Dave Grohl retraces his life-affirming path from Nirvana to Foo Fighters
Dave Grohl still remembers the first punk show he ever saw: Naked Raygun, in Chicago around 1982, at a little corner bar across from Wrigley Field called The Cubby Bear.
"They knew four chords and the singer was, like, on top of my head, and I was against the stage, and it was life-affirming, because I thought ... 'Oh my God! This is what I want to do,' " the Foo Fighters frontman says.
There was an undercurrent of anger to the punk scene back then, but Grohl says he wasn't fueled by rage. Rather, he describes himself as a hyperactive kid who loved life and wanted to play the drums — he started out by pounding pillows on his bedroom floor.
"This was that hyperactive energy that I had my entire life, but I was kind of channeling all of that into the way that I played drums," he says. "It felt so good."
Grohl eventually dropped out of high school in Virginia to join the band Scream, spending a few years on the road with the group. But then he got a call from Kurt Cobain, asking he wanted to play drums for an upstart band in Seattle called Nirvana.
"I moved up [to Seattle] and we went into a small rehearsal space and started playing, and within 45 seconds it sounded like Nirvana," he says.
Nirvana catapulted to superstardom with the release of its 1991 hit "Smells like Teen Spirit." But just three years later, in 1994, Cobain killed himself, and Grohl considered giving up on music entirely.
"I was heartbroken," he says. "I didn't really know if I ever wanted to play music again, until I realized that music was the one thing that had healed me my entire life."
Six months after Cobain's death, Grohl recorded the Foo Fighters' first album as a one-man project, only assembling the band after the record was complete. The band gelled; in 2021 they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
A few years ago, the Foo Fighters played to a sold-out crowd at Wrigley Field in Chicago — just across the street from the dingy corner bar where Grohl had seen his first concert.
"It took me 36 years to cross that crosswalk and make it to that stadium across the street," he says. "But I did it with my friends and the people that I love, and most of us survived. And that night after the show, we all sort of gathered together and celebrated just that, and I'm very proud of it."
Grohl's new memoir is The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music
On his percussive guitar playing
I can't read music. I'm self-taught, so I don't really have any formal sense of theory or scaling or anything like that. But I do look at the strings on a guitar like it's a drum set. So if you imagine the lower strings are kicks and snares. And then the cymbals, when the song opens up, you let the other strings ring out. So it makes the sound sort of, like, blossom into this crescendo. ... I'm not a soloist. I'm not a virtuoso. But I'm a really good rhythm guitarist, because I look at it like it's a drum set.
On sleeping in a van with five other guys while touring with Scream
It doesn't matter if I'm at home or if I'm at the Ritz Carlton, if I'm having a hard time going to sleep, I actually try to transport myself back to that time when I was in a sleeping bag like a sardine in the van, rolling down the highway.
There were five guys in the band and my best friend Jimmy was the roadie. And so basically, back then, underground bands, most bands toured in vans that were kind of converted into a tour bus, meaning you would have to put all of the people and all of the equipment in a van and go from town to town. You would build a platform out of plywood and make a little shell for a loft so that you could sleep in your sleeping bag on top of the gear. You put the gear under the shelf and then everyone would sleep like sardines in a can in their sleeping bags.
And that was just kind of the way it worked, because when your per diem is $7 a day, there's no hotel rooms. If you're lucky, you might find someone that'll let you crash on their floor. If not, it was perfectly fine to sleep in the van. And to be honest, to this day, if I'm having a hard time going to sleep — it doesn't matter if I'm at home or if I'm at the Ritz-Carlton — if I'm having a hard time going to sleep, I actually try to transport myself back to that time when I was in a sleeping bag like a sardine in the van, rolling down the highway. It's almost like being swaddled to sleep. It's almost like having ... a white noise or something. There's some sort of comfort in that. But that's what we would do.
On living in a squalid apartment in Seattle with Nirvana
I had moved up there without having met the guys from Nirvana before, so they were strangers, and it was really the music that kept me there. Living in that tiny apartment that was pretty squalid and pretty gross was OK, as long as there was music at the end of the day. And the music that we were making was great.
I got homesick sometimes, and maybe I would call my mother and wish for Virginia, that's where I'm from. But then I'd get behind the drum set with Kurt and Krist [Novoselic] and think, "No, I belong right here. This is good."
On the simplicity of Nirvana's music
I think that's one of the reasons why it's proved to be so effective. The guitar playing is very simple. The drumming is very simple. ... We would record a song in one or two takes. It was very pure and honest and real. And I think when Kurt wrote songs, he really tried to capture that simplicity because he realized that that's kind of a direct route to someone's heart or soul or mind.
On Cobain fluctuating between being fun and reclusive
When I moved up and started living in that small apartment with them, I mean, this was someone that I had never met before. I didn't know at first — I thought, maybe he's quiet, maybe he's shy, maybe he has social anxieties, whatever it is. There were times, too, where he was outrageously funny and really fun to be around. The two of us would get $7 and go to the grocery store and spend half an hour in the freezer section looking for the perfect TV dinner. And those moments were so much fun. So it wasn't always doom and gloom. ...
A lot of the times when we'd go to the apartment after rehearsal, I slept on the couch, so I would kind of get on my couch and he would go in his room, close the door. Little did I know that most of that time he was writing in his journals, and more often than not, the next day at rehearsal, he would have a new song. So I think he had moments of being introverted and sort of reclusive, but that was also balanced with someone that was pretty fun to be around and pretty great to be in a band with, because when we counted into a song, it exploded, and it was real, man, it was real.
On the explosion in popularity after the "Smells like Teen Spirit" video release
When that record Nevermind was released, we embarked on a tour that was very much the same as any tour I had done with Scream or Nirvana had done before. We were playing places that held maybe 90 people, some 150 people, maybe 200-300 people, and it was comfortable. Now we had a trailer where we could put our equipment in a trailer, so that was an upgrade. But for the most part, it was just as it always had been — until the "Smells like Teen Spirit" video came out, and the song started getting played on the radio.
We would show up to one of those clubs and not only were there 250 people inside, but there were 250 people outside as well trying to get in, and you could see it growing, you could feel it growing. So we were kind of blissfully unaware until we pulled up to a club, put our equipment on stage and realized, "Oh God, this could become a riot." I would sit down at my drum set and look for the exit, first thing. ...
There was this excitement, there was this electricity, and it seemed in a way that there was some kind of revolution happening, which can be pretty great to participate in unless you're in the eye of the storm. There were times when it did get a bit dangerous and it did get a little scary. And I think by the end of that tour, we decided to kind of retreat and go home and let it all die down.
On smashing their instruments
Smashing the guitar doesn't necessarily kill a guitar. You can actually smash the guitar and have it repaired and use it the next night. I remember Kurt had a few guitars that were just Frankensteined together because in a fit of celebration or rage, he would smash the thing and go, "Oh crap, I just smashed my guitar!" And then he'd have to kind of put it back together.
Drums, on the other hand, drums bounce, which I learned while I was in Nirvana. ... I had this yellow drum set — the same drums that I used in the "Smells like Teen Spirit Video," I think — this yellow drum set that had holes in it from Kurt chopping at it during shows. And I was begging my tour manager, I was like, "Can I please get a new drum set? These drums have holes. It's like Swiss cheese! They have holes in them!" And he goes, "Next week we could do it. One more show, one more song." And so finally, I looked at Kurt before his show and I said, "OK, tonight I need a new drum set. The only way I'm going to get a new drum set is if we just smash this one to bits. It has holes in it." And we told the audience at the Metro in Chicago, "OK, you guys can go home, but we're going to smash this drum set for like, about half an hour." And we did. And the next morning, I think it was a Sunday, and all the music stores were closed.
On Cobain writing in his suicide note, that he didn't enjoy making music and performing anymore
There are moments where you get that feeling, I think, as a musician or a performer or as an artist. I think that there are times where you hit that wall and you realize that you're maybe not inspired, maybe you're not into it, maybe you're just going through the motions. One of the things with my life now or the Foo Fighters now is that I learned a lot of lessons over the years, from Scream to Nirvana to the Foo Fighters, of what to do and what not to do. I think one of the reasons why our band has survived 26 years as the Foo Fighters is because of those lessons we learned before. And one of the biggest lessons is to know when to say "No" and not ever feel like you have to buckle to the pressure of someone else forcing you to make music or to perform or to do something that your heart isn't there for. And that's the way we've worked.
I have to imagine one of the reasons why we've survived this long is because if you get that tinge, that feeling in the back of your mind where you're just punching in and going through the motions, that's when it's time to pump the brakes and stop. And that's what we've always done. And more often than not, you settle and that feeling dissipates and then you call up your guys and you're like, "Hey, I wrote a bunch of new songs. Let's make another record."
On reinventing himself after Nirvana and forming Foo Fighters
I really had no blueprint or no real plan. You know, when I was young, I would record songs by myself where I would play drums with pots and pans and record it on a cassette and then put another cassette in the other player and play guitar along to that cassette. Then I'd have a cassette with guitar and pots and pans, and I'd put that on and sing along to it. So I knew how to sort of multi-track and record by myself. Once I started recording in studios, I would record songs of my own — I never let anyone hear them, because I was mortified. I thought, "Oh God, these lyrics are terrible. Oh my God, my voice is terrible." I would never let anyone hear, but I had banked maybe like 25 or 30 of these songs. I was recording this stuff while I was in Nirvana, but nobody knew. And then when the band was over, when Nirvana was finished, I thought, "OK, I'm going to pick my favorite 14 or 15 songs, go into a studio." I booked six days and I thought, "Well, that's an eternity. I could make The White Album for six days!" And so I just went in and recorded everything by myself as fast as I could, really with no idea what to do with it or where to go with it.
Like a divining rod or whatever you call it. I just kind of like, I found some guys that their band had broken up and we jammed together ... and things just sort of started coming together. But I didn't really see it as any kind of reinvention. I just saw it as a continuation.
On why he didn't want to play drums in another band after Nirvana
I didn't really want to just sit back down on the drum stool, because I thought it would remind me too much of losing Kurt and losing Nirvana. So it's almost like if you stare at the sun, you wind up blinding this little sunspot in your vision. I almost thought of it like that perspective from the drum set. I will always have that sunspot right there in front of me, just to the right like that, that will be there forever.
After Nirvana ended, I was asked to join a few other bands as the drummer, and I didn't really want to just sit back down on the drum stool, because I thought it would remind me too much of losing Kurt and losing Nirvana. So it's almost like if you stare at the sun, you wind up blinding this little sunspot in your vision. I almost thought of it, like, that perspective from the drum set. I will always have that sunspot right there in front of me, just to the right. That will be there forever. Also having never done it before, I looked at it as a challenge. People don't bungee jump because they know they're going to make it to the ground safely. I didn't start to be the lead singer of the Foo Fighters because I thought I was Freddie Mercury from Queen. I'm like, "Oh God, I've never done this before. Let's see what happens." I'm that guy. I'm like, "Screw it. Let's try it! Who cares?"
On music being about love and connection
When I went to that first punk rock show, that sense of community and that tribe of those people, those like-minded kids that maybe all felt the same, that was one of the things that I loved so much was the people coming together. I thought it was so cool, like, this is where everyone could come. These were the misfits. These were the weirdos. These were the freaks. But this is where they found their tribe and their community. And ... when we get together, there's some comfort or there's some reassurance in that, like, "Oh, this is where we belong."
As much as I was anti-establishment in a lot of ways, I think that when I was young, there was more this feeling of connection to music and people connecting to music that I loved so much. I know how I felt when I listened to a Beatles song. Something about connecting to the music that made me feel great. And when I started writing songs that people connected to as well, God, it was such a beautiful feeling for me. And if that multiplied, oh my God, it felt even better. ... Now that we play stadiums, it's like in some ways it really does feel strange to me. At the same time, I feel really comfortable doing it. I mean, it's weird. It's like, "Wait, I feel comfortable standing in front of 80,000 people and like conducting them to sing, 'Best of You' with me. Like, is that normal?" I don't know. ... I wouldn't wish it away, because I think that there's a lot of love in music, and the more that that spreads, the farther it goes, the better it does.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.
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