Let There Be Foo

Clash, September 2007
Clash 2007

You wouldn’t think it was possible, but the nicest man in rock just got nicer!

Foo Fighters The Foo Fighters continue to go from strength to strength and are still the world’s premier rock band, providing the ultimate experience you can rely on to explode your senses. It’s a long time since they rose phoenix-like from the ashes of one of history’s most important bands but, as if tainted with the ongoing compulsion of self-validation, each time they return with a new album it sounds like a step further forward in the evolution of America’s most popular alien-obsessed thrash merchants.

Take for example their last album, the nature of which could have put the fear of God into any judicious music fan, given as it could only be described with the two words sure to send shivers down even the most stoical of spines: “double album”. Yes, ‘In Your Honour’ was at risk of perpetrating the indefensible musical crime of trying to say ‘look how prolific we are’ but actually saying ‘we love ourselves and are too conceited to choose’. But, against all odds, it broke tradition by actually justifying the extravagance, and as a result we had twice as much Foos to digest and revel in.

Its success lay in the diversity of its creators, branching out from their usual amps-at-11 intensity, with a second disc of adventures in acoustic introspection that pointed the way ahead for a band hungry to explore their horizons.

Since the release of that career-defining quest, lead Foo Dave Grohl became a father. This life changing turn of events has, quite naturally, seen this previously hinted at sensitive side come to the fore on the quartet’s new album, ‘Echoes, Silence, Patience And Grace’. Its impressive scope is a credit to the band’s ability to grow; drummer Taylor Hawkins, bassist Nate Mendel and guitarist Chris Shiflett, along with Grohl, have learnt to complement each other in a way that goes beyond harmony. They don’t covet space, instead allowing for an organic conception through their newfound musical freedom, which ultimately is ten times more exciting for the listener.

With such genuinely innate skills to improve and impress, Daddy Dave has demonstrated that by bringing new life into the world he has breathed the same into his beloved art.

Clash spoke to Dave initially about the curious and inspirational progression of a group with so much still to give.

‘Echoes, Silence, Patience And Grace’ is a curious title. Where did it come from and what does it mean?
Well, it’s always been a challenge to name any of our albums, just because they’re usually diverse in their musical dynamic and in their lyrical theme. It just seems strange to make an album and have a slogan that represents every aspect of the record, and some of our albums had these really direct titles, like ‘One By One’ and ‘There’s Nothing Left To Lose’ and ‘In Your Honour’. So this time, having an album that’s the most diverse music we’ve ever made – musically and lyrically – it was tough to find something that really did sum it all up. I picked through the lyrics and I found a lyric from the last song, ‘Home’, which says: “Echoes, silence, patience and grace, all of these moments I’ll never replace”. I thought it was nice because it’s open to interpretation and it’s a beautiful title and I think the album is beautiful in its diversity and its melody and its musicality – it goes from delicate acoustic moments to the heaviest shit we’ve ever done.

Dave Were you able to be so diverse because of the experiments in your last album, the double 'In Your Honour', which was one disc of rock and the other acoustic?
Yeah. With every album we've ever made we've tried to branch out and open these doors so that we can move through them next time we make a record. So every album we've ever made has a little bit of acoustic music on it, from the first to the latest record, they all move in different directions, and it's an intentional movement. We like to experiment with things and take 'em a little bit farther the next time around without seeming contrived; we don't wanna throw a reggae song on side A and then a fuckin' techno song on side B, but we do try to expand somewhat, and the last album was like an extreme experiment in that it was like cutting out the middle ground and going all the way left and all the way right so that eventually you have this playing field that's a lot wider than before. Because if there's a ticket to longevity, that's it. Once you get to the point where anything's possible then there's no end in sight.

Are you quite confident that your fans are going to follow you in whatever direction you go in?
You know, at some point you turn that warning light off. At this point, having done it for as long as we have, it becomes a little more introverted. As a musician you need to do the things that satisfy yourself. One of the great things about our band is that we've built this little world with our own studios and our own label and directing our own videos and finding our own producers and producing ourselves... We're able to walk into our fortress, Studio 606, and lock the door and turn everything outside off, and I think it's helped us survive this whole time. So at some point you do turn that off. I mean of course I hope the people enjoy what we do but it's not a main motivation for doing it. It's a challenge.

If you're handling all aspects of the band and are locked away in your own studio, how do you avoid becoming self-indulgent?
Honestly, to me, at this point, simplification and melody and meaningful lyrics have become the challenge. I mean, I've been stepping on distortion pedals since I was fuckin' 13 years old, you know? So it's been a long time. You get to the point where the challenge is in dynamic and simplicity. Yeah, we could stroll down there and spend all day recording loops and feedback, but that doesn't get me off anymore.

When you simplify your songs and break them down, it means that your lyrics are more open to analysis. Do you feel and pressure or apprehension at having your words laid so bare?
I used to be scared. I used to be afraid to say certain things and I used to be afraid to write in that way, but after becoming a father, you know, the big picture really does open up a lot and you realise that life's too short to hold back those things that you've always wanted to do or always wanted to say. When I started writing for this album I wasn't afraid to say certain things, and as we were choosing the songs for the record, the idea wasn't to choose a specific dynamic, it was just to choose the songs that were the most moving or that had the best lyric or the best melody, so it could have been an album full of fuckin' accordions and cellos; it could have been an album full of walls of amplifiers, you know? But the dynamic of the record dictated itself with melody and lyrics in mind.

Foo Fighters You describe yourself as "simple" twice throughout the album - "A simple man and his blushing bride" in 'Let It Die', and "such a simple animal, sterilised with alcohol" in 'Come Alive'. Do you consider yourself a simple living person?
I consider every human being extremely simple. When it comes down to basic science or basic biology, we're just fuckin' squishy organisms, you know? Of course everyone has their emotionally complicated side, but I think people are pretty simple; I don't think we're the wunderkinds we imagine ourselves to be. It's pretty easy to figure people out, I think. You can get a sense of a person in the first fuckin' 15 minutes of conversation. Well, that's pretty simple; it's easier than a chessboard, you know?

In 'Long Road To Ruin' you sing "Dear God I've sealed my fate / running through hell / heaven can wait". Do you think you've led a sinful life?
I've had my share of sin. I've done my time. Just as anybody else you go through your periods where you do things that are bad because they make you feel good. And just like anyone else I ain't no saint. I went to Catholic school for reform, you know? (Laughs) I've never been to church in my life; I wound up going to Catholic school with a fuckin' uniform on for two years because I was getting in too much trouble spray painting shit and taking acid.

When was the last time you prayed?
Not long ago actually. A couple of months ago? I do that every once in a while.

Just to stay in contact?
Well, you know, there's a part of me that really does believe that there's more to life than just this... You're talking to a guy who believes in UFOs! (Laughs) So I'm sure you can imagine me getting down on both knees and praying to something!

The song 'Statues' on the new album is great. You'd previously said that this album was partly influenced by Paul McCartney, and this has definitely got a Wings vibe to it.
I think any rock 'n' roll album is inspired by McCartney and Lennon. I probably wouldn't be sitting here if it weren't for those guys. I grew up listening to The Beatles, I grew up listening to Neil Young, I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, those classic rock guys as much as I was into the hardcore scene in the 80s, so it's inevitable that those things shape the way you compose and arrange. We were down at Abbey Road a couple of weeks ago recording a song for the BBC - we were recording 'Band On The Run' - and Paul McCartney showed up!

As you do!
Yeah, he just stopped by to say hello! (Laughs) That was amazing. To me that's like having the Pope walk into your living room or something. It was a real moment for me.

Taylor Hawkins 'Statues' was the first time you've played piano on record, right?
Yeah. My wife bought me a piano for my birthday about a year and a half ago. I've always been really intimidated by them because I just didn't understand how they worked, you know? I've never played one before. I've played 'Chopsticks', but I've never really tried to play a song. Someone said, "OK, see that there? That note is middle C." I'm like, 'Oh that's a C? Oh well that's an E... Fuckin' A, there's a chord!' And then I just started writing songs. Pretty simple; it's not Beethoven.

So you're still building your confidence?
I haven't learned a new instrument in fuckin' 25 years, so when you sit down at something like that it's like putting a kaleidoscope in front of your face; it's like, 'Oh my God, there's a whole beautiful world out there'. And I just started writing. Five years ago those songs wouldn't have been on a Foo Fighters record because I would have been too concerned that it was too much of an abstract direction; it was too much of a shift in the band. And now, I just wanna make music. So a song like 'Statues', or a song like 'Home', I think those are two of the best songs that the band have ever written, just because after 13 years it's still changing; the band is managing to evolve somehow - we'll just change rather than suffocate in the same fuckin' cage that a lot of bands get trapped in.

Can you believe that you're still together after this long?
Man ... (Laughs) This wasn't supposed to be a career, you know? This was a fluke. The same thing with Nirvana. Both of these things were accidents, and I'd be doing the same thing had either of the bands just stayed in the vans and the clubs; I'd still be doing the same thing, but no, I never imagined this to happen.

Two weeks later and most of the Foo Fighters are in London ahead of their appearance at this year's V festival. Clash arrives at their swanky Covent Garden hotel and descends into the basement where Dave Grohl- fresh off his transatlantic flight - is holed up to meet his inquisitors. Lounging on the plush sofa amidst a horrendous colour scheme and bright fabric wallpaper, he is dressed entirely in black; boots, jeans, t-shirt all immaculately dark - perfectly appropriate for the man who portrayed the Devil in the video for Tenacious D's 'Tribute'. For the duration of our conversation, the affable one will proceed to pinch and twirl the ends of his' bushy black moustache; his fiendish side always daring to escape ...

Do you remember the first record you bought?
The first record I bought was a K-Tel compilation, which were these 'as seen on TV' compilations in the Seventies. The one that I bought had KC and the Sunshine Band on it, some horrible disco, and then it had The Edgar Winter Group's 'Frankenstein', and I fuckin' wore that thing out. And only that song. I couldn't give a shit about anything else on that record; it was just all about 'Frankenstein'. An instrumental, you know? No lyrics, just fuckin' soloing. I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever heard. I was so into it.

What was the first band to really bite you seriously?
Well, I was a Beatles fanatic when I was a kid, so I had all of The Beatles’ records, and a songbook that was the Complete Beatles Anthology with chord charts. And at 10 or 11 years old I started learning how to play guitar and I would play along with all of those records. But I think the first time a band made me lose my mind was when I saw AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock movie. I think I was probably 11 or 12 years old – maybe 12 – and it was a midnight movie downtown in Washington D.C. I think my friend Larry had one AC/DC record but we hadn’t listened to it much, so we went to go see this concert film. It was filmed in 1979 in France; it was one of the last tours that Bon Scott did with the band before he died. That show, that live performance, still to this day is one of the most electrifying live performances I’ve ever seen in my life; just pure, stripped-down, sweaty fuckin’ hard rock, and it was the first time I’d ever experienced that feeling of wanting to just fuckin’ smash a window, you know, just to break shit. It completely energised me, and I worshipped Angus Young – all I wanted to be was Angus Young. So that was the first time I was ever moved by a band.

You refer to going home to the "sweet Virginia countryside" in 'Summer's End' Do you retreat back home to get away from things or is it just a mental escape that you like to imagine?
I was actually just there yesterday. Yeah, the idea of home is so much bigger than just a place you know? Virginia represents something to me that's more than lightning bugs and thunderstorms and the neighbourhood I grew up in. It has to do with a sort of reality or a truth you know? Like a stability or foundation that everything is based on, everything I've ever done. And the person that I am now is all because of that just as much as when I refer to home now it means my family, you know? My mother or my wife or my daughter - those are the things that are most real to me and so when I refer to Virginia it's usually just referring to those parts or those places in my life that I consider real. Because, you know, a lot of what we're surrounded with is so superfcial- especially doing what we do. A lot of it can seem imaginary.

You mentioned your mother. Does she still go on tour with you?
(Laughs) She's actually here!

Is she a calming influence on you?
Yeah well, you know, my mom and I are fuckin' good friends. It sounds so funny, it's hard to imagine the singer of a rock band hanging out with his mom on the road, but anyone who's ever met her can understand how she would be that exception. I mean, she's so fuckin' laidback. We've played shows before and I walk up after we're done, all sweaty with a towel around my neck, and she's sitting there having a pint with Billie Joe from fuckin' Green Day. You just give her a laminate now. It used to be that I had to make sure that she had somewhere to sit and she had the right passes... She's like a member of our road crew, you know?

So there's nothing she's not seen?
There's not a lot she hasn't seen. But, you know, to me ... She was a schoolteacher for 36 years, so she worked three fuckin' jobs to support my sister and I, she worked her fingers to the bone, she raised two kids to follow their hearts and do the right thing, and so there's a lot of payback, you know? She retired and I thought 'You wanna come see the world, you might as well come see it with me. Don't jump on some tour ship with a bunch of fuckin' senior citizens. Let's fuckin' fly over to London and go watch some rock shows.' Fuck, I've had her front row at Prodigy gigs and festivals before. She's into it!

Chris Shiflett Having your mother on tour does cultivate that 'nicest man in rock' tag that you get. Does that ever piss you off?
No, but I think it's funny. Most musicians you can sit down and have a drink with and they'll be great. Do you know who one of the nicest men in rock is? Lemmy. Have you ever hung out with Lemmy?

No, I've never had the pleasure.
He's a fuckin' great guy, you know? Shit, I walked downstairs one night at a show we had in Los Angeles and there's Lemmy hanging out with my daughter and my wife and my mom...

At first you were like, 'whoa!'
I was like, "Put the fuckin' cigarette out, you're near my baby!" No, you know, there's as much assholes, there's no question about that, but you've got to look at it like we're lucky to be doing what we do - I feel like I've got the greatest job in the world. I have very few complaints, so there's not a lot to be unhappy about.

Could you see ever a time when you weren't doing this?
Mm-hmm. Sure.

What would you do?
I dunno. I'm not really sure. Making music is an everyday thing, whether it's in public or at home. I love writing and I love performing, but I don't imagine that it will last forever.
  I mean, there are times where I could just imagine being a stay-at-home dad, you know? Waking up in the morning... My routine now is I get up at 6.30am, I get Violet out of her crib, make her a bottle, hang out, read some books, have some breakfast, put her down for a nap, get her up, get her dressed, then I go to the studio at Noon.
The days where I don't go to the studio it's a good fuckin' 16-hour day of just being a father and... it's great man. You get her down at night to go to sleep, you sit down on the couch and you think of all the shit that you did that day. It's a great feeling; you're exhausted but, you know... To me it seems like the idea is to stretch your days. Who knows how long you're gonna live so why not try to get as much in as you can? A full day with a sixteen-month-old baby is a fuckin' full day! When you go to sleep you go down hard!

Were you worried at all about the negative effect that having a child might have on your songwriting? Someone like John Lennon would write sappy ballads…
No, because I don’t think that that’s a negative effect. As long as it’s a direct reflection of the way you feel, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

It might get a bit too sentimental though.
I don’t necessarily think that there’s anything wrong with sentimentality. Like we said earlier, it’s all based on that Let There Be Rock movie, so I can’t imagine I’ll be dancing round the stage with a fuckin’ harpsichord anytime soon. You have to shed that sort of expectation or you have to erase that preconception from what you do, you know, just to be able to write and just make songs should be enough. I’d hate to be someone else’s idea of myself forever. Eventually you just get to the point where you say, ‘Fuck it. I’m just gonna do whatever the hell I wanna do.

Are you planning a 'Best Of' compilation?
You know, they've wanted us to put out a greatest hits album for years now, but we've held it off for the last two records. It was supposed to happen before 'In Your Honour' and we said, "No, no, no, no, let's make one more", and then after 'In Your Honour' they wanted it to happen and we said, "No, no, no, no, let's just make one more record." There's a part of me that feels like it's the kiss of death, because ultimately when you come out with an album you consider your greatest hits, to me it says, 'I've written all the songs I can write, so here's the best of them'. I don't feel that way, so I want to hold off on it as long as I can. I want to hold off on it until our greatest hits is a fuckin' box set, so I'm not ready.

You're in the unique position that every album you make is a progression, an advancement; you're still on a creative high.
Yeah. A lot of that has to do with shutting off the outside world and just doing what you do without trying to cater too much to the expectations of the band. There are songs on the new record, like 'Home' or 'Statues', you wouldn't expect our band to do something like that. They're moving in directions we've never gone before, and I like that. And there was a moment where I wanted to keep those songs off the record because they were too much of a diversion from where we've been heading, but then I realise that that's WHY we should put them on the record, you know? It's that diversity. You need to do things like that in order to maintain any sort of longevity creatively. So who fuckin' knows what the next record is gonna sound like, but that's what's great, that I don't know. We never really do. We'll go in and demo songs that range from these fuckin' country waltzes to things that sound like a metal dirge and everything in between, and you just pick the songs that are the most powerful. The range is really wide, and the fact that it's not narrowing into a point that we'll just sort of end in a vacuum makes it easier for us to continue.

Do you have creative control over the songs that go on the album?
Oh, fuck yeah.

When you make these different tunes will the label tell you that they don't sound like the Foo Fighters?
Well, we ARE the label. All the records come out on Roswell Records and we distribute them through SonyBMG. And we have our own studio. So we fuckin' do everything. We own our whole catalogue, we just license it to people, so everything from the first record to this one is ours and so we've had total creative control over every single thing that we've ever done.

Did that method come from your own past experience of dealing with labels?
[Nods] My very first experience in the professional music world, I got sued. A guy named Glen Friedman. I hope you print this because the world needs to know. When I was in Scream, before Nirvana, there was a guy named Glen Friedman - he's kind of a well-known photographer, who took a lot of pictures for Def Jam and he took a lot of pictures of famous skateboarders in the 70s, along with a lot of pictures of famous punk rock bands. He actually had a book called Fuck You Heroes that was pictures of all the hardcore bands in the 80s. He makes himself out to be this real sort of do-it-yourself punk rock guy with a strong set of ethics and morals. My band Scream, he heard a tape that we had made and he said, "I'm gonna start a label and I'm gonna find you guys a deal, so sign this contract!" So we signed this contract - in a van, in a parking lot of a fuckin' Denny's! We had nothing; we didn't have any money to eat or anything, so we signed this contract, sent it to him... A month and a half later the band breaks up. And then a while later I joined Nirvana, and maybe like eight months later we signed a record deal. And I get the call, "Well, I still got you under contract." I'm like, "Glen, Scream broke up. Pete called you. We're not a band anymore." He said, "Well sorry, you gotta fuckin' pay me off." I'm like, "What?" So I had to give him $40,000 right off the bat [clicks fingers]. That was my first experience. I just thought, 'God, can you trust anybody?' Fortunately with Nirvana there wasn't too much legal weirdness, but when I started the Foo Fighters it was like, well, 'I just wanna make sure that I can have everything, that I control everything.'
Webmaster's note: Since this article was published Glen Friedman contacted Clash magazine (and myself) with his side of the story. You can find Glen's e-mail HERE.

Nate Mendel How large does the Nirvana legacy loom over you?
It's always there. It's a huge part of my life, you know? I wouldn't be here now if it weren't for that, so it's a massive part of my timeline. It happened in such a short period of time, but it was huge. So it will always be there, yeah. And I've never wanted to deny it, you know. I mean I'm really proud to have been in a band that achieved something like that. where we managed to connect with so many people. I wish that things had turned out differently - obviously - but it will always be there. Honestly, -I'm really proud to have been a part of something so special.

At what point did interviews go from being all about Nirvana to all about Foo Fighters?
Well the first few years... I remember when we first announced that we were a band, everybody wanted to do an interview, and it was obvious that there wasn't much to talk about except the past. We hadn't fuckin' done anything yet. We'd played maybe a handful of shows and we were still rehearsing. So we shied away from doing too many interviews right off the bat, and we slowly gradually dipped our feet in and started talking to people. It was understandable that so many people would have so many questions about Nirvana, and it was difficult to talk about at the time because it was still only a few years after Kurt had passed away and after the band had fallen apart, so I had to be really careful - as did the interviewer. Because, as you can imagine, it was a personal tragedy, and to have a complete stranger start asking you questions about something that was still painful - and then go tell everybody about it - it was a little weird. But then after a while, maybe five or six years, the questions just sorta stopped. And then there were anniversaries so then, you know, the questions came back. They'll always be there. I don't refuse to talk about anything well, there's certain things I refuse to talk about - but it's understandable, you know?

Do the emotions you went through after Nirvana still come through in your writing or have there been so many things happen subsequently that there’s enough to draw from?
Well, I think that if I write about loss or death or pain or heartbreak there’s this tendency to make the correlation between that and Kurt or Nirvana. I’ve had a whole life outside of both of these bands that’s had its share of all of those things; they are general emotions that most people have felt one time or another in their lives. For a while I was afraid to say some of those things for fear that the listener would make that correlation, but I’m not afraid of that anymore, because I felt that like it kept me from saying some things that were really important to me, and so it hinders the process, you know? I don’t wanna keep myself from saying anything, so it definitely was a roadblock for a while, but I made my way past that.

When you first joined Nirvana you really relished the role of being "just" the drummer. After Nirvana, what made you want to make the leap to being the frontman?
I didn't wanna be just the drummer. I loved being a drummer in a band. Its kinda where I feel most comfortable and confident. I don't consider myself a larger than life frontman that can capture a stadium full of people with my other-worldly personality, so as a drummer, just being the backbone or the foundation of a song. I've always felt really comfortable. But then after Nirvana was finished I couldn't imagine doing it again with someone else because it always would have reminded me of being in a band with Krist and Kurt, and it was sad, you know? I didn't wanna continue life dwelling on the past and what had happened, so I thought I'd give being a frontman a shot. I don't know what the fuck I was doing - I still don't.

You dismiss your showman skills but you pretty much stole the show at Live Earth this summer. You must have put some effort in to your performance to make such an impression?
Well, I mean, when you only have twenty minutes, it's easy to run it into the red the whole time! (Laughs) I think that the Live Earth show was special in that everyone was there for the right reasons and the songs made sense in the context of the evening; 'Best Of You', 'Times Like These' and 'My Hero' - I think all of those people were singing those songs with me for the same reasons. It was just that time of the night where everything needed to come together and fortunately we were there to witness it happening. But it was fun man, that was a fun gig. I was a little nervous, going on after the Pussycat Dolls and before Madonna. I missed a lot of the show - I only saw a few of the bands - but you walk out from that curtain and you see Wembley Stadium with all of those people and it's like jumping into a cold lake, like 'Holy fuckin' shit this is HUGE!' Not to mention two billion people watching it on television! So you walk the lip of the stage and you take a look around and then you look back at the three guys and you think, 'Alright, well it's just us, it's just a show'. And then I see my daughter on the side of the stage and I'm like 'Yeah, this is fuckin' cool. It'll be alright."

The final Foo to arrive in London, Taylor Hawkins, touches down two days after Clash's meeting with Dave, his flight also carrying The Cure, Jet and John Cusack. He comes straight to the hotel where we've once again convened to shoot the band. Earlier, Dave had been regaling Clash with his exploits the night before - drinking shots of gin with a Liverpudlian biker who had 'VD' tattooed on his stomach - but the moment that Taylor, himself a new father, enters our makeshift studio, talk turns once again to proud fathers comparing notes. His baby boy, Oliver Shane Hawkins is resplendent on Taylor's phone, and is passed around his doting uncles. "How are you with diapers?" asks Dave. "Are you into the shit?"

Rejuvenated by procreation and relishing in a creative renaissance, the Foo Fighters are pushing that circle of life with bigger and bolder strides than ever before. They've just gotta watch out for that shit...

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