Mr Incredible

Metal Hammer 2003

From Nirvana to here. Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl has been involved in more special projects than the UN.

"Listen to this bit here", pam pam pam pam!"
  Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins are listening to a track by Strapping Young Lad on a sampler CD, Dave is disappointed that Devin Townsend isn't, in fact, related to Pete Townshend of The Who (with hindsight, a fortunate thing), but both are amazed to discover the band amidst an album of, as Dave describes it, "guys going 'grrrruuuuurrrrrggggghhhhhhooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuwwwwwwaaaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhh!"
  "Wow," says Taylor, "Just when you think a genre's completely played out..."
"OK, listen to where the drums come in here..."
  A white-noise of drumming blur blasts out of the tour bus speakers.
  "I could never play like that," says Taylor, shaking his head, "How fast must his feet be going on the pedals?"
  "Sure you could," says Grohl, "But it isn't just the drums it's the guitars. Listen to this..."
  Weedley weedley weedley weedley.....waaaaaaahhh!
  "I mean, it's not so fast that it's just tech-rock, and there's tunes there..."
  Grohl may front one of the best and biggest rock and roll bands in the world, but at heart he's still a metal fan Sitting around in the Foo's dressing room in the Denver Fillmore, Grohl is enthusiastically DJing for everyone in the room, pulling out a CD-R of instrumental Goatsnake tracks from their forthcoming album, quickly replacing that with the forthcoming new one by Place of Skulls (the band which features ex-Obsessed/Spirit Caravan guitarist/living legend and Southern gentleman Scott Wino' Weinrich who has also collaborated with Grohl on track called 'Emerald Lies' on the forthcoming Probot album), Have we got any Pro bot that we can hear? Dave searches frantically, then somebody arrives with the new Metallica album which is enthusiastically slapped into the changer and eveything else is forgotten.
  "You gotta understand that The Obsessed were this really heavy biker band," he explains to everyone and no one in particular, "They used to play in these barns to like hundreds of really terrifying bikers. But they also played on bills with hardcore bands, so lots of punks used to be into them and go see them."
  But Dave's greatest rock'n'roll love remains Led Zeppelin: "I have these John Bonham tattoos - one on my wrist, one on my shoulder, another on my shoulder. I admit that when I heard that Zeppelin were about to reform, I made some calls. Who wouldn't want to play drums in led Zeppelin?" DAVE GROHL SAYS HE WANTS TO DRUM IN LED ZEPPELIN. "Yeah, but so do all my friends. When I was a kid I used to have this fantasy that DRI or whoever would be playing and midway through the set, the drummer would be taken ill and they'd ask, 'well can anybody play drums?' and I'd leap onstage and finish the set. But can you imagine? John Bonham is the greatest rock'n'roll drummer - ever. A lot of people say Keith Moon, but John Bonham, man... those would be big shoes to fill. The expectations of anyone who sits in that stool are heartbreaking. But the romantic side of, imagine me playing 'Kashmir' at Knebworth."
  The odds-on bookies favourite for the vacant Zeppelin drum stool seems to be Jason Bonham, son of the great man, though Grohl would be a more inspired choice; anyone who caught his stint with Queens Of The Stone Age could be in no doubt that Dave is the man, as he tightened the skins on the snares between songs because he had battered the kit so hard that they came loose.

It's perhaps this fan boy attitude - a genuine and abiding love of music - that drives Grohl to work on other projects outside the band. Grohl is. in fact, becoming something of a drummer for hire: outside of the Foo Fighters he's just worked with Killing Joke on their new eponymous album, Queens Of The Stone Age, actor Jack Black's comedy band Tenacious D and his own Probot project.
  There is no overall plan to have a thriving career as a sideman alongside the Foo Fighters. Grohl is adamant that he has never had a plan and doesn't actually need to do anything. Probot has been a long time coming, other things have happened for different reasons. QOTSA was intended to be a one-off, with Grohl looking to prove something to himself it had been eight years since he had seriously played drums and he needed to be better than he ever was. Now he's being offered gigs on the back of QOTSA. Apart from Killing Joke, so far he's turning them down.
  There seems to be a good spirit within the Foo Fighters at the moment. They all look knackered, of course, after a long and gruelling tour in support of 'One By One' and the campaign ain't over yet. But it's honest hard work knackered, not festering track-mark and weird-groupies knackered. They're not a band sick of the sight of each other. OK. they have their own tour buses which helps, but unless they're putting on some Oscar-worthy act, this is a band who do get along.
  Before the Denver show, Grohl's voice has been a bit croaky; the fact that the city is known as the Mile High City on account of it being a mile above sea level up in the Rocky Mountains. means that while the air is comparatively pristine and clean, it's pretty rarefied and, if you're not used to it, you notice that you get short of breath very quickly. It's hard to sleep and because it's so dry your skin gets uncomfortable and your lips dry out and chafe. With a cold or flu, it's just misery. But there's no question of pulling the gig, though, because Dave is a true professional.
  "I remember in Nirvana getting sick, I'd slept in a draught or something. Anyway I woke up coughing and wheezing, but I just took some medication and kept going," he recalls. "A few days later I was getting worse and I saw a doctor and I was like, 'I'm getting better, right?' and he said, 'nope, you've got the Walking Pneumonia, your lungs are filled with fluid'."
  But you kept going?
  "Yeah, but it was like (imitates sound of siren going off) the singer has a pain in his stomach!' and everything stopped."

As has already been widely reported, it was a bit touch and go as to whether the Foo Fighters would continue. They struggled to make an album and then scrapped it, then their drummer OD'd. Grohl put everything on hold and went off to play drums with QOTSA. Everyone - Grohl, the rest of the band, their management, every pundit with access to TV, radio, print or web, people you met in the pub - thought it was all over. Trial separations are rarely that: they're separations with pretensions. Remarkably, though, it actually did turn out to be a pause rather than a finale. Fences were mended, great songs were recorded, awesome shows were played: that isn't something you see a lot.
  "I think everyone was uncertain whether I would come back. I know that I was. And I was having a blast every night playing drums with those guys. But at the end of the day I had to come back because much as I loved Queens, they're not family. These guys are family. This is where my heart has always been. I know I'm a better drummer than anything. And it's 12 other people, not just the guys onstage."
  Family is important to Dave. His mother and father were both musicians and encouraged him from a very early age. Although he left High School without any qualifications and by his own admission was a bit too cool for school, Grohl was a prodigy in other respects.
I was a drop-out who was destined to work in furniture warehouse. That was cool, I liked it while I was there. I was happy with that. But this career, music as a career, just wasn't an option. It wasnever on the cards. So to me, it's like I've been winning the lottery every year of my life since '81."
  He taught himself to play drums in his room by hitting pillows with marching band sticks, playing along to the Bad Brains on an old funky mono record player that his school teacher mom brought home for him. Sometimes he played until the windows of his room were soaked in condensation from his sweat. During his teenage years he formed and joined a succession of bands influenced by his Washington DC hardcore heroes like DRI, Minor Threat et al. Bands such as Freak Baby, which became Mission Impossible and later changed again to Fast.
  They're just names, though he can tell you what all of the members are doing and recently got sent some demos that he recorded when he was still a teenager.
  After Fast broke up, Grohl joined the band Dain Bramage before auditioning for Scream aged 16 - lying about his age to get the gig - and touring the US in the proverbial smelly transit van. Was mom proud that you were in a hardcore band?
  "Yeah, 'cos I was always a great drummer!" he beams. "And she didn't even have to buy me a drum kit. Both my parents were proud. They might not have put my records on at night with a glass of Chardonnay, but they thought it was a constructive application. And I'm forever indebted to both of them."
  The other reason that the Foo Fighters surived and prospered, of course, is that Grohl is one of the rare number of Incredibly successful rock'n'rollers who have gotten to where they are without pissing and shitting over people on the way up. It just wouldn't occur to Dave to have cut the Foo Fighters loose without looking each one of them in the eye and talking to them first. Lesser men sack their bands by email before Xmas. The term "nice guys finish last" doesn't apply here: Dave Grohl is currently top of the world and Dave Grohl is a genuinely nice guy. That doesn't mean he's a sap, a wimp, a weakling or a fool. He has just managed to retain his humanity and a sense of perspective in a world where it's actually much easier to lose both and never really notice. You can see from the way he talks to people, whether they are fans, employees at the venue, local crew or whatever: he's not gonna kiss anyone's ass because he thinks that they're important and he's not gonna flip off a kid who wants an autograph because he thinks that they're not. Everyone gets equal time and is spoken to like they're a fellow human being, not some unworthy bug who has accidentally crawled into his radiant aura, or someone to be patronised, spoken to like they are a mud-eating peasant from a less interesting planet.
  "I just don't take any of this for granted. I mean, there are times when it all seems like a dream. Having been in a band like Nirvana, coming through that terrible demise and then deciding, 'Fuck the world, I'm gonna pick up a guitar and write some songs: Not expecting anything like this... never expecting, eight years later, to be doing an interview about the last eight years. It amazes me. So what could be better than that? What could possibly make it bigger? Well, for one thing, have a family....I dream about having kids man."
  And if you think that the 'regular guy Dave' thing is just a pose, the proof is that there are no festering fueds - well, apart from that one with the good widow Cobain - and everybody you meet in this game who has ever come across him has nothing but praise for him. he can tell you what every ex-member of every band he's ever been in going back to his teens is up to these days - a few still work with him and others cross his path professionally - and he seems honestly interested in each and every one. Maybe that's the magnanimity that someone in his position can afford, but I'm betting that only a very small person would begrudge him his success.
  The paradox is, of course, that the more people see you as the Kind Man Of Pop, the more risk you run of having your image smeared in crap. You have hungry tabloid types looking for you to slip up. Is it a pain in the ass? Do you recognise the picture?
  "I'm not trying to be anyone else. I feel like I've grown a lot in the last 12 or 13 years. But I take it back to the idea that if you really want to be a rock musician that wants to become the biggest rock star in the world, you'll be the best rock star that everyone has ever seen in that you'll subscribe to every cliche... and for me, to have it all just fall into my lap, seems funny. It's funny that something like this would change you as a person, 'cos it's all free beer and parties every night. How can that turn you into a raging asshole?"
  Ahhh, it does, though, doesn't it?
  "Some people, maybe. Most musicians are really good people but they get caught up in a really bad scene. I'm notthe only nice guy in the history of rock'n'roll... I can be a fucking asshole too. Oh yeah."

Words:Tommy Udo

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