Page + Plant + Grohl
When Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins arrive, they're plainly in awe of the two men who heretofore existed only in their fantasy lives. They wear a childlike look of worship and fear on their faces. Grohl, who knows a thing or two about facing down interviewers, seems to take to his gig as rock hack seriously, he paces nervously holding a yellow legal pad loaded with questions. The three instantly bond, not over their former groups' impact on pop culture, but over inimitable producer Steve Albini
Dave: I listened to the new record last night. I thought Steve Albini was the perfect pick to record it.
Robert: Yeah. Despite what I was telling you off tape, about him being a complete prat, he really caught what was in the room....at the exclusion of the vocals. Which almost didn't matter. It was like another instrument on this fantastic instrumental album. And he got it all sounding really good in the shortest space of time. Without any pain at all.
Dave: And it was all four of you going at once?
Jimmy: Yeah. It's a total performance album.
Robert: Michael [Lee] and Charlie [Jones]. as a rhythm section, they're also umbilically attached. They really have a linked, passionate soul. Michael's worked with so many people, and he listenes to all sorts of retro stuff from Buddy Miles to Lord knows who. He’s got a contemporary vision on how to present the drums in a non-hard-rock fashion, The way that he approaches the drums in the studio is different to on stage. Where I'm convinced he's building a small shed. [laughs] It's such a good angle for us. If we had the wrong rhythm section, we'd be in deep trouble.
Robert: What they add to the way that we write is really essential.
Jimmy: It was good that they worked with us on the Unledded tour as well. They'd worked with Robert before, but that tour gave them an opportunity to get to know me.
Dave: Some of the live Unledded sluff, it seemed there was serious orchestration. It seemed like there was an arrangement that you couldn't necessarily stray too far from?
Dave: Where did you pick the Orchestra? Were they Eastern?
Robert: Some were from Egypt and others worked in restaurants in London! [laughs] The Cedars of Lebanon in Manhattan is a good place to find a band.
Dave: We just recorded a song - we've never really put strings on anything we've done.l had a friend of mine who plays violin come in, this girl Petra [Haden]. And then we had another friend, Benmont [Tench] who plays keys for Tom Petty, come in and play. He brought in a B3 and a chamberlain. And this is new for us, because we're stripped down punk rock stuff. I started getting a little worried. I though!, "Oh shit. This doesn't sound like something we'd do." But it turned out to be wonderful.
Robert: You've got to stretch. If you're gonna have a life doing this - I mean,the chatting is a bit shit, But everything else is really good - but its the stretching that makes it all worthwhile. When we recorded "Since I've Been Loving You" or "The Rain Song," we had never really thought about orchestras and stuff. But we were varying the music all the time. And I think the whole deal of when we got back together for Unledded was: "Let's take one or two of the songs that we wrote, which lend themselves to orchestration, and really go for it in a big way." Our keyboard player, Ed Schurmer, he's now doing major film soundtracks. Really. I was a bit iffy about it. But once you hear it. it's the most amazing feeling.
Dave: It's funny that you mention the soundtracks. Because there are times in the new record when I feel like it's like a score.
Robert: It's all written for Harry Dean Stanton to act to.
Dave: What was the deal with the mobile unit studio you guys used ? That Rolling Stones thing.
Dave: I saw this article - I think it was in Q or the Face or something - where it was for sale.
Dave: Yeah,and I was gonna buy it.
Robert: What, the Stones' one?
Dave: Yeah, And it was for nothing, like 75,000 pounds.
Robert: It's a good deal.
Dave: I was really close to buying it. It seems like the ideal situation. Just to pull up a studio into the back of a nice little house.
Robert: Yeah, it is.
Jimmy: Didn't we use it on Houses of the Holy? We actually used the Stones' mobile at Mick Jagger's house, But he wasn't there, Actually, I don't think he'd ever been there, [laughs]
Dave: Yeah, I've got houses like that, too.
Robert: But it sounded good. If you listen to "D'Yer Maker" on Houses of the Holy, the sounds are fantastic.
Jimmy: And "The Rover" has got that, too.
Dave: It's the natural sound of the instruments.
Robert: I forgot about "The Rover" What a great song. We could do that.
Dave: I hate talking about the new album so much, but I listened to it a lot -
Robert: I don't think I could sing the chorus.
Dave: - last night. Again, it just sounds like the natural sounds of most of the instruments, That's one of the things that made your other albums so listenable: it sounded like a band. I think that's the problem with Albini, when it comes to vocals.
Dave: He's always afraid of putting a band's vocalist out too far in the front.
Robert: I know. I really felt intimidated, I realized that he hadn't quite worked out where he was going to put me.
Jimmy: Plus we had this studio at EMI, Studio 2, it's a massive studio. And I took full advantage of it. Put the guitar here, cranked it out really loud. And of course it was impossible for Robert to be singing in there with all of this going full bell. So Robert had to sing between these two sort of suction doors, to keep Ihe sound out because of all this going on.
Robert: Yeah, I was stuck in an air-tight container. Feeling very dejected and thinking that nobody really understood.
Dave: "Nobody wants me!" [everyone laughs]
Robert: But then again, I wouldn't be a vocalist if I thought anybody understood, right? It's a bloody awful job, But in the end, it turned out all right because I hated him [Albini].
Dave: Those love/hate relationships, man.
Robert: But he didn't break my solo albums in front of me and give them back to me.
Dave: When we worked with him, we had this habit of lighting each other on fire with the stuff you clean the tape heads with. And so we'd pour this shit on Steve Albini's butt, light it on fire and a flame would come up about two feet. And then we'd light cigars off it. [everyone laughs]
Jimmy: Didn't he have his wallet in his back pocket?
Dave: Have you also noticed that his arms are extraordinarily long?
Dave: Longer than anyone else I've ever met in my life. So long that he can stand up and put his hand underneath between his legs and his hand will come up on his crotch. [everyone laughs] I swear to God.
Dave: Krist Novaselic, the bass player in Nirvana, he's like six foot seven and a half. and Steve's arms were as long as Krist Novaselic's.
Robert: Jimmy and I are doing the Steve Albini press week.
Dave: Well, you guys picked the one producer that everybody loves to hate. I love him because he's such a fucking jerk. [laughs]
Robert: Actually, I've changed my mind about him now. I think you're right. [laughs]
Dave: Anyone that can grab their crotch from behind is okay with me. [laughs]
Jimmy: He's like the dad in the "Rugrats". [more laughs]
Robert: But without him, we wouldn't have made a great record. And I wouldn't have felt insecure for as long as I did. [yet more yucks]
Jimmy: The rest of the band sounds great.
Robert: I bought the Big Black album when it came out. The green fluorescent one with the two people making out.
Dave: Songs About Fucking?
Robert: Yeah, it was around the time of [HOsker Du's] Candy Apple Grey, I think. So I became an Albini fan. So it was a great moment to meet him, because we were rehearsing and he came in and I went, "Jimmy Olsen!" [laughs] Sorry Steve, because I do really love you.
Dave: Now I don't know much about the blues. When I was young -
Jimmy: I think it'd gone by the time you were young.
Dave: - I was into punk rock. I started getting into local Washington DC hardcore bands and a little bit of punk rock from overseas, But, for me, punk rock was an escape, and it was rebellion and it was this fantasy land that you could visit every Friday evening at eight o'clock and beat each other to bits in front of the stage and then go home. So what baffles me is the whole thing with the blues. I know it's such a heavy influence on you guys. Did you see it as a sort of rebellion? Or was it kind of an escape to you? What attracted you to the blues?
Robert: It wasn't a social statement. I think what you were dealing with in your youth was a social statement. A rejection of music that had become so huge that you couldn't relate to it, Or the people were too rich. But when we started getting into music, those criteria weren't quite there. There was nobody to dislike, There was only Elvis, really.
Robert: But coming from England, where our social conditions are a lot different. I thinklhe blues was just a call. I didn't understand the "blue note". That melancholic thing, But you've seen so much shit on the TV that you take for granted about blacks and white and so on. We never really had any exposure to anything like that. apart from the occasional newsreel. So we didn't already have a pre-ordained thought process about our brothers living on the same island.
Robert: I just heard that blue note, and I heard this kind of swagger. Ultimately, as the blues faded as a conscious reflection of black society here, the Arab thing came through for me and replaced those sounds.
Robert: It sounds cheesy, but it's true.
Dave: No, it makes perfect sense.
Robert: They didn't have any of the grooming or any of the backing or any of the sort of infrastructure that we all exist in now, as musicians. They were like troubadours who had a fantastic life, relatively. It's certainly better than picking cotton. I was very sensitive to it,I got even more sensitive when my parents cut the electrical plug off my record player. [laughs] They said, "We don't ever want to hear that in our house. What does it mean?" I said, "I don't know."
Dave: Did that make you more inclined to listen to it?
Robert: Well, yeah, that was it.
Dave: I grew up outside of Washington DC. To me, the blues always seemed like this almost stereotypical music.
Jimmy: Yeah, because now it's all pastiche.
Robert: By the time you got to say, "Well, what are all these people getting excited about?" the moment had gone.
Jimmy: When I first heard Elmore James and Howlin' Wolf, it was so raw, And then the subtlety of players like Freddie King, for instance But when we played the blues, it was really a totally different interpretation. It wasn't purist, as such.
Robert: I think England really grabbed it. Because we came from a really sleazy background of pop music, Where everybody was trying to emulate white American pop stars, that sort of squeaky-clean thing, But the blues came underneath, and it was immediately picked up by the sort of beatnik, Bohemian drop-out culture, The sort of Kerouac culture in Europe.It became part of the subculture.It was the underground movement. It was the poets, the people who smoked the African Woodbines. It was people who wanted to listen to Roland Kirk play three or four or five or six things at the same time and say,'Wow man'. It was our badge, But Jimmy's right. The first time I heard Elmore James It was amazing. The band, everybody was back behind the beat. It wasn't like white guys in bands in America or in England, where everybody's on top of the beat.
Robert: Half of the reason Zeppelin was any good was because Bonzo was pulling back all the time, back behind that beat. Getting into the sex area of things.
Dave: I used to get yelled at for that. [laughs] There definitely was a swagger to the Zeppelin stuff. I learned to play drums from listening to punk rock and Led Zeppelin -
Robert: I bet you kept that quiet.
Dave: No, I didn't actually. I've got these tattoos all over my body of the Bonham three circles. Of the bands that are around today, what kind of stuff would you be most inclined to listen to? I mean, is there any new blues that you guys listen to?
Robert: It's gone. It's got nothing to do with what we listened to.
Dave: When we came out with our last record, every interview was filled with the threat of electronica, you know? 'What's going to happen to rock'n' roll?" "What's going to happen to live performance?" "The Prodigy are storming the planet." So what about the underground and dance music?
Robert: There's some great stuff around. The Prodigy are brilliant.
Dave: I love the Prodigy. I think they're absolutely amazing.
Robert: I don't think that they actually decided that a certain era of music was something to hang onto for political and financial and ego gain. They just came blazing out of the corner, and it's brilliant.
Dave: Do you see that sparking a new life into rock music?
Jimmy: Oh, I do without any doubt. Because they tied up so many things and put it into this melting pot. It came storming through like a locomotive.
Robert: The Damned, way back with Rat Scabies and the boys, really created a few new curves with 'Fan Club" and "New Rose" and stuff. Now, if you stick Jimmy in there with an Albini-recorded guitar sound, thats all that's lacking with Prodigy to me. I'll be out of a job. I'd have to go do "If I Were A Carpenter" again, Quick.[laughs]
Dave: Were you guys into funk at all?
Robert: Yeah, P-Funk, all that.
Dave: There's some songs, like "Trampled Underfoot" that definiteIy has this kind of funk drive to it.
Robert: Yeah, I'll tell you who Bonzo loved. [Legendary funk drummer] Bernard Purdie. Yeah, Pretty Purdie.
Dave: I have this amazing bootleg that has this jam on it. I think it's a rehearsal of yours, it's an instrumental that you never used, It was absolutely amazing, I'll hum it to you later.
Robert: We'll need it for the next album. [laughs]
Jimmy: There's a bootleg of that period of "Trampled Underfoot." I think it's called Tangible Vandalism.
Dave: That's exactly what it is.
Jimmy: Those were just rehearsals recorded on a cassette tape.
Dave: That was on cassette?
Jimmy: Yeah, it was just one of those little portable things, they came in a little suitcase. Unfortunately, those tapes got stolen.
Dave: You can have my copy if you want.
Robert: No, we've got it actually, I've got it on vinyl. Now that's a collector.
Dave: So Jimmy, you did a lot of session stuff before Zeppelin, Is that where you got into recording technique?
Jimmy: Yeah, a bit. As I was learning guitar, I used to listen to what was going on.
Jimmy: As far as, like, the echoes, the Sun sound, Sam Phillips. Like Ricky Nelson records, with James Burton's guitar, you find a half a solo that's reasonably dry and then they'll point the reverb on for the last half. I really paid a lot of attention to that. In the '60s, I was doing, like, three sessions a day, Three different ones, every day except Sundays, I had the great honor and pleasure of working with Joe Meek. His whole thing was limiters, You know, compressors and And he used to do it all in his house, He'd actually have people recording in the bathroom for the extra acoustic sound of it. He'd have this really heavy limiting, He was really, like, avant garde, you know?
Dave: I was just interested because you guys really set the standard. And being a drummer, everybody tries time and time again to get that Zeppelin IV drum sound.
Robert: We can give you the address.
Dave: Please, give me the recipe, man.
Robert: Headley Grange. I've looked at it on the way back from a weekend with a child bride, Actually, I was trainspotting and I went past it on the way back.
Dave: Was it just a little home or what?
Jimmy: No, it used to be a workhouse in Victorian times. It you were poor and you were on the bread line, you'd go and work in the workhouse for your food.
Dave: Is that where you backed up the mobile unit?
Jimmy: Yeah, We chewed up their grass and they've never forgotten it.
Robert: And danced around the lawn.
Jimmy: Who is this interview for by the way?
Dave: It's for a magazine called Ray Gun.
Robert: I did an alternative radio program once in New York with the Lemonheads and Rainer Ptacek, and it was amazing, because I was told, "This is col!ege radio and they don't mind having you on." You know, as opposed to me having them on. So I hope this is going to be a lot of fun for the readers.
Dave: Let's see,what other alternative topics can we talk about? Were you Nirvana fans?
Robert: Well, to me it seemed to make far more sense than a lot of the alternative stuff, the 99.9 percent of everything that was just hollow rebellion without any real commitment and without a conscience. I thought it was very strong. The only thing is, with everything that is new and that's reactionary to such a degree, there's an air of doom that surrounds it, through excess of one kind or another. My heart bled for that because we'd been through that. We lost Bonzo, we lost loads of people around us,and everytime there's something that's really prolific and strong and full of intention, you get so wrapped up in it that you start to self-destruct.
Dave: It became confusing when all of a sudden it wasn't our own anymore.
Dave: We had never dreamed something like that could happen to us, 'cause we were just three dirtbags from nowhere. And I think each member dealt with it in a different way. I just laughed my head of. I thought it was absolutely hilarious. Like, why could something so personal and something that seemed so immediate become something so....normal.
Robert: Yeah, but it was out of your hands. It happened to us. The stature and the whole condition of our success, there was no charted passage then. Up until then, rock 'n' roll as entertainment had only gotten to a certain threshold, beyond which nobody knew. As it expanded for us, we were frightened to death. We didn't know what was going on at all. We didn't have anybody to look back and say, "Oh well, they must have had to go through this," because it kept getting bigger and bigger. And the media grew with it. The whole rock phenomena got bigger. The number of magazines that there are now compared to when we were going, as Jimmy was saying the other day, there must be three to four hundred percent more stuff. The Internet, TV, magazines and stuff. But there was nobody in front of us carrying a flag. So it did get out of hand, and we didn't know how to deal with it, either.
Dave: I don't know if it's the same for you, but a lot of people will point out Nirvana references in different bands, and I just don't hear it. Did you guys hear a lot of Zeppelin imitators and think, "These fucks are taking our gig!?"
Robert: These people are copying us copying other people.
Dave: Exactly! That's what we used to say. People would say, you, know such-and-such is ripping you off dearly and we'd say, "Well, you know what? We just ripped off the Pixies!"
Jimmy: I remember seeing the Whitesnake video -
Dave: Oh God.
Jimmy: - that was definitely all references to Zeppelin. I was astonished, I was sitting on the bed watching, and suddenly the guy picks up a bow and I fell off the bed laughing, I just think it's hilarious.
Dave: That's usually mine as well. I don't think there's any way to see it as a tribute.
Robert: It's all commercial rip-off. That's why the Delta blues was great. because nobody else was getting anything out of it at all. The guy turned up with his guitar and played -
Dave: And that was it.
Robert: - but then somebody said, 'Instead of doing this bar here, why don't you try doing the Royal Albert Hall for six months?" "Oh no, we couldn't do that. We've got to stay with our brothers, man." And then suddenly it's six nights at Madison Square Garden and there's limousines around the clock.
Dave: [laughs] We played at David Bowie's 50th Birthday Party at Madison Square Garden -
Robert: That must have been ages ago.
Dave: [laughs]-and I'd never been backstage before. So we drove up that back entrance, and all of a sudden it looked very familiar .It was from The Song Remains The Same, I stepped out of the car and I felt as if I was in my own rockumentary! Are you guys planning on going out touring?
Robert: As soon as we can get off this silly roster of corporate promotion to try and prove to everybody that we're still on the cutting edge of ... middle age. [laughs] We'll be touring through the year.
Dave: As extensive as the Unledded thing? Because that was really big.
Jimmy: Yeah, About the same.
Robert: I just saw our manager around the corner, and I was making sure he wasn't here before we said, "No, we're not touring half as much..” [laughs] Jimmy and I, we've got 11 interviews to do tomorrow. Eleven!
Dave: Jesus Christ.
Robert: That's kind of unbelievable for two up-and-coming young starlets like us.