of my week with Grohl, when I ask those who have known him for years, such as Josh Homme, what it is that makes the frontman so full of energy, so full of that optimistic zeal – what translates as “nice” for so many observers – they have conspiratorially whispered, “Well, you know, there is a darkness there in Dave.” A difficult relationship with his father, for example, has come up on more than one occasion as a potential reason for Dave being so, well, Dave.
  “My parents divorced when I was young,” Grohl tells me the next day, sitting in his hotel suite. “He bailed when I was six. I guess things weren’t working out so well at home. He went to do his thing in DC and I lived with my mother in Virginia.”
  Jim Grohl died in August 2014. He was a journalist, starting out as a reporter in Michigan for the Niles Daily Times and going on to work at the Painesville Telegraph, before serving in the army in the Sixties. He ended up working as a Republican speechwriter on Capitol Hill and was also a keen flautist. “You can imagine we had our differences,” laughs Grohl. “He was on Capitol Hill while his son was sitting in his bedroom, using a pillow as a snare drum and listening to satanic death metal. At one point he took me out of our community school and sent me to a Catholic school to try to iron out the kinks. We weren’t religious. It bewildered me, angered me at the time.”
  Jim Grohl’s lectures were memorable. “They were epic. I mean a Republican speechwriter, can you imagine the dressing downs? He used to get the whole family to do articulation drills. We were given a subject and then you had to talk about a specific thing – a chair, the capital of Spain, whatever – for four minutes without any broken speech. No ‘ums’ or ‘buts’, without hesitation. It was a valuable lesson. It made me think in measured tones. If you hadn’t noticed, I have no problem getting up in front of 150,000 people and talking to them. I am never at a loss for words.”
  Everyone, however, has a tipping point. One night Grohl, aged 16, reached his. “I was in a punk-rock band called Mission Impossible – terrible name – a band I wasn’t supposed to be in because my grades were so poor. Of course, I still did it. The punk-rock scene in Washington, DC at that time was proudly DIY. You’d book the hall yourself, book the PA, pay for security, then you’d make the flyer yourself and pray people turned up.”
  So that is precisely what an already ambitious Grohl did. “We booked the Bethesda Community Centre, designed the invite and invited all our friends. Two days before, however, my mother is going out of town and my dad calls, leaves an answering machine message: ‘David. Let’s go for dinner Friday night. Call me back.’ But our gig was Friday night, so I just don’t call back. Instead, I did the show. It was this huge triumph. I made, like, $200 – I felt like Warren fucking Buffett. It felt like a milestone achievement in my life. I was so proud.”
  Grohl’s father was less enthused. The following day, he collared his hungover son, dragged him back to his house and forced him to study all day. “Then it came, the ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ talk. Then he asked me, again rhetorically, if I had considered going into the army.”
  Grohl snapped. “You know what I did? I ran away. That very night. Before I left I wrote a big, long letter: ‘Coming to stay with you,’ I wrote, ‘shouldn’t feel like a punishment. That’s not the way it should be. And you know what I did last night...’ And I laid it all out. The band, the gig, what that moment meant to me. ‘So you know what, Dad?’ I wrote. ‘Fuck. You.’ And that was it, the moment I poured gasoline over this whole thing.”
Foo Fighters in British GQ   Where did Grohl run to? He laughs and the atmosphere lightens. “To the payphone across the street. I rang my sister and was like, ‘Please come and pick me up!’” Did Grohl’s father eventually understand? “He said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ But he got it. Although it’s funny, he never entirely conceded defeat. When I joined Nirvana and we were getting really, really stupidly popular, I had another one of those talks. He was like, ‘David, you know this isn’t going to last, don’t you?’ I replied, ‘Of course not, Dad! Why would it?’”

Whatever anyone has written about the cultural impact of grunge and how much the music changed things, “Nirvana, for me, was a personal revolution,” says Grohl. “I was 21. You remember being 21? You think you know it all. But you don’t. I thought I knew everything. And being in Nirvana showed me how little I really knew. They were some of the greatest highs of my life, but also, of course, one of the biggest lows. Those experiences became a footing or a foundation on how to survive.”
  It’s difficult to talk to Grohl about Nirvana. After all, both he and I are all too aware that for years after Cobain’s suicide, in April 1994, it’s all anyone ever wanted to talk to him about. “Every question, at every press conference,” he admits. But still, the tragedy, even after all these years is tender. “For years I couldn’t even listen to any music, let alone a Nirvana song,” explains Grohl to me earnestly. “When Kurt died, every time the radio came on, it broke my heart.”
  Even today, listening to Cobain’s music, for Grohl, is almost impossible. “I don’t put Nirvana records on, no. Although they are always on somewhere. I get in the car, they’re on. I go into a shop, they’re on. For me, it’s so personal. I remember everything about those records; I remember the shorts I was wearing when we recorded them or that it snowed that day. Still, I go back and find new meanings to Kurt’s lyrics. Not to seem revisionist, but there are times when it hits me. You go, ‘Wow, I didn’t realise he was feeling that way at the time.’”
  One person who can shed some light on that portion of Grohl’s life, on the relationship he had with Cobain and on what actually happened in one of the most celebrated, most adored, yet most dysfunctional bands of all time is Courtney Love, Cobain’s wife and mother to his daughter, Frances Bean.
  “I liked Dave very much,” Love explains. “He was a boundless bundle of energy, not only a great talent but great fun. He cut a swath through the women of the northwest, which I found amusing; he didn’t care if they were educated lefty feminists. Kurt compared his energy to a puppy. Dave made Kurt very happy. He was always fast with a joke that could pull Kurt out of a funk, with junk food and girl talk.”
  Rumours have been circulating for years that Grohl quit the band just before Cobain’s suicide. It’s true Cobain became more isolated due to drugs, the unwanted glare of fame and various legal woes. Although their relationship is now civil, what is also true is that Grohl and Love haven’t always seen eye to eye since Nirvana disbanded and the pair became embroiled in a long legal fight, costing both sides a serious amount of money, all over the ownership and control of the band’s back catalogue and finances.
  “[Nirvana] started to dissipate with the whole ‘Kurt and Courtney’ post-Vanity Fair phenomenon, which really affected me, Kurt and Frances,” Love continues. In 1992, the writer Lynn Hirschberg wrote a blistering exposé on a then-pregnant Love and Cobain, with sources calling the pair “the new Sid and Nancy”. The aftermath was incredibly painful for Love. “Kurt became more reclusive [after] and didn’t rehearse as much and talked about ending the band, which was just Kurt being reactive. Dave split for a while to skate with his old DC friends in LA and the Valley because me and Kurt’s life turned into a clusterfuck of scary lawyers, doctors for his stomach, some drugs. We weren’t watching Nirvana or Hole’s [Love’s band at the time] fates. We had to save our kid.
  “I think Dave was sensitive to that and just took a break. Dave and Krist knew the inner workings of Kurt and never pointed fingers at me, which I am grateful for. We got into bizarre litigation and an apex of treacherous, predator attorneys, but that was over money and the way suicide affects family, which we are. I regret the acrimony [between myself and Dave] deeply. I feel like I missed out on some great years with him.”
  Something that Grohl and I do talk about is the misinterpretation that his time in Nirvana was all just sorrow and wretchedness. “We weren’t miserable all the time,” he says, laughing. “I mean, Kurt never once came off stage and said, ‘Nice show,’ which was a little weird. Everyone needs a pep talk every once in a while, right?”
  Love echoes the sentiment that Nirvana did want to make it, including Kurt. “There’s this myth,” she explains candidly, “that Kurt didn’t want success. That is such bullshit. He worked his ass off to form the right band. Kurt loved that they had made it and moved [Michael] Jackson off the charts, but he never really got to enjoy it because the circus came to town to take our kid.
  “I don’t think the band had a discord about success,” she continues. “Dave was welcoming of it, as was Kurt. Success is a nice warm bath of love from the outside world, but also one hell of a harsh teacher.”

Dave Grohl has a secret project. “Whatever you do, don’t call it a solo record,” he warns. OK, so it’s not a solo record. Well, no more than the first Foo Fighters album, for which Grohl, less than a year after Cobain’s death, walked into a recording studio in Seattle and laid down (almost) every single note of music that would make up that eponymous debut. “I called it Foo Fighters, plural, as I wanted it to sound like I was in a band, rather than just me and a bunch of instruments.”
  This new project is similar to the first, just with a lot more ambition. At the desk of his hotel suite, looking out over the passage of water that goes all the way to Uruguay, is a small keyboard, a guitar, two small speakers and a laptop that Grohl assures me has, “Pro Tools and all that cool shit I need at 5am when I can’t sleep and I need to write.” Grohl’s new idea is one that came to him, just like all his other projects have – such as the Foos’ 2014 Sonic Highways album, which involved recording eight different songs in eight different American cities, all filmed for a Netflix series – in a flash of “Why not?”
  The project will involve a 25-minute piece of continuous music, an instrumental. “I have a studio, EastWest in LA, where I’m going to set up an expanse of instruments,” says Grohl. “Several drum kits, a load of guitars, bass, rhythm and lead. I’ll hit play and the clock will start ticking. I will record the first drum part, then I will run to the next drum set and play another drum part that will record over the first. Then I will do the same with all the guitars, all assigned to a different moment in the instrumental.”
  A grin emerges out from under Grohl’s black beard, a beard streaked with bolts of silver. “The best bit is we’ll film everything with multiple cameras. So by the end of it you will see and hear one song being played for 25 minutes, with six different Dave Grohls playing every note, on every single instrument, all the way through in one take.” That sounds ridiculous. “I know! The worst part is, and that’s why I’ve had about four hours’ sleep every night on this tour, I have to write and then memorise all the music for this thing, for all the instruments, before I get back to LA in two weeks.” OK, but I still have one question: why?
  Grohl takes a beat. “You know the very first thing that happened to me when I joined Nirvana?” he asks, his enthusiasm just beginning to edge into anger. “The very first time I stepped properly into the music industry and handed over my trust to someone else, outside of my punk-rock friends and family in DC? I got sued. Some piece of paper I signed in a van outside a Denny’s diner when I was in a band called Scream, starving, nothing to lose, not thinking any of this would go anywhere. Then I signed with Nirvana and I got sued for $40,000 straight out of the gate because some guy said I was still under contract with him. And that sucked.
  “No one thought Nirvana would be a big deal,” Grohl continues. “No one. And anyone who says they did are full of shit. No one had a clue. So when everything went crazy, when the world started coming to us, when that whole wild ride started happening, it gave me a licence to never have to listen to anyone ever again. From that moment on, no one has ever told me what to do. No one. In 25 years, I have never had anyone ever say to me, ‘Oh, Dave you have to do this.’ Fuck you, motherfucker. I’m the president of my record company [Roswell Records]. I own my entire back catalogue. I get to say when we do this, when we do that. So if something needs doing, I’ll just do it myself. If I want to write a 25-minute instrumental, write all the music, play all the instruments, film it and then, guess what, maybe never even release it? I’ll do it. Just because I can. That’s why.”

Dave Grohl has a recurring dream. He’s had it every couple of months for about ten years. He had the same dream again in São Paulo, Brazil, about three nights ago. The dream is about a house. A house built on a hill. It’s huge. In the dream, Grohl, just as he is most days – long hair, flannel shirt, beard, grin, an Avengers amount of energy emitting out of him – walks into the house and it feels like home. He goes from room to room. Sometimes a dinner party is going on, sometimes with people he recognises, sometimes strangers, but the vibe is always friendly, always welcoming.
  “The rooms are vast,” he explains, “large, bare-beamed ceilings. Sometimes there are rooms within rooms, sometimes on split levels. I could draw you a blueprint of this house. But in every one of these same dreams I know the house isn’t mine. I want it. I really want it. But in the dream I’m still waiting for it to come on the market. I know it will, eventually, but as of that moment, it isn’t mine.
  “I look for this house all the time, wherever I’m touring with the band. Sometimes I think I’ll turn a corner when I am driving and it’ll be there and I’ll just know. But you know what I thought this year? You know when people say they are building their dream house? Well, this is mine. So I’m just going to build it. I mean who’s going to stop me?”
  Grohl sparks up a Parliament Light and we sit staring out of the huge hotel window, the boats on the Río De La Plata below carving their frothy wake through the brown water to Uruguay. And just for a brief moment, Dave Grohl stops talking.

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