Back with their seventh album,we caught up with Dave Grohl to find out what it's like to be admired by the world,working with his heroes and bringing in some faces from the past...
Dave Grohl is one well-liked dude. Seriously, his approval ratings are so high up on the failsafe Rock Sound 2011 Popularity Index that he could be found solely responsible for making the giant panda extinct and people would still find it in their hearts to forgive him, climbing over each other to excuse his behaviour, like, "Well, they were totally eating all his bamboo and, just stinkin' up the whole God damn place..." And, y'know, this adoration just doesn't come out of nowhere, it was seeded a long time ago; perhaps it took root with Nirvana's success but definitely blossomed when the drummer found his voice with the Foo Fighters, growing coltishly from of a slacker-anthem alternative rock solo-project and into one of the highest grossing rock bands of all time. The Foo Fighters canon is full of three to four minute reasons why all kinds of people love them. The Foo Fighters play something for everyone; the brokenhearted and optimistic alike. Yet, despite everyone grabbing a piece of them and catapulting them into the Major League rock stratosphere they can still feel like your band; popularity hasn't taken them away from anyone, it's quite the opposite. For a self-confessed metalhead who made his bones in punk and its rough-hewn stepchild grunge, this all-consuming appetite for Foos - one which sees their songs co-opted by politicians, considered essential listening at sporting events, made hugely desirable for televised American sitcoms (budget permitting), etc - could be disconcerting. But Grohl knows that when he writes songs it is all for you; sure it's for everyone who wants to and can take something out of the music, but what keeps the Foo Fighters' repertoire sacred as their star soars overhead is that sense of intimacy, it's an intimacy that is broadcast far and wide to their audience but it's one whose roots lie at home. For 'Wasting Light', the Foo Fighters' seventh studio full-length, Grohl has upped that intimacy, making it even more personal. And where better than his garage to keep the outside world out and his nearest closest to him; making a record in a space that his studio shares with his kids' bicycles and his motorcycles is a bona fide great decision by Grohl. It makes for another honest record rather than deliberately stitching together the next huge rock release for record execs to soil themselves over and use high-denomination bills to clean up the mess.
"One of the things about this band that makes it go, we have this really casual disregard for the outside world," explains Grohl. "A lot of what we do is done in this bubble that we've created for ourselves. Everything we do is only if it feels natural and right. We stay away from things that feel contrived. We stay away from things that seem too unrealistic and I think the making of this album, the way that we did it, in a garage, was a terrific way for us to represent our band. Y'know, staying away from digital manipulation of sound and performance and staying away from somewhere like a famous, state-of-the-art studio and doing it reel-to-reel, 24-track, two-inch tape in a garage; it captures the band, it creates a portrait of the band that's much more realistic and pure and honest. I just thought there was some great irony in being the band that sells out two nights at Wembley [Stadium] and then turns around and makes their next record in a fucking garage to 24-track tape.
"I think that is maybe where the intimacy lives. We stripped away a lot of the bullshit that bands carry around on their shoulders. I honestly believe we'd be doing the same thing whether there was 100,000 people watching or 100. The reason why people connect with that is because they see us as human beings. We don't wear make-up. We're not a musical; we're just dudes, we play rock on stage... and if you want to come back and have a beer, if you have the right pass, you can!"
In songs such as 'Stacked Actors' from 99's There Is Nothing Left To Lose', Grohl has railed against the vacuity of celebrity culture yet somehow he's found himself on the A-list. He is a fucking rock star, but in the purist, dictionary definition; not in the shorthand-for-assholes sense of the term. His ego is on a strict diet of self-depreciation: "God, if I managed to pull this off, fucking anyone could do it!" Or, "Just the fact that I can keep the heat on in my house from playing music makes me feel pretty good." And, "I was talking to my wife when we put those Milton Keynes gigs on sale. I was really worried. I thought, 'God, this is presumptuous that we just put 130,000 tickets on sale and expect people to run, flock to get them when we haven't been around for two years.'"
Yeah, but you've just sold those 130,000 tickets for 2 nights at Milton Keynes Bowl in 20 minutes flat - "The fact that 130,000 people want to come see my band that makes me feel really good!"
Getting recognised in the street is not so much of a worry for Dave Grohl because the people who recognise him don't want to cut a lock off his hair, stick it in a jar and try to clone him in a bedroom laboratory - or worse still, sell it on eBay. They're just ordinary people saying hi to an ordinary guy, one who gets freaked out in case he's forgotten someone's name.
"It happens to me all the time!" he says, sounding half-panicked. "I'll be walking down the street and someone goes, 'Hey Dave, what's up?' And I'll say, 'Hey man, how's it going!?' And my wife will say, 'Do you know person?' And I'll say, 'I don't know!'"
And if the price of fame is a moment's worry you may have forgotten someone's name then surely it's not as bad as all of the affected superstars would have their on-call therapists believe. Dave Grohl can take his kids to school unmolested by flash photography and autograph hunters and all manner of flotsam and jetsam that floats in with the tide of stardom because it's easy to relate to him, and in turn he is maybe easy to miss too, what with being such a regular dude.
"One of the things that we've been really good at over the years is keeping ourselves from getting stuck in some sort of complicated machine," he says, by way of endorsing the concept of staying 'regular' when the whole world knows your name and occupation.
"We own our entire catalogue; everything we've ever released belongs to the Foo Fighters - we've never given ourselves to anybody. We've always protected ourselves by keeping everything and owning everything, whether it's our own studio or the catalogue, we've been able to close the door and keep the undesirables out. I think that when that happens things become really simple. People try to make things way more complicated than they should be. I try to simplify everything in my life. My life is a comfortable but simple existence; when I'm not doing the band I'm hanging with my family, when I'm not hanging with my family I'm doing the band. That's really it, and it's enough."
Speaking to Grohl, who is pretty much breathless in detailing the ins and outs, and moreover the benefits of recording at home, to the analogue warmth of reel-to-reel two-inch tape, it's impossible not to get the sense that this is another stage in the Foo Fighters' evolution, albeit one where they've gone back to the essentials, the beginning. After all, the garage is the very first place most bands play their first songs together. This album's writing and recording process should be taught in music production academia as adolescent classicism, only instead of a Tascam four-track and a borrowed condenser microphone the Foo Fighters have Butch Vig (who last worked with Groh! on Nirvana's 'Nevermind') producing it with some liber-lush studio gear to capture every take, every breath and every nuance of every song. Seriously, this album sounds incredible, with no digital edits choking the performances of their personality.
"A lot of people still record to tape to get that natural tape compression and then they'll download what they have on tape onto a computer," says Grohl. "To me, the restriction of only having 24 tracks to record to, the limitations of doing something in a garage, would somehow affect the song, to strip it down to its basic core. We've been guilty in the past of loading 20 to 30 fucking guitars to make it bigger whereas this time we're just relying on the song."
And this is where Grohl evangelises his faith in the album: the songs. But not because they take the Foos somewhere new; they've tossed the dice before, with 'In Your Honor"s bi-polar two-discs, offering one all turbo alt-rock antherns and the other down-tempo, predominantly acoustic arrangements: no, Grohl insists these songs could have been culled from any stage in his musical career, and it's seeing his own thumbprint on their verse chorus that lets him know he is being honest with himself and the listener. "When I listen to a song off this record, like 'Dear Rosemary' or 'Rope', or'I Should Have Known' - those songs could've been Dain Bramage songs, the band I was in when I was fucking 17! I listen to those songs like me and Dave [Smith] and Reuben [Radding] would've been doing it in 1986, and in that way, I guess that's what makes me really believe in it because it's just me. I think that's what people see in us; it's not just pretension, and I don't know... it's beautiful imperfection. I've always felt like when it's time to go into the studio we want to make a record like it's the best one we've ever made, so with any one of our albums I've looked at it as if it was our debut album, and if we were worthy of the kind of attention that we're getting at the time then it's cool."
That even Bob Dylan lost his shit for 'Everlong' is arguably the sort of commendation that endorses Grohl as a songwriter so proven and celebrated that he could be considered one of America's greats - a la Springsteen, Petty, Young et al - but for Dave it's more than just good hooks and the simple osmosis of letting your personality colour a song.
"Someone like Neil Young is such an iconic hero to me not only because what he's accomplished musically but also as a human being," he says. "Or Ian MacKaye from Fugazi / Minor Threat, same thing, he has made musical history but I almost respect him as a person more, and consider him a hero more because of how he is. I think it's important that people recognise you as a human being, that you're a good person, that music is only part of it. It really is overwhelming when people scream the name of a song that you wrote on a napkin 18 years ago in 25 minutes when we go to play it live."
With 2011's line-up of Taylor Hawkins on drums, Nate Mendel on bass, Chris Shiflett and the returning Pat Smear on lead guitar, the Foo Fighters have rarely been so surefooted going into an album launch. It has been a long time since 23 October 94, when the sessions for the self-titled debut were concluded. Grohl protests that he is not one for retrospection, but to coincide with the album's release he has commissioned a forthcoming Foo Fighters documentary, and it's put him in a reflective mood. He explains: "I thought, 'Now is a good time to make a history-of-the-band documentary because if we wait any longer it'll just be too long'. There are still people who are shocked to hear that I was the drummer of Nirvana. I just laugh. I assume that people like the Foo Fighters because I was the drummer of Nirvana, and every now and then I'll meet people who had no idea that I was even in [the band], so maybe it's time to tell the story. If you think about it, Butch [Vig] and I have this incredible story between the two of us; the first time the two of us got together to work was to make an album 20 years ago and so much has happened to us in that time. 'Nevermind' was such a huge part of our lives and it changed them forever."
If sitting through seven-hour interview sessions and telling the story affords him anything, it's a sense of context when assessing the impact on him personally having Vig back in the control room, and former Nirvana bassist Knst Novoselic contributing accordion and bass to the haunting These Days'. "You'll hear it in the lyrics," says Grohl, "there's a lot of introspection and a lot of retrospection. In the making of this album, sitting in a room with Butch and Krist Novoselic at the same time, it's hard for me not to feel that and it's hard for that not to make its way into a song." Looking back to a time when Nirvana's arrival warped everything and caused an almighty pop cultural paradigm offers even more context when you successfully petition Husker Du legend Bob Mould to guest on your album.
"Sitting in a room recording with him was one of my life's greatest moments," the frontman explains.
"He. of course, is a brilliant songwriter and an excellent musician. But to have Bob in my house, hanging out with my children, playing a song that we are collaborating on on my record was just huge for me."
Grohl has previous history with 03's Probot, a metal side-project that brought together such artists as Max Cavalera, Lemmy and even Cronos from Venom.
It was a chance for Grohl to work with his heroes on some level. Bob Mould working on 'Dear Rosemary' sees the frontman once again making peers of his influences, but he's still a bit Wayne-and-Garth: hey, no matter who you are there is always someone to bow before and declare, 'We're not worthy!'
"I wear a lot of influences on my sleeve. I reference them lyrically and I've never been afraid to say, 'I FUCKING LOVE VENOM!' Y'know!?" he says, his excitement reaching a fever. "If it weren't for all of these people I wouldn't be here. However, I'm not entirely sure who my peers are. I've always felt undeserving of even having peers, but I do know the people who are responsible for me being here. I really like to pay tribute to them." Making music is not a straight up popularity contest, though, and as the Foo Fighters prepare to take the tin lid of this new album and take it to the stage, Grohl ponders just exactly why he does it, why he exposes his thoughts and personality to his songs. "I don't make records so that people think I'm a nice person, I make records because I want people to jump around and have the night of our lives when they come to see us play. I recognise this as an incredible luxury."
Words: Jonathan Horsley
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