Q magazine, February 2003

When one of the world's biggest arena-filling bands arrived in leafy Tooting, Neighbourhood Watch ran for cover. But for the residents of one household, the Foo Fighters rocked the house literally.

For the final gig of their biggest ever, cash-hoovering UK stadium tour, the Foo Fighters have promised Q to "take it all back home". Specifically, Q reader Tom's home: an Edwardian terrace with many original features and the stench of deferred washing up in Tooting, South London. Here, Tom lives with his nine friends, while studying fashion at the Royal College of Art and nurturing a quiff modelled on the prow of a 19th century schooner.
  It's a dank November Tuesday afternoon in Brudenell Road, SW 17, passers-by glower disapprovingly, scaffolders working on a loft conversion slurp their tea and watch as roadies unload amps and a drum kit from a van and haul them inside the house next door.
  "But do you think it'll really happen?" asks Tom, restless and, frankly, drunk. "We've asked a few friends round if that's OK," adds housemate Johanna.
  Gig attendance has indeed swelled to 22. Most are reddened with alcohol, but the sky is darkening and school children are wandering home. We begin to doubt Dave Grohl's word. After all what would bring this year's biggest live draw in the UK - apart from Oasis - to a venue like this?
  Acoustically, it's not as resonant as Manchester where the FF recently played their biggest ever show in front of 15.000 people. And financially the numbers are not as "sweet": in Manchester the Foos accrued 250,000 for a night's work, which means by rights this show should be costing Tom and his friends 10,000 a head.
  "We bought them some beer but we haven't got any money," slurs Tom firmly.

No matter, we've arranged to waive the rock star fee. After all, this gig is intended as a timely reminder of the character-forming, dues-paying "hungry years" when pre-Nirvana Grohl and co were spread across various punk outfits. Grohl began his career drumming with Dain Bramage, a punky "improvisational rock" group whose speciality was a 10 minute dirge called The Log.
  "You were eyeball to eyeball at those gigs. Getting the singer's spit in your face was a badge of honour," Grohl recalls days earlier, as the Tooting show is planned.
  Among the student crowd there are aspiring rockers Jez Mitch, singer with Sweet Rocket, and Mike Barker, drummer with Bath-based Rusty Springfield. Both believe rock is fantastically exciting right now. But while blathering they suddenly halt, their cans of beer mid-tilt and stare at the front door. Wiping his feet on the mat is a lantern-jawed bloke in checked shirt and wispy grunge face fur. It's Dave Grohl.
  "Hi guys... where's your kitchen?" asks Grohl.
  Both point in silence, towards a door behind them.
Foo Fighters   "In Nirvana we used to rehearse like these," Grohl says, looking around the hallway. "Small rehearsal space, plug in, improvise. That's where all the songs came from. And with the last FF album we had problems cos we lost the intimacy. You get distracted from what the music's about."
  There's no problem with the intimacy in Tooting. With band in position where the washing up might usually be stacked, they begin... and nothing happens. The leads don't work. To fill the silence Tom leads a chorus of My Old Man's A Dustman for which the FF provide an un-amplified rock backing.
Then a roadie with years of carbohydrate-rich diet behind him puffs in with leads of a correct "ohmage", plugs them in and a roar goes up. The FF commence reducing house prices in the Tooting area. First a selection of neo-garage rockers. There's an impressive Strokes' Last Nite, but Grohl ducks the throaty vocal. There's The Hives' screamy anthem Main Offender, which brings an enquiry at the front door: 20 trillion decibels is the level where people with Neighbourhood Watch stickers suddenly become active and they've "popped in" from next door. Unsurprisingly, they stay.
  When Grohl unleashes the angular guitar intro for the Knack's My Sharona, they start shouting along with everyone else. Then it's time to go. The FF are supposed to be at the BBC and a man who has lodged himself in the gap between the ceiling and the cupboards appears to be dead.
  "It's getting harder to connect the bigger the shows get," says Grohl. "Kitchens are good way to get back in contact with your audience. I always hated those stadium shows when there's a time delay between the guitarist playing and a noise being heard in row Z half a mile away. Maybe we should consider promoting the next album house-to-house."
  Eventually, Grohl and the band are wrestled from the house by the road crew and pushed into a black van. They depart and Brudenell Road is a Tooting street where the neighbours "don't really chat" again.
  "Did that really happen? It's I'm on acid," says an open-jawed Jez, mouth agape.

A week earlier, we're on tour with the FF at the Cardiff International Arena. Or rather we chat to Grohl, guitarist Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins - four small components in an industrial rock entertainment delivery system.Grohl and Shiflett arrive in a double decker tour bus which they have all to themselves. Mendel and Hawkins have another containing a queen-size bed. Hawkins has the bed because he "sat on it first", which Mendel says has caused no end of friction.
  Backstage the chatter is of how the FF are adapting to their elevated status in the UK. "People have this idea we are big because we tour a lot and have a video on MTV, but we play 3000-capacity theatres in US and (in the rest of) Europe. It's only in the UK that it's gone crazy," says Grohl.
  And quaintly enough for a man who toured with Alanis Morissette during her phenomenal global ascendance, Hawkins says the UK jaunt has been something they just can't get used to The Alanis tour was hard work. There was a definite feel of: This won't last forever, get the money! But this is weird because we never aimed to fill stadiums. At Manchester, the tour manager put a towel round my neck when I came off the stage. I just thought that was so weird. I mean, that's what they did for Elvis. We just laughed about it afterwards but you have to think, Is this outta Spinal Tap?"
  The FF backstage environment is similar to a front room of someone young and New-Agey, but with a massive alcohol problem and hopelessly unfocused CD collection. Silver candles are lit. The dressing room stereo plays Audioslave, although the Las Ketchup CD lies incongruously out of the leatherette case. Grohl reads a Brian Wilson biography. A bin of beer screams "Over here!" but is ignored.
  As the band relaxes, Shiflett is studying the front cover of Vice Magazine. The issue features a fake line of cocaine on a mirrored cover. From behind, when he is peering down to study the magazine, it looks like he might be hoovering it up. Grohl looks aghast.
 "What the fuck, Chris!"
The band perform   Shiflett demonstrates he is actually reading. Grohl laughs. Mendel passes by to the massage table in the ante room where a woman with a badge reading "Serious Sports Injuries" hovers. Throughout the afternoon she will offer a merciless pummelling to anyone who so much stretches while yawning.
  Monitoring this is daddy Dave Grohl. He's as restless as a child and between his book, his meal and canoodling with his girlfriend Jordyn, you feel he might decide to make a solo album or mow the lawn.
  "Wanna talk?" he asks and leads me into a quiet room.
  Despite his gregariousness Grohl's a practised interviewee with highly developed evasion strategies. Any mention of a hard "K" or "C" sound like, say, "curtains" or Court's furniture sale" brings a perceptible internal shift. It's not that he won't discuss "them", but he needs to prepare, to formulate answers so that no one gets hurt, no dozing LA lawyer wakes with the sudden whiff of blood.
  "It's annoying that on this tour... probably more for the other guys than for me... I have become unofficial spokesman for Nirvana, which is incorrect. I was, like... the fucking sixth drummer of the band. When I think of Nirvana I think of Krist Novoselic, man, he is the one. I'm not comfortable with being the voice of Nirvana because I never really was."
In Nirvana, Grohl's conscience famously battled with sell-out rock star excess in detailed fashion. In the eight year that FF have existed, Grohl is still very much a man of integrity. But it's also noticeable how he has shrugged off some of the early misgivings about living it up.
  "Even now there are moments when I run a mental check: Am I being a rock star asshole? But finding the line is easy, if you consider what you do almost utilitarian. I make music. That's my job. When I finish, I go back to my hotel room and I go to sleep. I enjoy it. I don't consider it a job. But there are luxuries. This Christmas I'm going to spend the first half at my girlfriend's family and the second half with my family in Virginia. In order to make that happen I have to get a Lear jet and I'm willing to spend that sort of money to make my life easier."
  In fact, the Lear jet "habit" is now well advanced. For Jordyn's last birthday, Grohl hired a jet to take her from Atlanta to New York. Unlike the standard jet, this model did not have First Class seats and a lounge. Instead it contained a bedroom.
  "Yeah you feel horny in a situation like that. Who wouldn't? And it's a nice long flight... we made the most of it. At this level anything is possible. You can have anything. Fire anyone. Spend anything you want on champagne. It's ridiculous. And I despise people who get totally seduced by that. I still hear of amazing situations. People getting fired of screamed at for not getting the lighting right in a studio. People who demand a buffet for a room they might be walking through. There's a lot to hate about in this industry."
  But there is much to love too. Grohl has firm principles but he enjoys the vantage point of near danger. He tours with QOTSA and then quietly sinks a couple of beers while they embark on all-out rock piggery.
  "I couldn't do what they do", he laughs. "I wouldn't share a fucking spliff with them. Cigarettes and coffee - that's as far as I go. And a nice blended whisky."
The band perform   Recently he recorded a track, Shake Your Blood, with Lemmy for Grohl's death metal Probot project. Again, no recreational mayhem for him but he is positively enthralled by those who lay their digestive system on the line in the name of rock.
  "I realise now that'd never met a real rock'n'roller. Lemmy walks it like he talks it. He's the real deal. No question. I was astonished and mesmerised. He's a legend and a fucking rock hero. Maybe Keith Richard is in the frame but he's beneath Lemmy."
  Grohl has immersed himself vicariously in the dark side further by reading a biography of Darby Crash, singer with LA punks The Germs who died in 1980 (Germs guitarist Pat Smear later joined the FF). It's almost eerie how fascinated he is by the mythology of the story, given that he will not read Kurt Cobain's Journals.
  "I won't read the diaries because I don't want to... I've seen little pieces of it, but it just feels strange. It just doesn't feel like it was meant for me to read them. I don't feel comfortable peering into Kurt's private thoughts. Sure he was my friend and what we did together is incredibly valuable to me, but would you want to read a friend's diary? A complete stranger's diary might seem easier... a little more distant. You can read it and it's less of a violation, maybe. It depends what your relationship with the diarist was. It's no big deal, it's just that - for me... it doesn't feel like the right thing."
  Other band members are less circumspect. Later Hawkins will say he can't wait until that "horrible book just goes away".
  Despite feelings about the journal, there's no pussy-footing around the Nirvana "legacy".
  "I talk about Nirvana in the same way Nate would talk about Sunny Day Real Estate and Taylor being with Alanis Morissette. They're just bands we used to be in. Of course, it's an incredibly special thing for me, but I share it with them openly. It doesn't help to mystify it."
  Grohl has always been the good guy, taking care of everyone since his father left his mother when he was 19. He became the man of the house and found, "I could look after myself pretty easy so I just focused on making sure the family was happy. I've been doing it ever since."
  But the throbbing angst and frustration that underscores many of the songs on the FF's most recent album, One by One, serve an important purpose. The album was Grohl's journal, his attempt to atone for love misdemeanours in the past.
  "The album is about love. And in love I have been no saint. I'm trying to fix that so a true love can last forever, without me destroying it. I've done things in my life - infidelities - I'm not very proud of. Fortunately in this relationship I haven't and I'm trying to make it work. The album is twisted, in that you're singing love songs because you want to be in love. Convincing yourself that you can do it. Being unfaithful is an occupational hazard of being in a band, more than, say, if I worked at Burger King. Instead of super-sizing your lunch I'd be super-sizing something else..."

The band perform So the Foo Fighter's touring experience is no more onerous than being wheeled along the prom the Scarborough in a chair with a tartan blanket over the knees. Only Shiflett still revels in the frisson of a near death experience. Recently he has taken up boxing and hopes to fight semi-pro.
  "I'm 31 and American boxing laws says you can fight semi-pro 'til you're 32, so I've got a year left for my little dream. I box with young guys. If they know who I am then mostly they don't give a shit. But sometimes there's an element of, What the fuck are you doing here? And they're really trying to beat the crap out of you. I'm small so that's a problem."
  Luckily for Shiflett and the other FF'ers, Wales have beaten Azerbaijan tonight in a Euro 2004 qualifier. On stage Grohl congratulates the crowd and there are chants of "Way-ullz!!"
  The young, hardcore Foo crowd hog the front of the stage and bounce to the tight-paced attack. Everlong and Monkey Wrench are blistering. Even Mendel seems to be moving his feet and nodding some in the name of entertainment. But afterwards there is a problem. Hawkins has read yet another publications which mentions his overdose with "painkillers" in a London hotel a year and a half ago. There are calls from Cardiff to management in LA and back again. Hawkins is incandescent . The press, he feels, will simply not let him shrug off this ghost of touring past. He agrees to chat with me and put his side. But only if he can kick a filing cabinet first.
  "I'm really sorry, man, I'm not trying to be a dick. But I'm fucking sick of reading how everyone's great but Taylor's a fuck-up. You know, I used to be a real spaz. I used to drink. I used to be on drugs but I don't anymore. My life is different now. The only fucking thing I enjoy about this is playing drums. And making money. And that's it, man. That is fucking it. I wanna go home, be with my girl, my dogs and surf..."
  You feel for him. He messed up, put it right and now just want to get on with it. But by the time the mammoth FF touring machine rolls into a leafy Tooting street a couple of days later, it's forgotten. In fact, cramped between the sink and a cupboard of mugs Hawkins closes his eyes and thumps the skins as though he were on stage at Reading Festival. He even accepts the fact that someone has decorated his drum kit with a dead fox with equanimity.
  Shiflett, too, is enjoying himself over by the fridge. Afterwards he says the Tooting kitchen gig reminds him of his first UK tour with pop punks No Use For A Name: 39 shows in 42 days, no hotels, just a van. And if your Foo Fighters tour bus had passed you on the motorway back then, your thoughts would have been....?
"Cunts," he murmurs. "Assholes. Sell-outs."
Grohl disagrees.
"I don't see that I should feel bad about our success," he says. "I front a band that has become the best in it's own right through damn hard work."
He laughs.
"I'm not Lemmy, but I still get up each morning and I love rock music more than anyone."

Words: Michael Odell     Pics: Andrew Cotterill

Back to Top