Kurt, lawsuits, death, therapy and the Foo Fighters' limited shelf life. Despite himself, frontman Dave Grohl is about to tell all...
At 33, having spent his entire adult life in touring rock bands, Dave Grohl reckons he can walk out of his LA home at the drop of a hat with no possessions and head off to anywhere in the world without stressing. This summer, though, he won't leave home without his copy of 'Lexicon Devil', the biography of seminal LA punks The Germs and their charismatic, nihilistic and now very dead Darby Crash. It's an engrossing read, a modern immortality tale, which mixes prostitution, paedophelia, drug abuse and copious violence into a particularly skewed take on the American Dream. It's also a book which graphically backs up Grohl's belief that The Germs - a band, incidentally, whose ranks included Pat Smear, a subsequent Nirvana/Foo Fighters guitarist - were the "baddest motherfuckers in the world". At 294 pages, 'Lexicon Devil' is not a particularly lengthy text, but as summer gives way to autumn, Grohl's copy remains only half-read. For 'free time' is not a concept with which Dave Grohl is overly familiar right now.
On October 21, Grohl's band Foo Fighters will release 'One By One', their fourth album. Dave Grohl believes that it's the band's best album, and a lot of people are in agreement. This is why, on a 10-day trip to the UK, in addition to playing four gigs - two headlining shows at the Carling Weekend Festival in Reading and Leeds, an intimate show at London ULU and an only marginally bigger show at London Astoria to celebrate this year's Kerrang Awards - Grohl and his bandmates Chris Shiflett, Nate Mendel and Taylor Hawkins, have barely had a break from a carefully co-ordinated promotional schedule.
It's been a hectic, frenetic trip, as evidenced by our presence here today. Our interview was supposed to happen yesterday after the Foos performed a selection of new songs in the 'CD:UK' studio in London. Time ran out then, and so, at Grohl's suggestion, today we find ourselves journeying from London to Paris aboard a Eurostar train, chatting with the band as other passengers in the first class carriage sip complimentary champagne and feast upon wild fowl and artichoke hearts.
Ever courteous, this afternoon Dave Grohl will moderate his usually hyper-animated coversational style as he talks, out of the consideration for fellow travelers. This is very Dave Grohl because, as anyone who meets him will testify, he is a Very Nice Man. Less well-known is the fact that he voted for the Democrats in the last US election, that he'll plump for Ozzy rather than Ronnie Dio when asked to nominate Black Sabbath's greatest singer - "The Tenacious D guys will hate me for saying that," he laughs - and that he hasn't punched anyone in 10 years, since some pesky German tried to loot Nirvana's merchandise stall. He also claims to be physically unable to vomit, though he does recall that a bout of food poisoning in February 1997 left him "sitting on the toilet, shitting my brains out and puking in the tub".
Dave Grohl will relate anecdotes like this with a smile that could sell ice to Eskimos. It's a smile that was rarely seen during the four years Grohl conducted interviews as a member of Nirvana, when there was also precious little evidence of the man's bubbly, warm and hugely likeable personality.
"You're right," he concedes when this is put to him. "I had a lot of fun within the band, but publicly I never thought... I was just the drummer, you know?"
Grohl would hate you to think that he didn't enjoy his time in Nirvana. It was, he says, a happy time, a time he had money to eat, a nice house to live in and a car in which to drive his girl around Seattle. And having spent the previous three years living on a seven-dollars-a-day budget as a member of Washington DC hardcore band Scream, this was the good life.
"I didn't live an extravagant, decadent lifestyle, but shit, it was great," he insists. "I didn't do drugs, I didn't get depressed; I saw the whole thing as a blessing".
So did it confuse you to see that certain other people weren't happy with their lot?
"Well, no," Grohl responds quickly. "It makes sense the type of people that don't feel fortunate for the luxuries that something like that can afford. Someone like Kurt wasn't surrounded by grounded, normal people."
"Actually, no I don't want to say that," he says after a pause. "That's not fair because... well, that's just not fair to say. But he and I were different types of people. I grew up in suburban Virginia with a very grounded family and very normal friends, and remained that way throughout Nirvana. Being the person that wasn't in the spotlight I was left alone so I could live a normal life. But I could see how other people would have trouble with it.
"Now I'm in a band that's less popular than my previous band, and even though I'm out front, there's a lot less pressure," he says, smiling again now. "This band's motivation is completely different: we do things on our own terms, for fun. If it's not fun we don't do it. It's a simple idea, but one that works for us."
Chris Shiflett had heard a lot about Dave Grohl before he joined the Foo Fighters three years ago: everything from him being a charmer to him being an egomaniacal control freak. Today, with his commitment to the band signified by a tattoo of the Foo Fighters logo on one finger, the guitarist uses words like 'funny', 'intense', 'driven' and 'inspirational' to describe his friend.
"He's a super-nice guy," he says. "I was nervous about meeting him at first, but he's one of those people who has a way of putting you at ease straight away. He's a good guy."
Nate Mendel has known Grohl longer, having met Grohl first backstage at a Sunny Day Real Estate show in a Seattle club in 1995, but he shares Shiflett's assessment of the singer.
"I'd never really met someone in a famous band before," the placid bassist admits. "So my immediate reaction was just, 'Hey it's the guy from Nirvana'. But he seemed cool and friendly, and I knew because of his DC hardcore roots he'd probably be okay. And all these years later, we're still good friends, so I guess those first impressions were pretty accurate."
In 1995 Grohl invited Mendel to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. He neglected, perhaps sensibly, to inform his new buddy that he believed his house to be haunted by a ghost, or indeed, that it was his intention, post-celebratory, to try to contact said spirit. When Grohl brought out a Ouija board, the house's uninvited guest signified its displeasure by rocking the dinner table. Mendel along with all the other guests, "freaked out", recalls Grohl. The Foos frontman can't, however recall the bassist losing his cool in the subsequent seven years.
It's hard to imagine Grohl losing his cool either. Today he says he can't remember the last time he threw a rock star strop, and his bandmates seem genuinely amused when asked to recall a single incident where toys have been thrown from the Grohl pram. This is not to say that he, like everyone else walking the planet, isn't prone to angry outbursts. That much was clear when the singer, generally unwilling to badmouth peers, labled Courtney Love and "ugly fucking bitch" from the stage at Ireland's Witnness Festival in July, as his feelings about the well-documented court battle over the rights to Nirvana's unreleased material bubbled over.
"It's so easy to have the excuse of legalities so as not to talk about anything, but yeah there are times when you're pissed off," he admits today. "It's inevitable that there'll be days you feel like you want to pop. It happens to the lawyers, it happens to Courtney, and it happens to Krist and I. I've been pretty reserved about my feelings towards all of this for years, but it popped out of my mouth a few times. You know, it's only natural for someone to get to their boiling point."
But people think you have no boiling point, Dave.
"Well, I do to a certain extent," he concedes. "But this lawsuit is not the end of the world to me. Fortunately I have something now that's productive and positive. I'd probably be more concerned and more upset about this whole business if I didn't have this band, but why focus so much on that when I have something like this?"
Foo Fighters, as his bandmates will happily concede, is very much Dave Grohl's band, part democracy, part benign dictatorship. He denies being a hard taskmaster - "they're not a lazy bunch of kids that I need to slap into shape," he notes - and insists, "I have more arguments with my girlfriend than with my band."
"It's tough sometimes to be the person in charge," he says. "But shit, I don't mind being that person because it's working. Everyone has their specific responsibilities, and there are times during writing or recording that I try to give them direction, but it's really not the iron fist."
Grohl admits to being more of a talker than a listener. He puts this down to the fact that his mind is "always racing". But this trait may have been a factor in what Nate Mendel calls the Foo Fighters' "most unhappy period".
In April, Grohl called a halt to the recording sessions for 'One By One', an album on which the band had spent three-and-a-half months and around half-a-million dollars, and disappeared to join his buddies Queens Of The Stone Age on tour. In his punk rock soul, Grohl knew that the Foos album, recorded using high tech Pro Tools technology at LA's plush Conway studios, was too polished and too clean. He knew that the band had to take a step away. In his mind, it was a drag, yes, but not a crisis, and not for one second did he consider breaking up the band. His band, however, were not wholly convinced that this was the case - "It felt like we were in limbo," says Mendel, while guitarist Shiflett admits "there were a couple weeks where I was pretty scared."
The Foos subsequently re-recorded a completely re-tooled and re-energised 'One By One' in its entirety in just 12 days. Now, with the pressure lifted, Grohl acknowledges that perhaps he could have communicated his feelings better to his friends.
"I think they were probably scared," he says. "But the dramatic element of what happened has been somewhat overblown. The end result is that we've just made the best possible Foo Fighters record and everyone is super-excited. It was a weird time for the band, but I knew it would all work out."
"This album is different than anything weíve ever done, but it still has our fingerprints all over it. It still has our trademarks. So, as much as a departure as it may be, there is still a common thread, which is our sense of melody, or our sense of arrangement, the way we approach playing our instruments - And I think weíre always challenging ourselves, whether weíre going in a pop direction, or a complicated prog-rock direction... Thatís what makes being in a band interesting and fun, keeping it a challenge and keeping it fresh. Doing something different than what youíve done before."
"The neat thing that happened when making this record," says drummer Taylor Hawkins, "is that we kindaí made it twice, in a way. We went back and re-recorded everything, re-recorded any song we wanted to and wrote a couple more. At first, a lot of the emphasis was placed on getting everything perfect. We stopped and said we needed to chill out - Dave went off to play with the Queens and we all did our little things and whatnot and I think our first plan was to go back and just re-record four or five tracks, but when we went back, and in ten days did all the rhythm tracks and most of the rhythm guitars, all Daveís guitars and a lot of Daveís vocals. We did that in Virginia and then came back to L.A. and finished Nateís bass and Chrisí guitar. All in all it was about three weeks."
"I hate writing lyrics," Grohl admits. "Although the lyrics on this album I love more than anything Iíve ever done. Sometimes Iíd just spit out lyrics onto paper and other times Iíd over-analyse and lose the plot. I didnít realise that there was a sort of a line running through everything, but now,with the album sequenced, it kind of makes sense. It begins with ĎAll My Lifeí and ends with ĎCome Backí and throughout the album, it is basically just like the difficult beginnings of falling in love, and then the relief of feeling comfortable in love. Iím a sappy fucking romantic, so - itís tough, man, I swear, but Iím not ashamed, I swear to God'."
"This album being the best album weíve ever made," Grohl enthuses, "I feel like it definitely deserves 100 percent of your attention. Now itís time to give it everything that we have - gladly. I canít wait to play it, to do more interviews. Thatís new for me! Iím excited to talk about the album; before,I couldnít give a shit; just give someone a fucking CD and tell Ďem to go figure it out. Iím excited about 'One By One' and I want the world to hear it because Iím so proud of it!
Taylor Hawkins first met Dave Grohl at a KROQ Christmas show in Los Angeles in late 1996. The moment that Grohl opened his mouth, the stunned drummer thought, 'Your so much like me'. Six years on, Grohl admits, "He and I are like brothers unlike anyone I've ever met."
"With all the bad shit I went through last year he never left my side," says Hawkins, referring to his own potentially fatal dalliance with drugs last year. "I didn't feel like I let him down exactly, but I think he was sad that his best pal was fucking up his own life."
"He can also be the most disappointed in me," the drummer adds. "He can hurt my feelings worse than anyone else, he knows how to fucking make me feel like shit. But I know his weaknesses and insecurites just as he knows mine."
Hawkins is reluctant to elaborate on what exactly Grohl's "weaknesses and insecurities" might be. He justifies this by saying, "Dave doesn't like people to know too much about him."
"A lot of times it's hard to go deep with him," Hawkins says. "It's hard to say, 'Dave, slow down, lets really talk about stuff'. That's my role with Dave a lot of the time, but he's more comfortable with things being kept on a surface level."
"Well yeah that's fair," Grohl concedes. "I don't know why, but I don't open up to many people. You just don't give a piece of yourself to everyone. I don't understand the need for someone to expose themselves entirely to the world. I think that's... odd."
This in itself might sound like an odd statement, particularly since every song on 'One By One', as with 95 percent of the songs on the three previous Foo Fighters albums, is written from the 'I' perspective. But Grohl admits that these lyrics are usually deliberately "vague", transforming the personal into the universal.
"Considering what I do, I don't think that's unhealthy," he shrugs. "If there were two million people that knew me really well that would be kinda weird. There's only a handfull of people that know me really well, and then there's a whole lot of others that know me enough."
Dave Grohl has only opened up to total strangers twice in his life. He had a therapy session following his parents' divorce - for the record he's on good terms with both his father James and mother Virginia - and another following his own divorce from Jennifer Youngblood in the mid-'90s. He suggests "everyone could do with a little therapy now and again."
"The best thing about therapy is reassurance," he says, "having someone talk back and give you a response that makes you feel like you're not alone, and that what you're going through is understandable. Therapists may have a better understanding of human nature than your best friend who deals pot and works in a gas station."
"But I had a bad experience with a therapist once where he basically told me that because I tour and live in hotel rooms and don't have a 'normal' job my life is just not reality. And I thought it was time to get the fuck off the couch, because this is my reality. I'm not opposed to having therapy again, but that time it was like, 'If you don't understand my world that's fine, but don't tell me it doesn't exist'."
Here's some stuff Dave Grohl might 'fess up on a psychiatrist's couch. His biggest fear is confined spaces; his idea of perfect happiness is "a good pint of Guinness". He considers his least appealing habbit "being a smart-ass" - "I'll find your greatest insecurity and tear that scab right off" he laughs - and reckons that the fact that he can't recite a single line of poetry is a subconscious act of rebellion against his journalist father and schoolteacher mother. He won't divulge whether or not he believes in God ("I do have a sense of spirituality, but that's one of those things I don't really talk about because that's a piece of me I consider my own") and he's still working out his position on the idea of an after-life, but when he dies, he'd like his ashes scattered in Springfield, Virginia, the place he still considers home.
The last time Grohl really thought about death was also the last time he cried. On that occasion he was sitting in a Los Angeles bar, when a fellow foot soldier of the grunge wars walked in. It was Jerry Cantrell, seeking to drown his sorrows on the night that former Alice In Chains vocalist Layne Staley died in his Seattle home. "I didn't know those Alice In Chains guys too well," Grohl says, "but for some reason it just broke my heart. I got really upset as I talked to him. It seemed like such a shame that another musician had died of a drug overdose."
There's a long pause, and Dave Grohl asks for another cup of coffee from the Eurostar waiter, before he continues.
"In 1994 when Kurt died I realised that the most important thing is life and family and love and happiness," he says slowly. "When I was 17 or 18, rock was the most important thing to me, but life is a lot bigger than any band you'll have in Kerrang magazine, bigger than any record the Foo Fighters will ever make. Don't get my wrong, I'm very passionate and devoted to what I do, my heart is filled with this band, but this is not my entire life. The Foo Fighters just made their best record, I'm so excited and very proud and I can't wait to see what happens with the album, but more than that I can't wait to see what's going to happen with the rest of my life."
Dave Grohl reckons that the Foo Fighters will only remain a touring rock band for five more years. At that point, he maintains, he'll be 38, and too old to bounce around on stage like a rock star every night. Not that he ever considers himself a rock star.
"Rock stars suck," he says with another loud laugh. "Man, I'd be so embarrassed at being called a rock star. A lot of those connotations aren't conductive to my lifestyle. I don't do drugs, I don't fuck groupies, I don't spend all my money on limos and mansions and cocaine. I have a car and a small house and I go on tour and go to bed early and wake up and have tea. I'm a worker, man. I don't think many people see me as a rock star; hopefully they see me as a normal person. 'Musician' would be just fine."
You can't quite take Grohl's self-imposed five-year deadline seriously. For when, without a trace of irony, Grohl talks of the Foos' headlining appearance at this summer's Reading Festival, as "the single greatest day of my life," you know that it would take an awful lot for him to walk away from this life.
Besides, how would the 17-year-old Virginian teenager who dreamt of becoming "the world's greatest rock star", ever forgive him?
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