THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
The California sun beats down mercilessly on the tarmac and the surrounding scorched earth, as we snake up the winding road that leads to the top of the canyon. There, on a quiet road, sits the beautiful house of Foo Fighter drummer Taylor Hawkins. All the members of the band are present in the garage, which has recently been converted into a plush studio. They have been gathered together for the past week to write and lay down ideas for the new album. Foo Fighters -a garage band? Well you could say that...
We are invited here today to interview a veritable rarity in today’s music climate : a guy whose first taste of success saw him take his place behind the drum kit of one of the most influential bands of the last decade, Nirvana. A guy who, when the legend ended tragically and abruptly, swapped his drumsticks for a guitar and sang his own songs, becoming a success in his own right. And a guy who -despite all his achievements- has kept both feet planted firmly on planet earth, never allowing anyone or anything to change him from being one of the most congenial and approachable people in rock today. His name is Dave Grohl .
Let’s take a walk through his normal working day. He and the other Foos greet the world at the sensible hour of 11.30am. They commence knocking ideas around for two or three hour periods in the studio before coming out for air, when they will spend half-hour breaks frolicking in the sun. The splendour of Taylor’s home offers many amenities : it is possible to take a cooling dip in the pool, or to bounce out the cobwebs on the trampoline at the bottom of the garden, which is replete with stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Finally, a shady patio is provided, perfect for sitting and contemplating the latest bassline or musing over a tasty lyric.
In this relaxed easy going atmosphere, the band are in high spirits: they’ve laid down ideas for 15-20 songs. To further promote a stress-free environment, all record company and management are banned from contact. Only Rhythm may enter to hallowed Foo enclave. It is here as the sun sets on another productive day, that we sit down with Mr Grohl to discuss his past, present and future.
How are the demos for the new album coming together?
"Taylor and I get together and work on the riff ideas before we get into arrangements and vocal melodies. We went to Virginia to my studio, had 20-25 ideas, and we ran through each one of them quickly, then throw it on tape - guitar, drums, I put bass on- and move to the next track. So we had a reference CD, knowing that in a few weeks we would come out here to LA, and all of us would get together. We work on the arrangements until we are ready to record, and in doing that, more ideas usually start."
Do you feel under pressure?
"We are not in a hurry. We love to play with each other and hang out together, we love to tour, but we don’t feel any pressure to spank out another album before the end of the year so that the Christmas buyers can line the pockets of everyone else."
Will you and Taylor be sharing drum duties on the new album? If so, will you be owning up to who played what on which track?
"The last record we did, we never owned up to who played on what track. Even my best friends, who I’ve known for 15 years and recorded with, can’t tell the difference between us, because Taylor and I have adopted each others styles."
"Taylor and I talk about this a lot. He and I are like brothers. In this band, it’s rhythm orientated, its riff orientated. It has to do with the guitar pattern locking in with the drum pattern, locking in with the bass pattern- everything locked in rhythmically. Taylor can’t read my mind, but he’s a better drummer than me, so I trust whatever he comes up with. The two of us get together and talk, Taylor says ‘I want you to feel okay about playing any drums on the next record’. And I say, ‘Man don’t tell me that- you should say, ‘I am playing all the drums on the next record!!’" "We have a lot of admiration and love for each other, and so either way it’s fine, but Taylor’s one of those drummers I feel fortunate to play with. There are three great rock drummers in the world who are playing in popular bands right now. They are Matt Cameron from Pearl Jam, Chad Smith from the chilis, and Taylor. I think these are the three best rock drummers in the world today. I’m the luckiest drummer in the world- I’ve found the best drummer to be in my band."
Are there any plans to record a double-drummer track in the future?
"There are no plans, but I’m sure it could happen. At the same time, you don’t want to exploit the fact too much that there are 2 drummers in this band. I’m sure a lot of people would expect a double drummer jam on every record, like ‘Bonzo’s Montreux’, but its just to predictable. So if there’s a drum solo, let Taylor do it. I can’t do those things."
How do the drum parts take shape? Do you and Taylor work on them together?
"Usually we sit down and get to know the feel or the riff of the song, and Taylor will see what I’m strumming, and we’ll talk about accents and we’ll talk about specific parts."
Have you ever been tempted to redo any of Taylor’s drum parts, or he, yours?
"oh I’m sure he’s been tempted to redo mine! I wish he could have played on the first 2 records, it would have made such a big difference. On the last record, we designated which songs each person would do. The drum thing is still a kind of a drug to me. On the Probot thing I got to be a drummer of my heavy metal band that I’ve always wanted to have, and with Foo Fighters music that I’ve played the drums on, its always kind of pop orientated. There’s no flash stuff- its basically a groove, or lack thereof, or just sort of holding down the fort. There’s never really been any wizardry at all, so going in to do the Probot thing, I knew this could be fun. It doesn’t matter if it’s a weird time signature, or if it’s too much or too little of anything. But I miss playing the drums. After Foo Fighters are done, I’ll probably join another band and play drums. But you get a little older, and it hurts now I’m 32."
Tell us a bit about your home studio.
"The advantage of having a home studio is being able to lock the door and not let anyone in! There is pressure from the label, because they find this more threatening. I think the band should always be in control, and having a studio at home is definitely a safety zone."
How does the first ever line-up of the Foo Fighters compare to this one?
Dave : "This one is much better. I love William Goldsmith, I love Pat Smear, but its been 6 years now and when Taylor, Nate, Chris and I walk on stage now, we finally have the confidence in ourselves. Up until the last year, up until that Chili Peppers tour, we were kinda scared. We are so musical now. Nate’s growing as a bass player, Taylor’s an amazing drummer with a great sense of composition and arrangement. Chris is an awesome guitarist."
Why did you relinquish the drum throne when you got the Foo Fighters together? It must have been hard to watch someone else play drums in your band?
"It all happened by default. The first Foo Fighters album was a demo that I made by myself at a studio down the street from my house. I didn’t imagine it being a band, I couldn’t imagine it being a major label release. The idea was to release it, call it Foo Fighters, and people would think it was a group, and not put my name on it, not have any photos, release it on my own label, maybe make 10,000 vinyl copies. And then it turned into the band after I heard that William and Nate were leaving Sunny Day Real Estate. I gave Pat Smear a tape and he was interested, so when we first started playing the songs, it wasn’t new, I wasn’t really connected to the drum parts on the record- it was a five day session."
"Also, it was important to me to try something new after Nirvana, after having everything fall apart the way it did. I didn’t want to go play drums in another band. I had offers from a few people but I didn’t want to. I was 25 years old and I thought ‘If I want to be a drummer for hire, I’ve got years and years to do that’. I wasn’t really concerned with drums at the time."
How intimidating do you think it was for William and Taylor to join a band where the frontman was already a legend in the drum world himself?
"I think for William it was a little more difficult than it was for Taylor. When Taylor joined the band, he had been playing for Alanis and had travelled the world playing in front of massive audiences. William was in a different situation- we didn’t communicate like Taylor and I do. Everything happened really quickly at first. We started rehearsing in November, December 1994, and went on our first tour in March, April 1995. The album came out in July and we toured for a year. We always knew that fact that there were two people in the band who were ex-members of Nirvana would attract more attention than had it been 4 guys going out on their own. We really tried to build things slowly. Even when we released the first record, we tried to get the record label to promote it in a way that was beneath the radar. We were so lucky that we had a foundation that other bands would kill for."
During some live shows, you and Taylor have been known to indulge in double-drummer shenanigans and even swap places, with Taylor taking over the lead vocals. Any more plans for this?
"I am very sure that we will do double drum tracks again. We don’t want to make it a staple of the live show, but it’s pretty fun and it makes for a good show. And it’s pretty funny when I go sit on the drumset and people start screaming ‘Wow, yeah! The drummer from Nirvana!’ And then I end up getting schooled by Taylor. I step off the drumset and they say ‘All right! It’s Taylor Hawkins!’."
What was it about Taylor’s drumming that made you want him in the band?
"It was Taylor’s personality more than his drumming. I met him while he was playing with Alanis. We swapped numbers and kept in touch. When William left, we were here in LA doing a record, and I called Taylor and asked if he knew of anyone who will play and he said, ‘I’ll do it’. And I said ‘Well, Taylor we’re not selling out arenas like Alanis Morissette does.’ And he said, ‘I just wanna be in a rock band’. So I came up to his house in Topanga Canyon. I’d given him a tape of the new songs and he said, ‘I have a question about this one part’, walks me into this tiny room with his drumset and sits down and says, ‘Okay, does it go like this?’ And the sound of the snare drum was so ear-blistering loud that I knew he had to be in the band right then, because in this tiny bedroom, he played his drums like he was in front of the Knebworth audience. It was amazing. I went back and called everyone and said, ‘He has to be our drummer’."
"One of the first things we did together to bond was we went to see John Bonham’s son Jason play at the Whiskey in LA. We were so drunk, we ended up having a ‘slap in the face’ contest at the bar. We almost got kicked out because people thought we were fighting, and we went home hungover, knowing this would last for a long time.."
If Taylor ever quit the band, who would you consider as a replacement?
"If Taylor ever quit the band, the band would be over! I feel like if the band broke up tomorrow I’d miss everyone, but it wouldn’t destroy my life. We’ve accomplished a lot and I’m very proud of all of us. But its not the kind of thing that I would want to do for the next 10 years of my life. I think bands are like a can of spam - they have a shelf life."
What influence’s and inspiration’s has Taylor taken from you, and what, in turn, have you taken from him?
"Taylor’s favourite drummers are early Phil Collins, early Genesis. That stuff is good drumming, period. So Taylor’s all about Matt Cameron, Phil Collins, Stuart Copeland and Neil Peart. Whereas I come from John Bonham or Tony Thompson or punk rock drummers like Chuck Biscuits. So I’m more groove orientated, Taylor’s more traditional progressive rock drumming, and we meet somewhere in the middle."
How did you get into drumming in the first place?
"I started playing guitar when I was about 10 years old. My mother gave me a book of Beatles songs to learn. At the same time I was listening to Rush, 2112. I found it really exciting and I just picked up on it. I was playing in bands from my neighbourhood when I was about 12 or 13, and every time the drummer would go home, I would go behind his drumkit and try to figure out the beat from this song or that song. Two or three years later I was in a band and the drummer was awful, and I said, ‘How about you play bass and I play drums?’ And that was it, I never went back."
"When I was 16 or 17, I wanted to stop drumming and start a band were I played guitar again, but my sister told me, ‘No, you’re turning out to be an okay drummer, and drummers are hard to find, and guitar players are a dime a dozen’. I didn’t have a drumkit for the first 5 years. I’d borrow peoples’ or I’d learn to play on my bed listening to hard-core records."
If you had to recommend five albums to aspiring drummers, which would you choose?
"Young drummers should definitely listen to ‘Led Zepplin Four’, ‘Revolver’ by the Beatles, Soundgarden’s ‘Down On The Upside’, ‘Wrong’ by No Means No and ‘The Best Of The Gap Band’ - I swear to God!"
How did you end up joining Nirvana?
"Scream were touring and our bass player quit in LA without telling anyone. A friend of mine, Buzz, was in the Melvins, and I called him because I wanted to get on the list for their show. He asked me if I knew about Nirvana, and I said, yes I had heard ‘Bleach’ and I liked it. Well, they were looking for a drummer and had just seen us play in San Francisco, and I said to Buzz if ever I became available to give them a call straight away."
"So I gave them a call, and they said that they had already got a drummer, who was Danny from Mudhoney, so I said, ‘No problem, here is my number-if you guys come into town, give me a call’. The following night, they called me back and said, ‘Maybe you should come up here to Seattle’. So I did, and we had one rehearsal and that was it."
What were your first impression of the other 2 when you met them?
"They were very weird. Krist is 6 feet seven and a half, and kind of a hippie pothead philosopher, hilariously funny, incredibly eccentric, definitely an individual. And then Kurt is this tiny and reserved and is just quiet. They were both a mystery to me- I did not see myself fitting into that picture at all when they first picked me up from the airport."
Where you a big fan of the band before they asked you to join?
"Yes, I’d heard ‘Bleach’ and I thought it was pretty cool. I knew 20 people who thought it was the best record they had heard in years. There was something that nobody else had done at the time. Kurt’s voice was raw, and the turned down sound was something that I had not heard before." "I knew that the three of us together made a good band, but I didn’t know anything was going to happen with it. I knew there were record companies interested in signing Nirvana, but the goal was to play the same size venues that Sonic Youth were playing."
How closely did you and Krist work together in the rhythm section?
"The songs that they were writing were all pretty basic, Nirvana has a minimalist aspect that we all adhered to, so Kirst’s and my responsibility was laying the foundation for what Kurt was trying to accomplish with the song."
"We tried to be as tight as possible, but there was something beautiful about the looseness and sloppy, raw, messy playing that made the band sound the way that it did."
What was the inspiration for the awesome groove on ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’?
"That was pretty Pixies-influenced. There’s that ‘60s go-go dancer’s beat that the Pixies used a lot in their songs, and I just wanted to take it to another level by playing it harder and cutting out the 8th notes and the 16th notes and just playing on the fours, to just break that down to something a bit more minimal and a bit more beefy."
If you had to pick a highlight of your three years with Nirvana, what would it be?
"The Reading Festival in 1992, headlining it- that was pretty amazing. We were so disconnected at that point, we hadn’t rehearsed, we hadn’t played in such a long time. Kurt was going through a lot of stuff on his own, there was a lot of speculation that we weren’t going to play- was Kurt in rehab? Had the band broken? And I was expecting it to be the biggest disasters of our lives. It turned out to be one of the best shows we had ever played."
What is your favourite Nirvana track?
"Probably ‘Milk It’. It was powerful enough in the rehearsal space, something bigger and better happened when we got it onto tape and recorded it. It was in interesting drum track, most of the Nirvana tracks were basic 4/4 and that one was turned on its side."
And your least favourite?
"‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, because it was the track that everyone expected us to play, and we only played one show without it."
At this point in you have been in the Foo Fighters twice as long as you were in Nirvana. What is your perspective now on the whole Nirvana experience?
Dave : "It changes as years go by, I have new insights and adopt new perspectives on it. After Kurt died, it wasn’t the bad things that came straight to mind, it was the good things-and then, as time went on, I started remembering all the bad things. Healing from a loss like that takes a long time, but as long as you feel like life’s still in motion, and you are carrying on, you can deal with the bad things because there is so much to look forward to."
"From 1991 to 1994 was the biggest whirlwind of my life. I wish I kept some sort of journal where I could look back on it. But you don’t think of that at the time."
How did you cope with the intense media interest in Nirvana? And how do you find the media now that you are the focus of your own band?
"I was fortunate in Nirvana where I was really just the drummer, I think that unfortunately Kurt had to suffer through all the spotlight. Krist and I remained relatively anonymous, me more so than Krist because of his size. So I had the best job in the world, I was selling millions of records people had a lot of respect for, but I could still go to the movies and not have anyone ask me for an autograph."
"And then with the Foo Fighters, as the years go by, more and more I’m being recognised. I have always been seen it as something flattering, and fortunately, people see us as real normal guys- so if someone comes up to me in the supermarket and say hey, I say hey back, how’s it going? And that’s it. There’s never any screaming, crying girls or any drama."
How often do you play drums these days compared to guitar?
"Well, sitting down playing guitar in front of the TV is easier than sitting down playing the drums. I usually play the drums everyday, even if it’s just for a few minutes. But with guitar I walk around with it all day long."
If you were only allowed to play one instrument again in your life, what would it be, guitar or drums?
"Well. Rhythm readers, I would have to say guitar. It’s the instrument I started with, I feel like I’m still growing, learning something everyday."
"As a drummer, there are some things I would like to accomplish- but in this point in my life I feel like I’ve plateaued. I can do what I do well, but I really don’t have the ambition to be the best drummer in the world. I really don’t want to be that guy."
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