UP IN THE CLOUDS
Dave Grohl looks quizzical for a moment and then sits up and laughs out loud, flashing that famous, toothy grin. He's been lounging in a comfy chair in the bar of one of Knightsbridge's swankiest hotels and is clearly amused that today's last interview on his hectic press junket to London has been secured by an extreme music magazine called Terrorizer. That's a first for him and his interest is perked.
A gaggle of well-heeled ladies breeze through the lobby laden with Harrod's bags, the smell of money lingering long after they have vanished into the lift. This is a fIrst for us too, and at quick glance, this is a strange set-up. It's not as if we regularly interview people like Dave Grohl. In the business, Dave is 'golden Grohl'. His Foo Fighters albums have sold millions worldwide. He's in constant demand, recently moonlighting with Queens Of The Stone Age, Killing Joke and Tenacious D. And when Dave ages into a creaky old pensioner, he'll still have the comfortable legacy of his grungy stickman days with Nirvana to retire on. To put this in perspective; the guy is sitting pretty at the pinnacle of the mainstream rock heap and that's not our territory. Why then, is Terrorizer sniffing about?
The answer is Probot. The long talked about guest vocalist project that Dave Grohl has been grafting on since 2000 has finally passed over from the realm of rumour into reality. The promo CD arrived just before Christmas with an astonishing Terrorizer-friendly guest line-up revealed: Cronos (Venom), Lemmy (Motiirhead), Max Cavalera (Sepultura/Soulfly), Tom G Warrior (Celtic Frost/The Apollyon Sun.), Mike Dean (Corrosion of Conformity), Kurt Brecht (D.R.I.J, Snake (Voivod), Wino (Saint Vitus/The Obsessed/The Hidden Hand), Lee Dorrian (Napalm Death/Cathedral), Eric Wagner (Trouble) and King Diamond (Mercyful Fate). Dave Grohl getting cosy with King Diamond? The union boggles. Interest sufficiently stirred, we've been forced to investigate this project seriously because every vocalists on Probot is a legend and hero. How has the Foo Fighter pulled off this historical metal summit?
"I didn't just reach out and grab singers that I had no idea about, The idea was to find vocalists from the era I grew up listening to music. Coming from a fan's perspective, I love King Diamond. I love Eric Wagner. I love Mike Dean. I love Lemmy," Dave begins, listing each frontman reverently. "All of these people meant something to me as a kid and to this day they still do. This was an amazing opportunity to make music with musicians that made a difference to me and made me the musician that I am now. It's 11 songs with some of the best singers ever, it's me paying tribute to these people as much as a fan, as it is jamming with great musicians."
He reaches for a cigarette. Dave Grohl is reputed to be 'the nicest guy in rock' but still heartily indulges in the evil weed. It's rather gratifying to see that he enjoys the vice deplored in his homeland. As smoke clouds envelop the table, he tries to explain the reasoning behind this very public embrace of metal. "It's a trip you know. I am possibly the last person in the world you would expect to be a fan of King Diamond. But I always was. And I have never denied any of that scene, because I grew up in it and it was so much fun. When I go home and drive my truck around Virginia I don't listen to the Goo Goo Dolls or Oasis or Muse. Usually I'll be listening to Trouble's 'Psalm 9' or the best of Mercyful Fate." He chuckles and quickly recognises how absurd this statement sounds emerging from the mouth of a man who is no stranger to 'Top of the Pops.. "That's funny to me too, because I'll do that and then I'll go and write a Foo Fighters song. Is there any connection here at all? It's sort of a separate thing but basically the passion of that music inspires me to do what I do in my 'day job., when I'm on the clock."
'Day job.' Dave let's this comment drop off-hand but his words reveal an important side of his personality. Delve deep into his background as a youth growing up in Virginia and the reasoning behind the Probot concept becomes perfectly logical. Probot is not a tenuous link to a golden age of underground metal circa '83-'89 dreamed up by a cynical musician attempting to reinvent himself to gain underground street credo. As bizarre as this sounds, Probot is a labour of love and a tribute to the heroes that influenced Dave as a youth. He grew up devouring as much metal and punk as he could lay his hands on, excitedly swapping albums with friends and discovering new bands. As a teen, his home in Virginia was situated close to Washington DC, the centre of a musical explosion during the 80s that sent shockwaves rumbling around the world. He cites early gigs by Minor Threat, The Obsessed and Bad Brains as defining moments in his musical education. Sucked into this creative vortex, Dave soon began drumming in a variety of bands; Mission Impossible, Dain Bramage and eventually fmding himself drumming for Scream.
The hotel bar we're lounging in has been transformed into an impromptu metal social club. Lee Dorrian sang the vocals on the Probot track 'Ice Cold Man' and is propping up our table with Greg Anderson (Sunn O))) & Goatsnake) while Steve O'Malley (Sunn O))) & Khanate) is hanging out nearby ordering more drinks from the hovering bar staff. The profusion of long unruly hair, raucous camaraderie and casual dress style is not something the immaculate waiters witness daily but they discreetly remove drained glasses and overflowing ashtrays and keep totting up drinks on the hefty bar tab that is increasing at an exponential rate.
Greg Anderson has joined Dave in London because Probot is being released through his independent record label, Southern Lord. This is a major coup for the label and to report that Greg is extremely happy with this development would be an understatement. Although Dave has his own imprint label, Roswell, and a record deal with RCA, he has been submerged in the miserly heart of the music industry long enough to realise that a major label was not going to 'get' Probot. Although highly respected musicians, the vocalists Dave invited to contribute to his pro- ject are not universal household names. The unorthodox concept of matching Dave's music to a line-up of underground metal vocalists was destined to be a stumbling block for a major label looking for their next chart-topping success.
"I didn't know what to do with the record originally," admits Dave. All respect to the RCA people, I love them and they've been great with the Foo Fighters but I didn't think they would understand where Probot is coming from. Most of the people who work at RCA have never heard of Trouble or King Diamond. It didn't make sense to get them involved."
While pondering how to find a suitable home for his pet project, Dave's friend Pete Stahl suggested Southern Lord. Pete was the singer of Dave's old band, Scream, and Pete later went on to front Goatsnake, the band that featured Greg on guitar. The connection made, Stahl's brainwave hit home.
"It just hit me," says Dave, slapping his hands together. He's an animated raconteur and periodically punctuates his sentences with hand gestures, impromptu drumming and snapping his fingers to emphasise his points. "That was the perfect idea, it was right. Greg was someone I already knew, someone I was friendly with. He loves and knows all the same music I do, he knows exactly where rm coming from. From track one to the last track on the album, we share a love of all those bands. Just as I made this music for all of those reasons, Greg is releasing it for all the same reasons. Keeping it in the family."
Greg Anderson, who has been making short work of a coffee shot through with alcohol grins as he recalls Dave's initial suggestion to work together: "He called me up about Probot and I said, "Hey. I'm kinda busy dude you know?" Greg is a likeable character with an infectious laugh. He has a long friendship history with Dave. "Let me tell you how Dave 'n' I met," he bubbles like a sugar-hyped kid. "I haven't told this story to many people but I met Dave outside a Melvins/Nirvana gig. It was the last Nirvana gig ever with Dan Peters." "Oh yeah!" Dave exclaims, his recollection of their first meeting jolted. "Exactly!" Greg counters, "You were outside and I had just seen you in Scream a couple of weeks before in Olympia, Washington. We started talking about metal and you told me that you liked Trouble and Candlemass. And then you told me that you probably were going to join Nirvana but that the Melvins were your favourite band. And the Melvins were my favourite band." Greg smiles at the memory, "Right away, I knew this guy was fucking killer."
Once Southern Lord was attached to the Probot project everything started to come together and the urgency to finish the album stepped up a gear. Probot had been slowly incubating for several years. While Dave was putting the project together with organisational assistance from his friend Matt Sweeney (Zwan), getting vocalists on board and organising tracks, he was also touring with the Foo Fighters and fitting in time to play with other bands. Periodically a small news item would appear in the media where Dave mentioned Probot, throwing around names of possible artists involved and then the story would quietly disappear.   "It wasn't a lack of interest or enthusiasm, it was just a lot of logistics and bullshit trying to finish it," Dave sighs. "This wasn't your typical album process, The music was all written and recorded by me in a total of eight days, in two different four-day sessions. But then it took a good two years to get all the tapes out of the different vocalists, I had tapes coming from everywhere, loads of tapes flying about. I had a messy drawer that I'd thrown shit into for three years. Once Greg got involved he fucking grabbed Probot by the horns. It had been so long, Probot had become one of those albums that will never happen, Like Guns N' Roses." He pulls a face and winces in horror. "This is not 'Chinese Democracy', this is the real thing and it has been a long process," Greg continues, suddenly serious. "Probot needed to be done right and had to be exactly how we wanted it - killer packaging, killer production, everything worthwhile."
Dave and Greg begin discussing the Probot 7" single. Matching the heavyweight vocal talents of Cronos on 'Centuries Of Sin' versus Wino on 'The Emerald Law', the single was limited to 6666 copies. "We wanted to give people a Probot teaser, just to show them that this is going to happen, plus you have to play this single on a record player," Greg gloats triumphantly. "That's a good representation of what Probot is about. The first thing to come out from it is a vinyl single. That's the spirit of the project. I mean a lot of these bands that Dave and I were into, there were no CDs back then."
Dave nods his head in agreement. "Rather than being a nostalgia thing. Probot is a testament to the fact that things can still be done the old way," he says. "You can still make records in your basement. You can still release them with your friends on independent labels. You can still release 7" singles. A lot of people have lost sight of that and Probot is fitting in with the old spirit of the scene."
A BIT OF LEE WAY
Lee Dorrian perks up. Last night Dave, Lee, Greg and Stephen were out on the town, raising hell and allegedly causing trouble in bars. There have been snatches of small talk banter about flipping tables over, dumping beer over people's heads and being bounced onto the street by an extremely irate owner of a metal- friendly drinking den. As the only London-based resident among the metal marauders, Lee is quietly hopeful the previous evening's escapade won't result in him being barred. Decidedly looking worse for wear, he's been quietly following the conversation up to now, nursing a Bloody Mary. Not only is Lee Cathedral's frontman, he's also the label boss of Rise Above Records, so he knows a thing or two about releasing an album. "Record labels in general are missing the closeness with their fans. It used to be that record labels made an effort to make something appealing, where you wanted to collect every single record, every single release that came out, " Lee says. He gestures across the table and good-naturedly compliments his friend and label rival Greg, "You do a really good job of that Greg. It keeps it exciting and this album may bring people back into that way of thinking. Probot coming out this way on Southern Lord can only be a good thing."
Lee met Dave years ago when Scream toured in the UK. Dave says he was probably 18 years old at the time. The band stayed at Lee's place in Birmingham where he impressed them with his generous British hospitality.
"Oh god," Lee recoils, "Dave stayed at my flat when there was no furniture, no carpet, all the windows were broken and we just slept on the floor." A squat no doubt? "No, but it may as well have been," he jokes. "I was a promoter back then, putting on bands from all over the place and Scream played one night and needed a place to crash. I remember Dave from then, he was a cool guy."
After that meeting they lost contact. While Lee journeyed from singing in Napalm Death to Cathedral, Dave moved on to Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. The next time Lee heard from Dave he was floored by his request.
"Greg and I were out in London on one of our wrecking spree weeks and the Foo Fighters were playing with Queens Of The Stone Age. Greg went backstage to say hello and when he came stumbling back to meet me in the pub later he said that Dave wanted me to be on his record. I thought that was just Greg being drunk. But then I got an email. Fucking hell, it was true. Then I heard the music Dave sent me and it was a double "Wow," because it was proper doom. It wasn't just some guy making up a track, it was: Proper. Fucking. Doom. For someone like Dave to ask me to be on his record and then to come up with music like that, I was overwhelmed a little bit," he says honestly.
THE FIRST TASTE
The music on Probot was written and performed by Dave, although some of the guest vocalists added their own instrumental parts. Wino added some riffery to 'The Emerald Law', Cronos introduced some evil to 'Centuries Of Sin' and Lemmy stamped his trademark bass chug on 'Shake Your Blood'. Dave also invited a few friends along the way to add extra guitar. Matt Sweeney contributed a riff, Kim Thayil (Soundgarden) brought some atmosphere to King Diamond's 'Sweet Dreams' and Bubba Dupree (Void) was responsible for the extra noise on Mike Dean's 'Access Babylon', But for most of the album, Dave created the music and played all the instruments, recording the album in two manic sessions at his home studio.
"The first seven songs I wrote I had no vocals in mind, I just recorded them as instrumentals and I hadn't come up with the whole project yet. The next songs I wrote several months later, I had my wish list of people but I didn't write any of them with a particular person in mind, except for Lemmy's track. I wrote that specifically for Lemmy, I knew he was going to like it, but the other ones, I wasn't so sure about. Like the song Lee sings on, I could have given that music to Eric from Trouble and it would have worked."
As Dave starts reeling off the different guest instrumentalists on the album he pauses momentarily and begins to think out loud. "Kim Thayil plays on something else too, I can't remember ", he says racking his brain. "You know, I think Kim also plays on Lee's track 'Ice Cold Man'." It's the first time Lee and Greg have heard this and both jolt upright in surprise. Dave starts to frantically play air guitar, making guitar noises.
"Okay, before the second chorus, in starts the drums and then there's this crazy guitar that comes in, 'Whwhwywwwy' that's Kim, right there." Lee's hungover expression is lifted by a massive grin. "Really? That's outrageous man." He looks like the cat that got the cream.
Dave gave all the Probot vocalists free reign to do whatever they wanted with the track that popped through their Ietterbox. He had no guidelines or parameters, instead setting each vocalist loose on the music and waiting to hear what they sent back. His reasoning was simple:
"All of these guys are so good. If it was some fucking poo-butt that I had never heard of before I may have said, 'Look, this is what you should do'. But all of these people have made amazing records. My attitude was, 'Hey man, you do not need my help'. Do whatever you want. I was never worried that someone was not going to live up to my expectations - and my expectations were pretty lofty for everyone involved."
After the tracks went out to the vocalists involved, Dave impatiently waited for the tapes to trickle back, branded with each vocalists' personal style. He never knew what to expect. "The first one back was the song Snake sang and I was elated. When I got that track back that's when I knew, shit yeah, this idea was going to work. The next one back was King Diamond's track and he did absolutely everything I hoped he would do. I was hoping he would do his wicked little laugh in one part and hit one of his high notes in another part and he did. Everyone involved came though with the goods."
SUICIDE IS PAINLESS
Both Greg and Dave bristle with excitement about the video they are filming in a few days. Normally musicians moan like old women about filming a music promo. Although it sounds glamorous, the reality of a shoot involves long hours and mind-numbing boredom waiting around for shots to be set up. But the Probot video has both men squirming in their chairs because they have rounded up the best lil' metal/punk honeys on the planet from the Suicidegirls.com website to do their special brand of tattooed, kick-ass burlesque.
"Dude! Sorry Lee," Greg says rubbing his hands together, "you're going to miss out on this one." "I just got the cast list today!" yelps Dave. He recently got married but working with scantily clad women is one perk of the job he's looking forward to. It's got all the girls listed that are going to show up, I think the list is up to at least 50 of them now and I would have to say my favourite Suicide Girl of them all is Katie. She's a rocker too, you can talk to her about Burzum or Mercyful Fate and she knows it all. Plus she's hot as fuck, so that's always nice."
Are they going to do anything in this video beside letching?
"Oh yeah," says Dave, "we're a band performing 'Shake Your Blood'. We've got me playing drums, Greg is on guitar, Wino is going to be in there too and we've got Lemmy playing bass and singing. And then a whole bunch of the Suicide Girls."
"Dude!" repeats Greg lasciviously, while Lee looks on with envy.
When asked how his legions of Foo Fighter
fans are going to react to a challenging, leftfield metal album like this, Dave is pragmatic.
He pushes an unruly strand of hair out of his
eyes for the upteenth time, before it falls back
onto his face. "I love being in the Foo Fighters
and making the music I make. But having said
that, the musical influences I have had in my
life are prettY varied. I don't know what to
compare this to. Probot is unlike anything I
have ever done. I've written songs with people
before but never in such a fucking disconnected manner. All of the people involved on this
album make qualitY music, music that matters
and music that is interesting. I think that if
people who know me try Probot and then
really dig deep into the back catalogues of
these bands represented, they will find that it
puts a lot of the new music today to shame. All
of these bands I'm talking about were some of
the greatest live bands. Ever. The music people
settle for today, to me, just doesn't come close
to something like 'Psalm 9' or 'Into The Pandemonium'. This is music
that really fucking shakes you up."
He's right. When you crank up the Cronos track, the power and energy of classic Venom storms out of the speakers like a malevolent hurricane. Each artist has stamped Dave's instrumentals with their own unmistakable indelible mark. When Max Cavallera finished with 'Red War' it was ready to sit alongside anything he sang during his prime with Sepultura.
Although Probot took years in the making it was never rushed. The long wait has been worth it and the album is real. Quality over quantity, this is not a vanity project. Dave Grohl is not cashing in on a wave of metal nostalgia, at a time when publicly admitting you like metal is the fashionable thing to do. In a very real sense, Probot is a religious experience. This album is Dave's way of publicly affirming his beliefs, thanking and acknowledging the bands and men that helped make him who he is today. Listening to Dave reminiscing about his favourite bands and watching him excitedly talk at length with a real sense of joy about the artists on Probot, it's impossible not to be seduced by his personal vision of fantasy frontman.
"I don't think there is anybody else who could have done this record," says Lee. "I'm just trying to think of someone in Dave's capacity with his level of popularity."
"Or done it so well," agrees Greg. "I was thinking the same thing as Lee, Who else would make a record where for the whole record I'm going, 'Yes, yes' to each track? I've been thinking of some of the bigger figures in popular music and I probably wouldn't agree with their tastes at all. Maybe one or two songs - but from start to finish?"
"People keep asking me what is the fucking deal with Probot but this is not like my big secret, you know?" Dave reveals, as he prepares to wrap things up for the day. "These vocalists and their bands are something that thousands and thousands of people shared 15-20 years ago. At the time it was very underground but we were part of some weird revolution, part of a scene that no-one else knew but us. That was part of the allure of the whole metal and hardcore scene, And these are exactly the people that I hope enjoy Probot the most, If an old Trouble fan thinks I did justice to the Eric Wagner song, then that is the whole point and I will be stoked. Those are the people that I am playing to."
words: Marion Garden
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