How does the world’s most widely loved rock group keep things fresh in this era of the multi-platform and the slow-burning viral? Dave Grohl’s a straight-forward guy so he decided his FOO FIGHTERS would combat ennui by heading to eight different American rock’n’roll cities to record their new album, with HBO documenting their endeavours for a film. Sounds great, but, why can’t they talk about it?
It’s 10 o’clock on a
Monday morning in the
western San Fernando
Valley. Taylor Hawkins
has already made
his two children at
school, and done a 45-minute ride on his
mountain bike through the rocky canyons
surrounding his exclusive patch of Los
Angeles suburbia. “Yeah, it’s a good day,” says
Hawkins, in his dusty drawl. “Me and the wife
were getting along this weekend. Are you
married? You know when you have a good
weekend? You have fun together and she acts
like she really likes you a little bit, y’know, you
get a little action? Yeah, the kids are
good, you get ’em off to school…
Dawg, it’s a good day.”
The only cloud on Hawkins’s horizon is the telephonic presence of Q, about to ask some questions about the new Foo Fighters album. As a member of the Foo Fighters, Hawkins might seem well qualified to answer. Unfortunately for both Hawkins and Q, he has clearly been briefed not to discuss anything beyond the basic facts released thus far: that on 10 November, the Foo Fighters release a new album, Sonic Highways, featuring eight songs written and recorded in eight different American cities – Austin, Chicago, LA, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle and Washington, DC. According to the record company statement, each song features “local legends sitting in”. Q asks Taylor who the guests are. “You don’t know? Am I supposed to tell you?!” He laughs. “Why me? I always shit the bed! I was the first person to tell the world Dave Grohl was having his first kid and I didn’t even mean to. ‘No, I don’t think there’s any tours for a while cos Dave’s having a baby!’ He called me the next day: ‘You dumb-ass!’”
So who are the guests?
“Ahhhh… I’m not telling you! I don’t know if I can, dude!”
The sticking point is the “other” Sonic Highways: an eight-part series of documentaries, directed by Dave Grohl, each detailing through interviews with key figures the musical history of the same cities the Foo Fighters recorded in. With each song, Grohl wrote his lyrics at the 11th hour, “so as to be inspired by the experiences, interviews for the HBO series, and other local personalities who became part of the process”, the official statement says. One of these “local personalities” happens to be US President Barack Obama. The series premiered on 17 October; but for now, in late-September, every utterance the Foos make about their new LP is subject to a latticework of press embargoes.
Q attempts a speculative run through a list of the documentary interviewees, as well as those featured in HBO’s YouTube trailer, to wobble Hawkins’s wall of silence. Dolly Parton or Chuck D? “No.” Bad Brains? “No. Although Dave did jam with Bad Brains.” Gibby Haynes from Butthole Surfers? “No.” Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick? “Uhhh… yes. Take another guess.” Allen Toussaint? “No. Wait… who’s Allen Toussaint?” He’s a famous New Orleans songwriter and producer. “Oh. No.” Carrie Underwood? “Uhhh… no.” Bonnie Raitt? “[Silence]… I’m not answering any more!” Joe Walsh? “Yes! Yes! OK, that’s your last one, that was your last guess! Shit, I hope I haven’t fucked up and given away too much information. I bet you I fucking did…”
He may have earned his musical spurs drumming for Scream amid the politically righteous Washington, DC hardcore scene that coalesced around Ian MacKaye’s Dischord House during the ’80s (MacKaye’s record label featured in the second Sonic Highways episode), but Dave Grohl has always been more sympathiser than activist. Although some of Sonic Highways’ guest contributors might seem bizarre – the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for instance – the album conforms to its architect’s wellestablished template: sugar-coated, flarednostril, punk rock classicism. So common sense suggests that after 20 years and more than a thousand gigs, the Foo Fighters engine needs a regular tickle up, to keep both audience and band alert at the wheel.
During the band’s first decade, this process occurred in organic, if chaotic, fashion via personnel crises: drummer William Goldsmith left in 1997 and was replaced by Taylor Hawkins; guitarist Pat Smear departed later the same year, replaced by Franz Stahl, who was himself replaced in 1999 by Chris Shiflett. But since Smear returned to the fold in 2006 the line-up has been steady, and so Grohl has deployed external devices to refresh one of the most successful formulas in modern rock. After that hardy perennial stratagem of the acoustic tour and album, Grohl took his stadium-busting troupe back to basics with 2011’s Wasting Light, recorded on analogue tape in his garage. He also invited a film crew, resulting in the feature-length documentary Back And Forth. Beyond being an effective promotional tool, the movie provided a revealing insight into the Foo Fighters’ collective personal chemistry.
“James Moll, the director, did such a good job, because he didn’t focus on the super-fan trivia, but on the emotional connection between the people in the band,” says Grohl. “It’s one of the reasons why it took the album and the band to another place, because people understood us as human beings.”
Duly inspired, Grohl made his directorial debut with Sound City, from which the Sonic Highways series is a logical next step. Ostensibly a documentary about the studio where Nirvana made Nevermind as told through interviews with a cast of luminaries, Sound City also functioned as an advertisement for Grohl’s own Studio 606, the scene of the film’s all-star jam sessions, as well as affording yet more persuasive screen time to the Grohl brand of Everyman decency, the stuff that got him saddled with that Nicest Man In Rock handle. In truth, Dave Grohl didn’t get where he is today without knowing how to take care of business; it’s just that instead of securing loyalty through fear of being sacked, he inspires his fellow travellers by engendering a harmonious working environment and leading by example. In so doing, Grohl earns his bandmates’ acquiescence to aspects of the job they might prefer to avoid. Taylor Hawkins, for instance, hates spending so much of his working life being filmed, as demanded by the Foo Fighters’ most recent two albums.
“I fought the wearing of the live-on-air mics,” he says. “Dave would get mad at me sometimes if I wasn’t playing ball.” The drummer’s misgivings echo those of musicians from the ’80s when coerced by the emergence of MTV into making promotional videos. “I don’t wanna be on a reality TV show,” says Hawkins. “It’s never been one of my ambitions to be famous for being on TV. But I think Dave’s on the money. It isn’t purely business ambition, because I know he truly loves to do this: a project, to stress and not sleep, to figure out how to make it better. He loves that process. Just as I, on a much smaller level, like the process of recording a song. That’s not enough for Dave any more. No, I don’t like being filmed, but it is part of it now. I was telling the drummer in Jane’s Addiction, ‘You guys need to make the gloves-off real-deal documentary, so people realise how important you are.’ You can make a great movie about any band that’s had something.” He considers for a moment. “The Oasis movie would be kind of amazing, don’t you think? I’d watch it!”
Consequently, the Sonic Highways modus operandi, which dictated spending six days in each city, proved an eye-opener. Dave Grohl’s criteria for choosing where to record pinpointed places for which he and the others felt a particular affinity – hence Chicago (where the 13-year-old Grohl saw his first gig), Washington, DC (near where Grohl grew up in suburban Virginia) and Seattle (Grohl’s hometown after joining Nirvana was also where bassist Nate Mendel went to university). LA was a logical choice, seeing as all now live there, though only Smear can truly consider himself a native. Of the remaining four cities, Austin, Nashville and New Orleans were chosen for the opposite reason: the band had no obvious connections.
The LA experience was educational even for Smear. Recording took place 90 minutes outside the city, at Rancho De La Luna, the home studio amid the high desert wilderness of Joshua Tree famed for bacchanalian sessions by Queens Of The Stone Age and others. “I had never even been out in that general area before,” says Smear. “So I didn’t know what to expect. And it was not something you could imagine, that’s for sure!”
As originally conceived, the Los Angeles episode would begin in the city’s fleshpots and then escape the glitz and glamour in search of Joshua Tree’s frontier spirit. But Grohl gradually realised that the pivotal figure in the story was Smear himself, thanks to his adventures as a dissolute teenager on LA’s West Hollywood punk scene, where he founded the Germs with the late Darby Crash, a profound influence on the next generation – most obviously Kurt Cobain, who invited Smear to join Nirvana in 1993.
“I’ve known Pat for 20 years but I don’t really ask him about the past,” says Grohl. “For this episode we walked around his old neighbourhood and he told me about going to see the Runaways for the first time, about the history of the Germs, how he and Darby met through a mutual speed dealer, about meeting Alice Cooper and David Bowie, chasing Freddie Mercury around the Sunset Marquis Hotel… his life is so extraordinary.”
All agree that New Orleans offered the most otherworldly experience (“the only place I was sad to leave,” says Smear), thanks to its unique melting pot of European and Caribbean cultures, the cityscape’s omnipresent musical undertow – and, as Hawkins observes, “the fact that everybody’s pretty much half-drunk all the time.” But in terms of deep emotional resonance, the most keenly anticipated Sonic Highways rendezvous ought to be Seattle. The band recorded at Robert Lang Studios, a reputedly haunted facility built into a cavern. The resident spook wasn’t the only ghost in attendance: Robert Lang’s hosted the last Nirvana recording session, in January 1994, shortly before Kurt Cobain’s death. It was here also that Dave Grohl came later the same year to record the debut Foo Fighters album, playing every instrument himself. For Sonic Highways, the band recorded a song called Subterranean. The mood, according to Hawkins, was sombre. “I had a dark feeling about Seattle,” he says. “The song is dark and sad, it’s about the end of something.”
“There’s a lot of history in Seattle,” adds Mendel, “for Dave and the band. It’s a dangerous place for us, in a way, just not a really comfortable city. Kinda had to go there – it made sense as a city to go and record in. But obviously there’s the tragedy of what happened with Nirvana. We started there, but left. A lot of people have got personal histories there that are kinda fractured.”
For all that the
concept dictated a
perspective on lyrics,
it’s impossible to hear Grohl deliver such
lines as “Nothing left within… I will start
again” or “You might think you know me
but I know damn well you don’t” and not feel
the singer’s personal connection.
“I still love Seattle,” he says. “I spent wonderful years there. Every time I go, I rent a car and I drive by myself to all the old places I lived, or the coffee shops or the bars. I don’t want to forget my past, because it’s part of who I am and I need to remind myself of those things, good and bad. That studio’s right down the street from where I used to live. I had another life 25 years ago. I was a kid in one of the biggest bands in the world. And then everything was turned upside down. My life completely changed when Kurt died. It gave me a whole new outlook on just waking up every day. I learned then that’s what happens when someone close to you dies. You have to begin again. Almost every single day I think about Kurt.”
The guest musician on Subterranean is Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. Just 17 when Kurt Cobain died, in the documentary he talks of how his mother broke the news. “She came into his bedroom, sat down next to him, rubbed his back and told him,” says Grohl. “He remembers breaking down, and in the interview he starts to break down. He said that day at school, all the freaks and the punks and the nerds and the geeks had a day off from the jocks bullying them. The assholes left the Nirvana kids alone. What a wonderful story. That meant a lot to me.”
Ten days after the Foo Fighters closed the Invictus Games in London, Dave Grohl is where you’ll usually find him when he’s not on the road: at Studio 606, benevolent master of all he surveys. It’s a rehearsal day and Grohl taps his feet in anticipation as the Foos’ crew check the gear and his bandmates move into position. The clock says 10am but he’s been on the go for hours, and not just because the Grohl household got a new member in August when his wife Jordyn gave birth to baby Ophelia, the family’s third daughter. “I’ve already had my pot of coffee before the sun comes up,” he smiles.
His latest caffeinated brainwave is a 20th-anniversary re-enactment of the first Foo Fighters tour, which saw the original quartet supporting Mike Watt at such storied entertainment palaces as the Dingo Bar in Albuquerque and the Philadelphia Trocadero. Not only does Grohl intend to play the same venues, he insists the band will use the same tiny van. Although nowadays accustomed to executive class, he insists this won’t be a problem. “We still like each other. Still to this day, if the band needs to be somewhere and three vans show up to drive us, we all get in the one van.”
The feet tap. Last week he was editing the LA Sonic Highways episode. Yesterday he was at Apple’s headquarters. Doing what, one wonders? “Oh, just talking! If there’s one thing I’m excited about it’s spreading the message of what we’ve been doing for the last two years.” At Apple, he said hello to Jony Ive, the London-born designer responsible for every revolutionary device the company have introduced. “Jony, how much do you sleep?” Grohl asked. “I’m much better now,” replied Ive. “Maybe five or six hours a night…”
“I went, ‘Wow, lucky bastard…!’” Grohl laughs. “I make music because I wake up in the morning like a fucking Space Shuttle, and just start roaring. Every… single… fucking… day. Within an hour and a half I have an instrument in my hand.” He waves at his fellow musicians, now regarding him expectantly. “I feel a responsibility to do this. When I look at Ian Beveridge, our monitor guy, who’s been working with me for 25 years. Or I look at Taylor Hawkins, or I look at Pat Smear, or I look at the 40,000 people who come to see the band play in a field, I don’t want to let them down. All those people. I’m here for them. Because what the fuck else am I gonna do? Make movies?! Can you imagine me trying to direct some pretentious male model to emote?! Believe me, if there’s a hell on earth, I think that might be it.”
History suggests we should hold him to that promise. For whichever Hollywood hotshot makes the documentary of Dave Grohl’s life, the title ought to be Expect The Unexpected: how a high-school drop-out, Nirvana’s self-styled “skinny muppet at the back banging shit”, became the guitarist, songwriter and life force of one of the world’s greatest rock bands, in the process confounding everyone’s expectations. Except his own. Twenty-five years down this personal sonic highway, a route that’s taken him from the Dischord House to the White House, Dave Grohl’s journey is far from over.