There is life after death: the fun-lovin' hard-rockin' Foo Fighters are proof of rock's renewal as they take it to the stage NME doggedly follows Dave Grohl's group through desert heat, crazed fans and flying fruit to find that yes, rock'n'roll is still a funny wild and liberating experience, even is one of Grohl's chums did lose his virginity to AC-DC.
Six Month ago, if someone had told you the guy who played drums with Nirvana, from the time just before they catalysed the redrawing of the '90s rock map until the repercussions of doing that played themselves out in tragedy. had made a 12-bore pop album of simple, unobtrusive brilliance, you might not have been too surprised to observe a dozen pigs soaring gracefully overhead.
The only evidence upon which anyone beyond Dave Grohl's closest associates could suppose that the hard-hitting keystone of Nirvana's feral beauty was also a supremely gifted songwriter lay with 'Marigold', on the B-side of 'Heart-Shaped Box'. And pretty though it was, this low-key addendum to one of Kurt Cobain's greatest songs hardly anticipated the full-on joys of what was to come. Indeed, at the time it smacked of "let the drummer have some fun"; if there was a point when the now infamous "grunge Ringo" insult had any conceivable currency, it was then.
But not with the Foo Fighters. That much was obvious when tapes of the album began to be surreptitiously circulated during the early summer months. Word had it that Grohl had sung and played everything, except for some guitar on one track from the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, and had now put a band together, with himself as frontman. Pat Smear, latterly Nirvana's second guitarist, was in there - but, contrary to initial rumours, not Krist Novoselic. The rhythm section was drummer William Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel, culled from Seattle outfit Sunny Day Real Estate, a hotly tipped Sub Pop signing who had now possibly split up, although no-one seemed too sure about that. The only really sure thing was the insistence among those who had heard the stuff that it was incredible: riff heavy, mostly uptempo, and with tunes from heaven. "The hardcore Beach Boys" was a favourite soundbite. Also, those in the know maintained that the music had an overwhelmingly positive aura. Considering its creator's perspective with regard to rock's prevailing winds of depression, this was perhaps the most tantalising whisper of all.
And one, of course, blown up into a full-throated scream with the advent of 'This Is A Call', an aperitif of such lustiness it brought an instant glow to the cheek, not to mention a gladdening of the heart. The whispers were right: somebody up there had a real soft spot for Dave Grohl. The Foo Fighters' UK live debut, at London's King's College Union on June 3, was a fervid occasion which merely confirmed two things: that 'This Is A Call' was no fluke, and that Grohl had assembled a worthy group of players. Released on June 26, the eponymous debut album by the Foo Fighters entered the UK chart at Number Three - one place higher than Neil Young's Pearl Jam sandwich. Not bad work from the drummer in a so-called "grunge" band.
As they embark upon their first headlining tour across the USA, the Foo Fighters find themselves in a curious position: with nothing and everything to prove. Grohl's tenure in Nirvana guarantees him a place in one of the most significant chapters of rock history, while Pat Smear's teenage kicks with LA punks The Germs accord him indelible cult status, yet how many reputations have been tarnished by not knowing when to stop?
Each member has a history - in the case of Smear stretching back to when his new bandmates were less than ten years old - but have been playing together for barely six months. Mendel and Goldsmith were in high school when Grohl joined Nirvana, yet their onstage demeanor betrays a maturity beyond their 23 years. As does Grohl's ...but hey, after what he's been through, you could forgive him for feeling like the oldest 26 year-old on the planet.
So can it be this blend of naivety and worldliness, innocence and experience, that makes the Foo Fighters such a fascinating group? Partly yes but, more specifically, the relative haste with which Dave Grohl has opened a -new chapter in his life suggests an intuitive faith in the healing power of rock'n'roll. It's a love thing. you've got to understand...
Friday July 28
Tonight, Planet Foo has assumed the distinctly grand and un-rock shape of the American Legion Hail in Hollywood. This brings the advantage of aesthetic pleasure, with its huge arched roof and marbled lobby. but also the marked handicap of no air-conditioning. Thus, while the Foo Fighters tear through their set the atmosphere is tropical, like inhaling hot soup.
Emerging into the downstairs bar afterwards, where spottable stars include Sofia Coppola and Rage Against The Machine. Dave greets us with broad smiles and inexplicable doubts as to whether the show had been any good. Apparently, there is an ongoing dilemma over whether to have a barrier between the crowd and the stage. Early on in the tour, Dave explains, kids had been leaping for the stage but prevented from getting there by the barriers; some had been hurt. Therefore, for last night's LA show at the Roxy there was no barrier. Result? Kids all over the stage throughout the gig. Pat says he doesn't mind this, but Dave isn't so sure. Clearly, he has yet to get used to the joys of microphone eating.
"At least they weren't throwing things," he says, "unlike in San Francisco. Now. what rocket scientist decided it would be a good idea to give everyone a piece of fruit at the door? Of course, no-one eats it and when we come on ... splat!" Foo Fighters. Fruit Fighters ... hell, it's an easy mistake.
Greg Dulli takes it upon himself to be our vibes master for the evening: having joined the Foos earlier for 'X-Static'. Now resident in Seattle, Greg is in LA to raise money for a film he's producing. "I came down to schmooze some cash out of these tight-assed LA movie execs, and did it in a coupla hours." Time in fact to go and see a baseball match - where his team Cincinnati beat LA 3-2 - before giving his buddy Dave a hand.
Greg is in ebullient form and keen for us all to go to a party at somewhere called The Woolhouse. Dave translates this as a party at support band Wool's house, in the San Fernando Valley, and says he needs to go back to his hotel for a shower; he'll meet us there. On the way. AC/DC hits the car stereo and Greg reveals he lost his virginity to 'You Shook Me All Night Long'. "Actually, I don't think it lasted much more than ten seconds as I got a bit excited. What a way to do it, though!"
The party is a most civilised affair With barbecue, drinks stashed in the bath to keep cool and various recreational activities. Greg checks out the listening options - a Stones room and a Who room - before enquiring after the new Teenage Fanclub LP and revealing that the new Whigs album is going to be called 'Black Love', They start recording in Seattle soon. "I've got a couple of video ideas that are gonna make us rich!"
The only Foo Fighter who actually makes it to the Wool house is William (Willie) Goldsmith. Greg says that Willie is feeling deeply intimidated about playing drums for Dave Grohl, and no wonder.
"Dave's the best rock drummer of the past ten years, at least. How many other drummers can you hear on a record and be able to definitely say, that's so and so?" Greg thinks and then answers his own question by suggesting Paul Weller's long-time foil Steve White.
Greg then instigates a mini-basketball tournament, which he wins comfortably. "Don't feel bad, I play for two basketball teams back home." Admiring the Dulli man's technique is Matt, who runs the Foo Fighters' merchandise stall. He actually tour-managed the band on their previous jaunt, as support to Mike Watt, but says he's not sufficiently experienced to deal with a tour of this size. Not that he really minds too much. "Just being with these guys is great fun," he says; earnestly. It's already hard to see how life on Planet Foo could fail to be so.
Saturday July 29
San Diego's official municipal slogan is the dauntingly modest "America's finest city". Duh. At least it is mercifully cooler than LA by about ten degrees. Backstage at the Soma club, the Foo Fighters have just finished soundchecking. Dave munches on some pitta bread with hummus and an amiable middle-aged man recommends sampling the fruits of the local micro-brewery. He turns out to be Dave's dad, making it a family affair what with sister Lisa also in attendance.
Grohl Jr apologises for the previous night's festivities, confessing that he made the fatal mistake of returning to the Roosevelt Hotel and ordering pizza, after which he was too pooped to party. It looks like events also took their toll on Willie who, as Dave finishes snacking and gets ready to return to the hotel for his pre-gig shower, is lowering himself face downwards onto a masseur's table. Once prone, a distinctly weird-looking vibrating rubber pad is applied to his back. What can it all mean?
"It's for my back," offers Willie a little hesitantly.
"It's an acne remover," laughs Dave.
We leave Willie to his ordeal and climb into the van with guitar tech Ernie at the wheel for the estimated ten minute drive from the club back to the Ramada Inn.
Planet Foo weirdosity, however, soon prevails. Ernie becomes increasingly hysterical as the directions he's been given ("by some electrician") turn out to be fatally flawed. One hour, and several embarrassed oh-no-we're-lost stops later, we arrive. Fuelling the collective sense of dementia has been Dave's chosen soundtrack of Devo's greatest hits. "This song is so silly I can't believe it exists," says Pat as 'Are We Not Men?' plonks its way round the van.
A gracious, gentle veteran of the punk rock wars, Pat Smear clearly didn't get where he is today by getting lost on the way to a Ramada Inn. While in England for Reading he intends to make a pilgrimage to Freddie Mercury's house.
At the hotel, what presumably passes for fun in this sterile netherworld of freeways and malls is in full swing: a wannabe rave that resembles nothing so much as a scout hall disco held to raise funds for church roof repairs. Kids are being fleeced eight dollars to enter and are not allowed to either drink or smoke. All are frisked on entry by some tuff-guy bouncers, all of whom must be itching for a scrap. Hey, it's Saturday night, after all.
The return journey is comparatively uneventful. which is just as well because when we arrive there's only 15 minutes to showtime. There to greet us from the Planet Foo time-warp is an understandably relieved Willie. He is "not too sure" whether he feels better. "Although the massage got more interesting when he straddled me and began punching my back."
It would seem that in some previous life Willie managed to piss off whichever deity takes care of health, for his sore back follows on from a dislocated elbow he incurred a month before the tour was due to start, necessitating a moratorium on rehearsals and much desperate physiotherapy. How did it happen? "I was playing leapfrog outside a Taco Bell."
Uh-huh. Each day sees him afflicted with some new ailment. On Sunday morning he will wake up to face the enticing prospect of a day-off having contracted sinusitis and bronchitis overnight. "Being the sort of person who makes things ten times worse than they actually are none of this really comes as a surprise," he chuckles, stoically.
And for Willie in particular the gig is eventful. During the first song ('Winnebago', after LA's experiment of opening with 'Alone + Easy Target' has been abandoned) his bass drum pedal snaps in two. The enforced wait while a replacement is sought allows Dave to flaunt his impressive improv techniques - in this case an on-the-spot composition possibly titled 'Weird', and prompted mainly by the Ramada Triangle experience: "Everything today was so fuckin' weird".
The slack is quickly reined in, but during the closing 'Exhausted' Willie's jinx strikes once more as he hits his way straight through the snare drum skin. Roadie Jimmy, who had been playing some impressive air drums. now graduates to the real thing. hitting the spare snare to maintain some semblance of beat as the changeover is made. Also. during' Exhausted" we are treated to the Planet Foo notion of comedy, which essentially entails drawing out the song's false ending to a ludicrous extreme. To this end, Willie gets up from behind his kit and wanders out front where the four band members then stumble into one another in a state of mock hypnosis. Willie eventually resumes his position and the band lash into the song's finale. It's thrilling, and genuinely funny, stuff.
As for the encore of Gary Numan's 'Down In The Park', well, that borders on the poignant. No, really.
Chilling out afterwards, Nate and Willie seek clarification of the protocol implied by the on-the-road presence of your NME correspondents. "OK," says Nate. "You guys are hanging out and you both seem really nice, but as I understand it you could then go home and say how much of a pile of crap the Foo Fighters are. Right?"
Right, but in this case not an option.
With their previous band Sunny Day Real Estate, Nate and Willie had little experience of the British music press. They never toured Europe and reviews, let alone good ones, were thin on the ground. "I seem to remember one that called us Sunny Day Plagiarists," shrugs Nate.
Jimmy appears, agog at his drumming heroics, and soon we're back on the subject of injuries. Jimmy outdoes Willie by recalling a motorbike crash which resulted in his collarbone being permanently out of shape, although he sounds lucky to have survived. Dave and Jimmy are lifelong friends who grew up a block apart back home in Virginia, and bikes are among their shared interests. Dave owns a Yamaha which purports to be the world's fastest production model, although he says Seattle isn't the best place to live for realising its full potential. It's strange to imagine this apparently ultra-well-adjusted guy zooming around on a flashy mobile death machine.
So hey Dave, dude, whaddya doin' tonight. Fancy a few bevvies back at our place?
"I'm going to chill out back at the hotel with my father and sister."
Monday, July 31
The advance talk was of Phoenix and AC-busting temperatures, but actually, it's Tempe, a sprawling suburb separated from Phoenix itself by the airport and some spectacular scrubland. The temperatures, however, are as expected.
Planet Foo comes to stay at the Holiday Inn, where each room has a name plaque indicating which illustrious stars of stage or screen have been fortunate enough to pass through and rest a weary head in Tempe. Thus my feet tread upon the same carpet as Phil Donahue's, albeit 16 years on. One room down and it could have been Cyndi Lauper's. Damn!
At the venue, the weirdo quotient is maintained on noticing that Dave's reading matter of the moment is Communion by Whitley Strieber, an ordinary man's tale of his abduction by aliens, recently made into a film. Dave says people have been overplaying the UFO themes - "It's a cool subject and I'm interested but it's not as if I'm obsessed, with it each and every minute of the day." That said, he unpacks his bag and shows off his alien wardrobe, including one T-shirt depicting a little alien fella as 'The Missing Link' between apes and man.
Soundcheck over, Dave and Pat chuckle over a package that's just arrived by courier. It's a demo from a local band called Cygnus Underworld, with an unintentionally hilarious accompanying biog that reveals the band have two original songs, out of a total of 12.
"Hey," laughs Pat, "you can't rush these things. Ten unoriginal songs isn't bad for starters." The two songs on the demo are, surprise surprise, the two originals: 'Playground' and 'Hide And Seek'.
"Hmm," says Pat who, when he smiles looks exactly like a cartoon Cheshire Cat. "Something of a theme developing there."
"Dave," the letter ominously concludes. "we're at the gig." Dave confirms that the quickest way to become a respected A&R man is to get oneself out from behind the drumkit.
As it's their last night on the tour, Dave intends to play drums with Wool on one song - an effective reformation of his old band Scream. So, as he hangs with his pals and Pat zips back to the hotel for a snooze, we drag Nate and Willie to a cool little restaurant for some food. They recall how Sunny Day Real Estate broke up while on tour on the East Coast just before Christmas of last year. Their singer Jeremy Enigk became a hardcore Christian as a reaction to a seriously disastrous relationship and things just fell apart. "We knew it was going to happen," says Willie.
Dave knew they could play and were free, and that was just about all it took. Willie remembers being so nervous during the first two rehearsals that he played appallingly and was consequently dreading Dave's verdict. Each time Dave would simply smile and say: "It's great to be playing again."
Sunny Day were accused of being derivative, but Willie and Nate are happy to acknowledge their debt to the more esoteric fringes of the US underground: lungfish, current support band Shudder To Think, Slint, Steve Albini's latest group Shellac. They say the Foo Fighters intend to record with Albini soon, while Sunny Day Real Estate have a track on the Batman Forever soundtrack and are due to have their second album posthumously released by Sub Pop. "I'm glad about that," says Willie.
Back at the Electric Ballroom - all wood alcoves, a Harvester restaurant gone wrong that the previous evening had played host to Slash's Snakepit - a commotion is underway. Tour manager Peter says that there are some people trying to get backstage, claiming their names should be on the guest list. Then the promoter enters. He's just had a phone call from Courtney Love, or at least someone purporting to be her, demanding that her friends be given backstage passes. One of the kids apparently goes under the name of William Cobain.
Dave is flabbergasted. Kurt didn't have a brother. It would be typical of Courtney to try and pull a scene like this. Dave's been wondering when something like this would happen. "It's all your fault," he laughs, "she knows you're here. She is all-seeing, all-knowing."
Dave reckons she's desperate to instigate a media feud between them, but he's not having any of it, keeping his mouth zipped. He's not good at that sort of thing, doesn't have either the stamina or the inclination. Life goes on. Life's too short. He's enjoying himself too much right now. The last time Dave spoke to Courtney was April 8, the anniversary of Kurt's death.
"Never get in a pissing match with someone who buys their drink by the barrel." It's an expression favoured by Dave's dad that Dave reckons is apt at this point. Both are wise men.
The start of the Foo set is delayed while the promoter reads through a list of forthcoming attractions. The Catherine Wheel get cheers, Teenage Fanclub nods of approval, while tonight's openers Wool and Shudder To Think are acclaimed and booed respectively.
The curtain stays down for longer than is necessary. "Can we play now?" Dave mock-whines as he and Pat poke their guitar necks through into the crowd, before another great show ensues. Dave falls over during 'This Is A Call' but manages to maintain momentum even while thrashing on his knees. He's a natural performer.
The ham section in 'Exhausted' notches up another rung, as this time at four members stop playing and sit in a line on the drum riser. Dave and Pat smoke ciggies for at least a couple of minutes before the denouement. By the time they get to Reading they'll be playing cards while Jimmy wheels on a tea trolley and serves up the Earl Grey and scones. "Yeah!" laughs Dave. "Or maybe we can just leave the stage then come back on and finish the song as if it were the encore!"
Post-gig, the Foos decamp to the Holiday Inn to freshen up in preparation for an overnight drive north to Flagstaff, home of hotels designed like teepees. Speaking of weirdness, UFO are lounging around the lobby, obviously disgruntled with life in general. A stumpy, disagreeable German bloke one assumes is Michael Schenker seems particularly pissed off, eager to get on the bus and drive off. Apparently Phil Mogg has held up their departure all day by being "unobtainable". He eventually emerges from his room, beer in one hand, JD in the other. 'Schenker' huffs and puffs: it can't be easy having glimpsed the tunnel at the end of the light years ago and to now be well and truly stuck in it. Bizarrely, Jimmy is just then spotted accompanying the Aston Villa-shirted Pete Way around the lobby.
"Bonded by metal," smiles Dave by way of explanation, as we say our farewells. "Thanks for coming and seeing us." Crowded onto their humble van, the four Foo Fighters bubble with more excitement than is healthy for men about to undertake a 12 hour drive. But that's the thrill of life on Planet Foo, this still-fledgling, heavenly body. Even the most mundane tasks have an allure, born out of sharing the experience. Best enjoy it while they can; experience tells them all this feeling won't necessarily last.
"Hey!" cries Dave, as Ernie puts the van in gear. "Have some cookies! My wife made 'em. Aren't they great?"
They are. It's official- Dave Grohl's wife makes damn fine cookies. In fact, Dave Grohl's wife makes cookies that are not of this planet.
It's a place well worth visiting.
Words: Keith Cameron
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