Dave Grohl: Grohl with it

As rock bands go, Foo Fighters have got the lot. Impeccable credibility, earth-shaking tunes and one of the most engaging frontmen in the business. Craig McLean meets Dave Grohl

Saturday 11 June 2005 00:00 BST

Of course Dave Grohl can remember that night at the North Shore Surf Club in Olympia in Washington state. He can remember like it was yesterday, even though it was actually 11 October 1990.

Of course Dave Grohl can remember that night at the North Shore Surf Club in Olympia in Washington state. He can remember like it was yesterday, even though it was actually 11 October 1990.

He'd not long moved to the area. His previous band, hardcore punk outfit Scream, had toured often and toured hard. Eight guys and all their equipment in a Ford Transit - happy days. That was all behind him now. Dave Grohl was 21, and two-and-a-half weeks previously he had become the sixth and final drummer in Nirvana. His roommate in this new town was Kurt Cobain. Now Grohl was playing his first show with the band.

"The venue was down the street from where Kurt and I lived," Grohl recalls. "We soundchecked and I went to get something to eat. When I got back there was a line around the block. I called my mother and said - and here Grohl mimics his 15-years-younger self, speechless with shock - "'Mother, there's at least 200 people in line!' I was amazed. With Scream, the band usually outnumbered the audience."

Grohl had the Cobain seal of approval. "New Drummer!!!!" wrote the Nirvana frontman in his journal. "This new kid on the block can't dance as good as your MTV favorites, but he beats the drums like he's beating the shit out of their heads!" It was 1990 and Nirvana were still 11 months from releasing Nevermind, the album that shook the world, but already there was a huge buzz around the trio. Little wonder Grohl was apprehensive.

"I felt I had something to prove. I knew we sounded good as a band. And we were fucking good that night - we kept blowing the power! Absolutely, I was nervous. I didn't know anyone - no one in the audience, no one in the band. I was completely on my own. That was the only thing that mattered, that hour on stage. That's what I was focused on."

That winter in America's rainy Pacific North-West Dave Grohl wrote a song. "Friend Of A Friend", with its slow, meditative strum, was the first acoustic number by this alumnus of several shouty teenage bands. It goes: "He needs a quiet room / With a lock to keep him in / He plays an old guitar / It was his friend's guitar / He's never been in love / But he knows what love is / He says nevermind but no one speaks."

"God it was quiet," Grohl smiles ruefully of those cold, lonely days on the grunge scene bubbling up in Seattle and the small towns around. "I had nothing better to do than think with a guitar in my lap. And it was a dark, rainy winter. The sun would come up at 8.30 in the morning, and go down at two in the afternoon, and those were the hours I slept. I didn't see daylight for months. It was fucking depressing."

This month, "Friend Of A Friend" finally makes it on to record. It's one of several classic songs on In Your Honour, the new, fifth album by Foo Fighters, the band Grohl formed after Cobain killed himself in April 1994. It's a double album; one disc might be called "very metal", the other "orchestrated acoustic". Or, as Grohl dubs them, "rock" and "not rock". All 20 tracks are brilliant. Melodic, impassioned, forceful. The rock tracks underline the power that has made Foo Fighters one of the greatest stadium-filling rock bands in the world. The acoustic ones remind us of what a gifted pop-melody writer Grohl is, and recall such Nirvana "slowie" standouts as "Polly" and "Something In The Way". Overall, you have to ask: who'd have thought that Nirvana's drummer would emerge as one of the greatest rock talents of the last decade?

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Is "Friend Of A Friend" about Cobain? Grohl half smiles, half grimaces. He's renowned as being one of the nicest, most decent guys in the business. He's not likely to start mouthing off in interviews. So since the release of Foo Fighters' eponymous début album in the summer of 1995, observers have been on the lookout for any lyrical insight into Grohl's f thoughts on Cobain, his grandstanding widow Courtney Love and their union - a marriage that was, in cultural terms, part John'n'Yoko, part Sid'n'Nancy, part Charles'n'Di.

"Of any song that I've ever written, 'Friend Of A Friend' is most blatantly about my time in Nirvana," he concedes. "I wrote the song about Krist [Novoselic, the bass player] and Kurt and me. I don't even think I ever played it for them. It was just one of those things. And," he shrugs, "we needed one more song for the acoustic record."

Dave Grohl, 36, has been leading Foo Fighters for 10 years, three-and-a-half times as long as he was in Nirvana. But his life will be forever defined by his short stint in one of the greatest bands of all time. He understands the intrigue. "I was nervous about putting it on the record. Pretty much any song I write people are usually willing to pick it apart for specific references, obvious references. Whether it's Courtney or Kurt or Nirvana or whatever. And it's not that simple. There are a lot of other people in my life that I love and hate. It's not just The Two."

WELCOME TO Reseda and North Ridge, the porn capital of the world. Knock on a warehouse door in these quiet suburban streets north of central Los Angeles and you're likely to stumble across the filming of any number of low-budget, quick-buck skinflicks.

Studio 606 is different. Tucked away just behind a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall, opposite a tyre shop, a handy 10 minutes from Grohl's marital home in Encino, it's Foo Fighters' newly built nerve centre. Eight thousand feet of rock-oriented real estate, its wood-panelled interior modelled on ABBA's legendary Polar Studios.

In Your Honour was recorded here. Foo Fighters store and repair their voluminous tour equipment out back. There's a cavernous live room in which they can rehearse. In the office area, table-tennis and pinball machine share space with smart Apple computers. Upstairs in the open-plan kitchen-cum-lounge area, the members of Foo Fighters - Grohl (guitar), Taylor Hawkins (drums), Nate Mendel (bass), Chris Shiflett (guitar) - are relaxing with laptops, pizza, salad and Led Zep DVDs. The sofa is dotted with cushions, their covers fashioned by Grohl's mum from his old band T-shirts (Slayer, Sonic Youth). Out front, a basketball court and a row of shiny, expensive cars: Dodge Stratus, Toyota Prius, Ford GT, Ford Explorer, Acura TL, BMW M5.

And along the corridors of Studio 606, more signifiers of success. Nailed to the walls are Grohl's silver, gold and platinum sales discs from around the world. Many are for Nirvana's albums, some for Foo Fighters. One is for the album by Jack Black's comedy duo Tenacious D, another for Queens Of The Stone Age's Rated R, on both of which Grohl was guest drummer. Grohl's long-standing PR estimates that, all told, these awards discs represent album sales of 30 million.

With a hearty hello and handshake, Grohl leads me into the studio control room. He's been here at 606 since dawn - he pigged out on ribs, sushi, sake and beer yesterday so couldn't sleep last night - but is bright and perky. His black hair is feathered and looks freshly washed. His ready, full-faced smile is that of a man who has too many teeth for his mouth. Broad, tattooed and trim, clad in white T-shirt and black jeans, he is the picture of unfussy, rude health. As millionaire rock icons go, Dave Grohl is, frankly, Dead Cool.

Recording of In Your Honour is not long completed, and Grohl has just settled on a tracklisting he's happy with. He ushers me into a leather swivel chair, presses play, cranks the volume on the studio console up to 28, and strides out of the room. First up is the rock disc. As the opening riffs of the title track blast out of the studio's man-sized speakers, I notice that the recommended safety level on the volume knob is 18.

Ninety minutes later, as we sit down on some upturned boxes in a backroom, my ears are still ringing. Even the acoustic album, with its mellifluous bossa-nova tune with Norah Jones ("Virginia Moon"), elegant piano courtesy of Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones ("Miracle") and the Neil Young-ish vibes of "Another Round", manages to pack weight into its graceful songs. All in all, In Your Honour is a towering achievement, and a triumph.

"We came into the studio with five and a half hours of music. The idea wasn't to get experimental, it was to make two great records that would stand on their own." Working his way through a pepperoni pizza and a pack of Parliament Lights cigarettes, Grohl says he was sure his parent label SonyBMG were worried when he presented them with a double album, thinking it would be "85 minutes of bullshit to prove that we're just as pretentious as the next. But that's not the way we work. I like songs to be cohesive and linear and concise - as much as I like a Dark Side Of The Moon every now and then," he says, flashing his toothy grin.

The inspiration for the title track and scorching first single, "Best Of You", came last summer. Grohl went on the campaign trail with Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, in part stung to action by the Bush campaign's use of Foo Fighters' "Times Like These" (from their Grammy Award-winning last album One By One).

"I've never been an outwardly political person. I'd always voted, I've always been active in my community. But I've never had it make its way into the music. But I was in John Kerry's motorcade, and we went from town to town through middle America. I would play acoustic shows at these rallies, and nobody knew who I was. What inspired me most wasn't necessarily political. It was the strength of community and human will. Seeing so many people come out because they either desperately needed to be rescued or they genuinely wanted change. It really hit me. I'd never been so deeply involved in something so important. It was unbelievably inspirational."

Grohl's prior reluctance to be politically "engaged" perhaps stems from his youth. He grew up in the rural Virginian town of Alexandria, five miles outside Washington DC. He had moved there with his mother, father and older sister after his journalist dad landed a job as political correspondent. Grohl Snr (a classically trained flautist and jazz buff) later became a speechwriter, PR man and campaign manager - for the Republicans. After his parents separated he was estranged from his dad, although they are on better terms now. He has always been very close to his mum (an accomplished singer and former schoolteacher), and has bought her a house in Los Angeles.

His teenage musical tastes were also stoutly anti-establishment. He found kinship on DC's thriving hardcore scene, forming several school-days bands, with names like Freakbaby and Dain Bramage.

"I don't know where the hell we got that name," he laughs. "You know, I remember when I joined Nirvana I thought, 'Wow, this is just like Dain Bramage.' Not in the music that we wrote but in the way the band wrote music. Every Dain Bramage practice, we'd walk in, plug in, and we'd just go. For about half an hour. And ridiculous as it sounds, sometimes songs come from that. "Come As You Are", "Smells Like Teen Sprit" or "Drain You" - they came from jamming."

When Grohl wasn't practising guitar or drums - his good musical genes mean he's self-taught and great at both - he was booking gigs in local community centres or applying his artistic skills to designing band logos and flyers. He regrets dropping out of high school with f no qualifications, but at the time could see no other future for himself than going on the road. He just wanted to get on with things.

He remembers the pre-Nirvana, hardcore punk days fondly, turning up to a squat in Turin, Italy, "and they're burning the mattresses 'cause they have scabies all over them. You walk in with your gear and they're still trying to figure out how to steal electricity from the building next door. And someone's building a stage. That's how it was," he hoots. "Every night!"

Fun times then?

"Some of it was really fun. The sense of community, it was really strong. They couldn't pay us anything. They might give us only gas money, but make you the biggest bowl of pasta you've ever seen in your life - and smoke you out! It was great."

Dave Grohl hasn't been "smoked out", or done any other drugs, since he was 20. He did acid a fair bit in his teens, but has never done cocaine. "I do have an addictive personality - it's one of the reasons why I don't do it. If I got my face in a pile of coke, I'd be dead in a year. I know it! The way I smoke cigarettes and drink coffee, Jesus Christ!"

His work ethic, combined with his drug-free lifestyle, jarred with the slacker/lets-get-messed-up ethos of the grunge days. "Yeah, well, if I have one complaint about being in Nirvana, it's that we didn't play enough. Eight months would go by without any shows. Once Nevermind became popular, that was it."

Why was that? Because it was too mental on the road? [Cobain was taking heroin, partly to alleviate chronic stomach pains] "I don't know. I think it was almost laziness: 'Awesome, we just sold a bazillion records, cool, we don't have to tour.' [Strangled voice from back] 'What? Eh? Oh? Aw, well I do!'"

As the royalties began to pour in, Nirvana's work rate tailed off. "I learned to surf," says Grohl of the high times, "but that's not enough! I didn't really have that slacker thing. Yeah, I'm a high school drop-out and I might have shown up late when I worked at Tower Records when I was 18. But playing in a band doesn't seem like work to me. It's my greatest passion. It's the one thing I can't do without. And whether it's playing with Nine Inch Nails or Queens Of The Stone Age or Killing Joke or Garbage - I get so many of these amazing opportunities - I really do consider myself one of the luckiest people in the fucking world. 'Cause I get to do this in this little world that I've constructed on my own."

Dave Grohl is the geek who inherited the earth. He's a heavy-metal and punk-rock nut, and is mad for sci-fi - he named his band, his label (Roswell) and his personal publishing company (MJ-Twelve Music) after terms known to any UFO/conspiracy-theory buff. Studio 606 is so-called after his lucky number.

"It's one of those things that some people who have borderline Obsessive Compulsive Disorder just see everywhere."

And he's fixated on his music. He emerged from the bitter, messy wreckage of his last band, carving a career that has outlasted - and outclassed - that of all of his peers. "I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I'd be here ten years later," he says, drawing deep on another Parliament Light and shaking his head. "I used to swear I'd retire at 33 - you can't be in a rock band if you're over 33! Well, my knees hurt a little bit more now but I'm not done yet."

And Diamond Dave Grohl smiles his wide smile again, like the Cheshire cat that got the cream.

'In Your Honour' by Foo Fighters is out on Monday on Sony BMG/Roswell

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