Fighting Talk

Metal Hammer 'Foo Fighters Fan Mag' 2002

He's been the only constant in Foo Fighters since his tenure with that previous band. He's been the only person to have outlived and built on the 90s grunge scene. Having known Dave Grohl since the early days of Nirvana, Tommy Udo talks to the man who came out from behind the drums to become a legendary frontman.

OHMIGOD, it's... excuse me, who is that guy?"
"Dave Grohl."
"That's right. Dave. And what's the name of the band he's in?"
"The Foo Fighters."
"That's right. The Food Fighters. Oh honey, you gotta see this guy. He is soooo funny. He does all these costume changes in that video... he looks so crazy."
  You join us outside the House Of Blues in Chicago on an otherwise deserted street. Grohl is in the tour bus doing a photo session for Hammer while the rest of us are standing around outside discovering exactly why they call this place the windy city. Almost every person who passes by in he space of 20 minutes or so recognises Grohl. Student types, beefy Mid Westerners with back-to-front baseball caps, even one Moby-clone on a bicycle who stops to film photographer Hutson photographing the Foos, never actually pointing his camera at the band themselves. The middle American couple had just stopped to gape: the husband doesn't give a toss and really doesn't want to be here, but his wife is thrilled to bits. She prefers country. Y'know, Clint Black and Jimmy Buffett? But she knows who Grohl is. Yeah, he was on Leno... or was it Letterman? Probably Letterman. And wasn't he once in another band? They were called Scream? No, I don't think that was it...
  For seven years, the Foos have been an example of competence, consistency and reliability: a sonic equivalent of hot dogs or hamburgers, they ain't ever gonna be on anyone's cordon bleu menu, but you always know what you're gonna get and you know it will be hard to screw it up. The albums were good, never great, and the performances solid rather than trancendental. Never quite in the same camp as young pups like Korn and Limp Bizkit on one hand or Green Day, Sum 41 and Jimmy Eat World on the other, the Foos looked set to settle into a groove as rock'n'roll comfort food: something to listen to while you're waiting for a real spinal shiver-inducing classic to come along.
  Then some shit happened: drummer Taylor Hawkins' near-death experience had an uncomfortable resonance with another good looking blonde guy who used to be in a band with Grohl and indulged in some self medication to kill the pain of life etc etc. Whether it was just that it made them seem — in a ghoulish way — more interesting, or if the general uncertainty about the band's future was the spur was anyone's guess. But suddenly people noticed them. Grohl was in demand as collaborator to the hip and famous, from stints in Queens Of The Stone Age — surely the coolest band of the millennium so far — to hooking up with Andrew WK — your judgement on that one is your own — and appearances as The Devil in Tenacious D's video. He seemed to be everywhere at once. There was already a buzz growing around the forthcoming album 'One By One' as well as around his faintly mad sounding Probot project. And at this year's Reading Festival, there were a hell of a lot of folks standing around wondering what meeting they missed where it was decided that the Foo Fighters were, in fact, a world class act capable of delivering the sort of hair-bristling high-energy bubblegum metal that yer snotty newbies can only dream about.
  "There was a lot in the way before we started this record," Grohl laughs. "Besides everything going RIGHT on the last album, besides all of the personal shit what with Taylor going down, trying to piece the band back together after that, besides me going out and playing with another band for four months, we just felt that we had a record in us that we hadn't let out yet. Up until now we have never felt that any of our albums did the band justice or were really representative of the band. This album sounds the way that we sound when we play in a rehearsal space and that's your goal, I suppose..."
  Grohl still isn't quite sure what happened: 'The Colour And The Shape' involved 20 takes of drum sounds in an attempt to build a "clean and precise rock record" After two years working on the new record, they scrapped the lot and banged it out in a couple of weeks in Grohl's basement in Virginia.

"It's like a new found passion, you fall back in love with what you're doing. At some point it happens, you become born again, your batteries are recharged. All of these things that happened made us step back and look at the big picture. There was a lot about this band that we took for granted... there's a lot to take for granted. We're like the luckiest people in the world. We have our own label, we have control over everything we do whether its recording, touring, videos. No one tells us what to do and not everyone has that luxury. We don't necessarily belong to any scene, we have our own scene," he says.
  Yeah, you say you're just a rock band, but there are a whole lot of bands to which you have become almost like elder statesmen. There are straight imitators like Feeder and there are a lot of fellow travellers like Sum 41, Green Day or even Blink 182 who are using the same influences.
  "I can't see that... I listen to all of that music, Sum 41 or whatever, and in that music I can hear all of the same influences that we have whether it's Husker Du, Pixies, The Smithereens or whatever, I'd like to think that these bands have influences that go a little deeper than the Foo Fighters, I pray that they do. But I don't think that we fit in anywhere in particular. It's strange. I just don't know. We've played on bills from Ozzfest to the Reading Festival to Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's pretty diverse. You come to our shows and you see kids with Sum 41 t-shirts and you see 40-year-old men in Zeppelin t-shirts. It makes me think that the sound of the band is just so general, it can only be considered rock. You can't really call it punk, or heavy metal or pop, but in some way all those elements were in there."
  When you were back in DC as part of the hardcore scene in Scream, and even in Nirvana before success hit in a big way, how do you think you would have seen yourself now? Say that for some completely implausible reason MTV signals from '02 got beamed back to the late 80s or early 90s?
  "There are things about it I probably would have loved, there are things that I would just have laughed at. I would have watched a video like 'Big Me' or 'Learn To Fly' and I would have laughed at it the way I would have laughed at any Beastie Boys video or Huey Lewis & The News video. And there are songs like Times Like These' from this record or 'Generator from the last one or 'Aurora' that I probably would have listened to everyday. To me all the influences from there are still there now, so I'm not too far from the person I was when I was 18.

During the course of the interview, while we sit in the backroom of a bar, people walk over to Dave to get autographs, get photos taken with him or to (unsuccessfully) blag tickets for tonight's 'secret' show at an intimate impossible-to-get-into club venue that's probably about the same size as yer living room. The bartender chats to him like an old mate that he's met by chance and while other people say, "Gee I've never met anyone famous before", there's more affection than worship involved. There's no real sense of awe, it's almost as though Dave is a guy that they actually know; he's a guy you feel at ease with, possibly because he has few affectations — the tartan shirt he wears in the bar is the same one he wears onstage at night —and he's neither impossibly good looking or charismatically ugly. My personal theory is that everyone has a mate who looks a bit like Dave Grohl, borne out by the unscientific method of having it confirmed by a few unrelated people. It's maybe this sense of comfort that makes an event like this year's Reading show so unexpected, where there was a real sense of even unmatched since, perhaps, the last band that Grohl drummed in headlined there.
  "For me Reading was an event just because I've been there so many fucking times, happily in the middle of the bill. I've always been happy in the middle of the bill, never aspired to top it, never felt it was our place. Reading was almost an experiment, it was unlike anything we'd ever done because we didn't even consider our repertoire to be enough that you could go and headline. At the end of the night, after all of those bands like The Hives, Sum 41, Ash and Muse, the idea that we could be the ones to wrap it all up... it had to be great, to us. It had to be a good show and to me that had to be the greatest achievement of my entire life. I've been to that festival six times, I had headlined it once, it really represented something to me, and it's the festival that represents true underground, independent music. The first time I was there Iggy Pop was headlining, Babes In Toyland were there, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, and Mudhoney... that was the scene. It was such a beautiful place to be. That many people coming together and digging Dinosaur Jr? Wow. To me, seeing this thing go from being a demo tape recorded down the street from my house, that wasn't intended to be a band, to playing a show to 50,000 at my favourite festival in the world and having them sing every word to every song, it was fucking phenomenal."
  Of course, for anyone of a certain age, it's impossible to ignore the fact that a decade ago, Grohl was on the same stage with Nirvana. It wasn't such a happy occasion: retrospectively tinged with the tragedy of Kurt Cobain's death, the band were at the peak of their fame and revelations about the fault lines within the line-up were starting to leak out. It was Kurt and heroin, Kurt and Courtney, Kurt vs the rest. He came onstage in a wheelchair as a joke, but it wasn't one of his better ones. Foo Fighters may be a great band, but Nirvana are still a cultural phenomenon whose shockwaves show no sign of petering out. We're perhaps far enough away now to see that Nirvana were an American punk band and had very little to do with 'grunge': in his recently published journals, Kurt Cobain wrote: "If we were going to be ghettoized, I'd rather be in the same slum as bands that are good like Mudhoney, Jesus Lizard, the Melvins and Beat Happening rather than being a tenant of the corporate landlords regime. There are a lot of bands who claim to be alternative and they're nothing but stripped down, ex-Sunset Strip hair farming bands of a few years ago. I would love to be erased from our association with Pearl Jam or the Nymphs and other first time offenders."
  Grohl sees some parallels between Nirvana and Korn and their relationship to the supposed 'scenes' that they spawned/popularised or were perceived to be part of.
  "I just look at it like doors opening constantly. Two reasons why Nirvana became popular were that music in the late 80s had become stale, it wasn't human any more, it had become disconnected. But also because the underground was becoming alive and growing in college radio. In the 80s in America you had your rock radio and your pop radio, but the best place to listen to true alternative music whether it was The Smiths or REM or the Dead Boys, those were the things you would hear on college radio. Then things started happening. Husker Du signed to a major label and started playing to 15,000 people. Jane's Addiction starting Lollapalooza... we were recording 'Nevermind' and Kurt and I went to that show and there was fucking 17,000 people there. Even before that, Jane's Addiction toured with Primus and we all went down to see them in Portland and there was 6000 people there and Kurt, Krist and I all looked at each other and said, Wow, man, something's kinda happening. And all of the music that happened in the 90s, happened for those two reasons: music needed a breath of life... Jane's Addiction primarily did a huge favour to America by giving this music a chance. Bands like Korn... I dig Korn, their first record didn't sound like anything else, which is cool. Something like that becoming that popular, that was exciting, that people were being challenged by music. A lot of what came after Korn, well it was all hanging onto their coat-tails, it happens with every genre, and the coat tails end up being definitive of that particular genre."
  His admiration for Andrew WK is similarly quite genuine: Andrew is a "true American hero' Grohl offered him a support slot with the Foos on the strength of the demo and the famous bloody nose pic that his girlfriend Jordyn thought looked like the sexiest man alive. Rather than feel threatened, musically or otherwise, Grohl is still boundlessly enthusiastic about new music and it's perhaps this love of the new, the underdogs and the underground that keeps his own music fresh and alive. This championing of obscure musical heroes from The Vaselines and the Raincoats to The Germs and The Melvins was also something that we associate with Nirvana.
&Nbsp Later that night at the show — a blistering up-close-and-personal live set — there are the two inevitable 14-year-olds in XXXL Nirvana yellow-on-black smiley t-shirts worn like dresses. I ask Dave how he feels seeing kids who were probably still in diapers when 'Nevermind' came out still wearing the shirts.

Last night somebody came up to me and said that Nirvana was their first concert... it's funny to me, because I don't feel old. You imagine something like that happening to Keith Richards or Neil Young."
  It doesn't look like it's going away: I imagine in another 10 years time there will probably still be really young kids into it. The fact that 'new' Nirvana songs surfacing causes such a stir a decade on, is pretty bizarre.
  "I'm the last person in the world to analyse the quote-unquote legacy of Nirvana because my perspective is entirely different to anyone else. So to me it's just well, I guess we were three guys who played music and anything else just seems funny to me. It's hard to explain, to me it was a band, not a movement or an idol or an icon. I mean, shit, I like Led Zeppelin, as much as the next guy, I listen to their records every day and I guess that will last a lifetime, but I don't know why. Music that represents something to someone can last forever. It can reprsent the past, or nostalgia, or something about yourself and that's when it becomes "important".
  Do you feel it's like having an albatross around your neck? "Its funny that people imagine Nirvana to be some sort of curse... it all comes back to Nirvana. have a lot of great memories of being in Nirvana. I have a lot of BAD memories too, but it's a huge part of the person that I am. It was a huge part of my life, although it was only three and a half years. I look back on it the way that I would look on a relationship or a family member who has died. It was three people. It wasn't as shallow and one dimensional as it may be to other people. As a musician, to have touched so many other people with your personal expression... that's heavy shit, that's other worldly. People are almost afraid to say the word Nirvana, people don't know how to approach it with me, because of the demise of the band... it's eggshells all the time. You just get to the point where you don't give a shit."
  The fact that he was part of one of the most important bands ever and has been able to carve out a career that has never really traded heavily on his involvement with Nirvana is remarkable. Perhaps because there were very few expectations of Grohl: when white labels of the first single 'This Is A Call' started to circulate, there were some people who seized it with a sort of jocularity. "Here's Ringo's new record, let's hear how bad it is..." they sneered; though maybe after they played it they weren't sneering so much. Krist Novoselic, who Dave is still in touch with as a one-time colleague and as part of Nirvana LLC, sang backing vocals on the current album and has in the past joined Grohl onstage. His project Sweet 75 never really enjoyed any of the attention that The Foo Fighters received, though you get the impression that he likes it fine that way.
  Coming from an academic family and playing the instrument that still elicits jokes like, "What do you call a guy who hangs around with musicians? Answer: a drummer!" maybe the easygoing laid back thing that he has got going on is all a pose. Underneath he may be seething with resentment. Do you ever feel any inferiority complex about being a drummer?
  Grohl pauses to think and shakes his head: "Not really because I always felt that I was a pretty badass drummer. I'm not the best drummer in the world but I always fit into any band I've played with. I've always been confident. I'm not the greatest guitar player in the world but some of the riffs are good, I'm not the greatest singer in the world but I think you can tell it's coming from the heart. Going from the drums to being a frontman, you're setting yourself up for some serious fucking backlash. But at the time I wasn't taking any of that exterior bullshit into consideration. I was like, What am I gonna do here? Fuck around and play with the Tom Petty Band? Join Pearl Jam? Join Danzig? [all real possibilities, apparently] Do I play the drums for somebody and be that guy for the rest of my life? I mean, I didn't have anything to lose. There honestly wasn't any ambition to become a career rock band. Everything that's happened up until now was just a happy accident. One day the happy accident will be that it ends, I guess. Last night I was talking to Grant Hart from Husker Du in Minneapolis and the last time I saw him, he came to a Foo Fighters show in '96, and I'd never met him before but he was always a hero of mine, because he was the drummer who wrote great songs and SANG. At that show he told me 'Man, you're doing a good thing for drummers all over the world, you're really helping us all!'"

Words: Tommy Udo     Pics: Mick Hutson

Back to Top