Friend or Foo?

NME 1999

Is the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl really the nicest man in rock?

You can see the whites of their eyes. A twinkly, Disney-eyed sparkle you can't detect in the flesh, a nothing-stronger-than-Diet-Coke glow that doesnt quite ring true. It's not that the real life Foo Fighters are a particularly bloodshot bunch, but it's clear that they don't do justice to the perky band photo shown at the start of Saturday Night Live. Airbrushed. Obviously, the powers-that-be at America's biggest show have decided that their star guests' imperfections sit uneasily alongside their unfunny farrago of scatology, innuendo and one prime cultural reference run into the ground. (This week! Howard Stern!)
  John Belushi would be rolling in his grave - never mind that he could probably wipe out 50 US states, given the level of comedy on Saturday Night Live, they deserve it. It might be amazing that this show has retained its cultural cachet for so long, but you can't argue with that many viewers and tonight, it's Foo Fighters' turn to appear on the show's coveted musical spot. Officious girls with clipboards hustle back and forth, as if it was the God-and-Lucifer reunion gig they were dealing with rather than a fine - yet scarcely divine - band on a TV show. Backstage, sprawled on the plush carpet, Dave Grohl is nervous. You'd think that the years in the Nirvana circus would have hardened him to fear, but this is still - live TV, millions and millions of people - A Big Deal. Hair gelled forwards, sideburns prominently displayed in tribute to his beloved Supergrass, he's twiching gently, his churning mental state reflected by a shirt that looks like an explosion in a taste factory. Try airbrushing that. Nice shirt, Dave.
  "Thanks," he grins. "I've never worn something like this before but I called a friend of mine today on her cellphone and she was out shopping with Michael Stipe. As a joke I said 'Tell him to pick me out a shirt to wear for SNL', and he did! It actually fits, too. He did a really good job."
  Ah, celebrity. Ah, mass exposure. But God, the sheer messy power of rock'n'roll. Foo Fighters storm through their new single 'Learn To Fly' chords smashing, shirts clashing, Dave thumping his foot on the ground like he badly misses his drumkit, and a nation remembers that there are some things you can't just airbrush away.

Celebrity skin, heated by the TV lights, flushed with the thrill of the fame chase - it's not flesh that Dave Grohl has ever had much interest in pressing. The third Foo Fighters album, 'There Is Nothing Left To Lose', is packed with imagery about escape, of leaving, of going home, and also - tellingly - deeply concerned with the fight between the fake and the genuine, the pure and the corrupt. For Dave spent a year living in Hollywood, fleeing to record the album back in his native state of Virginia, safe in the house he bought in the country. As much as any hip-hop playa, he's obsessed with keeping it real, back to his home, back to his hardcore roots, back to the essence of rock'n'roll. Which makes for mighty records, but is perhaps, a little light on fascinating peripherals.
  Maybe a response to the carnival Nirvana became, the last five years have seen Dave constantly reiterating his down-home charms, his ordinariness, a tactic which has seen him repeatedly outed as The Nicest Man In Rock. And yes, there are moments when you talk to Grohl when you expect a bluebird to settle on his shoulder as fauns play around his feet. He's the sort of rock star who you can say "nice shirt" to without worrying how he'll take it. Who hugs everyone, ruffles their hair, smiles at the people who stop him in the street. Who talks at length about the kids who turned up at yesterday's instore looking depressed. He asked them what was up and they told him they'd come all the way from Long Island and were mugged as they got off the subway "I felt bad for them," he says, shaking his head. Ask him about the hazy love songs on the new record, and he happily admits he's a romantic. "You should see the love letters I write, they're...." he laughs. "Hey, I'm not gonna recite my fucking love letters to you."
  It's not just Dave - the whole band appear untouched by grim muso surliness. Nate Mendel, the band's bassist, spent yesterday showing his sister around New York on her first visit. New guitarist is calm, relaxed and keen to learn about English Football. And Taylor Hawkins, ferocious drummer, blond surf dude, and the evil Grohl twin, is a cartoon series just waiting to happen. He looks like Dave, sounds like Dave - even talks for Dave sometimes, which can be vxing when he's about to reminisce about Nirvana or expose his lyric-writing, but has an endearing charm. He starts interviewing the singer about his lyric writing.
  "Is it subconscious? You're just trying to get the lyric down and a few months later you look back and you realise these are pieces of your life?"
Grohl nods silently.
"All art is like that, I guess," Taylor continues. "Although I don't know how much drums are like that. 'Hmm, I see I did that fill there because I had a problem with my dad when I was 13.'"
And they giggle like schoolboys. When Dave says Taylor is "my best friend in the world", you can see how it works.
"We're not extra nice, we're not extra assholes," says Taylor. "We're just normal." He turns to his comrade. "Don't you agree?"
"No," says Dave. "I think we're pretty nice." And he smiles.

Every man much cast a shadow, however, and there are clues in 'there Is Nothing Left To Lose' that Grohl has a dark side. At least, that's the hope. It had been suggested that the best way to rile the man would be to pull his beard confrontationally, but as he's shaved it off, there's no easy target. Ask about the line-up changes the Foos have undergone - the loss of drummer William Goldsmith, guitarists Pat Smear and Franz Stahl - a turbulance more commonly associated with Stalin-like power structures, and Dave is adamant that everything was amicable.
"Taylor and Nate and I feel like we are the original line-up. We don't feel like this calico fucking paste-up of a band. Nate and I definitely have an unspoken musical bond that is unlike anything I've ever experienced before, and Taylor is not only my best friend in the world but then best drummer in the world. The three of us realise that if anything happened to that, it would definitely be over.
  "On the radio in New York the other day I told Howard Stern I'd give him $25,000 if Taylor ever left the band and I replaced him. Because there is just no way."
Yet there are songs on the new album that could burn flesh at a hundred paces. the real cause célèbre is 'Stacked Actors', the superb opening track and propulsive bile jet that hits its targets hard. And it's main target might remind you of someone that you know. "Stack dead actors/Stacked to the rafters/Line up all the bastards all I want is the truth....they all dye blonde..."
Cornered alone in the SNL studio, Taylor ponders how Courtney-specific 'Stacked Actors' actually is.
  "Hmmm," he drawls. "it's probably more of a movement in Hollywood and rock'n'roll but I'm sure there's a little bit of her in there," he grins, winks and all but nudges the tape recorder.
  "She needn't be too vain, it's not all about her," he says before abandoning all diplomacy pretty unequivocally. "She's fucked. For millions of reasons. And I don't even know her. Oh, I've met her a couple of times and she was rude. She wants to be a star and she is one. At least she got what she wanted. I hope it filled the hole for her. No pun intended." he smiles. "Oh, there's a sentence or two probably dedicated to her. Dave would never fully admit it to you, but I know.
  "Oh," says Dave ten minutes later, in the process of not fully admitting it. "I've been asked that question about every song I've written. The most important thing about writing songs is to refuse the specifics because that takes away the opportunity for some listener to relate to the song. I wrote 'Stacked Actors' about everything that is fake and everything that is plastic and unreal, so if that pertains to anyone that comes to mind then there you go."
Have you heard Bush and Nine Inch Nails' anti-Courtney tracks?
  "Oh, really? Well, what's the point? What difference does it make? Actually, I think it's ridiculous. You might as well write songs about fucking...Gomer Pyle."
  For Dave the ultimate compliment you can pay is "pure" or "genuine". What saves him from the Campaign For Real Rock worthiness is his righteous ire. For Dave, no-one messes with rock'n'roll unless they want to go swimming with a concrete guitar. He won't name any names he sees as "The new Poison, the new Paula Abdul", but you can probably guess. And in the face of his music being eaten away by glittery Hollywood locusts, the niceness drops with a crash. Why he ever thought living in LA was a good idea is a mystery.
  "I think there's a big difference between celebrity and recognition," he says, eating home fries in a New York diner earlier in the day. "I've always thought that acting and actors are kind of a sad bunch because they spend their lives being other people. People always have a battle between the movie industry and the music industry - which is worse, which is sleazier - and I think the difference is that the movie industry is full of people trying to promote themselves as someone else, and the music industry is, for the most part I hope, people trying to promote their music as an expression of themselves."
  You've been doing this since you were 17 years old - all your adult life.
  "Yesss." He laughs and shrugs.
  Haven't you developed a persona, a shell by now?
"I don't get accosted by people, I don't have a stalker, and I don't have a hard time in public. A) because we're not that popular a band, B) I was the drummer in Nirvana with long hair, and no-one knew what i looked like, even when I was in the band nobody would recognise me and C) mostly because most people see me as an anti-celebrity. Just a normal guy. Like, 'Wow, that guy won the lottery, how come he gets to be on Saturday Night Live? He doesn't look any different to anyone else.' So whenever people do accost me on the streets, it's 'Hey, Dave, how are ya? What's up, grohl?' It's never security and bodyguards."
How do you kill the impulse to act up that most bans succumb to, though?
"I hate to go back to punk rock all the time but the idea of the hardcore scene when i was 12, 13 years old was that there wasn't any such thing as a rock star. the people in the bands were the people who were selling you the T-shirts after the show. the people in the bands were the ones driving the vans or hanging out with you or sleeping on your floor. Your favourite band, the singers taking a shower in your house because they couldn't afford a motel. That idea still sticks with me. I still hate to see fucking egotistical rock stars consider themselves better than anyone else just because they play an instrument.
 "Even horrible bands. It blows me away that anyone would consider themselves any better than anyone else because of something they do." He leans forward. "Like, are there egotistical journalists?"
  Er, yes.
"That's so fucking ridiculous. Are there egotistical firemen? To consider yourself badass for being a fucking drummer...." He splutters to an angry halt.
  "People like that are always really insecure," says Taylor gravely. "We're not going to be so egotistical to say that we're not insecure people..."
  There's a long pause. Dave shifts in his seat.
  "Y'know, I'm not terribly insecure man," he says.
  Taylor nods. "No, I'm not either."
  "I'm really not," stresses Dave. "I really couldn't give a fuck about what anyone says. Over maybe the last ten years I've let go of so many fucking insecurities I feel just as comfortable sitting down and shutting up at the dinner table as I do being the life of the party, being the fucking drunk clown." He returns to his theme. "But rock'n'roll's supposed to be about music, isn't it?"
  Well, yes, but....
  It is, there's no question," he squeals. "Because without the music it wouldn't be here. Without the music Keith Richards couldn't have afforded fucking heroin, right? If some fucking egotistical drug-taking English band didn't have their music, they wouldn't be going to fucking Browns every night and getting into a fight with a photographer. So there's NO question that the only thing about rock'n'roll is music. Everything else is fashion. Everything else is image. To me that has nothing to do with rock'n'roll. Nothing.
ABSOLUTELY NOTHING."

The woodland creatures have scuttled away. The bluebirds have flown and the sunlight has dimmed. Dave Grohl is angry.
  "I get so fucking mad, really do, when people try to discount or belittle the music. It's the bottom line. Absolutely the fucking bottom line."
  He stares you out for the longest time. And then he jumps up, ruffles your hair, and goes to see his real estate agent. Smiling.

Words:Victoria Segal

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