It's nigh on impossible to imagine being a member of the biggest, most iconic rock band of your generation then having it snatched away from you in a second of wanton self-destruction: the suicide of your lead singer. It's even harder to envisage coming back from that trauma to found and front a group that bestrides the rock world and fills stadiums that the original band never got anywhere near. Dave Grohl hasn't just achieved this - he's done it with a permanent smile seemingly glued to his face.
It was April 5th, 1994: for Generation X, the date of the shot that was heard around the world. Troubled by illness, depression and the pressures of fame, Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain blew his head off with a shotgun at his home in Seattle. His death traumatised rock fans across the globe but for friends, family and colleagues'the loss was even more devastating. The drummer in his band was inconsolable.
"For nearly a year after Kurt died, I didn't have any ambition or any direction," Dave Grohl recalls now. "I didn't know what I wanted to do. I just didn't have the stomach for playing drums in another band because I would always have remembered playing with Kurt. Eventually I dragged myself to a studio in my street on my own and recorded a cassette of songs for lack of anything better to do. That tape became the first Foo Fighters album."
Fast-forward 17 years to February 22nd, 2011. At the BAFTA headquarters in London, Foo Fighters are premiering their new documentary biopic, These Days [later re-named Back And Forth], shot by Academy Award-winning director James Moll. It's a major deal. Every audience member has their mobile phone confiscated, lest they should sneakily film the footage and ping it across the web. Introducing the showing, the managing director of the group's label, Columbia Records, calls Foo Fighters "the world's favourite rock 'n' roll band." Nobody laughs. He may even be right.
The well-paced, perspicacious documentary traces the group's rollercoaster career, from Grohl's first numb months as he came to terms with the horror of Cobain's suicide through the fraught early days when the band played "like, 18,000 shows a year" to fans baying for Nirvana songs (which they never played). Along the way there have been sackings, summary evictions from the band, drug-addicted group members and even overdoses, and at the heart of it all is always the bearded figure of the lanky, intense Grohl, a driven yet pathologically cheery figure, eternally encouraging and cajoling his band to ever greater heights.
These Days contains two hugely moving moments. One comes during the recording of Foo Fighters' latest, seventh album, Wasting Light, when Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic joins Grohl and album producer Butch Vig in the studio to make a guest appearance on a track. It's a reuniting of three-quarters of the team that made Nirvana's touchstone album, Nevermind, and the first time the three men had recorded together in two decades.
Yet topping even this was the footage from two heady nights in June 2008 when Foo Fighters headlined - and sold out - the newly reopened Wembley Stadium. At the end of the first show, as fireworks exploded around him and 85,000 throats roared their fervent adoration, Dave Grohl's smile for once faded as he broke down in tears, simply unable to process the enormity of the moment. "Please tell me," he bellowed, "how did this fucking band ever get to be as big as this?"
"That's what I ask myself every single day," he reflects now. "After Kurt died and I made my cassette demo, I never for one second thought I would be the lead singer of a band that would have a 17-year career. But I've tried to make sure that it hasn't changed me because I believe in humility: nothing makes me want to punch someone's lights out more than a musician who believes he is more than human simply because he can play a fucking guitar! C'mon, man, it's ridiculous, and you know it."
Grohl may have remained remarkably grounded for a platinum-selling rock star operating at his rarefied altitude, but his A-list status still means that he now finds himself involved in a few off-piste activities for a flannel-clad guitarist. Today, this includes his stylish Los Angeles photo session.
"It's kind of weird that I am doing a photo shoot with a fashion guy because I know nothing about fashion whatsoever," Grohl confides. "I get up in the morning and I put on jeans and a T-shirt. In the evening, I put on a guitar. I wear suits for three occasions: weddings, court appearances and the Grammies."
The music world's equivalent of the Oscars, the Los Angeles-based Grammy Awards have required Grohl to pull his suit out of mothballs on a frequent basis. Foo Fighters have won six of the prestigious prizes to date, although even these accolades might pale into nothingness next to the award he was recently given by excitable weekly UK music magazine, the NME: the Godlike Genius Award.
"Fuck - what am I supposed to say about that?" splutters the singer, for once lost for words. "Godlike genius? What kind of asshole would I have to be to take that seriously? Foo Fighters are good at what we do but I don't think we're the best band in the world or the saviours of rock 'n' roll. If you want to talk about Godlike geniuses, talk about Paul McCartney or Led Zeppelin, dude - not about me..."
Grohl has now relocated to America's rock 'n' roll capital of Los Angeles, but for many years he remained loyal to Seattle, the birthplace of the early 90s grunge scene that spawned Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. For years he travelled to the City of Angels only on rock 'n' roll business. Like many a musician before him, he routinely treated it extremely badly.
"I went back and forth to Los Angeles for years and I basically used it like a dirty fucking whore," he confesses, happily. "I took it and I dragged it around and I fucked it and I drank it under the table and I left it lying in the middle of the road, and then I would be like, 'OK, I'm done with this place, I'm going home now.'"
"It all changed when I met my beautiful Californian wife, Jordyn, and I figured, well, I can't take a born-and-bred Angeleno out of Los Angeles. It's just not what you do! Plus, now that we have two kids, it's good to be in one place. But nowadays I live in the least cool part of LA: the San Fernando Valley. It's like a graveyard full of people with awful saggy old 1980s silicon tits. I'll tell you how bad it is: one of my neighbours is Vin Diesel."
Energetically personable and eager to please, Grohl has long been saddled with the unwanted sobriquet of the nicest man in rock. It's a verdict that fans may choose to question after they view Moll's These Days. Despite his amiable exterior, Grohl has over the years dispatched down the dumper a few guitarists and drummers who failed to measure up in Foo Fighters. It's evident that Mr Nice Guy can also be brutal when he needs to.
"I'm not sure that's entirely fair," he protests. "Sure, I've had to sack a few people if the chemistry wasn't working out, because the music always comes first, but I've hated doing it. And it was a long time ago. Because I came into this band from Nirvana, we did all our growing up in public. Foo Fighters was a bit of a revolving door in the first few years, but now we've had a settled line-up for a very long time."
"It's important to me that Foos stay best friends and have the camaraderie of a great band. We had to shoot a video the other day and they gave us all separate dressing rooms and I had to say, 'Uh-uh, no way: we don't do that.' Because by the end of Nirvana, Kris and I would get to a show and we wouldn't see Kurt until we were standing by the side of the stage waiting for the lights to go down. I don't want it ever to be like that again."
Yet Grohl combines this wish for Foo Fighters to remain a tight, cohesive unit - a classic rock 'n' roll gang - with a rampant promiscuity when it comes to his own musical activities. His legion side projects have included drumming for stoner-rock icons Queens of the Stone Age, forming supergroup Them Crooked Vultures with QOTSA singer Josh Homme and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and even guesting on a 2001 Michael Jackson single. He is most certainly the only man ever to have collaborated with Paul McCartney, Tenacious D, the Prodigy and Norah Jones.
"Ha! That sounds like a particularly fucking bad episode of Hollywood Squares" he reflects. "The truth is simple: I love side projects because I enjoy playing music. I can play in a few different styles, so why shouldn't I call up Liam from Prodigy and say I have some killer drum fills that are perfect for him? Then I can have just as much fun doing a sleepy bossa nova ballad with Norah Jones. Let me tell you about Norah Jones: she is one badass woman!"
Yet it is likely that Grohl's two daughters, five-year-old Violet Maye and two-year-old Harper Willow, will be infinitely more impressed with another of their father's unlikely collaborations. The Foo Fighters singer is to appear in the imminent Muppets movie, The Muppets, as the superstar replacement for Animal in the house band while the famously irate puppet drummer is undergoing anger management classes.
"Oh my God, I am so excited to be doing that movie!" he confirms. "I jumped at the opportunity. To me, the four greatest drummers ever are Buddy Rich, John Bonham, Keith Moon and Animal, so I'm in pretty good company there. Violet came down to the movie set with me, saw a few puppets lying on a table and was kind of disappointed. She asked me: 'Daddy, does this mean the Muppets aren't real?'"
It's hard to imagine what Kurt Cobain, a devout musical purist who stayed firmly within the environs of the US hardcore-punk scene that spawned him, would make of Grohl's effortless assimilation into the entertainment mainstream. His former drummer acknowledges that if he once loyally shared Cobain's tribalism, he has now left any vestiges of musical snobbery long behind him.
"You get older; you change," he explains. "I used to say, 'I don't want to be like Mick Jagger, still playing rock 'n' roll at 40!' It seemed a ripe old age to me. Now here I am, still playing it at 42, and I love being the guy headlining rock festivals with grey hair and wrinkles! I like it when a band that are opening for us, who have sold a trillion records, say, 'Hey, you guys were our first concert!' It makes me feel old and it makes me feel good at the same time."
"I am what I am now. When I do photo sessions, I don't want to put on make-up and try to look younger. I want people to look at my face and say, 'Wow, you've changed! You're older!' I'm happy with how I look, and I'm happy with exactly where I am in life."
In London, after the screening of These Days, Dave Grohl works the room at the BAFTA after-show party. Every eye is on him as the glasses clink, but he is entirely at home under the kind of forensic public attention that turned Kurt Cobain into a depressive, suicidal wreck. For more than two hours, he poses for photos and glad-hands all-comers like a politician, his boyish smile never fading for even a second. Unlike Cobain, being a rock star does not kill Dave Grohl: it makes him stronger.
Words: Ian Gittins
back to the features index