Foo Fighters are back. Should you have forgotten what an unashamed rock band is like, Dave Grohl is here with a reminder: they should not be made up of "little people", but rather of big men, preferably with grey pubic hair...
There is no other CEO of a major corporation who enters their business HQ by kicking open a door, beltching and then breaking into the grin of a self-satisfied chipmunk. But then, Dave Grohl, head of Roswell Records - its roster of acts numbering one: his own band, the Foo Fighters -is not your average captain of industry.
Today, on an atypicaily wet Los Angeies afternoon, he is dressed as he most often is: down, in jeans, sneakers, T-shirt and work shirt. He seems less internationally successful rock star, than 42-year-old father of two (he and his wife, Jordyn, have two young daughters, Violet and Harper). He professes to "feeling iike shit". The previous night Foo Fighters played an impromptu show at The Troubadour club in West Hollywood - treating a 100-strong crowd to a three-hour, 35-song set, the longest the band has played. Grohl retired to bed at 2am, to be waken at 6am by the sound of little Harper banging pots together at the foot of the stairs.
It's been four years since Foo Fighters' last and sixth album, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, elevated them to the status of global Stadium Rock Band, and three since their brace of triumphal shows at Wembley Stadium. In the interim Grohl hardly remained idle, forming and touring with Them Crooked Vultures alongside his friend Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age and erstwhile Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. This month, though, sees the release of a new Foo Fighters record, Wasting Light.
Like all their albums, it is big, loud, tuneful and rock with a capital "R". The key points of interest this time are: it was made in a purpose built studio in the garage of Grohl's LA home (it's a garage in the sense that you could park-not one, but a fleet of cars in it); it was produced by Butch Vig who last recorded Grohl 20 years ago, on Nevermind; and Grohl's former Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic wields his elephantine bass on one track, I Should Have Known. The Foo Fighters arc gearing up to tour it. Hence the atmosphere at their Studio 606 complex today is busy and businesslike: a retinue of staff wheel flight cases in and out; guitars and other miscellany are being shipped hither and thither. Located on a non-descript suburban LA street, Grohl had Studio 606 built for the band in 2004. A flat-roofed, two-storey building, it contains an office, warehouse space and recording studio. Inside, walls are lined with Foo Fighters and Nirvana memorabilia and there are the accoutrements of a well-stocked boys club: pinball and space invader arcade games, basketball hoop, flat-screen TVs.
Grohl escorts Q into the studio control room. Hanging in a frame above the couch is a painting of an imperious-looking Grohl in a smoking jacket, mocked up by the band's crew. He pulls up a stool, places a pot of coffee to his left, a black baseball bat to his right and throws his feet up on the couch. For the next two hours he will reflect on matters both Foo Fighters and personal.
Before he begins some observations about David Eric Grohl: he could talk for his country, he could swear for it, too; a slight thickening of the midriff and bags under the eyes are the only outward suggestions that he is of middle age. He appears a man of simple tastes (when, for instance, Q begins a long dissection of the movie Black Swan, he interjects: "Cut to the chase, man - is the lesbian scene hot?"). He is garrulous and unaffected enough for you to entertain the prospect of having a pint with him.
Did you plan to take such a long break between Foo Fighters records?
Dave Grohl: It was and it wasn't [intentional]. We'd been working this cycle of an album every two years for the last fucking 15 years. We were all exhausted of flying around the world playing shows five nights a week. But more than that I started thinking, "Aren't they fucking sick of us yet?" It's been over a decade of the band playing your festivals every summer, on your radio every hour. If I were a fan, I'd get fucking fed up of us. Honestly, we're kinda tireless, we can keep going and going because we actually enjoy what we do. But I don't know whether the audience has as much enthusiasm for us as I do. The band had to step away from the band; the people needed a break from the band.
One thing the Foos' return emphasises: the dearth of unabashed rock bands right now...
DG: Kids got too smart and good. There's part of me that feels like rock musicians aren't as crafty and criminal as they used to be. My generation growing up in the '80s were stoners, dropouts and petty thieves. We played music on the weekends to forget about the shitty jobs we had to work. There was never any career option because, what, you're playing in a little hardcore punk rock band and you're going te sell a million records? No. You just did it for kicks. I also noticed that bands are short now. What the fuck happened? They're little people. I don't know if it's genetics or evolution... I just remember dudes in bands being big. When I was in Queens Of The Stone Age with Josh [Homme], Nick [Oliveri] and Mark Lanegan. it was like that movie The Warriors. When the four of us walked backstage, the piano player stepped playing. Nobody fucked with those dudes. They were big men.
Your band's also something of a throwback, in the sense that your success has been gradual and built upon touring...
DG: We managed to steer ourselves round a lot of those obstacles. Man, if I'd wanted to I could have put "Formerly of Nirvana" on every fucking CD that came out. But I didn't even want to talk about Nirvana for two years.
Nirvana went from being in a van to selling a million records in, like, a month. And we were kids. You can imagine the effect that can have on someone. So of course I didn't want it to happen to this band; it'll destroy bands. Over the years, going to festivals and seeing these younger bands - they're kids and selling millions of records. I look at them and feel so fucking sorry for them.
Then I stop and think, "I did that." Now I'm the oldest fucking guy at the festival. I have grey pubic hair and I'm headlining. I'm proud to say that, too, it's cool. But that kind of overnight success can fuck up people bad. You have to have perspective in order to appreciate the good things when they come. Whether it's touring in a van, playing in squats, £7-a-day... Now, if I walk backstage and we have Kinder eggs, I'm like, "Fuck, yeah!"
The first Foos album was made in six days. The fourth, One By One, cost over $1 million...
DG: Yeah. Well... Things are a little more complicated now, as much as we try to keep things simple. I say, we'd like to do a club gig... It used to be that we'd pull our van up to the club, put our stuff in and go. It's not like that any more; there's a massive organisation trying to co-ordinate a show in a club that holds 98 people. It gets sort of ridiculous. What are you gonna do it's like we've become this big fucking rock band. I'm not complaining for one second, I'll take it -it's fucking great. But it's sort of strange.
Hence making the new record in your garage?
DG: I guess there was part of me that thought if the album failed I could say, "What? It's a fucking garage record!" Why on earth would we make the most important album of our career in my garage with tape machines that are 30 years old? But that's kind of why we did it. Doing Wembley was a big moment for the band, we always reference it: That's it - that's the highest we've ever been. It was amazing. There was no career ambition in 1994 - thinking we were going to play stadiums. It wasn't like that. We did what we did almost to diffuse that kind of expectation.
How evocative were the memories stirred up by having Butch and Krist in the studio?
DG: Krist and me had never been in the studio with Pat (Smear, Foos guitarist and ex-Nirvana sideman), Butch hadn't sat in front of a board with us since 1991. So that was hanging over us the whole time. It didn't bring us down and keep it from being fun, but it's always there. Whenever I see Butch or Krist, it's always right above my head - Nirvana. It's such a deep personal connection because of all the good things that happened and also because of Kurt dying, you know. It's still huge with all of us. When you bring all those people together, you could be having the best night of your lives but it's there and it's undeniable.
The evening before interviewing Grohl, Q has a screening of the still-to-be-titled documentary film that coincides with the new album's release 'briefly at cinemas, and then on TV and DVD'. Directed bv James Moll, who won an Oscar in 1999 for The Last Days, his film on Holocaust survivors, it charts the full arc of Grohl's and the Foo Fighters' story. This takes Grohl from drumming with Washington, DC' hardcore band Scream, into Nirvana, through the death of Kurt Cobain and up to the making of Wasting Light.
Avoiding Rattle And Hum-style hubris, it's closer in tone to another Oscar-garlanded director Peter Bogdanovich's excellent 2007 film about Tom Petty, Runnin' Down A Dream (both films reveal Grohl was offered the drum stool in Petty's Heartbreakers, post-Nirvana). Like that film, it is built around a wealth of archive footage and intimate interviews with current and former band members. In doing so it opens old wounds: original drummer William Goldsmith still smarts about his enforced departure during the recording of second album The Colour And The Shape (reason being: it was felt he couldn't drum as well as Grohl); Grohl breaks down recalling both Cobain's death and Foos drummer Taylor Hawkins's drugs OD in 2000. The interviews also suggest Grohl doesn't debate with his band the more traumatic or testing events that pepper their story. Having been Foo Fighters' original guitarist, the subject of Pat Smear's return after a decade-long absence seems not to have been raised with his eventual successor Chris Shiflett (Grohl now accommodates both); Hawkins claims to having no idea that Grohl wrote the song On The Mend about him.
The film emphasises the fact that the Foo Fighters have been together 16 years.
DG: It's hard to believe. We all screened the movie together a few weeks ago. We were terrified. The lights went down, the movie played and... In the movie we say things that we've never said to each other. Things I still don't want to say to each other. But it's out in the open.
You don't seem especially touchy-feely...
DG: No, I'm not really. I am with my wife. And sometimes with close friends - Pat, Taylor - but for the most part, no. I don't like to get too emotional. And I don't like conflict; I just don't. I like it when people are fucking happy. I don't like being in fights.
William Goldsmith doesn't seem to have recovered from his sacking...
DG: That was a tough one. I didn't even really tell everything [in the film] but... I got close. After the movie we all looked at each other... and it was strange: to think that I've spent so much of my life with Pat. I've spent 16 years with Nate [Mendel, bassist]... And gone through so much shit with Taylor over the last 14 years. And we're still happy and it still works.
It's funny, too, because I never thought of our story as some sort of survival of the human spirit. I just thought of us as a bunch of dumb asses who play rock music and don't want to stop. After watching the movie I thought, "God, I guess we actually care for each other." It's a weird thing for a bunch of men to sit around and talk about how much we love each other.
Have you got better at the process of making difficult decisions and confronting them? The film makes it seem as if you left a lot unsaid...
DG: I guess, maybe. We didn't write up a business plan at our first rehearsal. I still look at us as being naive and childish. I didn't learn to say no until, like, 1999. That was why we were on the road so much those first two or three years. I was so used to having people tell me what to do all the time, I'd just do it.
Then going in to make The Colour And The Shape with Gil Norton. You know, he's a real hardcore producer - he'll work your ass off. He had me doing drum tracks from 11 in the morning till 11 at night: 12 fucking hours for one song. Do it again... Do it again... After the first three years of being told what to do I thought, "Fuck you, I'm going to tell you what to do." That's when it all changed.
But there's still that part of me. I'm a high school dropout who worked shitty jobs and I always had a boss and had to punch a card. I didn't have a job I could be five minutes late to; I was restricted by all these things. I didn't have any money - I couldn't go to college, I wasn't smart enough for a scholarship. It was like: "Here's your hand, deal with it."
The rest of the Foo Fighters chat to Q over the course of two days: Pat Smear, Taylor Hawkins and Nate Mendel in various parts of Studio 606; Chris Shiflett at his house a half-hour's drive out of LA towards the Pacific coast. Like Grohl, each is as amiable as the next, albeit with their particular quirks.
Hawkins could only be a drummer as he sits perpetually tapping out a rhythm with his hands and feet on any object close to hand and/or parts of his body; Smear is more comfortable talking about Queen than himself or his own band, but either way speaks in a soft, gently camp voice and chain smokes; Shiflett is preparing to take his eldest two sons on a camping trip (again like Grohl, they're all family men), and has the reliable air of a man who could wire your house. Mendel, who once suggested he didn't get recognised at the band's own gigs, is the most articulate. He is also, unexpectedly, their secret comedy weapon: he has all the best lines in the film and his appearance as a tight-shorted rollerblader in the viral video for new track White Limo is positively Will Ferrell-esque.
"Nate's the only guy in the band that went to college," offers Hawkins. "He's very schooled. If you don't know him, you think he doesn't like you. For the first two years I was in this band I thought he didn't like me at all."
"That," says Mendel upon being related this, "is because I didn't."
Describe the experience of watching the film together?
Pat Smear: Surreal. It was a lot different the second time, watching it with my wife. Every so often someone would go [leans back in seat and stares at imaginary band member]... It wasn't traumatic - there were just little... surprises.
Nate Mendel: Not as uncomfortable as I thought it'd be. I could tell Dave had to digest it and figure out a way to come to terms with it. The part about William leaving the band, he felt really beat up about that. Dave knows that William and I are still tight [the pair continue to play together in Sunny Day Real Estate], and that's something that's never been resolved between us. Hopefully the film dealt with it. Everything that needed to be said was said.
Chris Shiflett: It was almost like being in group therapy. Being in a band is complicated: there are egos and pride, and we're all very opinionated. Stuff never gets talked about.
Chris, no one mentioned to you Pat was coming back?
CS: No. And that was a big part of what made that difficult for me... because I didn't know him. But when Pat walked in the room, we immediately hit it off. But it was tense between Dave and me for a long time - really for a long time. Stuff gets swept under the rug and when it finally comes out it gets ugly. The dynamic of the band has really changed in the last four, five years, and for the better.
And no one, least of all Taylor, knew that On The Mend was about him?
NM: How would you bring that up? "Dude, I wrote a song about you..." There are just some things we don't talk about. There'll be two-three-year gaps between these batches of interviews. I learn about my bandmates and things that are happening in my band from this process. Because usually you don't have a third party in the room going, "What were you thinking about this person?"
Taylor Hawkins: I don't want to know that shit. I really don't. Unfortunately that is going to be a part of my story forever, something that happened in my late 20s through being an idiot. Some things are better left unsaid as far as I'm concerned. It's sweet, I suppose, but I could have gone my whole life without knowing it.
Dave Grohl's preferred mode of transport when doing the school run and, indeed, in driving to the studio today is a white Transit van. He recalls the last time he took it to the local car wash: since the area he lives in would be referred to by an estate agent as "upmarket", the parking lot was populated by European sports cars.
While waiting for his van to be cleaned he went across the street to a coffee shop. Two Foo Fighters fans spotted him, he says, and asked him to settle a bet: had he left the red Ferrari or the yellow Lamborghini to be washed?
Many people who came up through the hardcore/grunge scenes of the '80s and '90s seemed to feel guilty about having any kind of success...
DG: Don't get me started on guilt. Honestly, guilt and music should have nothing to do with each other. Growing up in the punk rock scene, unfortunately there were rules. You'd imagine that'd be the one place you'd be free of any boundaries. But you weren't supposed to do certain things. Like when I first moved to Olympia, Washington and lived with Kurt, the punk rock scene there was so claustrophobic. Everyone was so deathly afraid of doing something wrong.
To me, I was a musician. I loved the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, NoMeansNo and all this punk rock shit, but I also loved Foghat, Motorhead, Venom and fucking ABBA. I didn't have that guilt, you know. I can be friendly with The Jonas Brothers and Bob Mould. I don't give a fuck what your band sounds like - I'll get drunk with you. The whole thing with guilt is... Of course, it burnt a hole in Kurt's stomach. It had a lot to do with how uneasy he felt about Nirvana's success. But shit, I didn't.
There's a responsibility that goes with it too, of course: looking around here today, you employ a lot of people...
DG: There are times when I think about it, because you want to take care of everybody. But it's pretty easy. We all take care of each other. We've all been working with each other for 15,20 years. I mean, there's times when I have to take an executive decision, but that's just the way it is - I don't have a problem with it. If someone's being an asshole I have to say, "You have to stop or you have to leave." And usually people stay.
You are perennially referred to as The Nicest Man In Rock. That's very one dimensional, isn't it?
DG: It is, right? It's weird... Honestly, more than ambition, I think I do have this feeling of responsibility. It's like, "Fuck, I have to do this." For who or what, I'm not entirely sure. I was thinking about this as I was driving here: "Am I going to be doing this for the next 10 years?"
I had to get up this morning after four hours' sleep; jump in the shower, take my daughter to kindergarten; hang out with her in her "Mommy And Me" class; get out of there and have a meeting with a film director. He said, "What time shall I call you?" I said, "12:18." He called me at fucking 12:18 as I was in the drive-thru of a McDonald's. Then I'm driving with my knees as I'm talking on the phone and eating a Big Mac. I just thought, "Is this really the rest of my life?"
I don't even know the last time I sat down in a restaurant and had lunch - with a plate and knives and forks and shit. Months ago. It just doesn't happen. Could I just stop? Maybe. But I don't know if I can. I want to be everything to my family and everything to this band. But these things... Fuck, dude, I don't know if my body can handle what I'm asking it to do. There are times I think, "This is going to kill me. I'm going to fucking kill me."
You could have spent all of the last two years with your family but you went off with Them Crooked Vultures...
DG: Well... I hope that I will do that some time. When I'm home, I'm entirely present with the family. In the morning, making oatmeal, changing fucking diapers and driving the kids to school. At night giving baths and reading stories. That's what I do. So when I go out on the road I look at it like it's work. And believe me I struggle with it when I'm on the road. I miss my family so fucking much. I'll break down on tour because of missing my kids.
Your father left you and your mother when you were young. How much of that drive is attributable to you becoming the man of the house at an early age?
DG: He was the one that taught me most of the responsibility I have now. Honestly. Step up and take care of shit. When Nirvana had success he was the first to have that talk to me. Because his best friend who lived across the street from him, in this tiny town in Ohio where he grew up, was Nick Ceroli, Herb Albert's drummer in The Tijuana Brass. He had this great career, and he died of a heart attack in his 50s, broke.
So my Dad basically said, "Here's the deal - you have to treat every cheque like it's the last one you're gonna make. This isn't gonna last." Scared the piss out of me. So much so that every cheque I get now I'm like, OK, it's the last one. I think we'll be fine. But I can't stop.
What sort of leader are you?
DG: We call this band [he picks up the baseball bat and smacks it into the couch to emphasise each word]... a... benign... dictatorship.
You know, whatever, don't ask me, ask the other guys. What do you think I'm going to say? I think I'm fair and honest... I like to keep everyone happy. If you want to follow, I guess I'm doing something right.
When was the last time you lost it?
DG: Last week, on my manager, John Silva. I don't think I've ever screamed at anyone so hard. I fucking laid into him. And then I called him back and apologised.
[Another Interlude With The Other Foo Fighters...]
Would you describe Dave as The Boss?
PS: No, I am.
TH: Absolutely. It's his band. He doesn't want any problems, so everybody gets paid well and he's not like a dick that has his own dressing room. He's able to get things done exactly his way without being an asshole or control freak.
What's an argument with him like?
NM: We don't have them. It's good and bad. Dave has got the final word on everything. In a way, what's there to argue about?
CS: If you've pushed Dave to the point where he's arguing, it's gone way beyond. He just does not like confrontation.
How has he changed over the years?
PS: Oddly he hasn't changed. He's older, he's matured, blah-blah-blah...
NM: I think we're more at ease with each other. Dave and I have never been super-comfortable with each other. We get along great, and I consider him to be a friend, but it's a unique relationship in my life... In some ways he's a stranger to me and I am to him. At a really glacial pace that has thawed over the years.
According to Dave Grohl the last time he was given pause to wonder at how surreal his life had become was at a party for veteran US record executive Clive Davis. He found himself sat between Whitney Houston, R Kelly and Barry Manilow. "I didn't feel like I belonged," he considers. "I was happy to be there, but I do feel like an outsider at these things."
And yet, such is his lot. He has performed at the White House on three occasions since Barack Obama became President - most recently last December at an event honouring Paul McCartney. He will appear in the next Muppets movie, apparently replacing Animal on the Muppet band drum stool when the errant puppet is ordered to attend anger management classes. "Yeah, I don't know if I'm supposed to talk about that," he says. "But you know, there's the four most famous drummers in music history - Buddy Rich, John Bonham, Keith Moon and Animal. So to be asked to be an Animal wannabe was a huge fucking career milestone."
What do you ask the President?
DG: "Whassup?!" I'm not kidding. He said, "It's good to see you again." If he walked in the room right now, we would greet each other as friends because he's a good dude.
What's your greatest fear?
DG: Losing the kids.
And biggest regret?
DG: Erm... Not being able to save Kurt or Jimmy [Swanson, Grohl's childhood friend who died of a drug overdose in 2008].
Do you set yourself goals?
DG: Musical ones?
Simple personal goals...
DG: I don't know. Wow! -I don't have any goals [roars laughing]. That's kind of fucked up. I think the goal has always been longevity: to try and maintain this without everything falling apart. Whenever I make a wish on a birthday candle or throw a coin in a fountain, it usually has to do with something like that.
What's the last thing you think about before going to sleep at night?
DG: What time I have to wake up. I do the math... Hey, it's 10:45pm, I have to be up at Sam... That's OK. That or: Sex!
Words: Paul Rees
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