Q, June 1996

Hold tight! Hang on to your 'cookies'! Belt up! For the Foo Fighters are taking off, turning their backs on the mucky, resonant demise of leader Dave Grohl's old band, Nirvana. Two million albums later the "grunge Ringo" tells Tom Doyle, "I'm not going to be some fucking pitiful mess."

"Get out of the bucket! Get out of the fucking bucket!" Four beefy, boiler-suited amusement park workers are fast approaching the four members of Foo Fighters in a manner best described as aggravated and bordering on violent. The source of the "disagreement" is the fact that, for photographic purposes, the group have juggled their eight adult-proportioned limbs into one tiny spaceship-like pod on a kiddie fun fair ride, the metallic arm of which is admittedly beginning to take on a Geller-like curve under their collective weight. Worse still, the park which surrounds Seattle's most notable skyline landmark, The Space Needle (essentially a flying saucer-shaped restaurant mounted on spindly concrete stilts), is closed for pre-Spring maintenance and so this act has involved the vaulting of trespass barriers. Suddenly faced with a quartet of potentially fist-happy park employees, the few-fights Foo Fighters agree to leave.
  Content that they've made their physical presence felt, the workers walk away slowly in one direction, the band in the other. Glancing over his shoulder to check that the security guys are out of sight, guitarist Pat Smear lowers his naturally camp midrange speaking voice into a macho baritone. "Alright guys, they're gone." he booms in imitation of the hot-headed ringleader. "Everybody back in the fucking bucket."

  It has to be assumed that the overzealous parkies weren't ever Nirvana fans, otherwise they'd more likely have offered to kiss rather than to kick Dave Grohl's arse. Everywhere the former drummer goes in Seattle he is recognized, to the extent where even a short block-long walk will incite surprised looks in passers by or awkward, mumbled approaches of recognition from invariably plaid-clad teenagers. Stranger still to consider is the fact that despite his firmly cemented local celebrity status, he was brought up in Washington DC, only moving to the Northwest in 1990 at the request of Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain, both from the nearby town of Aberdeen. Grohl will admit, "It's sort of like Seattle owns Nirvana"

It must be of some comfort then that much of the half-embarrassed questioning from his chanced upon admirers centers on his front stage career as guitarist and singer with the Foo Fighters whose eponymous debut album is now nudging two million sales, a figure which seems to have genuinely surprised him. "For us to have any mass expectation or think we were going to be the biggest band in the world wouldn't have made sense," he will argue.
There is an air of playful camaraderie within the Foo Fighters' ranks, made remarkable by the fact that two of them, Grohl and Smear (Nirvana's second guitarist throughout much of their final year), have witnessed success and tragedy on a scale unparalleled in this decade, and that the others, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith. were part of Sub Pop's Sunny Day Real Estate, a group whose singer "got God" and suffered a nervous breakdown before they were forced to split.
"When we started this group," Grohl states "I just wanted to make it seem real and in no way contrived. You know, this pretentious sort of 'rising from the ashes of despair' thing. It was like, 'Fuck that, man."

  There is a joke about the drummer in a successful band who's grown frustrated and is planning a solo record. He goes into a music shop, says, "I'll have that guitar, that bass and that keyboard ... here's my credit card, put them in my Jeep." The bloke behind the counter says, "You're a drummer, aren't you?" The drummer says. "How did you know?" The bloke says, "This is Burger King."
  A regular visitor to the Internet site devoted entirely to drummer jokes (though this particular "chestnut" is new to him), Dave Grohl was only too aware of the complications involved in him stepping out from behind his tubs in the wake of Nirvana's demise. In fact. Grohl's musical career began on guitar, with Washington DC teen band Freak Baby, graduating to drums with Mission Impossible, the hilariously monikered Dain Bramage (on the equally hilarious Fartblossom label) and DC hardcore legends Scream. Still, and though he'd contributed backing vocal harmonies to Nirvana and had begun to write songs for the group (two of which, Marigold and Winnebago, featured on B-sides), it was still something of a surprise when rumours began circulating that the first post-Nirvana project from either of the surviving members was to be Grohl writing, singing and even playing all of the instrumental parts on his own record.
  "I'd had six months of really doing nothing at all and had no idea what I was going to do. There were offers to join other bands as the drummer (including one from Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, whom Grohl has been on record as being "that close" to joining). I'd considered going back to school or getting a job, but I was very confused. I'd actually started writing by myself in around '88, and over the years I'd written about 35 or 40 songs, out of which about 15 were pretty good, so there's a studio two blocks from my house and I booked a week. The first day I went in, we set up everything within four hours and just started. After that we were getting a song done every 45 minutes."
  Completed in seven days, the fact that the Foo Fighters album recalled the punk pop spirit of Grohl's most recent past delighted many of his former group's legion of fans, while others dismissed it as The Ringo Nirvana.
  "I remember we were doing some interviews on the last tour," Grohl says, "and this journalist said to me, 'Why did you write an album that sounds exactly like Nirvana?' I'd had so many questions like that before, so finally I lost my temper and just said, 'Well I sat down one day and I thought, "I'd kind of like a bigger house, I'd sort of enjoy another car or two and you know, I've never had caviar, but it's an expensive habit I think I could probably develop, so I thought 'I'm gonna make this one sound just like Nirvana.'"
  "But what most journalists don't realize is that they've only been exposed to music like this in the last six years. When I was 12 years old, I started listening to Killing Joke or Hüsker Dü or Bad Brains and all these bands where the music was just a distorted melodic mess with these sweet harmonies over the top, and for me it's still the kind of music that I enjoy the most. If I was to be so concerned with what the reception would be, I would've gone out and made a reggae record for the sake of having it sound entirely different to Nirvana."
  Enlisting the support of Mendel, Goldsmith and Smear (whom Grohl will admit to being slightly in awe of due to his being "the coolest guy in the world"), the band performed their first gig at a friend's keg party, for which they supplied the beer. For the following year they worked their way through a rigorous touring schedule - quite likely the catalyst for their current success. But how does Grohl reckon the record would have fared if he hadn't been in Nirvana?
  "The first tour that we did, I'd say that maybe 10 per cent of the people who came to the shows had the album, and the other people coming just to see someone from Nirvana in person. I think also a lot of people came down to see if we could pull it off, to see if it was as good, and of course everybody wanted to make comparisons. But to denounce that or to say that I really wish I hadn't been in Nirvana would be a fucking lie. It would be totally ridiculous."

  In the early days of Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl refused to give interviews, reasoning that the press would only interrogate him about the last months of Kurt Cobain's life. When he did begin to talk, he would angrily combat questions concerning the suicide by making journalists feel embarrassed by their own lack of sensitivity. Having witnessed the death by media of Cobain, he talks in slow, measured tones when being interviewed and chooses every word with extreme care.
  Did you witness any resentment from people who felt you'd got back on your feet too quickly?
  "No, but so many other people did. No one has ever said anything to my face, like, You were a fucking asshole for doing this. But every so often in live reviews or record reviews you sense a tinge of resentment. I'm sure that the thing I was supposed to do was become this brooding, reclusive dropout of society and that's it. 'Nirvana's done, I'm done, that's the end of my life.' Fuck that. It was a blast. I miss Nirvana with all my heart. I listen to live bootlegs all the time because I miss it so much.
  "I miss Kurt. I dream about him all the time - I have great dreams about him and I have sad, heart-wrenching fucked-up dreams about him. I mean, I miss it ...all ...a lot. But if you're dealt a fucking hand, then you deal with it. And I'm not about to just drop out and stop living. If there's anything I've learned over the last three years, it's that you've got one life and you'd better live it as much as you can. You only have 75 years if you're lucky, and that's not enough for me. That's only 50 more summers. I'm not going to sit back and be some fucking pitiful mess because that's what everybody wants me to do.
How often do you see Krist?
  "When I'm at home I usually see him once a week maybe. We still get along famously. Krist is a great guy and he's unlike anyone I've met in my life. He's a fucking character, man. and I love him to death. So I don't think we'll ever stray too far apart."
How do you feel about the way that Kurt's legacy has been dealt with? The old dead rock star syndrome?
  "(Quietly) Up until the last few years, I guess I never had a full handle on how ridiculous it all is. I can understand that one person could mean so much to so many people and could be considered someone extremely special. but when you've known the person, he seems like just another person, just a human being - a special one to everyone, especially to us. Krist and I were in awe of Kurt ...always. He was one of a kind and that's entirely the truth. "But the commercial exploitation of it all is horrible, particularly all the bootleg T-shirts that I see every night on tour. We're playing and I look down and I see Kurt's face looking up at me every night of my life. It's upsetting because you're dealing with a human being, and the lack of respect and the lack of compassion is pretty unbelievable. Some people use the name Kurt Cobain like it's a fucking plastic doll, you know, and he was a human being with a mind and a heart and a soul. It's just too bizarre to have that happen to someone that you've known. It just seems unreal. It's incredibly upsetting."
Have you had or been forced to have any contact with Courtney Love?
  "Uh. Yeah, I've had contact with her a few times. I haven't been forced to, I don't think. But, maybe a few times."
  The most enduring knock-on effect of Dave Grohl's experience of instant and alarming success with Nirvana has been the reinforcement of his Punk rock ethics ("I've always thought, How could you have fun at a concert if the singer of the band didn't dive out and land on your head?"), and just as Nirvana always seemed intent on shrinking their arena status, Dave Grohl will talk with genuine enthusiasm about how he thinks Foo Fighters have a certain limited appeal.
  "I don't think we're capable of being a sensation like Oasis or Alanis Morissette", he says with a hint of delight. "I don't think we have the personalities to be that sort of thing. The music we write, sure it's poppy and has some hooks and melodies, but I just don't think it's the kind of thing that eight million 12-year-olds are ever going to be able to palate."

  Later the band retreat to their tiny rehearsal space to work through the set that they will take around the US on a six-week tour beginning the following week. In this environment, Dave Grohl is the opposite of the slightly intense, wary - and occasionally weary - individual he becomes when confronted with a tape recorder. The four constantly goof around (although Pat Smear quite sensibly offers earplugs to Q before even an amp is switched on, explaining that it's "the loudest fucking practise room I've ever been in") and decide to get stoned on potent grass for the first time in rehearsal, though Grohl insists on taking only the tiniest of puffs. "or I'll get freaked out". Once Goldsmith counts in the first song, the noise is thunderous and the Foos are clearly in their element.
  "I guess everyone will always see this as being my band," Grohl had said earlier. "The press hate to put four faces on the cover of a magazine. They just need one, and I think that's a fucking shame. When it comes down to the real shit - which is the four of us in our dirty little practice room - then it's the four of us. I'm sure that some people want to see our next [album] be a fucking mess but we're glad about that because it's just another obstacle that we have to overcome. You know, there's a lot more to this band than this fool who played drums for Nirvana."

Words: Tom Doyle     Pics: Neal Preston

Notes from the journalist and photographer

This article was reprinted by Q magazine, 20 years after it was first published and writer Tom Doyle looked back...

Photographer Neal Preston also looked back on the assignment when he published a book of his work:

‘As I go in, the roadie taps me on the shoulder and says: “Here, you’re gonna need these. Earplugs.” I say, no, no, no, no. I don’t need them. I never liked working with them because I can feel my shutter fire but I can’t really hear it properly.
‘He said: “Trust me, you’re going to need them.” I tell him it’s really hard for me to use. He tries one more time, he says: “Just take ‘em.” By now I’m saying, “Hey, I work with The Who, I work with Kiss,” and I throw some more names around. He says: “As you wish,” and closes the door behind me.
‘Within 15 seconds my teeth are rattling. Within 25 seconds I’m sure there’s blood coming from my eardrums. It’s so loud, it’s like a 747 taxiing through the room. It’s beyond loud.
‘Thirty seconds in I had a migraine and 45 seconds in I was physically ill to the point of having to vomit — literally. And I didn’t want to vomit in front of the band or into my camera bag. I don’t know how these guys played. I shot out the roll, opened the door and got out of there and went to the bathroom.
‘From that day on, my hearing was never the same. I can never, ever, have a first date in a crowded restaurant. Last time I did that, I went out with this actress and we met in this bar and every question she’s asking, I’m going “Huh? What?”
‘So all I can say is: “Thank you Dave Grohl for that.’

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