Reaching Drumming Nirvana


Dave Grohl is a drumming icon. His work with Nirvana is timeless and his so-called ďcomebackĒ with Them Crooked Vultures has paired him with Zeppelinís John Paul Jones, creating a rhythm section for the ages. we asked Angels and Airwaves stickman, Atom Willard, if he would chat with his good buddy and he kindly agreed. we love when two drummers get together to geek-out, especially when itís these guys.

Dave Grohl Iíve known Dave Grohl for over 15 years. In that time, heís taken my bands on tour; heís had me and my girl over for dinner parties, costume parties, birthday parties, and drinking parties. Heís even sung me happy birthday, but heís never EVER told me he loves disco drumming, and thatís how this conversation began. I donít really want to call it an interview, because itís more of a mission statement to me: how to make rock and roll do just that. Dave talking about music and drumming, and doing it the way he always does, with humility and humor, and itís more of an honor to be a part of that than than anything else. To hear Dave tell a story is to be there, and sometimes itís just about friends or his kids, but no matter what, you find yourself smiling the whole time. I hope you can feel the energy that was in the room. I mean, I can tell a story, but not like Dave.

Dave Grohl: Drum interviews are always funny with me, I donít know what Iím talking about.
ATOM: Címon dude, whatever, Iím just gonna get into it. Okay, my favorite thing about your playing is that you always seem to find this perfect balance between playing stuff thatís really really fun for drummers to listen to and fun for drummers to play. And you do it without ever taking the song out of the groove or get away from what the song is doing, where itís going...
DG: You know, I think there are a few genres where the drummers are totally underrated, one of them being disco.
ATOM: What?!?
DG: And the other one being punk rock.
ATOM: I did not see that coming.
DG: Well yeah! Iíve always been a huge fan of disco drumming.
ATOM: Really.
DG: For Sure! Gap band, Tony Thompson/ Chic drumming, Jr. Robinson, Micheal Jackson drumming, like real groove drumming. Iíve always been a huge fan of it, as Iíve always been a huge fan of programmed drumming too. Like Liam Howlett from Prodigy, how he programs dance beats is great because it doesnít necessarily have to be the focus of the song, it can just be the groove. Itíll make you move as you focus on a lyric or itíll make you move as you hum a melody or something. Itís so effective in its simplicity that you donít have to raise your hand and go, ďHey, Iím the drummer...Ē Yeah, and at the same time, I have a lot of respect for the real masters. You know, the drummers who take control of a song, anyone from Krupa, to Buddy Rich, the greats.
ATOM: Neil Peart...
DG: Well yeah, the first time I heard Rush was the first time I really noticed the drums in a song. When I was a kid I listened to the Beatles, rock and roll, classic rock and AM radio was huge for me, I loved all the AM radio.
ATOM: Like all the news stationsÖ
DG: Yeah, the traffic reports (makes traffic alert sound) and like Helen Reddy and Carly Simon and Phoebe Snow and Gerry Rafferty and 10cc and all the real melodic í70ís AM rock music. I loved that stuff because of its melody, but it wasnít until I heard 2112 that I really started to notice the drums, as like the focus of a song or a drummer that was really kind of charging the track. At that point I really hadnít gotten into The Who yet either.
ATOM: Were you playing drums then?
DG: No, I was playing guitar, but I always kind of understood what drummers were doing, for whatever reason. I always knew that, like this foot is the kick and my left hand was the snare, right hand is a cymbal, I always knew that from watching the Woodstock movie when I was like 8 years old. My first drum lesson didnít come from a teacher. One the first things I learned with independence was from the movie score from Halloween.
DG: Well, there was this one scene where sheís being chased through the house, and thereís this piano, dun, dudun, dun, dudun...and then this synthesizer comes in going din din din din din... (he starts to play this and sings) and I spent an afternoon trying to get my hands to do that, and when I figured that out I was like holy crap, I could be a drummer! This is great!
ATOM: Youíre so funny.
DG: HA! Yeah, so anyway, Iíve always been a groove person, and you might not think that because of the kind of music Iím known for playing.
ATOM: But I definitely DO think that, and thatís what Iím saying, you still make it so thereís always the groove or part, itís interesting for drummers to listen to and want to figure out what youíre playing. And for me itís not about flash or chops, itís just finding that balance.
DG: I donít know what it is; I mean no two drummers are the same. Everyone has their signature fingerprint or their sound, the way they play a drum set. I feel like so much of it has to do with your hands. Itís easy to think that a drumset would sound the same with different people playing on it, when in reality, itís all in your hands and balance.
ATOM: Well it kind of goes back to what we were talking about in my truck, when you were saying everyone should play and record themselves with one microphone, and adjust their hands to make it sound good, sound right.
DG: Yeah for sure! Itís good! Itís like getting a tune up. I mean, once I discovered Led Zeppelin records, I got really into the natural sound of the drumset. A lot of albums I had at the time, the drums didnít sound like drums to me, they sounded like mics on things you were smacking. Each tom and cymbal was separated and made to sound its own way. So once I heard Led Zeppelin, it sounded like a drummer in a room with a band. Then once I learned mic placement and some basic engineering, it only made sense to me, in order to get that sound you had to play it that way. I would record myself with just a few mics in a room and to try and capture the sound of the drums. It really comes down to your own personal equalization of what youíre doing, rather than relying on a mixer to do it for you.
ATOM: I want to back up a little bit, you hit on something that I am really interested in, and that is that you really do have your own sound. You have a signature style and a recognizable sound and I think there are only a handful of rock drummers who can say that.
DG: You know itís funny, I always considered myself to be a combination of all the different drummers I grew up worshiping, so there are things that Iíve lifted from Jeff Nelson of Minor Threat, Tony Thompson, Reed Mullin from C.O.C., John Bonham...
ATOM: Which era Tony Thompson was your favorite?
DG: Just him, just his big flams, his drumming. I got to meet him once and I said, ďHey I donít want to sound like a total douche, but if it werenít for youĒ...and I donít think I got to even finish what I was saying and he was like ďI know man, itís coolĒ.
ATOM: (laughing)
DG: (laughing) There was one day in a studio in L.A. about 8 or 9 years ago, we had a big room at Conway to ourselves for the day and we thought, letís run tape and invite a bunch of our friends over. So we invited Josh from Queens of the Stone Age, Krist Novoselic was there, Matt Sweeney the amazing guitar player was there and I was like, letís call Keltner. So I called up Keltner and said, ďHey man come down, weíre gonna mess around and roll tape.Ē Heís a legend you know, his meter, his vibe, heís a real vibe player you know. So he comes out, sits down behind a drumset, and does everything sideways, and backwards. And as weíre jamming, I look over and heís got a stick and a shaker in one hand, and a brush and a frying pan in the other and heís playing the snare with his foot or whatever. It was fucking crazy what he was doing, but it had this sound. And I watched it and I thought, THAT is messed up! And then I listened to it, and I thought, ďTHAT is genius!Ē And then I realized, people call Jim Keltner because thatís what Jim does, he plays like Jim Keltner. And for years whenever I went into a studio to play with anyone Iíd be really self conscious like, ďGod I hope Iím doing what they want me to do, I hope it sounds right, I hope Iím playing well.Ē And after watching Keltner do that I thought, ďYou know what, from now on Iím just gonna go in and play, like I would play.Ē I think itís important to do that. You know, I never took any drum lessons so honestly, I donít know much about what Iím doing. I can hear it in my head, and I can play most of the things I can imagine in my mind or hear in my head, but I donít know whatís right or whatís wrong, so I donít have any boundaries.
ATOM: Youíre not restricted by any rules.
DG: Not at all, so I think thatís what makes people do their own thing, when they donít feel like any one thing is wrong, and you just do what you do. But at the same time, I listen to myself and think Iím just a super middle of the road generic drummer.
ATOM: Thatís cute.
DG: Itís true! What Iím doing isnít any different than what Rat Scabies was doing in the Damned. He was washing his cymbals and beating the shit out of them and playing 8th notes on the kick and swinging his snare going through a rock song.
ATOM: But at the very least, you are aware of what it is that makes it what it is, and a lot of people just gloss over that stuff.
DG: Well, I also think itís different things like where you place a stick on a drum, where you hit the snare drum. I think most people without even thinking about it, just hit it in the same place all the time. Thatís gonna make your drums sound different, thatís gonna make your playing sound different. Where and how you play a cymbal, where you land your kicks, mine are usually behind. You know, all of those things together are what make you sound the way you do. And I think itís important that people appreciate that about their own playing. I know some drummers who wanna do everything right, players that want to play perfectly, and I think a lot of times that cripples your individuality, it takes away that feel. Iíve heard people talk about feel for hours and I donít think itís something you should talk about.
ATOM: It should just happen.
DG: You should just have it or, yeah, it should just happen.
Dave Grohl ATOM: Well, I guess what I want to know is, was there ever a point when you acknowledged what you were doing as yours?
DG: When we made the Vultures record, there were times when Josh (Homme), who I love and who is a brilliant player and producer and an awesome engineer, would push me to do things that I wouldnít normally do. Typically, what will happen in the studio is if you push someone hard enough it will dead end and they will say, ďYou know thatís just not what I do.Ē Iíve said it before, Iíve heard people say it before and thatís a cop out. I think I was all about that on the Vultures record. There was one song called Reptiles, and Josh wrote the song and programmed the drum beat in Garage Band in his hotel room one day, and it was the most insane drum beat Iíd ever heard, it sounded like a fax machine, it was completely random. And he said, ďHere, learn this.Ē And Iím like...I...IÖitís like if you asked me to read you a paragraph in Japanese or something, I just canít do it. And I struggled with it, I struggled with it. I canít read music, so I have to memorize everything I play. I tried, and it was so bizarre, just arbitrary random bulls#!, and I wanted to give up ten times, and then I got it. And I was like, ďThatís my favorite thing Iíve ever done!Ē Because, it doesnít sound like anything else Iíve ever done, and thatís what I like about it. So, if you donít throw away any of those dead ends or walls that you run into, it helps you grow a lot. I love that song now, itís insane!
ATOM: Itís hard to play is what it is...
DG: Itís totally hard to play. I blew it live many a time. Also, you know the Vultures record was really nice because the type of music we were making was different from anything else I had done before. The closest thing was probably the Q.O.T.S.A. record. I hadnít played drums on an album in a long time, so I was totally starting from scratch. So, I played differently and itís was great.
ATOM: Do you notice that if you havenít been playing drums for a while, that when you come back things are different, some things are easier and some are harder?
DG: Shit yes! When weíre on the road, there are drummers everywhere and I can tell you who is sitting down at what drumset within 15 seconds. Because most drummers sit down, they adjust their seat and they do the same damn roll they do every time just to get comfortable. And itís understandable, I do it too I think. But itís nice to get away from your instrument and forget everything for a while, because then when you come back to it you have this fresh perspective, clean slate. You might approach it differently and you might come up with some new tricks, without losing all the old ones.
ATOM: You donít practice when youíre notÖ
DG: Honestly dude, Iíve probably practiced... and Iím not saying this because Iím proud of it...I donít like to play the drums when thereís no other musicians around to play with. I donít like to play by myself in a room, I like to play with other people. I probably should (laughs) sit down and learn some stuff. About 3 or 4 years ago I bought a little pad, a practice pad. I wanted to learn how to bounce my sticks (laughs). I donít know how to do that, so I sat there trying to do press rolls, and I gave up after two hours going, ďThis is bullshit. That ainít gonna be loud enough!Ē
ATOM: Youíve always written songs, and over time youíve, I guess, honed your skills as a songwriter. I mean, now you are a Grammy award winning songwriter. So, have you noticed your approach to drums parts has changed?
DG: Yeah, I think so. I donít really know how much.
ATOM: Do you ever listen back to recordings and go, ďOh, damn!Ē Like, would you do it differently now, knowing what you know?
DG: I think Iíve always put focus and emphasis on pattern, composition and arrangement, even when I was playing hardcore, but that was mostly out of the basic need for structure. Itís so we could all keep the song together; this drum roll means weíre about to go into the chorus, this drum riff means the song is about to stopÖand I would just do it every time so that the band wouldnít mess up, and Iíve always had a great appreciation for the songs that make you want to air drum. I think itís cool and also kind of funny to see drunk motherfuckers in a bar air drumming to ĎBack in Blackí or ĎAbacabí. Thatís important to me because what happens is, you have people who are listening to drum riffs, so write one of those riffs. To have a classic drum riff is every drummerís dream; to have that one part, where that guy who doesnít play the drums does it when the song comes around.
ATOM: Heís just listening to music, he doesnít know why heís doing it.
DG: He doesnít know dick about the drums, but he knows that one drum break in "You Shook Me All Night Long". So to me, thatís a good example of drumming as songwriting. That sort of composition, that simple ear candy becomes a hook. So, I started taking that into consideration more and more as the years went by; you know, I donít really make acid rock; I donít really make spacey 10-minute long Yes songs. I grew up loving Buddy Holly and the Beatles; the two and a half or three minute sweet songs, and Nirvana was the same way; just to keep it simple and make it so that thereís stuff thatís really memorable and effective. So, I started using that in a lot of drum arrangements too.
  When I did the Q.O.T.S.A. ďSongs for the DeafĒ record that made a big difference, it changed a lot for me. It was the first time Iíd made an album where the drums and the cymbals were separated. So we did the basic tracks first, guitar, bass and drums live in a room, no click track. It was just the three of us, I had no cymbals, I had these cymbal pads and I knew that I had to go back and overdub all of the cymbals, so I really had to focus on what I was doing, because I had to remember what I had a done over a week and a half. Eric Valentine, whoís a great producer, he really worked with me on building a lot of those parts. Atom Willard and Dave Grohl A song like ďNo One KnowsĒÖ.the first drum roll in the chorus...the second drum roll in the chorus...the third drum roll in the chorus, itís meant to build like that, but also, everything was patterned so that I wouldnít have a hard time overdubbing the cymbals later. Thatís when it really hit home that for that type of music, writing those parts and trying to make those hooks really makes the song even bigger. Itís the same thing here, when weíre making a Foo Fighters record, we spend a lot of time trying to construct a good pattern that builds from the beginning of the song to end with Taylorís drumming. Taylor has a great sense of composition, and when I come in with a song, itís usually really easy to say, ďIt should go from here, point A to point B, build up or break down here and here,Ē and then itís just a matter of dynamics.
ATOM: Is there a favorite thing youíve played on a recording?
DG: Well, Nirvanaís Nevermind, I still listen to it now. Iím a high school dropout, but Iíd imagine that itís the same feeling as the last day in High School. I look at it like, we were kids and it was fun and easy to do, and it was really simple and I wouldnít change a thing. Itís, you know, such a simple record, I think maybe the easiest record Iíve ever made in my life. Iím not kidding! It was so simple! I listen to it now and itís like looking at a picture of yourself when youíre like 19 or 20 you can see in your face like, god, I was such a dumb kid having a blast! Then thereís the Vultures record. I listen to it and Iím really proud of the drumming. Well, Iím really proud of the record because I got to play with fucking John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin!
ATOM: Did you ever just trip or have moments of clarity like, what am I doing here?
DG: Oh dude, every night! Oh yeah, on the bus in the morning, on stage, on planes. The Vultures record was a blast to make because I got to play with John Paul Jones and I felt like we had connected, and had become a rhythm section. Heís really good (laughs)...heís pretty good...
ATOM: Did he inspire you or encourage you in any certain direction?
DG: Well yeah, apparently John would be the guy who would stay in the studio after Zeppelin would record a song and help the engineer and edit the drum parts together. Hard to imagine Zeppelin had to do any editing at all. But they did, and John, because his meter was so great, he just knows when itís right. Oh god, there was this one song that we didnít release, it was such a bitchiní drum track it was really groovy, like maybe the grooviest thing on the whole album...and it went: (sings and plays this long phrase that is sick..I wish you could hear it too...ATOM). It was was so cool, but to get it, we played it a ton. You know, John could play it once and it would be amazing, but for me to really get it tight and in the pocket and right in the groove with John, it took me a while. It was like ten or fifteen takes, until finally I was like, ďI think I got it...I think we got it...should we listen?Ē And John says, ďYeah letís listen,Ē and Iím listening to it and Iím like, ďYeah, yeah I think I got it!Ē Iím like, ĒOh Shit this is it!Ē And it sounds great and I turn around and look at John and heís kinda scratching his chin, looks at me, and he just shook his head and says, ďYou didnít get itĒ (laughter). So, if youíre lucky, in your lifetime youíll get to play with a bass player that makes you sound better. I donít know who was following who, it just fit and clicked, and if I was ever in a place where I needed someone to help me out I would just turn to John and watch him. And there were also times when we would jam and he would throw out some crazy African shit at me.
ATOM: Idea-wise?
DG: Just like time. Heíd show me a riff and weíd start playing it and hitting accents, and usually live we would just jam. There was song structure, but there was a lot of room for the two of us to just jam and goof off. And there were times when I would just look at him and go, ďI donít know what youíre doing right now.Ē There was one jam in the studio and he was doing some African crap and I donít know what it was. I just stopped and said, ďI havenít the slightest clue what youíre doingĒ and I stopped!
ATOM: That takes some confidence too, to just say, ďI donít get that.Ē
DG: Honestly, before we went in to make that record, of course I was a little nervous, I have Zeppelin tattoos! You know Iíve listened to his records forever and then I realized, heís already played with the greatest rock and roll drummer of all time, so I donít have to walk in there and try to be his favorite drummer, Iíll just go in there and play the way I play. Iím not gonna be the best drummer heís ever played with, Iím not gonna be his favorite drummer in the world, so Iím just gonna do my thing, and it worked out really well that way. Thatís not to say that I wasnít terrified 9/10ths of the time, but it was fuckin' FUN to play with John. Iíve never experienced anything like that before.