Dave Grohl's Work/Life Balance

Sunday Times Magazine, October 2021

Wake up, make coffee, tie the kids' pigtails, play to 25,000 people ... the Nirvana drummer turned Foo Fighters frontman tells Tim Chester the secret of being rock's most regular guy

Even by globe-trotting rock-star standards, Dave Grohl has packed a lot into 52 years. He was the drummer for the grunge titans Nirvana, who shot to worldwide fame off the back of their 1991 single Smells Like Teen Spirit and defined a musical era before the death by suicide of their frontman, Kurt Cobain. Grohl has been the singer and guitarist for Foo Fighters for almost 30 years, earning 12 Grammy awards. He has played with Tom Petty, Iggy Pop and members of Led Zeppelin, and performed for President Obama and Paul McCartney at the White House. It has been a wild ride - one he can barely believe himself, so he has used the pause offered by the pandemic to write it all down in a rock memoir, The Storyteller.
  "The idea was to focus more on the emotional element of doing what I do, or what it's like to sort of have this out-of-body experience where I feel like I'm watching someone else in all of this," he tells me at his studio in the Northridge neighbourhood of Los Angeles. "Believe me, I think it's weird too. Most people are, like, 'I can't believe this is your fucking job,' and I'm, like, 'I know. I worked at the pizza place, I did the furniture warehouse. I can't believe I get to do this either.' "
  The book offers clues on how Grohl has not only survived but thrived in a career that saw him experience both sudden, stratospheric success with Nirvana and then appalling tragedy. After dropping out of high school to play in a hardcore punk band, Grohl was 21 when he caught the eye of Nirvana's Cobain and the bassist Krist Novoselic, who were between drummers. Grohl was already aware of the Seattle-based grunge group and their cult 1989 debut album, Bleach, which - as he puts it - blended "metal, punk and Beatlesesque melody into an 11-song masterpiece that would go on to change the landscape of 'alternative music' ".
  With Grohl on board, the band's second album, Nevermind, dragged grunge into the mainstream, arriving like a primal howl of angst in a shiny pop wilderness. MTV played the Smells Like Teen Spiritvideo - set in a high-school gym with anarchistic pompom-waving cheerleaders - on repeat, Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson's Dangerous off the top of the Billboard album charts and Nirvana were suddenly the biggest band in the world. Audiences exploded with what Grohl describes as "psychotic raw energy".
  Alongside the rapid success, though, came Cobain's descent into drug abuse. Grohl writes he was "shocked" when he heard the frontman was using heroin. "I had joined the band only three months before and was living with Kurt in a tiny apartment, and perhaps naively, I didn't peg him as someone who would do that sort of thing." Cobain's habit divided those around him. "There were those who did and those who didn't," Grohl writes. "And as our world expanded, that divide grew wider."
  In 1994 it all came to an end. On April 5, after a number of overdoses and a failed attempt at rehab, Cobain took his own life at his house in Seattle. He was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound three days later by an electrician visiting the property. Generation X had lost its nihilistic crown prince and fans held vigils around the world. A public memorial in Seattle was soundtracked by a recording of Cobain's widow, the musician Courtney Love, reading aloud from his suicide note.
  For Grohl it was not the first time his friend and bandmate had been reported dead. There had been a false alarm the previous month. Cobain had overdosed on painkillers in a hotel room in Rome and wound up in a coma. Grohl, already plunged into grief once, now had to learn Cobain was gone all over again, this time for real. This left him with a complicated relationship with grief, something he had to confront again when a childhood friend, Jimmy Swanson, died of a drug overdose in 2008. The chapter recalling their deaths was the hardest to write, he tells me, and he locked himself in a New York hotel room for two days to get it done.
  Grohl says he still dreams of Cobain and Swanson. "Usually with Kurt he has been alive the whole time and the band is about to go to do another show and I'm so excited for people to see Nirvana again or for the first time," he says, settling into a couch in a lounge decorated with guitars. "It's always a good feeling when I see him in dreams. Same with Jimmy - you're reunited, whether it's in this world or another."
  There is a strong sense of spirituality in Grohl. He tells me he doesn't pray in a traditional way, but does "sometimes speak to the stars" and have a little "conversation with the universe".
  "I think it's for the same reason that someone would kneel and pray in church, it's that you would somehow feel connected with something much bigger than you. And I do. There's times where I'll ... talk to the ones I've lost." That includes Lemmy, the hell-raising frontman of Motorhead, a longtime friend and collaborator. When Lemmy died in 2015, Grohl spoke at his funeral. "There are times when I feel like he's in the car with me and [we] kind of hang out and it's funny," he says.
  Nirvana continue to shape musical history. Last month, on the 30th anniversary of the release of Nevermind, Rolling Stone updated its list of 500 Best Songs of All Time and pushed Smells Like Teen Spirit up to the No 5 spot. A new generation of fans are discovering the band, not least Grohl's own children, daughters Violet, 15, Harper, 12, and Ophelia, 7. "I'm still processing Kurt's death, because I have to explain it to my kids, who love Nirvana ... I feel like I have to help my kids go through it. It's a lifetime of healing," he explained in a recent BBC documentary.
  Grohl knows he will never top his old band's legacy. "I will always be 'that guy from Nirvana', and I'm proud of it," he writes. After Cobain's death he left Seattle and went to rural Ireland to clear his head, only to bump into a kid in a Kurt Cobain T-shirt. That moment made him realise he couldn't escape the past and he needed to get back to work. So he returned to the US and started writing and recording songs again, picking up a few of his own ideas from the Nirvana days, songs that he'd kept secret. Many of them ended up on the first Foo Fighters record.
  And Foos - whose anthemic stadium rock is a far cry from the brooding nihilism of Nirvana - have been immensely successful, racking up tens of millions of albums sales, multiple Brits and Grammys, and becoming perennial festival favourites. Moving from the drum stool to the front of the stage wasn't easy. Grohl says it involved "fear, insecurity, which can work as a great motivator", but that it was "fucking terrifying. I just started getting used to this around ten years ago. I'm not kidding."
  He's also become one of rock's linchpins, jamming with everyone from Jagger to McCartney (not at the same time, sadly). Two nights before our interview he was on stage with Guns N' Roses. He seems to be mates with everyone in the world of music, which might be down to his reputation as the Nicest Guy in Rock, a title bestowed on him by fans and the music press that he has (nicely) rejected.
  "Nice" doesn't do him justice - he's a riotously joyful yet unpretentious presence, with a ready grin and unbridled enthusiasm. During our time in his studio, an unassuming building behind a lumber yard with only a Lemmy mural hinting at what's inside, he sprawls on a couch to reminisce, sparking the odd Parliament cigarette and chuckling frequently.
  Grohl grew up in Springfield, Virginia, a short drive southwest from Washington. His parents divorced when he was six, leaving him to be raised by his mother, a schoolteacher. It was a modest but happy childhood and money was often tight. "Sometimes the heat would get turned off ... the phone would get turned off," he tells me. "It just became our reality. My mother, I think because she was a schoolteacher, which requires a lot of altruism and patience, she made things fun. So even when there was no food in the fridge she would do things like 'Guess what's for dinner? Scrambled egg sandwiches! ' " She still plays a huge role in his life. "A lot of my appreciation for what I do comes from her. Because I watched her struggle so much."
  His relationship with his father was a different story. James Grohl was a conservative Capitol Hill journalist who later worked as a press secretary and speechwriter to the Republican senator Robert Taft Jr. Grohl Sr died of cancer in 2014 and appears as an influential figure in his son's book - even if the pair couldn't have been more different. As Grohl tells me: "I wind up as this radical punk rock kid going to Rock Against Reagan concerts ... and my father is at his inauguration ball."
  His father's shadow looms large. "He had instilled a fear of disappointing him in me from day one," Grohl writes. He also describes "the separation anxiety left behind by my father" and at another point muses: "Perhaps I love so fiercely as a father because mine could not."
  "I know," Grohl acknowledges, cracking his knuckles. "The other day I did the audiobook and I thought, 'God, I really gave it to my dad.' " There's levity to many of the reminiscences, though. One passage recalls his father's consternation when the 17-year-old Grohl drops out of school to join the hardcore punk outfit Scream. "As we walked to our separate cars ... my father got one more jab in before officially disowning me for good, screaming, 'AND STAY OFF THE DRUGS!!!' It was the most trembling, Bob Dole-esque display of tight-ass Republican fury I have ever seen. I could only laugh. His degradation couldn't hurt me any more. I was finally off the hook, and so was he (I seem to remember him driving a new forest-green Plymouth Volare soon after I left school and can only conclude that the meagre college fund he had set aside for me was immediately withdrawn and blown on this most pimp-ass ride)."
  The pair reconciled as the years went on - James Grohl helped his son find a house to buy in Seattle during the Nirvana years - and they began conversing over email. "His read like a novel, beautiful, eloquent and fun to read," he tells me. Dave tried to match his father's tone, finally earning some coveted paternal praise. "He eventually said, 'You're becoming one hell of a writer,' " he remembers, pausing for a moment before adding, "Life. Validation. You have no idea. That's all I ever wanted, was for him to think that I was smart or I could do something well.
  "I think every day I have a new understanding of him," he says. "He was a complicated person but brilliant." As he talks he clears his throat a few times - something his dad would often do. "It's fucked-up," he admits, smiling. "That sound is exactly what he would do all the time ... I'm possessed!"
  His book came about during lockdown after he set up an Instagram account (@davestruestories) to share anecdotes and "give everyone something to smile about for five minutes". "I didn't necessarily want to write a kind of formulaic, chronological thing," he says. "I wanted it to bounce around."
  Some aspects of his life are absent, such as an old feud between Courtney Love and the surviving members of the band about the rights and royalties to Nirvana's music. ("I mean, everyone else is going to write about it, why should I?" Grohl says.) The hatchet was supposedly buried years ago, but in June this year Love hit out at him in an Instagram post, before deleting it and apologising.
  Then there's the fact that the band is being sued by the man who, as a baby, was photographed naked swimming towards a dollar bill on the cover of Nevermind. Spencer Elden, now 30, claims the image is child pornography that the band have profited from. When I ask Grohl for the latest on that saga, he will talk only in general about dealing with lawsuits over the years: "At some point, unfortunately, it just becomes par for the course." He does, however, hint that the cover of Nevermind might be changed for any subsequent reissues. "I have many ideas of how we should alter that cover but we'll see what happens," he says. Anything specific? "We'll let you know," he teases with a smile. "I'm sure we'll come up with something good."
  Grohl is no stranger to litigation. He was first sued at the age of 21, by a music industry insider after Nirvana signed a contract with the man. "My first lawsuit when I'd just joined Nirvana was really frustrating," he remembers. "My mother felt so terrible for me that here we are about to launch into this new sort of phase of life and it's just kind of decapitated by this lawsuit."
  As an English teacher specialising in Shakespeare she found a T-shirt with the perfect quote from Henry VI, Part 2: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." "I remember wearing that for months. I just wore that T-shirt out."
  His attitude to litigation now? "I think that there's much more to look forward to and much more to life than getting bogged down in those kinds of things. And, fortunately, I don't have to do the paperwork."
  Many rock memoirs act as a place to air grievances or set the record straight, but not Grohl's. "That's not really my style," he says. "I'd love to share something that's a bit more substantial or positive with everyone."
  Readers are also spared the gratuitous, often misogynistic mentions of women that feature so heavily in historic rock autobiographies. We hear of his heartbreak as a 13-year-old by a girl called Sandi who inspired him to pick up a guitar: "Some people find angels in burnt tortillas. I found an angel in lip gloss and Jordache jeans ... I had given her my heart, only for her to smash it into a thousand bloody pieces on the ground before me (please laugh)."
  The "death rattle of [his] first marriage" gets a passing mention too - Grohl divorced the photographer Jennifer Youngblood in the mid-1990s - but that's about it. Many more pages are devoted to his mother, his wife, Jordyn, a director and former model, and his three daughters, clearly among the most important people in his life. He tells a story of flying back from a gig in Adelaide, Australia, to attend a daddy-daughter dance with Violet and Harper in California, only to return to Australia later that night for another gig - a journey involving "forty hours of travel over two days and sixteen time zones". With food poisoning.
  Many of the anecdotes are laced with self-effacing comedy, sending up the usual tales of rock debauchery. While John Bonham, Led Zeppelin's drummer, famously rode a Harley-Davidson through a hotel lobby, Grohl rides a "puny" 50cc scooter on stage at an Australian festival in 2000 before being stopped on the road back to his hotel - and temporarily jailed - for drink-scooting. (He was "sprung" a few hours later by their tour manager, Gus.)
  Whereas the guitarist Slash from Guns N' Roses writes about brushes with death thanks to class-A drugs in his eponymous 2007 autobiography, Grohl ends up in the hospital after drinking too much coffee. He finds himself in a CT scanning machine at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, aged 40, due to a combination of too much caffeine and a truly hectic schedule. (At the time he was recording from 11am to 6pm with Foo Fighters and from 7pm to midnight with Them Crooked Vultures, a project with Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, he'd just had another daughter, work was being done on his house and he was sinking far too much java in an attempt to keep up with it all.)
  In fact, after smoking weed and dabbling in hallucinogens in his teens, Grohl says he had given up drugs by the time he was 21 as they gave him anxiety and he has never done cocaine. When he was a teenager in Springfield, Virginia, he witnessed a friend have a heart attack after taking it - an experience that "terrified" him, he says. He also grew up around Washington's "straight edge" music scene, where many musicians shunned narcotics and alcohol.
  Coffee is still his rocket fuel. He also jokes about his "pre-show ritual of three Advils [painkillers], three beers and a room full of laughter".
  Laughter is the constant backbeat to Grohl's life. He is a lifelong performer with a penchant for dressing up in Foo Fighters videos, who appears as Satan in Jack Black's 2006 comedy movie Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, and who has recently recorded an album of Bee Gee covers titled Hail Satin with his Foos bandmates under the nom-de-band Dee Gees. This summer the group trolled their nemeses, members of the right-wing Westboro Baptist Church who have picketed their gigs, by driving past in a flat-bed truck and performing the song You Should Be Dancing at them.
  Even in the Nirvana years life could be fun. Grohl would spend days with Cobain playing Super Mario World in digs he describes as an "adolescent recreation centre from hell". Grohl traces his desire to perform to day one. "My mother gave birth to me in a hospital room full of interns seeing their first live birth, so when I was born the room erupted in applause," he remembers. "That was the first sound I ever heard out of my mother's body." He soon began performing for her, imitating the Swedish chef from The Muppets ("I wanted her to be happy or smile") and hasn't stopped since.
  His refusal to take himself and life too seriously has served him well. But nothing keeps him as grounded as much as family. For every wild story in the book - throwing beer glasses at fascists in Amsterdam or smuggling hash in the bassist's dreadlocks in the band Scream - there's another about shopping for Barbie dolls with his daughters. He somehow keeps the twin worlds of rock and domesticity in harmony.
  The night before our conversation, Foo Fighters had headlined a festival in Napa Valley, California, and when we finish up he's fielding texts about whether to go out for supper or cook at home, before heading off to see his mother.
  As he tells it: "I wake up in the morning. I make pancakes and packed lunches and fucking tie ponytails and get them in a minivan and take them to fucking school and then I come down here and do some interviews and then I'll go play in front of 25,000 people, get five hours of sleep, wake up, get a pot of coffee and do it again ... I think it's hard for most people to imagine, but it can be done."

Why Elton John is the "queen bitch of rock and roll"

Once, while I was pushing Violet in a stroller down a busy London shopping street with my wife and our good friend Dave Koz, Elton John walked out of a boutique directly in front of us and jumped in a waiting car. We all stopped and asked each other, "Holy shit! Did you just see that?!??!" It was Elton. Fucking. John. And he was sitting in a parked car only feet from where we were standing, starstruck. "Go say hi, Dave!" my friend said, nudging me. I laughed and said: "I don't fucking know Elton John! And he sure as fuck doesn't know who I am!" The car started up, pulled away, drove about 20 metres up the road and stopped. The door opened and out jumped Elton John. He approached me with that big toothy grin and said, "Hello, Dave, nice to meet you." My smile almost fell off my face, it was so wide. I introduced him to Jordyn and Dave, and he leant down and gave Violet a kiss before running back and speeding away. Now, that's how you do it, I thought. (And yes, his giant sapphire earrings matched his shoes perfectly.)
Years later I had the opportunity to play drums on a track with Elton for the Queens of the Stone Age album ...Like Clockwork. The song Fairweather Friends was a blistering, unconventional multipart arrangement that we had carefully rehearsed before his arrival, because when Queens recorded, it was always full band live to tape, meaning you had to have your shit together and get it right.
Elton arrived, straight from an Engelbert Humperdinck session (not kidding), and said, "OK, boys, what? . . . Have you got a ballad for me?" We all laughed and said, "No . . . come listen." For anyone to just stroll in and learn such a complicated song straight away was a huge ask, but Elton sat at the piano and worked on it until he got it right, take after take, ever the perfectionist, proving why he is the queen bitch of rock and roll.

The day Paul McCartney came over to meet our new baby

A few days after Ophelia was born and we brought her home from the hospital, we invited Paul McCartney and his wife, Nancy, over to the house to see the baby. This was a monumental occasion for more than a million reasons, but I did notice one thing that will stick with me for ever. Violet and Harper [then aged eight and five] obviously knew that Paul was a musician in a band called the Beatles but at their tender ages had no idea what that meant in the pantheon of music history. To them, Paul was just our musician friend Paul, and I saw that when those mythical preconceptions are taken away, there is a purity of spirit, an unconditional love. I, of course, spent the hour before his arrival hiding the mountains of Beatles stuff I had in the house (you never know how much Beatles memorabilia you have until a Beatle comes to visit), but the kids were without any inflated sense of who he really was.
  As they were leaving and we were saying our goodbyes, Paul noticed the piano down the hall and couldn't resist. He sat down and started playing Lady Madonna as I stood in shock, hearing a voice the world adores echo throughout my own house, now filled with my own family. Harper disappeared for a moment and returned with a coffee cup that she had filled with spare change and placed it on the piano as a tip jar for Sir Paul. We fell about the room laughing and he invited her to sit on the bench next to him for a piano lesson, her first. He showed her the keys, and which note each one was, and they began to play together while Paul sang, "We're playing a song ... we're playing a song ..."
  The next morning as I was making breakfast in the kitchen, I heard the piano again, that same melody that Paul and Harper had played the night before. I peeked around the corner and saw Harper by herself on the bench, her tiny hands playing those same chords in perfect time, and I knew exactly what she was feeling: inspired by Paul. Because I once had felt the same. Though the difference was that the sound of his voice was coming from the tiny turntable on my bedroom floor, not right beside me on the piano bench as I played along with him.
  The circle was complete.

Words: Tim Chester    

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