Hot Press 2002
It’s been a long, strange trip for David Grohl, from Nirvana drummer to Foo Fighters frontman, via Queens Of The Stone Age and Tenacious D. Now he’s back with a new Foo album, he’s buried the hatchet with Courtney Love and he’s still as rock’n’roll as ever
Dave Eric Grohl was born 33 years ago in Ohio and brought up in Virginia, the child of a broken marriage between a journalist father and schoolteacher mother. By the age of 12 his cousin Tracy had turned him onto punk legends like the Circle Jerks and Bad Brains, and he killed downtime in the suburban town of Springfield listening to the local alternative station WHFS. Within five years he was playing drums with hardcore acts like Freak Baby, Mission Impossible, Dain Bramage and Scream and making tapes of his own songs. When Scream fell apart in LA in 1990, Grohl was recommended to Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic by Melvins singer Buzz Osborne. Dave moved in with Kurt, and his brutal Bonham-esque drumming lit the fuse under Nirvana; within two years they were the biggest rock band on the planet. You know the rest. Kurt committed suicide in April 1994, by which time personal and musical relations in the band had deteriorated to the point of breakdown.
Dave went back to writing songs and recorded an album under the name Foo Fighters, playing most of the instruments himself (some of the songs had been demo-ed at the ‘You Know You’re Right’ sessions, featuring Kurt on drums). Foo Fighters showcased Grohl’s melodic growl, not to mention his knack with a punky power-pop tune, and he put together a touring band featuring Sunny Day Real Estate rhythm section Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith, plus ex-Germs/Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear. The 1997 album The Colour & The Shape easily outstripped the debut, a series of bi-polar swings between serrated pop-metal (‘My Poor Brain’) and careworn songs of love and loss (‘Everlong’, ‘Hey Johnny Park’). Not surprisingly, it got tagged as Dave’s divorce album. In the space of five years, Grohl had been propelled from obscurity to celebrity, got married, lost a band, lost a friend and split with his wife. He was still little more than a boy.
"Absolutely, 24, 25 years old," Grohl says. "It was definitely weird. I mean, I never imagined any of this happening to me anyway, I never imagined being married, I never imagined being in a famous rock band, it all kind of takes you by surprise and you deal with it if you can. But looking back, what feels like ten years to you seems like five years to me, it’s all been somewhat of a tornado from 1991 ’til now. But y’know, I wouldn’t want to live it any other way, I really have very few regrets."
During the recording of The Colour & The Shape William Goldsmith left, and Grohl tracked all the drum parts himself. For the tour, he drafted in a bleach blonde surfer-type dude by the name of Taylor Hawkins (in many ways Grohl’s twin in terms of personality and playing style) who’d seen service on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill tour. Just as it looked like the band’s personnel had settled, Pat Smear handed in his cards, eventually being replaced by Chris Shiflett. This was the line-up that recorded the Grammy-winning There Is Nothing Left To Lose in 1999, placing the Foo Fighters just within reach of multi-platinum first-division status.
So much for the chronology. Over the last 15 years, one can discern a pattern of cycles whereby Grohl flits between the roles of bandleader and journeyman - from Scream to Nirvana to Foo Fighters to Queens Of The Stone Age to Tenacious D. Such movements may cause record company dogsbodies to tear at their hair while feeding release schedules into the shredder, but for Grohl it’s vital that he be allowed the double role. Certainly, it provided some much needed perspective when the One By One sessions got log-jammed earlier this year.
After spending about half a million dollars and 14 weeks in LA’s Conway studios on recordings that sounded self-conscious and Pro-Tools stilted, Dave hit the road for the summer, drumming for Queens Of The Stone Age, with whom he’d recorded all but one track on Songs For The Deaf. The rest of the Foo Fighters were nervous for a couple of weeks, but the busman’s holiday proved therapeutic. When Grohl returned, they re-recorded the album virtually from scratch in 12 days, with the extra cache of a handful of new songs. While making a record, the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line, and Grohl maintains that he pilots his career on instinct rather than any kind of game plan.
"It’s just doin’ what feels right at the time, rather than giving yourself an agenda," he says. "After being in Nirvana it just felt right that I do something completely different. I knew that I could’ve gone and played the drums with another band, but it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do at the time. The same with making this record. The first version of the album that we made didn’t feel right, whereas playing with Queens Of The Stone Age did, and you just have to follow your heart. I know that sounds stupid but it’s really true, it makes sense. When we were making the first version, one of the big warning signs was that I imagined doing what I’m doing right now, an interview, talking about the new record, talking about how proud I am of it and how it’s my greatest accomplishment to date, and I didn’t think that I could genuinely do that, so I just stopped it. And playing with Queens Of The Stone Age was for one reason and one reason only, and that’s the feeling that every musician waits for and dreams of: playing with people and having it just fit. In eight years I hadn’t found anyone that made sense, and they definitely did. We didn’t have to talk about anything, it was just so fuckin’ easy, and every night we went on stage I knew that we were the best band on the bill because it felt that way. And that kind of energy is contagious, when you walk away from that back to your basement with your friends in the Foo Fighters, it spreads like a germ and you just go for it."
But then, the Queens are, alongside At The Drive-In and And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, one of the few US bands of recent years capable of tapping into the same kinetic fury as Nirvana. Further continuity comes in the form of guest vocalist and former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, a friend of Kurt’s. Nevermind cast a decade long shadow over American rock ‘n’ roll, and Dave Grohl admits he was never going to have an easy time getting the Foo Fighters off the ground. Lightning couldn’t strike again so soon.
"Well, it just doesn’t happen, man," he admits. "It’s funny, when you become associated with something like Nirvana, you stop being a musician in other people’s eyes, and you become a part of something that they don’t necessarily consider a band. Even when I went to go play with Queens Of The Stone Age it fucked people’s heads because they thought, ‘Wait a second, he’s a member of the Foo Fighters’, like I’m a member of some particular political party jumping over to another one. They don’t consider band members musicians; they consider them ingredients to some specific product. It took people a while to get their heads around that, coming out of Nirvana and starting the Foo Fighters, and at the same time going from the Foo Fighters to Queens Of The Stone Age, but that’s my life’s ambition or my dream, just basically to play as much music as I can with as many people as I can in the short time I have."
Last summer, while Grohl was moonlighting with the Queens, a bitter war of words broke in the American rock press, with both Spin and Rolling Stone running major stories on the fate of the remaining unreleased Nirvana material - what Courtney Love grandly termed "the holy grail of rock". It got ugly at times. Grohl called Love an "ugly fucking bitch" from the Witnness stage, frequently dedicating ‘Stacked Actor’ to her at live shows. For her part, Courtney referred to Grohl as "the little engine that is Dave who makes a tidy sum being a fairly pleasant mediocre artist". Her comments must’ve stung, but to write off Grohl as some sort of post-grunge mechanic is to do disservice to his flair as a songwriter. Although the band often chooses their most workmanlike tunes as singles (‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘Learn To Fly’), the albums yield greater depth and breadth of mood, tracks like ‘February Stars’ and ‘Disenchanted Lullaby’.
"My favourite albums are the ones that you fall in love with over a period of time," Grohl says. "In a way you want an album to be a sort of mystery or a puzzle - you want to figure it out for yourself, and I don’t assume that the people who buy our albums are stupid, I don’t sell them short."
Then there are the lyrics. Despite his parents’ literate background, Grohl has never betrayed any poet-of-a-generation pretensions, tending to write on the mike rather than at the Mac. The refrain from ‘All My Life’ precisely describes his approach: "Done, done, and I’m onto the next one." And if that sounds more suited to the production line than the artist’s garret, well, Grohl has no hang ups about being regarded as a wisecracking working musician. When I suggest that the first thing to be trampled by the Nirvana myth-monolith was the humour integral to that band, he says this:
"There was too much cultural emphasis put on the whole thing. I think."
What, the Kurt-as-successor-to-John Lennon stuff?
"Well, yeah, but (also) the fact that Nirvana was there in the beginning of the ’90s when there was some kind of ‘Changing Of The Guard’ or whatever, and y’know, I feel like it could’ve been anyone. Kurt was a great songwriter and Nirvana’s music was great to listen to, but shit, man, so was Husker Du, so were The Pixies. And Jane’s Addiction fuckin’ opened up doors and helped everybody make their things happen, y’know? There were so many bands it could’ve happened to, and for some reason it happened to us.
"But then there was so much emphasis put on that ‘Changing Of the Guard’, and we weren’t necessarily responsible for that, we just made a fuckin’ record and a video in a gymnasium. We’d no idea any of that shit was gonna happen. And that wasn’t our intention, y’know? Of course we wanted to break down a lot of the bullshit that was happening at the time but . . . fuck, not like that."
There’s genuine regret in his voice here, as if Nirvana’s success was somehow a violation of order, a force majeure. Except it didn’t end after Kurt Cobain’s death. The postponement of the planned Nevermind ten-year anniversary box set due to legal wrangles, Courtney’s attempts to denigrate Krist and Dave’s roles in the band, Courtney’s low blows at Dave on the Howard Stern show - all these have tainted the band’s legacy, just like it happened to Hendrix and the Beatles or any of the cornerstones of the rock canon that Nirvana set out to undermine (or were thus perceived).
I ask Grohl if the situation regarding ‘You Know You’re Right’ and the other unreleased songs been resolved yet. His response is tinged with battery-acid sarcasm.
"Well I don’t know if there’s any kind of official statement released as to the progress of what’s happening," he says. "You gotta wait for the official thing, I can’t open my big fat mouth. I’d hate to spoil the party."
Can I ask if the Limited Liability Company set up by he and Krist and Courtney after Kurt’s death is still in place?
"No you can’t ask me that. You can ask me - I just can’t give you any sort of answer. You know what? I swear to God, one of the greatest things is that I have a legitimate excuse to finally not have to talk about Nirvana. It’s legal!"
Then he considers what he’s just said.
"I’m just joking. I don’t mind talking about Nirvana."
Fair enough. Anyone can understand Dave’s exasperation at such questions when he’s promoting a new album. And at the band’s Ambassador show last June, some of the crowd were so fresh-faced they could only have come upon Nirvana through the Foo Fighters.
"That’s interesting," Grohl says. "We’re a little bit older now, man. We’re not the 15-year-olds up against the front barrier that we once were."
I have no problem with that.
"I don’t either!"
Onto other, less contentious topics. When I put it to Dave that there was a hike in the Foo Fighters’ profile around 1999 which culminated in the Grammy for There Is Nothing Left To Lose, he quips, "It was that fuckin’ airplane video! That was it!"
Does he ever worry about such promo clips getting him the reputation as some kind of part-time comic actor?
"Yeah, I’m not gonna travel that route though. I don’t think that’s where I belong. But I know what you’re saying - I’d started the band because I’m a musician first and foremost. What we do is we take the piss out of making videos."
Blame it on Jack and Kyle. Apart from extra-curricular work with the Queens, Grohl also found time to play drums on Tenacious D’s eponymous debut, affording him the opportunity to air the kind of Spinal Tap chops that would’ve gotten him laughed out of rehearsals with any of his other bands, playing like he’s been let out of a cage.
"That’s ’cos I believe in what they’re saying! (Laughs.) Tenacious D is a phenomenon, no question. Everyone else is becoming a little too earnest, and like you said, that sense of humour has been lost. Tenacious D has taken that sense of humour and fuckin’ made it nuclear. It seems like the last bastion of cynicism or irony - it’s just the most advanced cynicism to date, it’s fuckin’ heavy shit, man. Here you have these two guys who started in tiny nightclubs with six or seven people in the audience, singing about being the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world and playing stadiums and selling millions of records - and now they’re actually doing it? How do you make sense of that?
You might think our videos are funny - you know which videos I think are funny? The ones where people take themselves far too seriously. I roll on the ground laughing with tears rolling down my cheeks when I see some new rock band with a sexy lead singer with his shirt off, all oiled down, singing about Jesus."
Who are we talking about here Dave?
"There’s lots of them, believe me, there’s not only one. That’s hilarious to me, and that’s what makes Tenacious D so funny, that feeling, ’cos they take themselves so seriously. But they’re not really. But they are. But they’re not. But they really are. But, see, they’re not. Have you ever taken acid?"
"Okay, there’s Tenacious D right there."
For the record, my experience of acid was nothing like Tenacious D. I kept seeing the devil’s eggs under the logs in the fire, waiting for them to hatch and wondering if I’d ever come down. Actually, now that I come to think of it, that is very Tenacious D.
"The devil’s eggs?! Oh my God. (Guffaws.) I’m gonna tell Jack (Black) that one, he’s gonna be into it. Shit, I got socked by a fuckin’ antique percolator when I was on two-and-a-half hits of acid once. I was convinced that my DNA was going to morph into some freaky Altered States trip and I was gonna wind up with a third arm. I didn’t come down for two days."
Still, if Tenacious D are some demonic lysergic hallucination of rock ‘n’ roll, the straight version is sometimes worse. On the Hotpress online message board recently, a row broke out over whether or not Nirvana were directly responsible for Creed and Nickleback and Puddle Of Mudd and nu-metal. Me, I don’t think they are. Sure, these bozos have taken the most common denominator aspects of grunge and blown it up into something grotesque and humourless and sexless, but that shouldn’t devalue the originals. Creed and their ilk have much more in common with the kind of bands whose downfall Nirvana engineered - Whitesnake or Manowar or Stryper.
"Well, as you were talking about cycles earlier, it just makes sense," Grohl says. "Just as bands like The Hives and The Vines and The Strokes and The White Stripes are all becoming popular now, it’s because of a reaction to popular music. Music has to become human again - I mean, it’s gotten to the point where music sounds like machines, or musicians look like soap opera actors, it becomes a caricature. Y’know, I have respect for anyone who has the balls to write a song and stand on a stage and sing it, I just tend to gravitate towards something that seems new. There are times where I feel like popular music has hit the same place it was in 1990, kind of faceless, kind of fake. "There’s no honour in stagnation," he concludes. "There’s nothing to be said for repeating a rehash. The energy of music is most important, I mean rock ‘n’ roll’s all about energy anyway, it’s the difference between having fuckin’ wild drunken crazy sex or just trying to get someone pregnant and start a family. And once that energy is gone it’s time to move on."
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