Big Us: On The Road With The Foo Fighters

CMJ - 1997

The Foo Fighters have been ending their sets with "I'll Stick Around" lately, and it might as well be their theme song. Dave Grohl went from being the drummer of Nirvana to being the guitarist and leader of another tremendous rock band; the group has survived the lineup turbulence of losing first drummer William Goldsmith and, very recently, guitarist Pat Smear; and, buoyed by "Everlong," it's album The Colour And The Shape has been rising back up the charts. Now Grohl, new guitarist Franz Stahl, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins are heading out for a year-long tour with a 20-person crew--many of whom have stuck around since the band's prehistory.

Tuesday, 3:30 PM
It's a few days into the Foo Fighters' American tour, and they're staying at the Omni Hotel in downtown Austin. The desk clerks know what's going on--the name "David Grohl" is blue-highlighted on a piece of paper at the front desk--but the only thing they or I mention is, very obliquely, the "Brandt Party."
That would be tour manager Gus Brandt, because if you're going to be heading out on a tour with two buses, a truck, four band members and 20 crew people, you need a heavy-duty person to run it all. Gus has been doing music-business things since he booked Black Flag and Saccharine Trust shows in 7th grade. He's a great big guy who, as a member of the group who shall remain nameless points out, looks a bit like Mr. Potato Head.
Over at the Austin Music Hall, where the Foos are going to be playing in a few hours, Gus is holed up in a slapped-together business office, taking care of the calls that come in on his pager once or twice a minute. Dave Grohl is sprawled in a chair, talking to a friend who used to be in Marginal Man, back in the old D.C. punk days. He's showing off the cover of the new issue of Drummer, featuring the band's Taylor Hawkins looking very sharp in drag. Bassist Nate Mendel, eating a banana, wanders off. Pete Stahl, the assistant road manager, pops in, in his standard uniform of freshly shaven head, red shirt and great big flashlight.
Dave, a few months ago, talking about Pat Smear: "He's so nonchalant about everything, but he's an amazing musician and he has great ideas. When you're having a bad show and staring out at the crowd, wondering if you're going to make it through the last three songs, and you see him bouncing around in a baby-blue flight attendant outfit, it's really inspiring."
After months of rumors Pat left the Foo Fighters halfway through their set at the MTV Video Music Awards a few weeks ago, and turned over the second guitar position in the band to Franz Stahl - Pete's brother. Pete and Franz used to be in another Washington, D.C. hard-core band, Scream, which had a bunch of records on Dischord. The final Scream record, Fumble (recorded in 1989 but not released until 1992) featured the band's new drummer, a young guy named Dave Grohl, who also wrote and sang one of it's songs himself.
Pete has come to get Dave to do an interview at some radio station (and another; by phone, from the car en route). The band is deluged with interview requests these days, and since the powers-that-be claim they're helping to propel The Colour And The Shape back up the charts, they're doing a lot of them. But there are limits. "I kinda blew off an interview with the guy from Guitar magazine," Dave confesses. "Hey, Gus, how many minutes was I supposed to have with him?"
Dave, speaking this past summer, on being a public figure with a private life: "There are some things that should be kept to yourself, and there has to be a line drawn. There are a lot of things that people who are very close to me don't even know about me."
Dave and Gus talk about a dream Dave had last night. "I dreamt there was a kick drum, and inside the kick drum was the universe." Whoa, everyone agrees. He heads off to do his interview as Taylor, having finished a lengthy and loud soundcheck, wanders in and signs for his per diems - the daily cash allowances Gus doles out to the band. He's a bottle-blond spazz from Laguna Beach, and a born drummer, doing little drum-rolls on his legs, the chair, the wall, anything within reach as he talks.
Craig Overbay wanders in-a lot of wandering goes on at soundchecks, since there's not much to do if you don't have to do something right now. "Hey, Craig," Taylor yells, "are guitar players a fuckin' dime a dozen?"
"Guitar players-you trip over 'em," Craig says, and wanders out again. Craig is the Foo Fighters' soundman. He's resorted to putting up a plexiglass baffle around Taylor's kit to keep it from bleeding into every mike on stage. Taylor is a very hard hitter. "Pat and I were into the same exact kind of music," Taylor says - Queen, Pink Floyd, the Police. "It was like having a big sister in the band." Mentioning the Police has triggered something in his head, and he starts playing the drum part to "Next To You" on his legs. Of course, there's an up side to not being the fresh face in the band any more. "I took the beating for being the new kid for so long," Taylor continues. "'New guy!'"

Tuesday, 4:00 PM
Now Franz is the new guy, but he's not getting ribbed nearly as much-maybe because Dave was the new guy in his band once upon a time. It may also be because he's the oldest one in the band, at 35. After Scream broke up, he and Pete formed a band called Wool, which toured for a few years, put out a major-label album (Box Set), toured some more, and abruptly got dropped. The band fell apart, and the brothers played a bit with some other people, but eventually went their separate ways - Pete to working at the Viper Room and later the Foos' entourage, Franz to Japan, where he worked in a band with a guy called J.
Then, a month ago, with very little warning, he got the call: Pat was leaving the Foo Fighters, would he be the new guitarist? Starting right away? He flew in two days before his first performance, on the MTV Awards. "The only thing that kept me from losing it was that I was jet-lagging so bad," he says. He's had about a week of rehearsal, his girlfriend is very pregnant, and he's about to play his third show with the Foo Fighters; it's unclear what's keeping him so calm now.
A snapshot of the Foo Fighters' dressing room: 20 bottles of spring water, 8 bottles of Perrier, a cooler full of soda, Snapple and iced tea, a cooler full of beer (both macro- and micro-brews), two bottles of Merlot, two giant bottles of IBC root beer, three loaves of French bread, several other varieties of bread, pitas, crackers, chips and picante sauce, coffee with sugar, cream and lemons on the side, granola bars, bite-size candy bars, a big stack of towels (one of which Pete is ripping up), a bowl of fresh fruit, another bowl of fresh berries, a few varieties of gum, and a hanging basket in the shape of a bull's head. This last is not in the band's contract, and Taylor is trying to figure out how to wear it.
Note that all this is not dinner-just backstage snack material. (At the end of the night, Pete hijacks a lot of what's left for the tour bus.) For dinner, there's surprisingly good catering-teriyaki chicken, rice, various vegetable and tofu things. As people eat, Taylor is drumming on the table-he eats a bit, then heads up to the drum riser to play some more. There's a Nick Cave tape playing over the PA, which doesn't stop him from taking a crack at "When The Levee Breaks" before the audience starts arriving.

Tuesday, 7:00 PM
Back in the dressing room, guitar tech Ernie "Guitar" Bailey (everyone says that's legally his middle name) is holding court, telling Nirvana stories-he started touring with them in early '92. After Nirvana ended, he and his wife had a restaurant in Seattle for a year; he sold it, figuring he'd take it easy for a while. And promptly got a call from Dave: "'I'm going on the road next week, wanna come?'"
Dave bursts through the dressing room, wearing a skull mask for no apparent reason and grabbing everyone in his path. Franz, paging through the tour itinerary, looks up: "Dave, why are we going to Sweden in November?"
"Because we need to rock, man! We need to fuckin' rock!" And out he goes.
Ernie, unfazed by the interruption, continues. "It's been interesting watching Dave growing into being the ringleader. At first, he wasn't used to calling all the shots-being the charming frontman. Now he's hilarious when he starts rambling on stage... I wish he'd be the same guy on stage he is on the bus.
"I think the second record's a lot more personal-"
Dave suddenly walks back into the room. Ernie pretends he doesn't notice, and raises his voice a bit: "Of course, the main thing about Dave is to never turn your back on him-he'll fuck you over in a second."
Smirking, Dave attempts to change the subject. "I had these breakfast burritos-for breakfast-" Taylor interrupts: "Seeing as how they're breakfast burritos--" Dave whacks him, and the room abruptly degenerates into everyone trying to toss candy-bars and fruit into the bull's head basket. Then Taylor starts drumming again, this time on the bottles on the food table. An hour or so later, various Foos and friends are watching the opening band, Verbena, doing their very loud Stones-via-Royal Trux thing on stage. Dave is really getting into them. Franz, backstage, is quizzically examining a box of ginseng that a "runner" has retrieved for the band. Nate, who's been missing for the past few hours, comes back with two huge bags of clothes; he's got a bad toothache and isn't talking much, so he pretty much keeps to himself. Taylor is in the dressing-room bathroom, drumming on the fixtures. He's liking Verbena. "They sound kinda like Nirvana! Bleach!"
Amount that a band gets paid to open for the Foo Fighters: -$700. It goes toward taking care of expenses (catering and so on).
By 8:30, the band are finally all in the same room. Let's just say drumsticks are a dangerous thing to have in a dressing room. Dave eventually starts doing a little rhythmic exercise on the wastebasket; Taylor joins him, on the other side of the basket. This, it turns out, is a nightly ritual, a drill to focus their concentration. There are two drummers in this band.
Afterwards, everyone's knocking back the ginseng. This is not a euphemism.

Tuesday, 9:15 PM
The hall, we later find out, is about 3/4 full, but it sure looks fully occupied. They start out the set with both Taylor and Dave playing drums; after a minute, Dave switches to guitar, they go into "This Is A Call," and we get to see the results of all that ginseng. Everybody's leaping around the stage like crazy for the hour-plus set. They do a new one, called "The Colour And The Shape," a fast, Pixies-ish thrasher; they do most of the hits (though not "Big Me"). But the big cheers are for "Everlong." "You get that just right," Nate said earlier, "it's kind of orgasmic, really. It's amazing when it really comes together." In fact, everything comes together -not bad for this lineup's third show.
Nate, on The Colour And The Shape: "It's almost like a concept record, some people say-the lyrics were all written at one period in Dave's life, and they really reflect well what was going on in Dave's life."
Dave's perspective: "Writing lyrics, you're taking something completely intimate and turning it into something completely not-intimate."
Taylor, on Dave: "Do not compliment him. He can't take a compliment."
After the inevitable post-show industry meet-and-greet, everyone's pretty wiped out and conserving their energy for tomorrow, except for the indefatigable Taylor, who heads out with Gus to Austin's famous dive Emo's-"grunge Cheers," Gus calls it. The singer of the awful band on stage there makes a joke: "Why do girls dig Jesus so much? [strikes crucifixion pose] 'Cause he's hung like this." Taylor and, subsequently, the rest of the band, spend the next day repeating this to everyone they meet.

Wednesday, 11:00 AM
The inside of the tour bus basically looks like a nice hotel room itself: tasteful curtains, a little couch-and-table setup, a ceiling mirror, a kitchenette with a coffee machine, a set of bunks for people to sleep in (stacked three-high). There's a stereo/VCR in front, another in back. Texas passes by outside. Taylor is up front, chatting with congenial driver Larry Ellis and singing snatches of "Billie Jean." Dave is chatting with Gus: "Did I tell you I found out I ripped off a Def Leppard song? That song 'Hysteria' and 'Everlong.' It's got a line 'breathe out so I can breathe you in."'
Skeeter Thompson, the old bass player of Scream, is coming in from Little Rock tonight-"Scream reunion!" There's some concern over the number of tickets the Dallas show tonight has sold: 1400 for a 3200-capacity venue. The Stones, Gus is quick to remind the band, have only sold 12,000 tickets for a show with Smashing Pumpkins opening, though, so it's not that big a deal. Things are tough all over. The album's down a notch in the charts this week, but there are five big debuts that came in above it-it's actually sold more copies this week than last. Eventually, almost everyone heads back to catch some Z's; Pete stays up front to watch Short Cuts on the VCR.

Wednesday, 3:30 PM
When the bus pulls into the Bronco Bowl, the converted former bowling alley they'll be playing in Dallas, it's just about soundcheck time, which means, since they're still teaching Franz the songs, that it's time to learn "Big Me." That's basic enough, so they follow up with an Angry Samoans cover that Taylor's never heard either-it's a little weird watching him figure out how to play hardcore. Dave demonstrates the drum break by waving his arms in the air. Taylor has an idea for a slight change in the arrangement of "This Is A Call," so they try it a couple of different ways. "I don't know if we should do that at the end of every verse," Dave says. "I think it fucking sucks," Taylor declares, and that's the end of that.
Taylor, on what the Foo Fighters' songs mean to him: "'I'll Stick Around' means it's the end of the set..."
Nate, the band's quiet literary type, retreats to the dressing room and reads Vaclav Havel's The Art Of The Impossible, while Dave and Franz go off to talk to a guitar magazine. Over dinner, Verbena's guitarist tells me that Ernie offered him some extra parts for his make of guitar. "'Yeah?' ' Yeah, my old boss used to smash one every night.' Right-that old boss."

Wednesday, 8:45 PM
Right after Verbena finishes their set, their singer storms into the Foo dressing room, mock-angry. "I believe this belongs to you," he says, and pulls a Mentos out of his pocket. Getting pelted with hard candy by fans who've seen the video may be the down side of learning "Big Me." Gus is showing them a selection of possible photos for the cover of this issue of New Music Monthly. There is some discussion of the video arcade at the front of the hall, and the possibility of holding the meet 'n' greet there. Dave keeps doing his Atari Teenage Riot impression: "Destroy two souzand yeass of cultcha!" Taylor is what else, drumming- this time on the floor, which looks like the only viable surface.
Dave, on Verbena's singer: "Dude, that guy is so fuckin' Kurt Cobain it's not even funny." Verbena's drummer, on hearing this later: "We hear that sometimes but Dave Grohl saying that is kinda different."
On stage, Dave dedicates "New Way Home" to Skeeter Thompson who's shown up with his wife and daughter but won't be playing tonight. See, Dave explains, a long time ago, I joined up with this band called Scream-small cheer from audience-actually, Franz here was the guitarist-another small cheer-and then I was in Nirvana-immense cheer that more or less drowns out the rest of the dedication.

Wednesday, 11:00 PM
Unlike last night, the backstage scene afterwards is something of a party, thanks to the arrival of a handful of gorgeous friends of Taylor (admirers of his since the days when he was drumming for Alanis Morissette-"I really love the way he holds his sticks," one of them explains) and the great big bottle of tequila they've brought with them. Dave and Franz put in appearances at the meet-and-greet, with wan smiles on their faces, but spend more time hanging out in Verbena's dressing room, trading airplane-travel stories and telling the Jesus joke again.
Eventually, Pete and Gus round up everybody into the buses-they have to take off now, because they've got a 12-hour drive ahead of them. Taylor's friend gives him an acrobatic kiss goodbye. As Dave walks out, he brushes his hand against the back of his head, revealing the Foo Fighters logo tattooed on his neck.

Words:Douglas Wolk

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