Dave Grohl is sitting in a spacious room with his band the Foo Fighters. They're seated in a ragged semi-circle, and at the moment the other three are making all the noise. Nothing much, just talking small and sharing jokes; swearing a lot, giggling. Grohl's eyes bounce around as if he's following a game of table tennis. His expression is a perpetually relaxed half-smile. His manner is disarming. So much so that it's startling to think of him as the man who provided the most perfect piece of air-drum history on 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', and just as startling to think of him almost 15 years later, still hogging magazine covers as a bandleader in his own right. NME takes a big gulp and asks the irresistible question. If he had to pick a band he was most proud of, the Foo Fighters or Nirvana, which would he choose?
A few hours earlier and everyone is in the
spacious upstairs recreation room of the
606 recording studio, 40 minutes outside of
Los Angeles, somewhere in the flat nothingness of
the Californian valley. Foo Fighters own this place
and have thrown in $700,000 of their own coin to
build and furnish it. Right now they are introducing
themselves to the journalist's tape recorder. They
have been asked to say their name and what it is
they do. Nate Mendel says, "Hi" and reveals that he
plays the bass. Guitarist Chris Shiflett does much the
same. Even the Foos' main source of potential
mischief does as he's asked. His name is Taylor
Hawkins, he plays the drums.
"And my name is Dave Grohl," says the man on the left. "I am multi-talented, I am multi-faceted..."
"He's a multi-millionaire!" adds Hawkins.
"I sing and play guitar with the Foo Fighters..."
"He's the Anlbassador Of Rock," says the drummer. "Women love him and men want to be him."
Dave Grohl looks at Hawkins, bares his teeth and squints his eyes. He looks as if he's trying to work out a difficult sum while staring directly at the sun.
"See," he says, "now, I wouldn't say that was true. I think if we're being honest women find me kind of, I don't know,funny looking. Let's face it, I'm not the most attractive-looking guy in the world."
His bandmates deliver a volley of comedy replies: "Nooo!", "Shush now!" and "Don't be hard on yourself!"
"Well, now, that's very kind of you to say," says Grohl, holding forth a hand and nodding his head in soothed reassurance. "But I have to be truthful... I'm not sure that I'm that good-looking a guy. I look like a geek, let's be honest. And if I were being sincere I should introduce myself like this: my name is Dave Grohl and I am an everyman. My name is Dave Grohl and I am the guy who lives next door." Except this guy next door has a wall that is 20 metres long and home to around 90 frames commemorating many of the platinum and gold albums he's played on. Apparently there are a good few discs yet to arrive. Still, a rough tally of the figures on display here adds up to something like 45 million records sold. There are discs from all over the world; from the United States to Iceland, from New Zealand to India. There are discs acclaiming his contributions to 'Nevermind' and 'In Utero' by Nirvana, 'Songs For The Deaf' by Queens Of The Stone Age and 'One By One' by the Foo Fighters.
Chances are that you own at least one of these albums. With this in mind, Dave Grohl is asked to explain his claim of 'everyman' status.
"Alright, alright," he says. "Perhaps the best way to describe it would be like this. I would say that I'm the luckiest bastard in the world."
Foo Fighters' new album, 'In Your Honor', was
born in 2002, the day the band headlined
the main stage at the Carling Weekend:
Reading And Leeds Festival. Dave Grohl remembers
looking out over the Reading crowd, hearing 55,000
people singing his band's songs back to him and
thinking, "Wow, how cool is that?" Later he
remembers thinking, "My God, how popular are
we?" And then later on, after a while, he thought,
"OK, I need to have a think about this."
"It was amazing how popular we'd become," he says. "We had reached this peak and suddenly we were enormous. We were playing arenas in the UK, we were headlining Reading. We went to Australia and we headlined the Big Day Out festival over there. We had this huge, big, long setlist of songs that everyone knew. We had this massive production that we dragged around the world. We had moments in the show where people would sing along. And it was great - of course it was - but do you know what? I never imagined it reaching (such a) point. Not for a second. And when it happened it got me thinking."
"About what it meant for us. We'd reached a level and it meant something. It was just a question of what. Did it mean it was time for us to take one of those four-year breaks? Or did it mean it was time for us to try something different?"
"Well, yeah, that was one of the things I wondered about. I did think about going out at the top."
The fact that we're stood here, less than three years after the release of the band's last album, 'One By One', means that the answer was to try something different. Which is why today Dave Grohl is strolling around the control room of the band's studio with a cigarette in one hand and CDs featuring 19 new songs in the other. These songs, and one more unfinished track, will make up 'In Your Honor', the new Foo Fighters album. Unconsciously (perhaps) addressing the fact that Green Day have raised the bar as to what can be expected from a modem rock record, the band really have gone for something different this time. They've recorded two albums: a rock and acoustic one. The two discs will be released together, as one night'n'day musical experience.
"It didn't make sense not to challenge ourselves this time out," Dave explains. "To just to go in and make another record, that would have been boring for us. I've always known that we were capable of producing an album like the acoustic record but it never made sense to try and incorporate that into a rock setting. So this time we attempted to eliminate a lot of the middle ground. So we made a rock album that rocks as hard as possible and we tried to go completely the opposite way with the acoustic one."
It's always difficult to gather your thoughts regarding a brand new album when you've only heard the songs once. It's even more difficult when the person who wrote those songs is sitting behind you when you listen to them. And it's just plain weird when he's rushing around, playing host, fetching drinks and cigarettes.
On the first listen, it's the acoustic stuff that's the most striking. Featuring contributions from Queens Of The Stone Age's Josh Homme, former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and jazz and blues chanteuse Norah Jones, the ten-song set came together in about two weeks. This, in the Foo Fighters' world, is Miracle-Gro speed, an album recorded with the aid of magic beans. The band originally had dozens of names they wanted on the disc, but work proceeded so quickly that the songs were recorded before the calls got made. With compositions that range from the 15-year-old 'Friend Of A Friend' (sung and played by Grohl alone) to the eight-year-old bossa nova 'Virginia Moon' to the dense 'Miracle', this is the Foo Fighters at their most adventurous. What they've done is fascinating. and, not at all what you might expect from the term 'acoustic album'. If it didn't all sound so natural you might ponder it as being a bit of a gamble.
As it stands, though, the band are planning to keep things separate for a while. The single releases from 'In Your Honor' already sound like dance steps: rock, rock, acoustic, rock (you've probably heard first single 'Best Of You' on the radio already). And on tour the Foo Fighters aren't planning to bring out the stools for an acoustic strum mid-set.
"People would throw piss at us," reckons Hawkins.
"Have you any idea how proud I am of this album?' wonders Grohl. "and the thing I'm most proud of is the fact that it opens doors for us musically. When I listen to some bands who have been around for ten or 15 years like, God bless 'em, the Ramones or Green Day or AC/DC: those bands have made a career out of making music that wrestles with one dynamic. And they're known as being the kind of bands that can do that one thing. But fuck that, I don't want to be that band. I want to be a band who can do fucking anything. because we can do fucking anything. There's a song on the record that Norah Jones sings on; how nuts is that? But fuck it, why not? It's our fucking band and we can do whatever the fuck we want. Why should we let other people decide what we should sound like? We should do whatever the fuck it is we want to do. Because when we do follow our instincts, when we do follow our hearts, it ends up being really good."
You sound like you've still got ambitions to fulfil...
"My ambition is for people to ask us what kind of music we play and for us to be able to answer, 'Just music'. Not, 'Oh, rock music'. But, 'Just music'. I think with this album we've taken a step toward that happening. In ten years' time that might be the answer to that question. Wouldn't that be fantastic?"
Having just passed their tenth anniversary, the Foo Fighters are, more than ever, Dave Grohl's band. The Foos have come a long way from the collection of demo tapes that eventually became a platinum- selling debut album, as the man has nurtured his creation into one of the world's biggest bands. He writes the songs and makes the key decisions. Even Taylor Hawkins agrees, "Foo Fighters began as Dave's vision, so there is something cohesive about how the whole thing works," before adding that, "if we took collective decisions on everything we'd probably end up squabbling and turning into Metallica."
"We do share some responsibilities," Grohl explains. "But I'm usually the lightning rod for everything that happens. I think that because it's always been that way I've got used to driving everyone along. I'll take directions from the others every now and again but I'm the one that's in the driving seat."
His personality dominates the whole thing and, possibly as much as the music, is the secret of the Foo Fighters' enduring appeal. For some reason people not only like Dave Grohl but many carry the impression they know him. Or at least that they might as well know him, so certain are they of the fact that they would like him if they did. And do you know what? They're probably right.
This has meant that Dave Grohl has managed to escape the death cult of his previous band and exist solely in the present tense. Circumstance may have forced him to give up a world-changing band and then form a simply exceptional one but when people pay money to see him play they are not thinking of Nirvana. They've come to see Dave Grohl and they've come to hear the Foo Fighters.
"I had no idea when I started this that it would last this long," he says. "None at all. It began as a bunch of demos, which became an album, which became a band on tour. That's all the game plan there was to it. I think the Nirvana thing was so long ago that it's almost a generational thing now. I think people listened to the first (Foo Fighters) album because they were curious, and because they liked that album it's meant that they've continued to listen. If that record wasn't any good then perhaps this wouldn't have lasted for us. But I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the hows or whys of back then, I really don't. I have my moments thinking about it, but usually I'm too busy for that. Usually I'm just trying to keep this thing on the road. So there's been no masterplan as to why I'm here talking to you ten years after all this began. Other than the fact that we've worked our asses off to try and make it last."
So, if you had to pick a band you were most proud of, Foo Fighters or Nirvana, which would you choose?
"Foo Fighters," he says, without hesitation.
"Definitely the Foo Fighters because it's so much more personal to me. When I think of Nirvana it's such a blur. You have to remember that I was only in that band for three and a half years and all that stuff happened in such a short period of time. It doesn't even seem like reality to me a lot of the time, that and the fact that I was the sixth drummer they'd had in that band. But this thing is such a labour of love: Whether it's the music, this place, the family... I am just so fucking proud of our band. And I know we're capable of doing even more. We haven't finished work on this record yet and I can't wait to start the next one."
And with that we're done. The four members of the Foo Fighters spring up, pacing the room, shouting and bawling. They call each other names and stretch their limbs, they make calls and order food. At two o'clock they have to have their photographs taken. At six o'clock they have to record another song.
"You know this album?" says Dave Grohl. "Well, it's so good that there isn't a single song on it that we're not looking forward to playing live."
You've said that before.
"Yeah, we said it about the last album, but we were lying. This time we're telling the truth."
Do believe it.
Words: Ian Winwood   Pics: Hamish Brown
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