It's been quite a year for Foo Fighters, shaking off the ghosts of the past and confounding the expectations of those who consider Dave Grohl the 'Ringo' of Nirvana. NME caught up with him in Dublin (where he originally wrote the first Foo Fighters material) and found a man finally making sense of the highs and lows of the last five years.
The area of Dublin tarmac immediately adjacent to the rear entrance of the SFX Centre has temporarily seceded from the rest of Ireland. Its inhabitants, predominantly young and shrill of voice, have occasioned the creation of a new state: Foomania.
"DAAAAAAAAAVE! Over here DAAAAAAAAAVE!" Dave Grohl walks towards his van. Not coincidentally, the imploring voices stand between him and it. "I love you DMAAAAAAAAVE!!!"
As the Foo Fighters' driver attempts to manoeuvre back towards the stage door, where Grohl's bandmates and crew are stood, impotent in the face of such unbridled teen power, Dave attempts to placate the throng by signing autographs for the steady trickle of kids who succeed in breaching the security cordon. Instead, hysteria descends, and Dave is forced to turn tail and run, as much for the safety of the kids - who are now scaling walls and lampposts - as his own.
With the Foo Fighters party crammed onto the van, our driver begins to reverse out into the street. A sound like thunder envelopes the automobile, as fists pound the sides and pink, teary faces press against the windows, scanning the unfamiliar inhabitants for a glimpse of... "DAAAAAAAVE!"
"Hey, we're East 17," Grohl deadpans. "Hope you enjoyed the show." Now the van straightens up and accelerates towards Dublin city centre, yet it is followed by strings of fans sprinting down the street and still more in horn-blowing vehicular pursuit. A passing alien craft might have concluded that they were witnessing the 20th anniversary re-enactment of the evacuation of Saigon in, erm, Dublin. At any rate, it transpires that our driver has indeed performed the equivalent honours for East I 7 - "and it was nothing like this!"
Just when it seems that the bus has eased its way free from the attendant convoy, a scream hits the air. Have we trapped one of the more intrepid Foomanians under the wheel arch? Indeed, did a DAAAAAAAAAAVE! disciple infiltrate the inner sanctum by wearing black PVC drains, a blonde wig and an ever-present grin, thereby convincing everyone that he was Pat Smear?
Actually, no. William has just spotted his uncle. "There he is! That's him!" he points as we wheel past the statues on Trinity College Green, one of which depicts Oliver Goldsmith, Anglo-Irish scribe, sometime physician, full-time bon viveur and Foo Fighter ancestor.
"Ohhh!" gasps Willie, as we arrive at Lily's Bordello. "That was one of the greatest moments of my life!"
The SFX tonight is a dry venue only in the sense that no alcohol is being sold on its premises. The combination of sub-zero temperatures outside and the fervent all-ages mass within has caused rivulets of condensation to course down from the roof fittings. Yet had the previous two gigs of the Foo Fighters' first European jaunt been staged at the North Pole, these hyped-up bundles of adolescent mischief would have cared not a fig. It has been thus for the tour's duration. In every town and country, the Foo Fighters have encountered the same ingenuous swell of emotion they now see and hear at the SFX, as kids variously hurtle, holler and hug, with the words to even the most indecipherable Foo numbers screamed back at them, growl-perfect.
It's there the next day, too, on the streets of Ireland's capital. Returning to their hotel after a pilgrimage to Oliver Goldsmith - where Willie had stood alone and humbled for several minutes - the Foo Fighters are stopped by wide-eyed teenagers, some for autographs, others just to chat. What with Dave's fog-light yellow leather jacket, it's hard to miss them, but they deal with this as they deal with everything: gracefully.
None of which comes as a surprise. For the Foo Fighters have a pre-history that could stand in court as a test case on how not to deal with fame, while doubling as a psychology thesis on rock'n'roll dysfunction. Willie and bassman Nate Mendel saw their previous enterprise, Sunny Day Real Estate, disintegrate when their singer found God and lost his mind. As for Dave Grohl and Pat Smear, well, you may recall the small matter of a band called Nirvana. Like the song says, they don't intend to get fooled again.
"With Nirvana we were all pretty naive and had no idea," says Dave, now removed to the sanctuary of his hotel room. "So I think there have been a lot of lessons learned. We all come from these chequered, bruised musical situations. We talked about that when we first got together, about how from day one we didn't want any secrets, any skeletons. We just wanted to bring everything out in the open so there wouldn't be any problems in the future. And we've been together every day for nearly six months and it just seems to be getting better and better."
Nirvana, of course, where famously bad communicators.
"I was, I know that. We were what you would call a passive aggressive band. We were all entirely passive-aggressive. So that's something I've tried to overcome and now every time I voice my opinion I just think I'm a jerk, I'm so paranoid of becoming a big asshole. But in this band we take pride in our communication skills!"
It appears to be working. Despite - or maybe because of - the terrible events that cloud their past, the Foo Fighters tour machine appears primarily geared for maximum felicity. Witness their choice of support act for the Dublin shows: London's already notorious femme-punks Fluffy.
"We saw their picture in a magazine and thought they looked like fun," explains Dave entirely seriously.
The payback for such capricious feats of patronage involves the invasion of Foo Fighters' dressing room each night, the sharing of nail polish and the uninvited presence in Foos laps of various Fluffettes at places called Lily's. The gels, fair play to 'em are making the most of it.
"Well, I tell ya, I prefer Fluffy to a lot of English bands," Dave states. "We wanted to go on tour with Elastica in the states and they didn't want to play with us because they don't like grunge bands. And it was the first time anyone's called us a 'grunge' band! Auugh! Not again!"
Ask Dave Grohl to explain how he came to be a Foo Fighter and, significantly, he begins no earlier than his wedding at the end of May last year. On honeymoon in Dublin he bought a mini electric guitar and wrote 'This Is A Call' and 'Watershed'. He started thinking about booking some studio time back home in Seattle to record these songs plus around half-a-dozen he'd written over the previous five years. On October I 7, he began work on what would become the first Foo Fighters' album. So meticulous was his preparation that he was able to record the songs in the exact sequence they would appear on the finished lP. Thus, 'This Is A Call' went to tape first: two takes, 45 minutes.
"It became this little game. I was running from room to room, still sweating and shaking from playing drums and pick up the guitar and put down a track, do the bass, maybe do another guitar part, have a sip of coffee and then go in and do the next song. We were done with the music in the first two days."
Finished in a week, Dave got 100 tapes copied and started giving them to friends, including Krist Novoselic and Alex Macleod, Nirvana's tour manager, as well as Gary Gersh at Capitol Records, formerly Nirvana's A&R man at Geffen, and Mark Kates, Gersh's successor.
"That's when things started getting a little crazy. The year since then's kinda flown by in a blur."
Had you considered doing anything else?
"Well, I almost joined the Tom Petty band."
Oof! It was, it seems, a very narrow escape. Dave got the call while making his album, played Saturday Night Live with Petty, and loved it.
"I didn't know what to do. I couldn't imagine the Foo Fighters becoming a band at that point, just because I hadn't met any musicians that I thought would make it work. So it was very close. But I'm young, I just did this thing in the studio and it would be nice to do something that no-one would expect. Twenty-six is to young to just become a drummer for hire."
It was while he was in New York with Tom Petty that rumours were flying that Grohl was also about to join Pearl Jam.
"I don't know where the fuck those rumours came from. I haven't the slightest idea. My mother's a schoolteacher and she would get those rumours in her classroom far before Dave Abbruzzee or whatever his name is even left. But no, they never asked and I don't know if we'd be musically compatible."
It was in a Los Angeles bar that Dave gave one of his tapes to Pat Smear, but, only as a friend ("I didn't expect Pat would want to play with me"), Pat left the bar to walk his girlfriend home and on the way back listened to Dave's tape. He returned saying he really liked 'For All The Cows'; Dave popped the question.
"For the next couple of weeks I thought he was just being nice and wasn't really 100 per cent into it, until I called him and said, 'What are you doing?', He said, 'I'm getting my guitars ready for the tour'. I said, 'Who are you going on tour with?' And he said 'US, MAN!' I swear to God, I thought he was too cool for it."
With Nate and Willie on board, the Foo Fighters were a name made flesh, four characters ready to travel the world, shake hands and rock. Considering the barrage of preconceptions they've had to navigate, they're doing fine. Especially Dave who, as the first member of Nirvana to musically 'go public' since Kurt Cobain's death, has had a million unanswered questions following him wherever he goes.
Like, .. How come you claimed that none of the songs on the album were about Kurt or Nirvana - something that if true must have represented quite a feat of selective psychic hoovering?
"Ha ha! See, my biggest fear was that people would be under the impression that 'I'll Stick Around' was about Kurt. That's the sole reason I did the Rolling Stone interview, because all these reviews started coming in and people were writing that 'I'll Stick Around' was basically about Kurt. Especially the chorus, "I don't owe you anything...". And it really got to me. Even just after I'd recorded it I thought, 'Man, this is just gonna be misconstrued, there's no way anyone's gonna think it's about anything other than Kurt'. So, anyway, that's why I wanted to do these interviews. At first I'd say none of these songs are about Kurt, none of these songs are about Nirvana. And y'know, you can't go through five years of your life without it having some kind of influence over what you have to say, and really, for a lot of time when I write these lyrics it's just nonsense to me. But within the last year, after screaming these words every night, I'm starting to realise sort of what I meant."
"But even the last interview I did for another English publication leaves people under the impression that 'I'll Stick Around' is about Kurt. And I'm so fucking sensitive to that, but there's nothing I can do. There's absolutely nothing I can do. I can sit down and I can say totally with all my heart, I'll swear on a stack of Bibles, whatever, that that song is not about Kurt. And I could say it all day long, every day, and still every once in a while it's misunderstood. And I hate sounding so defensive but Jesus Christ, it kills me to think that people would think that I have no respect for the guy, that I have no respect for Nirvana, that I have no respect for the past five years of my life... that's fucking ridiculous. I just don't want people to think that I would be so disrespectful as to trivialise this shit in my songs, just belittle it by writing a song."
It must have been sorely tempting to simply never do Interviews ever again.
"Sometimes I dread them, sometimes if a day goes by and I don't do one I think, 'Whoa, I feel a little strange today, I haven't had my therapy'. But I've learned a lot more about where I'm coming from just from talking about it. I guess I hate to analyse the things I do, just because I think once you start analysing anything you do too much you start to change and things aren't as pure as they were before. Lyrics were always secondary to me, the melody was so much more important because I never considered myself a writer. I don't consider myself a poet. I've got an ear for melodies here and there, and that's about it."
Can you understand why the LP was so minutely devoured by people looking for clues to what had happened? It was equivalent to the first communique from a member of Nirvana since Kurt's death.
"Well, I always know it's coming when a journalist will say 'OK, I know this is a terrible question but what was the last month of Nirvana really like?'. And I don't talk about it and I don't want to talk about it because I feel like I have respect for that situation. I have so much respect for that, that I don't really want to share it with anybody. And I often look at journalists who ask me questions like that and think they obviously have no respect for me. It's like meeting someone for the first time and within the first 15 minutes of meeting them you ask them how their father died and what was it like. You don't do that, that's fucking rude. You should have some respect for the person... But," he sighs, "there is none, because that's not what sells magazines. And as far as trying to find meaning in any of those lyrics, man, those songs are so old, y'know? As if there's an answer to what happened in any of those lyrics, I mean it's just not there. They're so prior to anything anyone wants to know about. So that's the pillow I get to rest my head on - 'Wait a minute these songs are five years old, honestly'. There's a few of 'em that are new, but I was even more sensitive to that when writing new songs. But now, the big question is, OK, so I have to write lyrics for the next record. What am I gonna do?!"
That pillow's just about to get ripped from under your head!
"This is true! But I thought about it. OK, there's two things I can do. I can totally avoid the situation and deny it, or I can sing about things I really feel. So I'm torn. Because I love my privacy. It's so nice to know things. Like if you could have one souvenir from the past and you don't want to give it up, it's that kind of feeling. Everything remains very special to me, and I feel that by giving pieces of it to others it becomes nothing. So, anyway, now I'm starting to think about these new songs, we have eight or nine new songs. And in a few of them it's painfully obvious what I'm saying."
What do you feel now when you hear a Nirvana song? Because Nirvana songs are still everywhere...
"I tend to remember how much fun it was playing it more than paying attention to the extremely depressing aspects of it all. If a Nirvana song comes on the radio, usually "Ill switch it. But now I'm actually starting to gather up as many of these bootlegs as I can find, like recently in Spain I found a bootleg of the first show I played with them in Seattle. And that's a nice little souvenir. Every once in a while I'll break out this 'Heart-Shaped Box' bootleg, which has eight CDs in it, songs that I'd never heard before. So all of a sudden I have this new favourite song, a song called 'Blandest', a Bleach' out-take. And it's a cool song. So I like to remember the fun that we had I instead of wishing that it had never ended, because what's done is done. You can't change what happened. And ummm...(long pause) And we were... Y'know, we were a pretty good band. And it was fun. A lot of it t really was a lot of fun. It was the t experience of a lifetime. And it's a crime to deny the past five years of your life. There's no way that I'd try to erase it. Obviously I wish that it hadn't have happened like it did, but... (sigh) c'est la vie. And now all that's left are these bootlegs that you can pick up, and lots of fond memories. So if that's what you're left with. that's what you're left with."
By now Willie has entered the room and is lying on the bed. But the Foo Fighters' drummer isn't sleeping. Intently, and with just the occasional rasping cough, he listens to his pal.
"I remember when we went in to mix the 'Unplugged' sessions, that was extremely difficult. That's the album that it's most difficult for me to listen to. Just because it's so eerie and stark. It's hard for me to listen to 'Unplugged'. It's just so bare-boned. A lot of people say that they can't bring themselves to listen to the records, and I really think that's a shame. You have to deal with it eventually. And playing in this band has helped me deal with things immensely. It's really made me feel like the ball didn't come to a dead stop, it actually continued rolling, so now I have something to look forward to every day. Like interviews. Ha! No, but it's true! Pat once said to me 'God, I love this being in a band thing! I don't care if it's lifting cabinets out of the van, or what'. And it's true. Even the most ridiculous little chores are a pleasure. It's nice to feel like. you can start anew. I think that everyone just wanted to have fun so badly it was sort of inevitable."
Was there ever serious consideration that you might work with Krist again?
"Well, Krist called up one day and said, 'Man, have you heard this new John Paul Jones and Diamanda Galas record?' and I said 'No', so he played it to me down the phone. And wow, it sounded great, wailing witch vocals over this really serious bass and drums. And he was like, 'Man, d'you wanna jam?' And it seemed to really spark something in me. So we got together in Barrett's studio and wrote maybe three, four of five of these jams, no vocals, just bass and drums. It was really cool and so we wanted to get in the van and go on tour, doing this bass and drums thing. But Krist was really busy with things like the Bosnian Relief Organisation and he has a farm now, out in the middle of nowhere in Washington. So he's actually really busy, and before I knew it I'd recorded this and met that fucking piece of shit over there."
He means Willie.
"Oh, I know who he means!" wails the boy Goldsmith.
"So yeah," laughs Dave, "this all happened. Krist and I didn't sit down to dinner and say 'Are we going to work with each other?' There was a point, I think it was when we were trying to mix 'Unplugged' stuff and it was an extremely emotional few weeks, and Krist and I iust started freaking out and we pledged that, we would stay together, whether musically or as pals, forever. And I'm sure we will and I'm sure Krist and I will jam again, whether it's in a band or a basement. It's like getting back together with an old lover, you know exactly what to."
There's a second or so's pause as Dave reflects on his last sentence and Willie's eyebrows shoot skywards. "WOAH!" screams Dave, doubtless anticipating fielding polite enquiries from both wife and best buddy. " MY ANALOGIES ARE REALLY NOT GOOD TONIGHT! No, Krist is a fucking great guy, he's one of a kind. To the day I die I will love that big guy. We're both still pretty young. We all are. I'm 26, Willie's 23, Nate 26. Pat, erm, 27... Ha! There's so much more to do."
Specifically in this instance, to jump in the van, head to SFX and mangle the innards of 2000 Irish boys and girls for a second night. Many are clad in Nirvana shirts; mostly too young to have seen that band, they patently regard this as the next best thing.
And who's to deny them that?
Mind you, Nirvana never encored with five renditions of an Angry Samoans song, with guest backing vocals on the last two supplied by a group of girls wearing little more than their underwear. Yes, the newly formed Fluffy Fighters bring the watery roof down even harder than the night before. You can't help but feel a certain absent friend would have approved.
Words:Keith Cameron Pictures:Stefan De Batselier
back to the features index