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Foo Fighters: ‘I’d go to Rock Against Reagan concerts and get beaten by police and rednecks’

Ahead of Foo Fighters album number 10, ‘Medicine at Midnight’, Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins talk to Helen Brown about singing for Joe Biden, recurring dreams about Kurt Cobain, and why Grohl’s starting to notice that male rockstars experience ageism too 

Friday 29 January 2021 18:53 GMT
Worth fighting for: ‘I realised that the only purpose of the band is to bring joy. That’s it. Right? ... I knew we had to put the album out’
Worth fighting for: ‘I realised that the only purpose of the band is to bring joy. That’s it. Right? ... I knew we had to put the album out’ (Danny Clinch)
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Backstage at rock festivals, Dave Grohl doesn’t spend much time in his dressing room. “I’m always that guy banging on all the other artists’ door saying, ‘Let’s do a shot of whiskey!’ then inviting them to hang out at the side of the stage. I love to feel connected to the musical community. Playing live is a huge part of what the Foo Fighters are about.”

So releasing the band’s 10th album – Medicine at Midnight – into the “f***ing void” of a pandemic feels weird to him. And he found it “heartbreaking” that Foo Fighters’ participation in Joe Biden’s inaugural concert via pre-recorded remote link prevented him from high-fiving Bruce Springsteen and Katy Perry in the wings. While his emotional delivery of “Times like These” was broadcast, Grohl said his phone “was filling up with texts from friends calling me an asshole for not telling them I was in town. I had to tell them: ‘I’m not in town. I can’t be in town!’”

But, on the phone from his home in Encino, California (where his publicist assures me he’s already on his fifth coffee of the morning), the frontman says that it was still a “huge honour” to be part of an event that he describes as “a beacon of light and hope”. He believes “so many Americans had become desensitised to a lot of the crisis we’ve been in for the past four years. We grew calloused to the daily disasters. It would have been easy to lose sight of hope and the idea of how good things could be.”

With its lyrics about “feeling divided” but looking towards “a brand new sky to hang the stars upon tonight”, “Times Like These” captured the national mood. Grohl wrote it back in 2002 for the band’s fourth album, One by One. It was inspired by disagreements within the band which are rumoured to have been so intense that they almost broke up after Coachella. They were resolved after Grohl and drummer Taylor Hawkins took a walk together and decided to “just jam” again. Hawkins tells me it was during this time he remembered that “my role in the band is always to make Señor Grohl laugh… and to batter out a f***in’ awesome drum solo at the end of that song.”

It was also the song that thrust the band into the political arena. As the son of a Republican speechwriter and a Democrat-voting primary school teacher, Grohl never wanted to get involved in politics. But when George W Bush started playing “Times Like These” on the campaign trail, the lifelong Democrat voter was “so personally offended” that he began playing it live for Democratic candidate John Kerry’s campaign. Last year a group of British artists (including Paloma Faith, Ellie Goulding, Dua Lipa and Bastille) gathered in their homes to cover “Times Like These” as a response to the pandemic. Coordinated by BBC Radio 1, The Live Lounge Allstars version became the first ever Foo Fighters song to top the UK singles chart in April 2020.

‘Nicest man in rock? Just don’t catch me on a bad day!’ (Danny Clinc)

Living up to his reputation as “the nicest man in rock” (a tag he says we might reconsider “if you catch me on a bad day!”), Grohl prefaced his inauguration performance with a shout out to teachers, including Dr Jill Biden and his own mother, who spent 35 years working in public schools.

Today he cringes at the memory of a recent Zoom call with Jill Biden and his mum. “I was so proud watching my mum. But then when the conversation eventually turned to me the first words out of Dr Biden’s mouth were: ‘Dave, I hear you were a terrible student.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’m 52 years old now and that’s the reputation that still precedes me!’”

In reality, Grohl’s challenging childhood behaviour – and the brilliant way his mother handled it – has always been a central part of his public narrative. Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, Grohl tells me he still has the report cards to remind him he was a “distracted and disruptive” presence in the classroom. He was often so stoned he didn’t even know what subject he was meant to be studying. “I didn’t feel like everybody else,” he says. “I don’t know how to explain it.” His outlet was the punk rock music he discovered between the ages of 10 and 13. “We had a great underground scene in Washington, once I found the channels,” he says.

Today he reminisces about the “Rock Against Reagan” concerts he attended “right on the mall, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a quarter of a mile from where I would one day be invited to play at Obama’s first big ‘party’ on the South Lawn. They happened each Fourth of July. Hundreds of thousands of people from the suburbs would come to watch the national firework display. And right smack in the f***ing middle of it was a punk concert with bands like the Dead Kennedys and the Bad Brains. There were police on horses with f***ing batons. It was nuts. I’d get beaten by police and rednecks. But it was the right place and the right time for that, under Reagan’s suffocating conservative administration.”

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His father – a sharp-suited jazz lover whose nine-to-five job was “making Reagan sound like Abbie Hoffman” – was deeply disappointed. Grohl senior, who divorced Virginia when their son was nine, would punish the rebellious boy by banning him from playing music. In response, little Dave would play guitar in his mind and drum solos on his teeth – he likes to joke that his dentist has been unimpressed by the consequences. In a piece he wrote for The Atlantic during lockdown, Grohl recalls the day when he finally picked up a red pen and wrote his dad a letter “unleashing 16 years of fury as my tears hit the page in blurred stains. I rejected his narrow-minded life-coaching and chastised him for his lack of faith in me.” The passion the 16-year-old put into this letter forced his dad to concede that: “Your writing has punch, David. Punch is power!”

James Grohl died in 2014. His son has carried those words with him. But he gives most of the credit for his career to his mum. “I didn't slip between the cracks because I was raised by a woman who knew that no two children learn alike. She had faith in me, maybe not as an intellectual, but as an inspired person. She taught me how to love and she gave me the freedom to be who I am.”

In her book, From Cradle to Stage (2017), Virginia Grohl writes about the leap of maternal faith it took for her to allow her son to drop out of school at 17 and tour Europe with his first band, Scream. “Can you imagine?” says the father-of-three. “Your kid’s telling you: ‘I’m going to Europe with a band for three months. I’ll be sleeping in squats and touring in a van with eight other people.’ Do you know I only sent one postcard home?”

To Virginia, a fan of musicals and acts like The Manhattan Transfer, it sounded as though her son’s first band were “just screaming their heads off”. She was “pretty sure they weren’t going to replace The Beatles”. But things took off quickly when her boy joined Nirvana in 1990. Their 1991 album Nevermind topped the Billboard chart in January 1992, selling approximately 300,000 copies a week. Despite Kurt Cobain’s well-publicised heroin addiction, Virginia was more concerned that Madonna would “snatch up” her son.

After Cobain’s suicide in 1994, Grohl tells me he “wasn’t sure I’d ever play music again. I turned the amplifiers off. I was lost.” Over a quarter of a century later, he still relives that loss in recurring Nirvana dreams. “They always give me this initial burst of happiness and joy, because Kurt is always in them. It’s like: ‘Oh! he’s still alive!’ There’s never any explanation for that. Just that lovely feeling. Then it all goes wrong when we go on stage. There’s no one in the audience and my drum sticks stretch to the size of telephone poles.”

Grohl says, “I honestly believe there is some energy or interconnectivity that makes those encounters more than just dreams. I’m not a psychic or anything like that. But I do believe there’s an energy to those dreams that makes them more than hallucinations.”

And if Grohl’s first response to Cobain’s death was to put down his instruments, he tells me his second was to pick them back up and “record these songs I’d written by myself, as a form of purge or exorcism, to just f***ing DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING. It was just something to look forward to. I’m a hopeful person and I need a reason to get up and get excited each morning. I had no idea that would turn into a quarter of a century of a career… But for the past 25 years I’ve been locked into this same cycle. We record a record, we go round the planet three f***ing times with it and say we’re never doing that again. We’re exhausted. We never want to see an instrument again. Two weeks later, I’m on the couch writing another record. That’s been my life for decades. Having it stop has been… hard.”

‘America grew calloused to the daily disasters. It would have been easy to lose sight of hope and the idea of how good things could be’ (Danny Clinch)

With a keen sense of history, Grohl had felt “a huge expectation about 2020. I knew it was our 25th anniversary, our 10th record. I thought we could ride off into the sunset with some acoustic dirge, or we think: f*** that, make a party record. I mean, I know rock’n’roll is a young man’s sport. I always noticed it was worse for women. F***ing terrible sexist ageism for them. But it happens to men too, to a lesser extent. Nobody ever put my age in articles. I never read a sentence that ran ‘Dave Grohl, 28’. Now I’m always ‘Dave Grohl, 52, just barely with us…’ I looked at this record as a new beginning. I wanted to take things up, bring back-up singers, the grooves, the party.”

More inspired by funk and pop (Grohl names David Bowie, Sly & the Family Stone and Prince as influences) Medicine at Midnight is a gloriously danceable record. Taylor Hawkins laughs about his resistance to including some drum machine beats, but says he soon learned to flip his signature cymbal smashes and stick twirls into the perky new mix. Hawkins tells me that the upbeat “Love Dies Young” is his favourite track on the record. “Songs like ‘Shame’, Dave had together before we met up. But that one really grew organically. Dave wanted a different beat – like the beat to "Everlong”. But I kept hearing Level 42 – Phil Gould is an incredible drummer – and when I tried it that way Dave was: ‘Oh, yeah, that works!’"

Grohl thinks that, in drawing divisions between genres, people “too often confuse instrumentation with intention”. He explains that it’s not all about guitars and volume: “When I talk about rock’n’roll, I mean everything from Little Richard to Billie Eilish, who I think is inspired by the same thing as me. Sometimes people mistake commercial success for cultural relevance. There are a lot of huge pop artists but that doesn't necessarily solidify into cultural longevity. I look at my 14-year-old daughter, Violet [who sings on this record], and her friends and they're all about guitars and drums, Bowie bootlegs and Etta James. That’s not from me, that’s the stuff they're finding themselves, whatever is on A-list radio rotation.”

Grohl’s middle daughter, Harper, inspired the new song “Waiting on a War”. In a Twitter post, he explained that: “As a child growing up in the suburbs of Washington DC, I was always afraid of war. I had nightmares of missiles in the sky and soldiers in my backyard, most likely brought on by the political tension of the early 1980s and my proximity to the nation’s Capitol. My youth was spent under the dark cloud of a hopeless future.”

He continued: “Last fall, as I was driving my 11-year-old daughter to school she turned to me and asked, 'Daddy, is there going to be a war?' My heart sank in my chest as I looked into her innocent eyes, because I realised that she was now living under that same dark cloud of a hopeless future that I had felt 40 years ago.”

Rock on: Grohl and Hawkins during a stadium tour in 2015 (Getty)

Another track – “No Son of Mine” – is a tribute to his old friend Lemmy Kilminster, the Motörhead frontman, who died in 2015. Today he tells me he first met Lemmy “at a strip club in LA. I was walking back to the toilet and saw him, by himself, far away from any of the girls, on a poker machine in the corner of the room. I mean, he was easy to spot. He’s a f***ing intergalactic cowboy. I said to myself: here is one of my heroes. I would be remiss if I didn't pay tribute. So I walked over and said: ‘I don’t want to bother you, but I do need to let you know that your music changed my life.’ I told him I was in a band called the Foo Fighters. He looked up, into my eyes and said: ‘I’m really sorry about what happened to Kurt.’ Out of the kindness in his heart he shared a real generous emotion with a fellow musician. I’m sure he had never heard a f***ing Foo Fighters song. But it made me want to be his friend for the rest of his life. And I was.”

After the Foos finished recording Medicine at Midnight they were all set to make a big splash of it. Then the pandemic hit and Grohl says that “the people concerned with the business aspect were telling us this wasn’t a good time to release a record. But we pushed back. I said: ‘Really? Because I imagine people could use a bit of escape right now, don’tcha think? I imagine people want to dance!’”

Grohl says the event that tipped the balance was his online drum battle with British drum prodigy Nandi Bushell – who was just 10 years old at the time. “At first I thought: ‘That’s funny,’” he explains. “My friends told me to do it. When I saw her, I thought: ‘Clearly, that kid is going to kick my ass.’ She’s a brilliant drummer, full of this fresh energy and enthusiasm and I’m like two shoes in a f***ing laundry dryer. When the videos went viral, I realised that the only purpose of the band is to bring joy. That’s it. Right? The battle with Nandi brought happiness and release to the millions who watched it at a time when happiness was in short supply. Watching this great kid kick my ass lifted hearts from the f***ing doom for 3-4 minutes. I knew we had to put the album out.”

Bushell’s videos have also seen some online pundits predicting a resurgence of rock music, which hasn’t gained as much traction with modern teens as in previous generations. When I ask Grohl if he thinks this will be the case, he laughs. “You’re asking the wrong guy! From where I get to stand, at the lip of the stage watching hundreds of thousands of fans sing our songs, I haven’t been able to detect any drop in the pulse of rock’n’roll. It’s not going anywhere and I’m certainly not going away. I fully intend to be doing this for as long as I can. I mean, next time we come to see you guys, I hope some people will show up!”

Medicine at Midnight is out on Friday 5 February

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