Foo Fighters’ eighth album is a personal project for Dave Grohl. NME talks to him about grand ambitions, legendary musicians and 20 years as America’s biggest rock band
Twenty blocks north from President Obama's leafless White House lawn you'll find The Black Cat...
A dimly lit stairwell leads to an upstairs venue with a claustrophobic ceiling, no stage barrier and an extravagant selection of whiskies behind the bar. Most nights it’s found hosting a bill of local hardcore punk bands. But tonight, on a Friday in late October, one of the world’s biggest rock bands is in town.
All the tickets were snapped up yesterday, a queue of fans snaking down the street. While they knew who was headlining, they were in the dark about the rest of the show; instead of a support, the 400 people squeezed into the room are huddled around TV screens watching an hour-long music documentary.
It’s the tee-up to a gig that, after 24 months away, sees Foo Fighters truly get back into their stride: they spend their epic three hour set plucking anthems from their two decades as a band. There are fiery renditions of ‘Learn To Fly’, ‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘Weenie Beenie’, ‘The Pretender’ and ‘All My Life’. But, most excitingly, they also offer the first ever live performance of brand new track ‘The Feast And The Famine’ – a song written about the city they’re currently playing in, Washington DC.
By now, you may have heard about Foo Fighters’ ambitious new plans. You might have already seen some of it aired on BBC4. ‘Sonic Highways’ is the name of Foo Fighters’ new album, but also the title of a unique music documentary series pioneered by Dave Grohl. The two work hand in hand: to make their eighth studio album, Grohl, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett, Pat Smear and Taylor Hawkins travelled to eight different cities across the US, where they would set up in a local studio and record one track in each. As they went along, their affable frontman would also make a show about each city’s music scene: the history, people and landmarks within it. For anyone who’s seen Grohl’s 2013 film Sound City about the legendary Los Angeles studio, it’s that idea blown up on a mighty scale, taking in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, New Orleans, Nashville, Chicago and Austin.
And, of course, Washington DC. It’s a special place, close to Grohl’s heart. He grew up about half an hour out of the city in Springfield, Virginia, and the documentary even sees him return to his mother’s house to flick through embarrassing school photos. For Grohl, DC was more than just the nearest metropolis; it was the place where he fell in love with music, drumming in groups such as Dain Bramage and Scream before Nirvana ever existed. In 1993, he and a bunch of other musicians invested in The Black Cat, where the band play tonight, becoming its co-founders.
It’s that personal experience of a city – its people, its stories, its inspirations, its history – that forms the crux of the Foos’ combined album and TV series. Simply put, Grohl believes music is shaped by its environment and this is his way of showing who, why and how: how Arctic Monkeys could only have come from Sheffield, Black Sabbath’s doomy riffs could only have been spawned in Birmingham, the way The Strokes’ sound is New York.
The same goes for Washington DC. The US capital is most famous for America’s emblems of power: the shiny dome of Capitol Hill, the glare of the Lincoln Memorial and the imposing Washington Monument. But, away from the street stalls selling tourist kitsch, it’s a city that’s historically struggled with poverty, unemployment and social unrest. You don’t have to look far to see the homeless guy huddling around the street grates, catching the warm air billowing up from the subway, or the snaking line for food parcels in the park. Wealth inequality in the city is massive. That’s the complex make-up of DC, and it feeds the type of music that originates there.
Go-go, an intoxicating blend of funk, soul and hip-hop, emerged from Washington during the economic downturn of the ’70s. Pioneered by locals like Chuck Brown and Trouble Funk, it brought DC’s segregated communities together. It was release. Then there’s Dischord Records, created by Jeff Nelson and Ian MacKaye. Originally set up to release singles by their band, The Teen Idles, the label began putting out DC-area artists including their own Minor Threat, Rites Of Spring, The Nation Of Ulysses and MacKaye’s Fugazi. Still operating today, Dischord has become more than just a label – it’s a DIY ideology.
These are the kind of stories Sonic Highways tells. Of course, Grohl’s roped in some boxoffice- friendly friends to help, too: Pharrell, Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys, for example, all appear in the DC episode alone.
Given all that, Foo Fighters’ own sound has never been typical of a particular place. Grohl – born in Ohio, raised in Virginia, made famous in Seattle, now living in LA – has covered a lot of ground. Listen to the album and you’ll realise this isn’t about Foos borrowing the sound from these places – it still sounds like a Foos record – but it’s inspired by the cities. Ultimately, all these geographical dots join together to create the heartland that is American rock – and Grohl’s band are the living embodiment of that.
So why now? Eight albums into
a career that needs no gimmicks, Grohl was
looking for a fresh approach, to renew the
creative process for a band that turns two
decades old this year. Plus, no-one had ever
committed to film the history of American
music in this way before. Who better to do
that than arguably the most well-connected
man in rock music?
“Watching one of these episodes will inspire you,” says Grohl. “Watching eight of these episodes will change your fucking life, because you will know more about American music than you ever have before.”
It wasn’t easy. First, there was the cost. It’s an incredibly well-constructed series. The detail is forensic, as you’d expect from producers HBO. A frustrated Grohl had been pitching the idea to TV execs before guitarist Pat Smear suggested they played some gigs – a pair of stadium shows in Mexico – to raise the cash. But bassist Mendel admits that he and the other members of the band were “dubious” about the idea at first.
“‘Are we making an album or are we making a film?’” says Dave, recalling their early misgivings. “We’re making both. But a great record is first and foremost, because we’re Foo Fighters and that’s what we do.”
The scale of his grand ambition posed more problems: interviews, flights, studio time, crew, editors, equipment. Most bands would have balked at the logistics, but Grohl relished it, writing personal emails to the people he wanted involved.
“I just wanted to get through every day,” he remembers. “‘What do I have to do today? I gotta interview Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, then I gotta go record this vocal, and then I gotta go talk to Tony Joe White, and then Gibby [Haynes] from Butthole Surfers.’ The next day, ‘What do I have to do now? Talk to Chuck D, and then we gotta meet up with Rick Rubin.’ I did that for a year and a half.”
London, September, 2014.
It’s the afternoon after Foo Fighters returned to the gig circuit – not in a giant arena, but playing a tiny club shown at Brighton’s Concorde 2. They performed only their fifth or sixth gig in the past two years under a pseudonym, The Holy Shits. A couple of days later, it’ll be business as usual, performing in front of 20,000 people and a TV audience of more than a million as they headline the inaugural Invictus Games closing ceremony at London’s Olympic Park. The band are only in the UK because Dave Grohl accepted an invitation from Prince Harry to play.
For the moment, they’re trying to recover from the intensity of the night before. Band members mill around a west London photo studio. Guitarist Chris Shiflett drinks an oversized cup of tea and chats to Pat Smear as he chainsmokes in an outside courtyard. “We’re still getting match fit,” admits Taylor Hawkins, peering through a reflective pair of aviators. Dave Grohl sits on a hard sofa in the corner of a large white room, hugging his knees to his chest. His iPhone – housed in a well-worn Sub Pop case – buzzes next to him. “My producer,” he says, excusing himself. “I’m still working on edits for the show.” He comes back, puts his phone down, and we get down to unpicking this behemoth of a project…
NME: ‘Sonic Highways’: it’s an album, it’s a TV
series. When did the idea first come to you?
Dave Grohl: “This idea began before we even made the last record [2011’s ‘Wasting Light’]. I had started thinking of the challenge of recording the band in an environment that would ultimately dictate or determine the outcome of the music. So we made ‘Wasting Light’ in my house and also made the documentary film about the history of the band. We went on the road for a long time, and then came home and I started that Sound City project. After Sound City, I thought maybe it becomes my obligation or mission or responsibility that I shine a light on all these other historic studios, because they’re all disappearing or struggling.”
What do you think of what you’ve created?
“When we finished the first episode [Chicago], I felt like I’d made a film, and I told this story that was really important to me – this story of these legendary musicians creating something from nothing. Also my personal story of seeing a live band for the first time and it changing my life. Watching it, I felt like I achieved exactly what I set out to do. I watched the second episode and it was even better, and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ After the third and fourth episode, I started to realise the scope of this thing was fucking crazy. Now it’s coming back to me as this mountain of footage and information that’s just fucking overwhelming. I think that documentaries will eventually become the resource for information for kids who need to dig in and learn the history of something. It’s not required learning, but if need be, it’s there.”
Who were the best interviewees?
“Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s daughter. That was one of the greatest days of my life. She has this spirit, or light, that’s contagious. She’s so inspired. She’s preserving and maintaining her father’s library of songs that are responsible for so much in the history of American music. Roky Erickson from The 13th Floor Elevators, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, The Doors, Joan Jett, fucking David Yow from The Jesus Lizard, and the President of the United States of America. I made this wish list of all the people that I hoped would tell this story, and there were only a few that said no.”
Who would you have liked in it?
“Patti Smith. She’s a hero of mine. Carole King; she’s an American icon. Just a few, not too many, but there were some that I was afraid to contact, too. I thought, ‘Wow, you I have to talk to Dylan,’ but I haven’t him yet. I might, there’s still time [Dylan’s not in the final cut]. I figured that once I got the president, I could maybe get Dylan, but I think he may be the harder one to get!”
What was it like to interview Obama?
“We had met before a few times and he’s genuinely cool. He’s musically inclined. He’s very into Stevie Wonder, The Beatles and the Stones. He’s a rocker, he’s cool.”
Could you see the same concept working in the UK?
“I’m never fucking doing it again! But I can imagine there are bands from countries all over the world that could do the same thing. England’s a great example of another country where each city has regional relevance. I think that every country could have its own Sonic Highways series. England could definitely have it; I’m sure Australia, South America…”
In the opening line of the first episode you refer to “20 years of Foo Fighters”. How are you planning on marking it?
“Oh, we have plans, a lot of plans. Fun ideas. Considering where this band started, it’s pretty amazing that we’re still here. I’m very proud that we’ve made it this far; I remember most of it, but to me the most important thing is where to go from here. Whenever we make a new record, it’s important to me that we come up with something that’s just as important as the first album, so that’s the biggest challenge. The first record is a demo tape. It wasn’t even meant to be a band. It was just me in the studio down the street from my house.
“At one point I thought, ‘You know what would be really funny? To re-record the first Foo Fighters record as the band we are now’ – ’cos the first record isn’t the Foo Fighters, it’s just me. So what if, for the 20th anniversary, we went in and re-recorded the first record – same songs, same arrangements, in sequence – but as the Foo Fighters 2014? Taylor was like, ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?! That’s the worst idea ever! People would fucking hate it!’ And Pat said, ‘That’s exactly why we should do it!’
&bsp “Fuck, man! I don’t like it when a band’s tour is just to play one past record. I fucking hate that. I think there was a festival called All Tomorrow’s Parties… [who introduced the Don’t Look Back series, where artists play classic albums in full]. All Tomorrow’s Parties?! What, are you having, like, last year’s fucking party – what are you talking about?! I don’t like it when bands do that. It’s presumptuous. It’s lazy. But going in and re-recording an album, just to piss everyone off? I remember when people started remastering their records and were so excited, like, ‘Oh my God, this is gonna be so great!’ And then there’s no guitar solos on it and you’re like, ‘This isn’t the same record!’”
So you won’t play the debut album in full live for the anniversary, then?
“No… I think that’s a shitty idea! I don’t get why people do that. We’ve already written that one off. I mean, I don’t mind playing a lot of those old songs just to revisit. But the best way to celebrate our 20th anniversary isn’t to focus on 20 years ago, but to focus on the last 20 years, meaning two years ago and six years ago and eight years ago.”
How was the experience of Nirvana being inducted into the The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in April? That was looking back…
“That was one of the important things in asking St Vincent and Lorde. Because I thought that as we were picking women to play with at The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame it was important that we choose people that shared the same aesthetic, and I think that St Vincent and Lorde are both great examples of musicians that are going to push [music] in a new direction. Annie [Clark] is just… I honestly think she will become a revolution. I’m so in awe of her, musically and otherwise. She didn’t walk into that room with jitters; she walked into that room with this look of excitement, like she was going into battle. She’s incredible. Lorde has a long future ahead of her – as a singer, as a writer. Musically or otherwise, she’s one of those beautiful people that sees the world in her own light and evidently has the ability to share it with everyone. Look, I love Motörhead, I love Ramones, I love AC/DC. And I buy those records because I want them to sound like Motörhead, Ramones and AC/DC. But at the same time I think it’s important that people challenge themselves and push themselves in the right place that’s kind of uncomfortable, because hopefully that environment will inspire you to do something you’ve never done before.”
Is your greatest fear getting stuck in a rut?
“No, my greatest fear is just not doing anything at all, you know. That’s why I do all these projects. I just can’t imagine retirement.My daughter asked me, she said, ‘Daddy, when are you gonna retire?’ ‘Well… someday.’ She’ll say things like, ‘You don’t have to work.’ I say, ‘Yes I do!’”
Would you entertain the idea of retirement?
“Well, this whole project’s been so overwhelming, it’s like…I could imagine a time where I find myself in the middle of a large piece of property with lots of things to do at home. I don’t know when or where, but I know it’s gonna happen; I’m just not ready yet.”
Would you stop making music?
“I’d never stop making music. I’d make music in my living room that you’d never hear because I just like to make music. I’ve got a studio upstairs in my house where I record stuff with my kids that sounds like the fuckin’ [Japanese experimental band] Boredoms, you know? It’s like crazy improvisational noise and it’s really cool.”
“Oh God, it’s weird. We’re not talking ‘She Loves You’; we’re talking, like, fuckin’ ‘Revolution 9’ shit. It’s crazy, but I enjoy that, it’s fun.”
Any favourite new bands?
“Well, Royal Blood right now. I saw some live footage of them, I think from Glastonbury, and I was so excited to see a band that was heavy, had riffs, had songs and could really perform, and had an audience that was genuinely excited to watch them play. Someone tells me that the album went to Number One, and for another guy with a guitar to see another guy with a guitar getting the Number One record, it’s so encouraging. Not that I think that rock’n’roll is the only type of music, but in this day and age it’s good to see it fuckin’ show its face now and then.”
Outside of Foos, would you make another album with Them Crooked Vultures?
“I would love to make another Vultures record. I think our biggest hurdle is just a logistic one, that the three of us are all pretty busy. Yeah, I mean, I’m trying to think of things that I would revisit. I get asked to do another Probot record all the time, but I can’t do it. Those were my favourite singers.”
Finally, this is your love letter to America. Obama’s in it. He’s midway through his second term. How’s he done? You’ve been all across the US – is it a different place now?
“Every day there’s something new, whether it’s Ferguson or the army or international conflict – I can’t even imagine. The day that I interviewed the President was the day that he announced he was putting more troops back in Iraq. Then he had to give a medal, a congressional medal of honour to a soldier who sacrificed his body in combat to save some of his fellow soldiers, and I remember thinking, ‘OK, he has to do this press conference where he talks about war, then he has this emotional ceremony with the soldier that almost gave his life to save others, and then he’s gonna sit down with me and talk about Stevie Wonder?’
“We were supposed to talk for about 15 minutes and ended up talking for 45. It was great. In a lot of ways the country is in a better place and in some ways we’re facing new challenges that the next president is going to have to figure out. I can’t imagine having the president’s job, and I honestly think that he’s made a big difference in our country. But in a way you also have to resign to the idea that you’re not – that you can’t win. You’re not going to be everyone’s friend.”
But Dave Grohl does do that rare
and inspired thing of being everyone’s friend.
Only he could have made Sonic Highways,
thanks to his connections, his reputation, his
energy levels. 2015 is a special year for Foo
Fighters, a year when they’re trying to deliver
firsts. What about making a first headline visit
to Glastonbury next June?
“I mean, it’s an iconic festival,” smiles Grohl. “Yeah, I just tell everyone if they need a band, we’re pretty good. They should give us a call. See what happens.”