Foo Fighters Dave Grohl says goodbye to rock and roll and hello to heavy metal with his smashing new project Probot
"Hey! I need a roll of tape for my boobs!"
It's a quiet Sunday in Hollywood, but inside this Sunset Boulevard soundstage, where a music video shoot is underway, it looks like a red-blooded rocker's version of the ultimate Saturday night. Around the room are several dozen attractive young women from SuicideGirls.com, each attired to varying degrees in leather and fishnets, and sporting tattoos and piercings. One girl is strapped to a torture table, another is cuffed to a gallows and one hangs from a circular cage in the centre of the room. The one who just called out for the roll of tape laughs while a production assistant "reluctantly" applies enough adhesive to keep her ample breasts from spilling out under her too-short T-shirt.
Standing on a circular stage at the centre of this Dionysian scene are three musicians. On bass, there's Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead, the white-booted, cowboy-hated embodiment of badass rock and roll. On guitar, his face temporarily hidden behind a long curtain of his hair, is Wino the legendary leader of the Obsessed and Spirit Caravan. And on drums, wearing a Motorhead T-shirt and glowing like the proverbial cat that just swallowed the canary, is Dave Grohl, the instigator behind this all-star underground metal collective, which he calls Probot, and the writer of "Shake Your Blood," the song receiving the video treatment.
"That was my idea," Grohl says a week later, when I ask him who came up with the quasi-"Smell the Glove" video concept for the song. "I mean, come on, baby we're running a fantasy camp here! I get to be the drummer of Motorhead for a day, per se, and I'm surrounded by 70 Suicide Girls? Dude, I could've wrapped my car around a tree on the way home, and I would have been totally cool with it!"
"Fantasy camp" is indeed the most apt description of the long-simmering Probot project. Though it has nothing to do with those middle-aged losers who shell out big bucks for the privilege of jamming "Roadhouse Blues" under the approving eye of Roger Daltrey, Probot has everything to do with making rock and roll dreams come true. It's just that, in this case, those dreams belong to the guy whose day job consists of singing, playing guitar and writing songs with the Foo Fighters and who used to slam the skins in a little band called Nirvana.
Originally conceived as a way to blow off a little between-tour steam, Probot turned into a full-blown endeavour after Grohl called on each of his musical heroes to contribute to the project. The resulting album-dubbed, appropriately, Probot, and due out on Southern Lord Recordings this February-features 11 mind-bending metal tracks, each graced by a vocal contribution from metal madmen that range from Lemmy and Wino to death-metal singer King Diamond and Cronos, of pioneering black metallists Venom.
"Maybe it's never seemed totally evident in any of the records the Foo Fighters have made, but I grew up on hardcore and heavy music," says Grohl. "Man, those early Trouble records fucking changed my life! And the early Voivod records, and Corrosion of Conformity's Animosity, and the D.R.I. seven-inch that I bought from the singer out of his van in 1983-that's the kind of stuff that laid the foundation of the music that I make today."
Although still in the middle of mixing the album, Grohl enthusiastically bent my ear for an hour about the story behind Probot, the distinctions between good and bad metal, irony in rock and Nirvana's oft-ignored metallic roots.
GUITAR WORLD There have been Probot rumors floating around for several years now. When and how did the whole project actually get off the ground?
DAVE GROHL Well, the whole thing started in February of 2000. The Foo Fighters had made our third album, There's Nothing Left to Lose, in 1999, which was a pretty mellow record for us. It was about exploring low-level dynamics and melody, and simple arrangements and acoustic guitars - it was more about those things than about hitting the Turbo Rat and turning it up to 10.
So we went out and played a lot of those songs live, and they were pretty mellow. I would find myself listening to Sepultura's Chaos A.D. before going onstage, and then singing a song like "Learn to Fly." Which I thought was kind of funny - like, What am I doing with my life, man? [laughs] When I was young, my favorite bands were fucking Bad Brains, Void, Minor Threat, MDC, D.R.I., Corrosion of Conformity, Slayer, Trouble, Voivod, Venom, the Obsessed and Mercyful Fate, and here I am playing music that sounds like the fucking Eagles or something! I love Foo Fighters' music, and I love that album, but at the same time I never lost that love of heavy music.
So I went into my home studio after being on tour, and I'm like, Man, I've gotta fucking record some riffs. I've gotta get in there and do something heavy. As much as I love this acoustic guitar shit, I've just gotta feel it in my bones again. I called my friend [and Foo Fighters producer] Adam Kasper and asked him to come down for three or four days, and I went to the basement and just started recording riffs with no intention of making an album. I couldn't imagine even singing over them! I knew they weren't Foo Fighters songs, because they were fucking way too heavy, and at the time it just wasn't where our heads were at.
I would sit on the couch, drinking beers and watching TV with the fucking Explorer and a little Peavey practice amp next to me, just playing around. If I came up with something that sparked my interest, I'd say to Adam, "Come on, let's go downstairs!" I'd sit down at the drums and go through a quick arrangement off the top of my head. I didn't adhere to any son of conventional song structure. I just thought, Well, maybe that's a verse, maybe that's a chorus. I don't care-let's just record it! And then I'd get out of there and put some bass on it, put some guitar stuff on it. Forty-five minutes later, you've got a track. I didn't really take it that seriously. So then I'd go back upstairs, grab a couple more beers, come up with another riff, go downstairs and do it again. And within three days I had seven songs that were basically just riff instrumentals, with no suggestion of melody or vocals or anything. Made a copy for a friend, made a copy for another friend, wrote "Probot" on the fucking reel and put it on the shelf.
GW How did all these other guys get involved?
GROHL Well, we started coming up with the idea of the wish list: "God, could you imagine if Cronos from Venom sang on that song? Fuck! It would be amazing!" Or like, "What if we could get King Diamond? What if we got his number and just asked if he'd do it?" So I made up a really specific list of my 11 favorite vocalists from that time, and that's where the whole idea of this project started. Personally, I didn't think it would work; I couldn't imagine any of these people wanting to make an album with the guy from the Foo Fighters. [laughs] But I had a buddy of mine, Matt Sweeney, make the calls, because I had to go right back out on tour. He started getting in touch with these people, and I'd get calls from him saying, "Dude, I talked to King Diamond today!" "No fucking way! What's he like?" "Great, super-nice guy. He's totally into it. He wants to hear the track." And that's kinda the way it went, you know? We'd get one of these people on the phone, and they'd say, "Hmm, well, let me hear the CD." We'd send it out to them, and they'd say, "Fuck yeah! Let's do this!" So I'd send 'em some money, and I'd say, "Go find a studio and do your thing. And when you're finished, send it back."
GW So you didn't actualy go into the studio with any of them?
GROHL There were only two people on the album that I went into the studio with. There was Wino from the Obsessed, who I've known since I was 14 years old. The Obsessed were local D.C. area heroes; they were not unlike Motorhead in that they were a band that both the punks and the metalheads liked. You would see the Obsessed on a bill with 45 Grave or Void or local hardcore bands, you know? And everybody had a lot of respect for them, because they were heavy as fuck, man. Wino wound up being in St. Vitus and Spirit Caravan, and the guy is a fucking legend. I mean, he's unbelievably talented, and his conviction and integrity are still rooted in the local scene and in the underground, which is an aesthetic that I wanted to adhere to with this album. I really wanted to make sure that everything still had that spirit and that vibe. So anyway, I went into the studio with Wino. And there's nothing cooler than seeing one of your heroes stand in front of a mic stand with his hands on his belt buckle, singing a song like that. It was unreal! And the other person I went into the studio with was Lemmy. And to me that's like being in the studio with fucking Paul McCartney. The day I met Lernrny, I realized that of all the rockers that I'd met in my life, I'd never met a real rocker before. Lemmy is the fucking rocker - he is the one! He just makes all the rest of them seem like school kids, you know? With both Wino and Lemmy, I didn't give them any direction. I didn't want to be "the producer" that day. I just wanted to let them do their thing. The reason why I have so much respect for these people is because they did their thing. They don't need any help from me; each one of them has their own vibe, their own style and their own sound. And that's what makes the album great - it's 11 different styles, vibes and sounds. You could listen to it from front to back, and it never gets repetitious, It never gets monotonous. It's like a compilation tape I would have made a friend when I was 15. Or now, you know?
GW "Shake Your Blood," the track Lemmy sings and plays on, definitely has that classic Motorhead feel. Was that written to order?
GROHL I had another song that I was going to give to Lemmy, but the more I listened to it, the more I realized it's important to give each person a song that's within his realm. I'm not gonna give Lemmy a song that sounds like Enya, something that he's gonna fuckin' shit on and send back. Plus, I wanna be the drummer in Motorhead for one day, you know? So I wrote a track that's a simple rock song- straight to the point, no filler or fluff, just some. thing that sounds like Lemmy should be singing on it. And he went in, did two vocal takes, and he was done. Couple bass tracks-done! He finished up and said, "All right! Who wants to go look at some tits?" [laughs] I swear to God, man, it was one of the greatest days of my life!
GW Was anyone reluctant to participate, or was everyone pretty much onboard from the beginning?
GROHL I think everyone was pretty much onboard from the beginning. It was mostly a matter of letting them hear the track. Because I think some of them were sort of suspicious, as I'd imagined they would be: "Hmm, Dave Grohl? Underground metal? I'd better hear this first." Then, when they heard the track and understood that it was the real deal, and that I truly had a love and passion for the music...
GW And that this wasn't some sort of parody thing...
GROHL Well, see, that's something that we've been very sensitive to throughout the whole project. Rock music has become kind of in vogue, and rock cliche has become kind of in vogue, and the irony of rock has become kind of chic, you know? You start seeing supermodels in Motorhead T-shirts, or pop stars wearing fucking MC5 shirts. But to me, rock and roll has never been a fashion thing, and metal has never been ironic. Of course, there are great examples of metal that are completely laughable. I've never really been a Manowar fan, but I've got a couple of their home videos that I'd probably take over Spinal Tap any day, you know? See, when you mention metal, there's usually a negative connotation that comes with a lot of the bands that died out in the late Eighties, bands that were paying way too much attention to their hair and makeup and not enough to their music. But to me, there was never anything funny about Venom. I was like, Fuck, these guys are scary! [laughs] There was nothing funny about the Obsessed. Those guys rocked, and if you said otherwise, they'd proba. bly beat your ass! And now, you've got bands like the Darkness, who are becoming really popular-they're huge in England-and they're treading a really fine line, you know? That guitar player is a fucking shredder, no two ways around it. But I can't tell if those guys are for real or if they're taking the piss out of rock. But with this Probot record, all of these people are still making music for all the right reasons, and that's really important to me. Before Nirvana became popular, I was pia' because I loved doing it. If that meant going without food for two or three days, or playing in front of seven people a night, it didn't mat. ter to me, man. I was just going for it because I loved it. And then after Nirvana became popular, it was the same thing. It still is, to this day-I'm almost 35 years old, and I still feel like I'm 17! [laughs] My world really hasn't changed so much. I mean, I might walk down the street and meet people all day long that recognize me, but man, I still deliver bagels to my mom in the morning, and I still do beer bongs at night. And the passion for music hasn't changed, either. It still really burns inside of me, and I think the same thin goes for all of the people on the album. It's just a love of music that drives you, you know? It's like an addiction, and it's the greatest high in the world!
GW Is part of Probot's mission to turn Foo Fighters fans on to guys like Lemmy, Wino and Cronos?
GROHL Well, all of these musicians deserve incredible amounts of credit. I mean, these people have been so influential to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. By asking all of these people to on the album, I'm saying, Hey, man, I've worshipped your band for 20 years, and it's an honor for me to be the backing band for you for this one moment. That's something that's so special to me. But of course, if I can have a hand in helping people realize the true talent or genius behind these vocalists, then I'm even happier.
But it's weird; this wasn't really intended to be a record. It was an impossible path, and it didn't seem like it could ever work. And the fact that it has worked kind of makes it a happy accident. It's not unlike the first Foo Fighters record: I went into the studio for five days and recorded a bunch of crap for fun, and it turned into a record and a band, and here are 10 years later still talking about it.
GW Did your Nirvana bandmates ever give you shit about your love for metal?
GROHL No. You know, it's funny: for most part, people don't understand that Nirvana was born on Flipper and Black Flag. [laughs] You could throw a little Creedence Clearwater in there, too, but the foundation of that band was some seriously noisy shit I'll never forget Krist Novoselic telling me about this cassette tape they had in the van - this was before I was in the band - that they would listen to over and over: one side was Celtic Frost, the other side was the Smithereens!
GW That pretty much says it all, doesn't it?
GROHL Pretty much! That's Bleach right there, you know? [laughs] I know that those guys had listened to Motorhead. I think it w just the testosterone aesthetic of [metal] that they were turned off by.
GW Nirvana was widely credited as showing the door to a lot of those Eighties hair metal bands. But obviously, you guys weren't intrinsically anti-metal.
GROHL To me, there was good metal and there was bad metal. Good metal was Voivod and Motorhead and Thouble and Mercyful Fate and Sepultura. And then there were a few bands whose time was up, and none of them had anything to do with that scene at all. When it comes to good metal and bad metal, it's pretty obvious which bands were ready to trade their guitars in for shovels. At one point on Nirvana's last European tour, Novoselic and I actually talked about having Sepultura open for us. We were listening to Chaos A.D. over and over and over again, and Novoselic said, "Wow, man, we should get these guys to come out and open up for us!" And it never happened, but some of those bands we felt akin to - like Sepultura or Corrosion of Conformity or D.R.I. or the Obsessed - weren't too far away from what we were doing, I think.
GW I noticed that Kim Thayil of Soundgarden briefly came out of retirement to play on some of the tracks.
GROHL Yeah, that was kind of funny. Adam Kasper, who had produced a couple of Soundgarden records, recorded some of the Probot stuff, and at one point he had the reels up in Seattle. He called me and said, "Hey, you mind if Kim puts some guitar on couple of songs?" I said, "Yeah, sure." He plays on the song King Diamond sings on and on the song Lee Dorian from Cathedral and Napalm Death sings on. And it's great! I've never been much of a lead guitarist; I'm more about the riff and the rhythm. But to have Kim Thayil put one of his insane, fucking noisy-ass lead breaks, screaming through a wah pedal, in the middle of a King Diamond song-it works!
GW Did any of the performances really floor you in ways you weren't expecting?
GROHL Yeah. Well, everyone did more than I imagined that they would do; everybody blew me away. But the one tape that came back that really got me was the King Diamond track, because he went for it; he went for the serious Roy Thomas Baker-Fred. die Mercury thing, piling vocals on vocals on vocals. I don't even know how many tracks he did, man, but he's got some octaves in there He's hitring some notes that just catch you off guard every time.
GW Last question, Dave - what is a Probot, anyway?
GROHL I don't even know! [laughs] I mean, it was just a word that came to mind when I had to write something on the reel so I wouldn't lose it. Evidently it's some sort of robotic device that they use on movie sets or something. To me, it's a kick-ass fucking metal album. I don't know what it is, other than that!
words: Dan Epstein
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