Dave Grohl tells Ben Thompson about his heavy-metal extravaganza
When Nirvana and Guns N' Roses almost got into a fight at the 1992 MTV awards (Axl Rose having allegedly responded to the taunts of Kurt Cobain's other half, Courtney Love, with the words: "You shut your bitch up, or I'm taking you down to the pavement"), there was much more at stake than just the usual clash of rock-star egos. The confrontation between old-school, macho Goliath and new-school, dress-wearing David seemed to mark a historic shift in rock's balance of power.
Twelve years on, the possibility that right was on Rose's side all along is not one that many people will want to entertain (even allowing for the ascendancy of the Axl-influenced The Darkness). But the news that - 10 years after the tragic death of his erstwhile colleague Kurt Cobain - the Nirvana drummer turned Foo Fighters front man, Dave Grohl, has embarked on a "heavy-metal side-project" still raises a number of far-reaching questions. Is he paying back a karmic debt for the cruelly instantaneous manner in which Nirvana consigned poodle-haired US "false metal" bands such as Poison and Skid Row to the dustbin of rock history, back in the early Nineties? Or has Grohl - a man whose muscular aura, bespoke sideburns and reputation for no-nonsense geniality have established him as an icon of regular-guy-hood - simply got fed up with hearing the Radio 1 DJ Jo Whiley going on about what a huge crush she has on him (he is a married man, after all) and decided to alienate his huge female fan-base by consorting with the denizens of a musical subculture whose public standing is not far above that of the orcs in The Lord of the Rings?
When you listen to the record in question - a monstrous, snorting beast of an album, dubbed Probot - such notions are rapidly put to the sword. Far from being a misguided mutant outgrowth, the Probot project turns out to be the logical culmination of Grohl's 20-year career, resolving the apparent contradictions between his rough-and-ready antecedents in the Washington, DC hardcore-punk scene, Nirvana's visceral three-man assault and the Foo Fighters' determinedly accessible power-pop.
The idea behind Probot is simple, and based on an original concept by Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. The West Midlands metal titan made a solo album a few years back with a different vocalist on each track. Grohl was one of them. After the Foo Fighters' ultra-mellow third album, "sick of sounding like The Eagles", he decided to essay a similar project of his own. He would play pretty much all the instruments while a magnificently scary assemblage of "underground heavy-metal singers from the years 1983-90" contributed vocals and lyrics.
People such as the snarling human spit-ball Cronos from Venom, a man so in touch with his dark side that his PO Box number is 666; or the enigmatic Tom G Warrior of the Swiss art-thrash legends Celtic Frost, a band who, in "Phallic Tantrum", can boast perhaps the ultimate heavy-metal song title. Then there's Max Cavalera, once of the demented Brazilians Sepultura, who has a voice like a swarm of killer bees; and let's not forget Lemmy, who needs no introduction.
Lemmy's Motörhead were always the heavy-metal band it was OK for punks to like. While the divide between punk and metal may - rather like the shifting border between rap and R&B - seem an academic distinction, it's a fault-line that runs through Grohl's musical life. "Jimmy Swanson was my best friend," Grohl recalls of his early-teen years in suburban Virginia, "and we got into hardcore together. We boxed up all our old metal albums and put them in the attic. But there was this one time when I went to Jimmy's house and caught him listening to Iron Maiden. I can still remember the sense of betrayal - 'What are you doing? We've got to do this together.' "
Enthused by punk's back-to-basics ideology, Grohl taught himself to keep a beat by battering his bedroom pillows with marching-band drumsticks (though when he joined his first band, Freak Baby, at the tender age of 15, it was as second guitarist). In the autumn of 1990, one of the main factors in Cobain and Krist Novoselic's decision to make Grohl Nirvana's sixth drummer (apart from the hard-hitting percussive technique developed in the privacy of his own bedroom) was his pedigree in the legendary early-Eighties Washington, DC punk scene.
"Olympia [Nirvana's base at the time, a kind of bohemian satellite town of Seattle] wanted to be Washington, DC," Grohl remembers. "When I got there, everyone was quizzing me as to which bands I'd seen, and I'd seen 'em all!" Yet Scream, the best-known of Grohl's numerous East Coast hardcore outfits (his othercredits include the superbly named Dain Bramage), were often criticised by the more narrow-minded segments of their hometown crowd for being "too metal".
Such criticism was par for the course for a band who - like Corrosion of Conformity and Suicidal Tendencies were others - were striving to make mincemeat of such arcane distinctions. But while Grohl had long since left behind the with-us-or-against-us blinkers of early adolescence, in Nirvana's punkier-than-thou corner of the Pacific North-west, they were still de rigueur. Accordingly, the accounts of Cobain's and Grohl's early meetings, in Michael Azerrad's authoritative 1993 Nirvana biography Come as You Are, positively bristle with punk-metal tension. In one, the hearty, fun-loving Grohl recalls (rather ominously, in the light of later events) laughing at someone who tried to play "bad teen suicide music" on an acoustic guitar at a Scream after-show party in Olympia, only to have Cobain tell him that the would-be entertainer was his old girlfriend.
Finding himself stigmatised in snootier Seattle circles as a "rocker", Grohl can have had little idea that the band he had just joined were about to barge down the partition wall between the two kinds of music he loved. The strange thing was that while in one way Nirvana brought the two traditions together - wedding the power of heavy metal to the anger of punk - in another way they drove them apart. When the band's popularity exploded in the autumn of 1991, there was the same feeling as when punk broke in the UK in 1976-7 - of dinosaur rockers becoming instantly outmoded. In retrospect, Cobain and Love's taunting of Rose at the MTV awards a year later takes on a distinctly triumphalist hue.
"A lot of people talking to me about the whole Probot thing are surprised by my love of heavy metal," Grohl admits, "because they consider Nirvana to be the band that killed it off. But I think what really happened was that all the bands that didn't mean anything just disappeared. The bands that played real underground heavy metal never went away."
In fact, as punk rock went overground in Nirvana's heady aftermath (sounding more and more like heavy metal in the process), those doughty metal survivors started to look like the guardians of the underground spirit - "fanzines and flyers, touring in vans, sleeping on floors, stealing food for dinner", as Grohl lovingly characterises it - that had sustained their now corporatised rivals throughout the 1980s.
A sense that they were losing the moral high ground probably played a part in Cobain and Novoselic's growing (and public) disenchantment with the metallic leanings of many of the new recruits to their rapidly expanding fan-base in the years after 1991. It can't have been easy for Grohl to see his band-mates quoted saying things like: "All heavy-metal fans are idiots."
"Because I was one of those guys, in a way," Grohl agrees vehemently. "There was this high-testosterone aesthetic that went along with a lot of metal, wherein the lack of compassion and sensitivity in that music was sometimes mirrored by the lack of compassion and sensitivity in the fans. But at the time I didn't necessarily feel comfortable complaining about the people who were paying for our dinner. Did I enjoy assholes who only wanted to beat the shit out of each other coming to our shows? Of course I didn't. I'd much rather they were listening to the music. But would I tell them not to come? No, I guess I wouldn't."
The Foo Fighters' determinedly upbeat manner has often seemed a reaction to the tragic events that prompted their formation (in the aftermath of Cobain's suicide on 7 April 1994). Given the grim circumstances, Grohl can hardly be blamed for wanting to cut the angst out of the equation. "I have no guilt," he insists, with understandable weariness: "I haven't done anything wrong. I just play the drums."
Probot's delirious racket - from Cronos's sick roar on "Centuries of Sin", to the cathartic self-laceration of Eric "Trouble" Wagner on "My Tortured Soul", to the sombre majesty of Scott "Wino" Weinrich's contribution to "The Emerald Law" - feels like the sound of a man set free from the need to deny his own demons. Amid the continuing wrangles over Nirvana's legacy, maybe reconnecting with the hirsute avatars of his youth was the best way for their former drummer to recapture his musical innocence.
Grohl called Kurt Brecht of the Californian speed-metal legends DRI with the immortal words: "Hey, man, it's me: I bought a single out of the back of your van 20 years ago"; at least where Probot is concerned, he exudes the rare serenity of a man who has successfully gone back to his roots. "I swear to God, man," he insists, with an infectious chuckle, "if you knew me when I was 17, you'd be amazed at how little I've grown up."
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