photography; Ross Halfin
AS KERRANG! CELEBRATES THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2014, IT SEEMS FITTING TO PAUSE ON FOO FIGHTERS’ SONIC HIGHWAYS: NOT JUST A RECORD, DAVE GROHL TELLS JAMES MCMAHON, BUT HIS LOVE LETTER TO ROCK’N’ROLL
It’s fitting, and in truth, completely
coincidental, that in the year
marking the 20th anniversary of
the passing of Kurt Cobain – he of
Nirvana, that most culturally seismic
of bands – Dave Grohl chose to return
with a musical project that honoured
much of what made the band he played
drums for so long ago so special.
“When we were young in the
underground scene,” recalls Dave
today, sipping a morning latte in The
Soho Hotel’s library, “it was all about
community. It was about nurturing
the scene. So, when Nirvana became
popular, the bands that helped
Nirvana become popular, like Sonic
Youth, they did the same thing. If
you went to go see Sonic Youth,
it was more than likely the bands
opening were their friends, or
bands that they believed in and
wanted to turn the world onto.
Anytime someone got their foot
in the door, you would open it all
the way up and let everyone come
through with you…”
No band opened doors like Nirvana. Whether it was Kurt wearing the T-shirts of strictly underground concerns such as Daniel Johnston or Flipper on mainstream TV, or bringing Shonen Knife and Captain America into the mega-domes that hosted his superstar headline act, or recording covers of The Vaselines and the Meat Puppets that, in turn, worked unprecedented wonders by turning others onto those acts’ underappreciated back catalogues, when Nirvana broke into the mainstream they were handing escape pods to their underground friends in a way no band had before, or has done since. Why? Well, you can be invited to the swankiest party in town, but if there’s nobody there you actually like, then what’s the point? You might see Dave as continuing that tradition.
“In a way, Sonic Highways is the same thing,” says Dave of the Foo Fighters’ present project – eight songs, recorded in eight American cities, with an HBO-made documentary to accompany each one. The entire project is pitched as a love letter to the history of American rock.
“I look at American music like a community of musicians,” Dave explains. “If it weren’t for Buddy Guy, if it weren’t for Cheap Trick, if it weren’t for Ian MacKaye, we wouldn’t be where we are musically [today], you know? It’s not like you need to know the history to enjoy music, but the substance and depth of musical roots makes everything a little richer and fuller.” Dave takes a sip of coffee, pushes his reading glasses across the table. “So I guess it does relate to Nirvana. It’s something that we were raised on in that underground community, like, you know, ‘Make sure that if you get a little piece of the pie, that you share it…’” Sonic Highways is music TV like you always dreamed about. How did it come about?
“It’s a shame music TV doesn’t exist like it once did. In America, it’s been reduced to one song at the very end of a talk show at 12:30 at night, or just like a music contest. When I first brought Sonic Highways to different networks, I think they were kinda puzzled, because this didn’t fit into the current format of music on television, but I wanted to try and change that. To give these people and their music and their stories a platform that had more substance and depth. I enjoyed doing it – you sit down and you interview people and you just kind of sit and have a conversation with people. My father was a writer – he was a journalist – and my mother was a creative writing teacher. Now I’m a high school dropout, but somewhere in my DNA zipper, there are elements of storytelling and writing and music, and it was almost inevitable that, at some point, I would tell these stories outside of the back lounge of a tour bus, or belly-up to a bar…”
For everything that Dave Grohl has achieved in the 20 years since he tentatively stepped out from behind the typical end-of-gig wreckage of Nirvana’s backline – the arena-rock concerts, the guest collaborations, the personal projects that you might prefix with ‘vanity’ if this was a man who, even at 45, didn’t still look like any fuzzy-faced dude you might find hanging out around the stage doors at the end of any rock concert – Dave’s biggest contribution is still his first, when his sprightly but aching Foos veered into view in 1995, among a junkyard of misery and curtailed promise. A shard of noise when all went silent. A reminder of life when once there was just death. And so it’s coincidental, but fitting, that in a year when rock remembered what was taken from it, let alone what Dave had taken from him, he’s pulled it off again. Via America’s Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl is on a mission to ensure the music he loves – rock’n’roll in layman’s terms – will never, ever die. That there will never be silence again. You might call it his life’s work.
“Look!” booms Dave. “Pat Smear in
Dave is showing Kerrang! his iPhone wallpaper. It is, as he says, a picture of Foo Fighters guitarist/punk legend Pat Smear, in corpse paint, tucked into bed. We won’t ask. What we will ask is if the Nicest Guy In Rock ever meets someone during the course of his musical adventures and… well… just thinks they’re a fucking dick?
“Are you kidding me, dude?” says Dave. “The world’s full of dicks. There are plenty of musicians that are just fucking miserable and don’t appreciate what they have. Those are usually the dicks. That said, the ones that are really psyched about music and really fucking appreciate that they get to do it for fun or for a living or whatever, those are my favourite kinds of people…”
From being a mere slip of the man he is today and first picking up a guitar, Dave always knew he wanted to make music – and, as a consequence, hang out with musicians. The life that has followed has been the pursuit of that ambition. Moreover, Sonic Highways – and, in a sense, Sound City, the 2013 ode-to-a-mixing-desk doc that led Dave to this place of TV documentaries and storytelling – can perhaps be seen as celebration of that ambition.
“Once people realise that you’re open to collaborating and experimenting outside of what you’re most recognised for,” says Dave, “then music becomes a flood of opportunity. So, Killing Joke call to ask me to play drums on their [2003 self-titled] record. What do you think I’m gonna say? That was my first punk rock T-shirt when I was 13! So then it becomes like a bucket list. ‘Rad, I got to jam with Paul McCartney. Cool, we just recorded with the dudes from Queen. There’s Joe Walsh from The Eagles. I get to be in Queens Of The Stone Age. Now I’m on a Nine Inch Nails record!’ And you collect all of these experiences and they make their way into what you do. Some musicians join a band, and they stay in that band for 20 years, and they don’t do anything other than being in that band. I get it, but god, what a drag! When I was young, I was friends with everybody. I was the only punk rock kid within 20 miles in my little neighbourhood in Virginia, but I hung out with the stoners, and the geeks, and the nerds, and the jocks, just because I could pretty much get along with anybody, musically as well…” Dave laughs. “It’s funny, and I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to Kerrang!, but [Pantera guitarist] Dimebag Darrell was the king of that. He could be anybody’s best friend. He was the sweetest guy in the world, and if you could sit down and do a shot with him, you were his best pal. You could be fucking Justin Bieber or King Diamond – it didn’t matter, he just loved to hang out with people, and I was the same when I was a kid. It just sort of translates into what I do musically, like, ‘You know what, you want me to come play drums with you? Let’s get together and jam, see what happens.’”
You say that, Dave, but 20 years ago, when everything with Nirvana went to shit, Kerrang! reported that you were set to become Tom Petty’s drummer. You started a band instead. Were you worried the musical freedom you enjoy now was going to be denied to you if you became ‘drummer for hire’?
And that was the Foo Fighters? “Yeah. But remember, that first Foo Fighters record wasn’t supposed to be a record or a band – it was just this experiment I did in the studio down the street from my house. Even before I was in Nirvana, I’d record with my friend, Barrett Jones, in his 8-track studio, and do songs by myself where I’d record the drums fi rst, and then I’d overdub guitars, and then I’d overdub the bass, and then I’d put a vocal on it, and then listen back and it kind of sounded like a group. I did that shit on my own in my basement for years…”
In 1992, you actually released a solo album of sorts, Pocketwatch, on the Arlington, Virginia, label Simple Machines – there’s an early version of Winnebago on it…
“I called that band LATE! because I thought it would be funny if you walked up onstage and just said, ‘Hi, everybody, we’re LATE!.’ Stupid! But that was just sort of like this basement experiment, and then I thought, ‘Okay, well, I have to get up and do something.’ This is after Nirvana had ended and I thought, ‘I have to… I gotta do something. I can’t not play music, so I’m just gonna go get this out of my system at the studio down the street from the house, and it just all started from there. But there was never really any foresight or thinking like, ‘Okay, this is gonna last 20 fucking years.’ It was just kinda for fun.”
With all this musical meandering you do, do the Foos keep you grounded? Is it something to come home to?
“It’s definitely my anchor and my family,” nods Dave. “It actually gives me the freedom to go out and do those other projects, just as everybody else goes out and does their own projects. It’s encouraged in the Foo Fighters. That way, when we come back to the band, we appreciate what we’ve got, because we’ve got a good thing going. But I honestly think that sometimes what happens is, you join a band and that becomes your identity, when a lot of people have so much more to offer than just what they do with that combination of people in that band. Like, it took me a long time to understand why anyone wanted me to play drums with them. When Tom Petty called, I thought, ‘What the fuck is he calling me for? He could have anybody, why is he calling me?’”
Really? You felt that?
“Totally. But there was one day in the studio when we were mixing You Know You’re Right, the last thing that Nirvana ever recorded. We had a studio in Los Angeles, and we were mixing, and we had a break. So, I just called a bunch of musicians to come over and jam – just free-form jamming. I called Josh Homme, I called this incredible guitarist Matt Sweeney, I had Krist Novoselic there, Taylor Hawkins was there, and I called legendary drummer Jim Keltner, who has played with everybody from Lennon to the Traveling Wilburys to Ry Cooder. Everybody! He’s famous for being, like, ‘the groove guy’. So, he comes in, he sits down at a drum set, and we start recording, and he’s got, like, an egg beater in one hand, and, like, a brush in this hand, and we’re jamming and he’s playing, and he’s playing as he’s adjusting things, and he picks up a shaker and he starts doing that and I’m watching him like, ‘What the fuck is this guy doing?!’ I mean, he’s a legend! This is bananas! And I went back and listened to it, and it was his sound. It clicked that the reason why people call him is because he sounds like him. I finally realised, ‘Oh, maybe the reason why people call me is because they want me to sound like me.’ It was a huge revelation for me. Like, I can’t walk into a studio and be Mike Portnoy, because that’s just not me. So, people ask me to play drums with them; they want it to sound like the way I do it. That was a huge weight off my shoulders realising that…”
Who, out of everyone you’ve made music with, has improved you as a musician?
“Josh [Homme],” replies Dave, instantly. “He’s a bad motherfucker. He really is. He’s just as intimidating musically as he is physically.” He laughs. “You know, we’ve been friends for a really long time, and I feel like we’re related to each other, not only personally, but musically. We don’t even talk. If he puts on a guitar and I sit behind a drum set, that thing happens and we just look at each other and we have that ESP, and it’s the musical love of my life. But he pushes me, and helps push me into a place sometimes where I get really fucking angry and frustrated, which doesn’t really happen often. He loves to get me into that place. There was a song with Them Crooked Vultures that was practically impossible with what he was asking me to do, and I got so fucking mad and frustrated that, anytime you challenge a musician and you get them to that place where they say, ‘That’s just not what I do,’ that’s when you start to get the good shit. Josh always fucking pushes me to that place. By the end of the day I’m like, ‘I love you, man,’ but when he gets me in that place…”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Can you imagine? I’m a high school dropout that worked in a fucking furniture warehouse, and now I get to fly all over the world and talk about music with people. Fuck yes! Absofuckinglutely! Shit yeah! Hell yeah! Especially when you’re standing at the lip of the stage in Wembley Stadium, and you’ve got 80,000 people singing your song, and you think about that little demo tape that you made just to get off the couch. I never fucking lose sight of that, ever. Music is everything to me. I did it for a long time before anyone listened, [and] I’m sure I’ll be doing it for a long time after people stop. I go home and I jam with my kids. I’ll turn on the fucking computer and record us doing some free-form, like, freakout, improv shit…”
What happens if your kid turns to you as a teenager, like you did to your mum, and says, “I’m leaving to fly hundreds of miles away to make music with a hardcore band…”?
Dave pauses. “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. I can’t believe that my mother let me do those things. I mean, my mother disciplined me with freedom. I grew up with my mother, and she and I were, like, best-friends close. We would go to jazz clubs together, and we would listen to records together – but she was still my mother, so I never wanted to disappoint her because she was my friend. She was fucking cool. So she would give me freedom so that I could appreciate it enough that I wouldn’t do anything stupid to fuck it up. My kids are eight, five, and three months, so I’m not really worried about any of that yet…”
Do your kids play music?
“Well, Violet [Dave’s eldest of three daughters], she was learning the flute in school. My father played the flute, so I think that’s why she wanted to do it, but it’s fucking hard! Your mouth has to do this… thing! So, my wife says, ‘I got an email from Violet’s music teacher; it says that she’s not even putting her flute together in class.’ She’s like, ‘Dave, you need to talk to her.’ So I sit down with Violet, and I say, ‘Hey Boo, we got an email from your teacher.’ She goes, ‘I know…’ I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and she goes, ‘I just can’t, I’m embarrassed, I can’t do it, and I get up there and I can’t make the noise come out of the flute, and it’s embarrassing…’”
So what did you say?
“I said, ‘Okay. You have two options, Violet. You can either practise really hard and get really good at the flute, or… JUST DON’T PLAY THE FUCKING FLUTE. Don’t be a musician. You don’t have to play music. You don’t wanna play music? Don’t play music! Do something else!’ Nobody ever forced me to play an instrument. I just saw this thing in the corner of the room and I’m like, ‘Oh wow,’ and I played Smoke On The Water, like, ‘Fucking A!’ But the last thing in the world that you wanna do is turn music into a burden for a kid, [and] smack their hand with a fucking ruler when they’re playing piano!” Dave looks skywards. Laughs.
“In the last four days, I’ve probably
initiated the next year of my life
in silly projects that eventually
everyone will see,” laughs Dave. “The fact
that I had the opportunity and the resource
to do something like Sonic Highways, or
to do something like Sound City, or to do
any of the other ideas I have, it would be
a waste of a life to
not do them. That’s
something that I had
a new appreciation of
after Nirvana ended,
after Kurt died. Life
is short, and fragile,
and you gotta make
do with it while you
can.” He takes another
slug of coffee. “I
honestly look at all
like they’re wasted
moments unless you
Next year the Foo Fighters turn 20. This year is 20 years since Kurt passed. The first time the surviving members of Nirvana reunited onstage to play Nirvana songs in 20 years. So many anniversaries. So much music to be made. Moments to be captured.
“At the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame thing, when Krist and Pat and I had gotten into a room and played those songs for the first time in 20 years, it sounded like it did 20 years ago. After all that time, you sort of forget about the reasons why people liked Nirvana in the first place, because it had become this other thing. It’s no longer three dudes in a van playing at Dingwalls or whatever – it’s like a legend or some iconic idea. But it really was just three people playing in a room.”
Dave grins a smile that has to, in some way, hurt his face.
“So then you put Pat and Krist and I in a room again, and we play Scentless Apprentice. And the first time we played it, our road crew were just… their jaws were on the floor. Like, ‘Whoa,’ because it was out of control. It was just as out of control as it was then.”
He flails his arms.
“I was beating the fuck out of my drums, and Krist was so fucking loud, and Pat is Pat, just sorta playing jet-engine guitar. And it was really exciting because it reminded me, like, ‘Oh, that’s why people enjoyed it in the first place.’ Not because of all the other shit now, it was fucking that…”
Dave smiles. And Kerrang! smiles. Music, bloody hell.