THE HOLY GROHL: On The Trail Of The Last Great American Rock Band - Melody Maker April 26th 1997

All's Well That Ends Roswell

Melody Maker, April 1997

For a man you might expect to be burdened by the Weight of the past. Dave Grohl shows few signs of strain. After all this time, he's still excited to be doing the rock'n'roll thing and has an ever optimistic eye on FOO FIGHTERS' future - it looks blinding.

Oscar nightin Los Angeles and everyone's a star. Spying through the hotel curtains into the next door apartment block, every single TV screen is flickering with images of those little golden statuettes. It's like state-sponsored Eastern Bloc entertainment, Californian May Day celebrations, saluting those who gave so that we may read about them in The National Enquirer - Tom Cruise. Mel Gibson. Lauren Bacall. Courtney Love ...
  Love's presenting the award for Best Make-Up - a certain irony there, you think, recalling her smudged eyes and smeared lips. But tonight, she's different. Still blonde and dressed in white, but this time it's a neat fringed bob and a demure designer gown. Weird, you think, how things change.
  The next day, Dave Grohl is in the famous Barney's Beanery, conducting another interview. He's telling the journalist that, no, he doesn't really keep in touch with Courtney - hasn't spoken to her for a year or so, they're both busy people: these are the words corning out of his mouth when he looks up and sees her walking towards him to say hello, every bit as polite as he is. Surprise, surprise. The unexpected hits you between the eyes.
  If it was in a film, you wouldn't believe it.

The Annual General Meeting of The Wide Awake Club went very much as expected - Melody Maker April 26th 1997 You see, I wouldn't have mentioned it. The time for all those "Dave Grohl - a man persued by the past down the Corridors of history" pieces is long, long gone. It's just one of those coincidences,and coincidence has a nasty way of shining a spotlight into the corners. It's not like Dave avoids talking about the past - the very first thing he tells me is a possibly libellous tale about himself and Kurt Cobain meeting Eric "Ponch" Estrada out of "CHIPS". But now in 1997 this is about Foo Fighters only a band who are succeeding because, not in spite of. Their brand new album, 'The Color And The Shape' is considered by Dave to be their debut. which to all intents and purposes it is. After all, the real debut. "Foo Fighters", was basically a collection of Dave's demo tapes.
  "We've made a record I consider such a move forward for the band" he smiles. "For a first album, it is pretty fucking good."
  Earlier today the Foos materialise in the skyscraping Capitol Records building, ready for photographs, happy to see their friend, Maker smudge Steve Gullick, ready to hang over the edges ofthe building at his bidding. There's Pat Smear, veteran of notorious punk band The Germs and Nirvana's second guitarist, a man who knows the meaning of style. Not only is he wearing a black spangled shirt, but his socks are a perfect match. He might not talk to journalists but he smiles a lot and, as the first words he says are, "Has anyone got any chocolate?" he's clearly a fine person. Nate Mendel is quiet and humble, the opposite of new drummer Taylor Hawkins' goofy, sun-ripened Californian gregariousness. Rescued from playing with Alanis Morissette after meeting the Foos on the festival circuit, his new role is as Dave's evil twin.
  "I love him, I adore him," he glows, shining-eyed. "He's the best drummer we've ever played with - now he's playing not so good, so he fits in with the band. I'll save that for the drum magazines, but honestly, he's becoming a best friend. Everyone seems to think we were separated at birth. We do all these photo shoots and every photographer says 'you guys could be brothers'. Not the way we look, just how we're inseparable. I love him."
  Aaaaah. Ask about William Goldsmith's allegedly acrimonious departure though, and he's less effusive, hiding behind the old musical differences! other goals barrier. Dave doesn't like to be rude. Charming, polite, all in black, his new haircut and beard make him look like a renegade Shakespearian actor rather than the gangly hardcore kid you expect. As you watch him in front of the camera, laying in Pat's lap, hugging Taylor, kissing Steve, you can't help but think that this is how it should be. And feel slightly bewildered that it's possible to have spent so much of your life caked in rock'n'roll and still remain so enthusiastic, so good.

There's a lot more that is tight than the Foos' blissfully affectionate personal dynamics, though, if 'The Colour And The Shape' is anything to go by. Every song is depth-charged with sudden emotional shock waves, from the delicate tracery of the opening "Doll" and the huge guitar suck and pull of "My Hero" to the super-elastic "Hey Johnny Park" and the Husker Du rush of "Everlong". The first album might have been a collection of loveable songs, but lacked the sheer visceral attack that thrills this time round. An attack that would have big Bob Mould scuttling under his bed, almost any other US rock band biting their nails in anguish and embarrassment.
  "It's a little more mature," mocks Dave in the diner where he and Nate have come to talk and eat unpleasant-looking things in gravy. "I was reading a review by this Metal Hammer guy today and he reckoned it was too omni-directional. It is the kind of album you have to listen to three or four times before you like it. That could be a problem - these days kids put on a CD and if they don't like it instantly, they're like; fuck it." He mimes throwing a CD across the room. "I'm glad you liked it, but sometimes I wonder ... I mean, I thought the first Frank Black album was fucking genius, but no one else liked it."
  There's a cohesion on this record that the debut LP didn't have. A specific dominant mood.
  "Hmm. I don't know what that would be."
Well, a battered romanticism: "If you walk out on me / I'm walking after you", "It's true the two of us are back as one again" - they're the lyrics that stand out.
  It's only later it transpires Dave has recently split up with his wife. He chooses to ignore the innocent implications, and continues: "Last time the lyrics were obscure for a good reason. They were nonsense. A few songs meant a lot, but for the most part I just needed a vocal track. In no way do I consider myself a clever lyricist, or even a lyricist. I can't even write fucking postcards. How am I going' to write songs that really grab someone? The first album, 'Foo Fighters', I was just so afraid of anyone understanding anything I had to say-but I had no choice for this record."
  "Because the producer made me. He wouldn't let me have dinner until I'd written some lyrics. Every time I wrote a bad line I'd get 40 lashes," he sighs. "It's a question of what is more difficult - writing something you genuinely feel, or to mask something. I think it's more difficult to write something that means nothing. They're about last winter, the winter of my discontent. There's no way it's going to be well received - it's a winter album that's going to come out in the summer."
  But there are always people gloomy enough to want November in May. And anyway, the sun's always behind the clouds on 'The Colour And The Shape'.
  "Well, I am an optimist, always have been. I can see a positive sideto anything, whether it's a crisis or a catastrophe. Maybe it's self-preservation, but I've never been a depressive person, someone who feels trapped or stuck, because you can always get your way out of anything."

 Dave Grohl - Melody Maker April 26th 1997 DANCE? FUCK THAT, LET'S ROCK
'THE Colour And The Shape' is a great rock album at a time when great rock albums are viewed with increasing suspicion. Imagine for a minute it was a world of absolutes, and that hype was The Truth. For now, the buzz is about America suddenly teetering on the brink of accepting dance music. In every record shop in LA, the cover of a magazine called Urb features a typically dynamic shot of The Chemical Brothers, the headline reads, "Is America Ready For The New Music?". The Prodigy are smashing up MTV. The underground is slowly inching into the bright lights of overground. Here, though, are a band rooted in the rock traditions of the last 15 years, a band who are the latest flowering of alterna-rock heaven. But there's a new menace now, a new threat to worry parents and electrify the young, and that's an English dude with green horns.
  Ask Nate and Dave about The States of Dance, and they quite literally rave, with the same look in their eyes you get from people who stop you in the street and invite you to their church. But in this case, it's The Flaming Church Of Liam Howe.
  "I think The Prodigy could be the biggest band in America, because they're the perfect mix of dance and rock'n'roll," enthuses Dave. "The thing that separates them from The Chemical Brothers is this guy with silver fangs and contact lenses, freaking out and this other dude with green horns: it's like going to see a hard core band in costume on Halloween. You can't help but dance to them."
  "And I never dance," grins Nate. "I heard they were going to open for U2 and I thought 'good', because they'll kill U2 every night. Before they started getting airplay on MTV I thought it would be so cool if we had one opening band, then us, then an aftershow dance party with The Prodigy. Because there is no fucking way I would ever go onstage after them. I can't think of any band in the fucking world who could..." Dave looks incredulous. "Which means what? That they're the best band in the world, live?"
  So, I suppose the question is, why aren't you following that path yourselves?
  "Mmmmmmmm ... " They look at each other, and laugh.
  "We just ain't got enough funk in the trunk," drawls Dave, one eyebrow raised.
  Well, you could always do like David Bowie and make a drum'n'bass record.
  "Yeah, and it would probably end up sounding like that, too. 'Excuse me, we're just borrowing this'! I'm sure if we were to do something like that we'd end up sounding like Atari Teenage Riot -durghdurghdurghdurgh ... Next time we have some time off though, I totally want to learn how to program. It would be fun: nothing to do with this band, though. Strictly side projects."
  What about the argument that it's too late in the day still to be making unabashed rock music? That making guitar music is purely sentimental, like watching classic repeats or writing sonnets?
  "You're jumping waaaay ahead of yourself here," says Nate through a mouthful of chips and what passes for a steely glare.
  Dave gives me a wry sideways squint. "Basically, you're saying we're flogging a dead horse?"
  Aaargh, nonononono. No. Just putting the case for the prosecution - that maybe we know too much for rock to be a valid art form in 1997. Or rather, we know too little about what could be to waste time in rerunning old modes of music, colouring carefully inside the same lines.
  "But it's still the norm. It's not like rock is past its utility," Dave sighs. "You know, things in England move much faster: bands move faster, their fucking hairtcuts move faster. If Neil Young can go go out and play to 15,000 people every night, it's a pretty good indication that all's well. As long as the songs are good it doesn't matter whether it's a guitar or computer."
  So you're not prepare to take on the mantle of The Last Great American Rock Band?
  "Then what happens?" says Dave. "some fucking rockabilly band will become famous and suddenly it's the rockabilly revival! We've already gone through the ska revival in America. Like nobody knew who fucking Madness were in 1980. The guitar thing isn't going to go away - because you look a hell of a lot cooler holding a guitar than standing at a fucking turntable, I tell you."

No, I didn't expect they were drafting in Speedy J and Panasonic for the next album, or expect a sorry admission from them that they were condemned to rock 'n' roll. Not only because 'The Colour And The Shape' is such a formidable chunk of music you'd be a fool to believe that rock is dead, but also because the Foos are so steeped in the old-school alterna-rock ethic. Mark E Smith calls it being "a working band" as opposed to a bunch of want-it-all, want-it-now careerists. Or, "Hey, you gotta pay your dues before you can pay the rent" as Steven Malkmus would have it. Never mind that the rent problem ceased to be an issue a while back, from The Germs, Scream (Dave's pre-Nirvana hardcore band) and Sunny Day Real Estate (Nate), to Nirvana and Alanis Morissette, they're a compendium of The Band Experience at every level. Given that they've been doing this for most of their lives, that Dave could have given it all up after Nirvana, that Pat had nothing to prove, could the desire to be in a band be pathological?
  "It's just for money," deadpans Dave. "Well,a lot of musicians are obsessed; they don't have a choice. You try to glorify it, to say you're searching for the perfect song, trying to express yourself, but I can't say that. I just like to rock out."
God help us if there's a war on - Melody Maker April 26th 1997   Are you addicted to the whole ritual of it - the playing, the touring, the paraphernalia that exists beyond the music?
  "It's like some people have to turn the light off three times before they go to bed or they'll never be able to fall asleep," admits Nate.
"It's nice just to be fortunate enough to be able to do it," nods Dave, humble as ever. "When Scream used to go on tour, we used to go out for two months, come back, and have to go straight back to work at the furniture warehouse or the nursery. It was just such a drag. Then you'd go back on tour and although you were living off four dollars a day to eat and buy pot, it was always so much more fun. Maybe that's where the love of playing music intensified - the feeling that maybe there is nothing better than this. There isn't anything better than this. And when you try to stop, you find you can't."
  "You try to stop?" Nate widens his eyes at the unthinkable.
  "Well, I mean, you come home from tour and you don't even want to look at a guitar, you just want to sit on the couch, and you end up writing four more songs in the first week home."
  How about the friendships in a band? I'm not saying you're macho - the image of Pat's stilettoes flash through my head, Dave happily sprawled in his lap - but it is the ultimate in male bonding.
  "There is bonding that goes on, but it's not like watching the Superbowl," stresses Dave. "I think that whole idea applies more to the heavy metal genre."
  Nate is looking riled. "I don't get this male bonding thing. You know, every time I even talk to someone else, my wife Katie will look at me and shrug and go 'a-ha, he's male bonding'. When women do it, they're just friends. But male bonding is some kind of ritual.
  Exactly. So's being in a band ritualised freedom, ritualised excess, ritualised communications. The us-against-the-world mentality that seeps in when there are four of you stuck in a van.
  "I kinda like that aspect of rock'n'roll," says Dave, proving the point, really. "that's one of the things I thought was cool about the name Foo Fighters. Because when you imagine The Ramones, those four guys, the are THE Ramones. The Pixies, they're THE Pixies. It's an added identity, like a fucking family crest. It's not like saying, 'We're Bush.'" He hisses with contempt as if 'we're child molesters' is only less shameful.
  On the way to the diner, swinging his zippy black truck around the corners, Dave had made an announcement.
  "Hey!" he said "what do you think of us gettin Bush to support us on the next tour? I'm thinking of asking them just to see what they'd say."
  But Dave, someone says, what if they said yes?
  "Well, then I can just go, 'Naaaah, changed my mind.'" He pauses. "It would just give me so much pleasure to make that phone call."
Dave Grohl is a nice man, but even he has his limits. Us-against-the-world, indeed.

Grohl could play a lot of games if he wanted to. He could play the enigmatic hero with a weight of secrets on his shoulders, the arrogant rock star with past glories hung round his neck like a bad medallion, the grim professional with an eye on the door and another on the money. Mention the Foos to anyone who's met them, though, and they always smile. Sooner or later the word "sweet" will come up, mainly from men. One of the most extraordinary thing about Foo Fighters is their reputation for niceness. It's almost ... weird.
  Dave laughs. Sweetly. "Well, I'd rather be the nicest rock'n'roll band than the last."
  "Or the lamest," smiles Nate. "There are plenty of others vying for that title, though."
  "There are just so many amazing rock'n'roll stereotypes that make for good bands and we're trying to squash every one by making ourselves into the most fucking boring band in the world," snorts Dave. "A lot of rock bands aren't nice. I think this is probably the first time I've ever talked about another band in an unkind manner, but that band Sleeper ... every time Louise does an interview it's fucking front page. Is it just because she talks about fucking and drinking?"
  Uh-huh. And that doesn't count as unkind, Dave.
  "Well, it's always fun to watch other people try and pull off the rock attitude. We're probably the worst band in the world for those big quotes next to the picture. We're not going to say 'I like fuckin' shaggin' in a fuckin' aeroplane. And after shaggin', fuckin', smokin', fuckin' grrrrmmmphhh...' We're not a very rocking band in that sense. If we were drinking alcohol, though, that might be a different story."
  There's a bottle of Tabasco you can knock back, if that'll help...
  "Nooo thanks. You can make stuff up, you know. Whatever you want. Say I had a flask and was slipping bourbon into my coffee."
  Nate: "Nodding off in between sentences ..."
 Dave Grohl - Melody Maker April 26th 1997   Dave: "And incite some feud that'll crop up in future interviews. 'They can suck my fucking ass, for all I care. They should trade in their guitars for shovels.' Insert your choice of band here. Just make sure that they're physically inferior to us, that's all."
  Foo Fighters are very careful to play it like this, with the anti-star/who, me? shrug of the common man. Maybe, possibly, it's a reaction to the circus that Nirvana became. A device to make sure that their band, their songs, don't get inflated to the point where they self-destruct. Keep everything on an even keel, seems Dave's philosophy: reconcile the extraordinary with the ordinary to become almost hyper-ordinary. The niceness is undoubtedly real but it also works as a protective carapace. A distancing device. Stand back, keep clear, nothing to see here.
"I can't imagine sitting down with Prince and having a conversation with him because he's this almighty rock star. What would you - could you - say to him? For me to have this perception of Prince as anything other than a normal person, and to think people have the same reaction to me, albeit on a much lower level - that's ridiculous. I don't think we're weird, I don;t even think we're special, and it's been one of my goals to make people feel comfortable with us."
  Have you ever been tempted to adopt some extreme persona, just for the hell of it?
  "I'm too boring and unimaginative a person to even think up an interesting fucking persona," he grimaces. "I'd probably end up dressing like Bootsy Collins - 'I'm a rock star, look at my glasses!' I mean, God, when I was just seven years old I thought Kiss were cool."
  I never got the one with the whiskers. Why did he think that was a good idea?
  "He got last pick. He was the drummer. You know, the drummers always get shafted."
  Now that's a quote.
  "You know, I swear to God I get this interview complex where I imagine everything I say highlighted in one of those big display quotes. The only thing that ever makes it into those fucking things is when it's about Nirvana. I can do a seven-hour interview and in the end the interviewer will say, 'Just one more thing: do you miss being in Nirvana' and I'll say 'Yeah, I think about it every day and I am so proud I gotto be in that band.' SLAM! There it is on the fucking cover. It's fucking hilarious."
  From the tone of his voice, it is anything but.

There's another coincidence today. Not quite as dramatic as Courtney appearing, but equally telling. Within five minutes of meeting us, Taylor is telling a joke about a snail. He doesn't tell it very well, sure, but when he's finished, the band just look at each other and at Steve Gullick, smiling beatifically. It was, it turns out, the very first joke Steve ever told them.
See. as it should be.
  Is it easier now, being Foo Fighters, being a band?
"It was difficult on the last record to release this tape that was recorded for fun in five days, then become a band, and then tour. Now I feel more comfortable with the band because we have a really great record we're about to release and infinite possibilities when we want to play live and a new drummer who is fucking amazing. Last time we wanted to go out and go nuts, it didn't matter as long as we got hot and sweaty and jumped around. Now I really want to go out and sound great."
  There they are, on top of the Capitol Records building, draped over the edges, leaning over the horizons, the Hollywood sign glinting in the hills behind. On top of the world.

Words: Victoria Segal   Pictures: Steve Gullick

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