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Foo Fighters: Finding Gold in Desperate Times

In an age of unrest, Dave Grohl is still searching for hope.

Earlier today, Dave Grohl was sitting at home watching YouTube with his eight-year-old daughter, Harper. Their focus was her onstage appearance during the Foo Fighters‘ headline set at Iceland’s Secret Solstice festival in June, when she jumped behind the drum kit — an instrument she’d only been learning for two weeks — and led the band through a truncated version of Queen’s “(We Will) Rock You”. “I felt like fucking King Triton!” roars her beaming father several weeks later. “[She] must have a little bit of my DNA in there to have the fucking balls to jump onstage in front of 20,000 people and play the first song you learned two weeks ago. I was very proud.”

Harper isn’t the first of Grohl’s three daughters — 11-year-old Violet and three-year-old Ophelia round out the brood — to show signs of taking up the family business. Violet, he says, “can sing like Adele can sing, can sing like Amy Winehouse can sing”, and though she’s been doing this since she was six or seven, she only recently got an invitation to join her first band when a kid in her class, Spencer, texted her with the offer. Their first show was at the Roxy in West Hollywood. “It was her first gig, and she fucking walks into the Roxy and takes a look around, and she looks at me and says, ‘Yeah, this place is a lot smaller than I thought it was gonna be.'” He chuckles. “I was like, ‘Slow down, tiger, you’ve got a long way to go.'”

If anyone should know, it’s surely Dave Grohl. The 48-year-old has been playing in bands for more than 30 years, taking his first tentative steps as a teen in acts such as Mission Impossible, Freak Baby and Dain Bramage while growing up in Virginia. By 17 he’d dropped out of school and was touring America in a van with DC hardcore band the Scream; by 21 he’d joined Nirvana; within 18 months they were the biggest rock band in the world; and by 25 it was all over when frontman Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. What followed surely ranks as one of rock & roll’s great reinventions, as the drummer became a frontman, wrote and recorded some songs, pulled together a band he called Foo Fighters and, upon releasing their debut album in 1995, hit the road.

“When we started the band in 1994, we couldn’t imagine we’d be here 23 years later,” he offers. “When we first got together, our biggest concern was making sure the van didn’t get a flat tyre on the way to the next gig. And that’s changed a little bit. But you learn as you go, and along the way we’ve kind of grown into a band.”

“It was such a messed-up band [when I joined],” reflects drummer Taylor Hawkins, calling in from Laguna Beach, the small coastal Californian city in which he was raised, and where he’s currently holidaying with his family. The energetic sticksman became a Foo Fighter in 1997 after the band split with original drummer William Goldsmith. “[Guitarist] Pat Smear quit within the first two weeks I was in the band. [He returned in 2010.] I was, like, trying to figure out how to play drums for the greatest drummer in the world, and I didn’t enjoy it at first, but I loved Dave. Live we sucked, we were shambolic. Dave was not used to being a frontman, I was trying to play drums like Dave but not be like Dave, Nate [Mendel] was this weird bass player, and we were going through a series of guitar players. And then we got [guitarist Chris] Shiflett [in 1999] and that formed a sort of nucleus, and then somewhere in there, around There Is Nothing Left To Lose, One By One, we just started maybe seeing a bigger picture and thinking, well, maybe we could be a real band. Maybe this isn’t just a fluke that our buddy that played drums in Nirvana can write a few songs here and there. And it just kept going. We just never broke up.”

These days, says Grohl, Foo Fighters’ longevity is such that children born into the organisation are now old enough to work for the band. “One of our techs, his daughter, Mariah, I remember her from when she was 10 or fucking 12 years old. A couple of years ago we were in Toronto and I saw her backstage, now she’s in her 20s and I’m like, ‘Mariah! How are you?’ We talked for a minute and all of a sudden her walkie talkie went off and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got to run.’ And I looked at her like [incredulously], wait a minute. She’s fucking working for us now?! We have two generations of road crew!” He laughs. “That’s fucking insane!”

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Grohl on the “throne” in 2015

The last time the Foo Fighters released an album, it was more a multimedia extravaganza than it was a standard record release. An eight-song LP where each track was recorded in a different city in America, 2014’s Sonic Highways was a companion piece to a documentary series Grohl co-directed for HBO, exploring the musical and cultural heritage of each of the cities in which the band recorded. By that point he had a compact but acclaimed CV as a filmmaker, having played an integral role in the Back and Forth documentary (which tracked the history of the Foo Fighters and the making of 2011’s Wasting Light in Grohl’s garage) and directed and co-produced 2013’s Sound City, which recounted the history of the legendary recording studio. Sonic Highways, however, was a grander beast altogether, with Grohl assuming the roles of director, producer, interviewer, songwriter, band leader, musician and, quite possibly, bartender. Upon speaking to Rolling Stone about the project in 2014, he finished the interview by revealing he already had plans for the next record. “You think this is fucked up?” he boasted. “Wait until you see what we’re doing for the next one.”

Today, speaking from the parking lot of a grocery store in Los Angeles — “It’s another beautiful day,” he deadpans. “Enough pollution to kill a horse, and traffic is a dead stop, and the people’s faces are botoxed in frozen shapes so you can’t see how unhappy they are… it’s fucking amazing!” — Grohl smiles at the memory.

“I got so caught up in the ambition of Sonic Highways, it was such an ambitious, mammoth project that I was riding on that high. And I had this idea for the next record where we’d write and rehearse an entire album and then book one night at the Hollywood Bowl, build a recording studio on the stage with isolation booths and reel to reel machines and a control room, invite 20,000 people, and show them a 45-minute presentation on the writing of the album before we walk onstage and record our album live on HBO in front of 20,000 people. No one,” he cackles, “had ever done that!”

Plans proceeded to the point where a night at the venue was put on hold, but were scuppered when, six months later, Grohl learned that PJ Harvey had recorded her The Hope Six Demolition Project album in front of a live audience as part of an art installation at London’s Somerset House. “I don’t know exactly how she did it, but it was similar enough that I thought, ‘Fuck. OK, oh well, maybe next time.'”

As the Sonic Highways world tour stretched into late 2015, Grohl switched his thinking, opting instead to pare things back on its follow-up: “I thought, the strangest thing for our band right now would be to go into a studio and book three months with a producer who’s known for making pop records and just record like a band would do, because we haven’t done it that way for so fucking long. It’d been almost a decade since we just walked into a studio to make a record.”

The studio in question was EastWest Studios, a legendary complex on Sunset Boulevard that since the early Sixties has played home to everyone from Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys (who recorded Pet Sounds there) to Michael Jackson (Thriller), Madonna (Like a Prayer), U2 (Rattle and Hum) and, more recently, Metallica, Muse and Garbage.

The pop producer was Greg Kurstin, who first found minor fame in the mid-Nineties with his alternative band Geggy Tah and their hit “Whoever You Are”, but shot to prominence as a producer thanks to his work with the likes of Adele and Sia. When Grohl suggested Kurstin to his bandmates, guitarist Pat Smear looked puzzled. “He said, ‘Who’s he?'” recounts Grohl. “And I said, ‘Well, he wrote and produced “Hello” by Adele.’ And Pat goes, ‘What does Adele sound like?'” Grohl roars with laughter. “He’d never heard her before! So I played him ‘Hello’ and he’s like, ‘OK, that’s amazing, but how the fuck does this apply to what we do?'”

“I just go with whatever Dave says,” shrugs Hawkins. “I just say, whatever, you’re the boss. And I don’t think anyone really knows how to steer the Foo Fighters better than Dave, and I wouldn’t trust anyone else at the driver’s wheel. We’re like our own little Mafia family. Whatever he’s got in mind we go out and we fucking do. Give it everything you’ve got.”

Grohl’s desire to work with Kurstin had less to do with Adele and Sia than it did Kurstin’s own indie-pop band, The Bird and the Bee, with whose 2007 self-titled debut album Grohl became obsessed. A chance meeting at a restaurant in Hawaii around four years ago — “I ran up to him at his table, he was having dinner with his family, and I said, ‘I don’t want to interrupt but I am in love with your album and I think you’re a fucking genius'” — led to a friendship they’d rekindle whenever they were in Hawaii at the same time. During those encounters they’d stand “waste deep in the pool” talking about music, be it the Zombies or the Dead Kennedys, the Beatles or Motörhead, in the process realising they had a lot of common musical touchstones. A light went off in Grohl’s head: “I had this idea that if we could somehow mix The Bird and the Bee’s sense of harmony and melody with our fucking chaotic power chord noise, we’d end up making the album that I’d always wanted to make.” One night over dinner, Grohl put this to Kurstin, who responded thus: “Any time you want to do anything, I would love to.” And so it was that the plans for Foo Fighters’ ninth album, Concrete and Gold, were put into motion.

“I got especially excited about the idea when I heard the demos,” says Kurstin via e-mail. “I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions. I just knew that Dave wanted to try something new and we were all going into it open-minded.”

Grohl had initially planned to take a year off after the Sonic Highways tour, not least because he had to focus on rehabilitating the leg he broke after falling offstage in Gothenburg in June, 2015. (The physical therapy alone demanded several hours’ work a day for almost a year. In a recent interview with BBC’s Zane Lowe, he revealed the extent of the damage: “When this happened, my doctor basically said, ‘It’s a lot worse than you think it is. If you do what I tell you then you’ll be able to walk and run around with your kids after you’re out of here. If you don’t do what I tell you to do, you’ll walk with a cane for the rest of your life.’ Meaning I wouldn’t be able to play drums… I messed it up so bad.”)

“The other thing that really affected me about Chris Cornell’s passing was thinking about his band members, because… that’s a long, hard road, man.”

Six months into the hiatus, Grohl started penning some songs, and by midway through last year was at Hawkins’ house showing him the ideas for what would become the first single off Concrete and Gold, “Run”, and another song destined for the record, “La Dee Da”.

To write the lyrics, Grohl spent a week in an Airbnb rental in Ojai, just outside of Los Angeles, “and brought a case of wine and sat with a microphone and my guitar and just spouted these stream of consciousness ramblings into a tape machine. A lot of it was phonetic, I didn’t even know what I was saying. And I would listen back and start to hear these words that were just coming out.”

Those words comprised some of his darkest musings to date. “Well, we’re living in desperate times,” he says quietly. “There’s not a lot of rest, and it seems like we need some peace.”

The first line of album opener “T-shirt” — “I don’t wanna be king/I just wanna sing a love song/Pretend there’s nothing wrong/You can sing along with me” — was inspired by a press conference held by President Trump. “It just made me so sad that there’s this gross, greedy ambition that’s happening where people are so hungry for power, it really flipped me out,” sighs Grohl.

On “Run”, he “just wanted to escape. I wanted to get away from the noise and get away from that desperation, I just wanted to find some sort of peace. And there’s that feeling that you want to grab the person that you love and just run for your life to somewhere where life means something more than just a desperate search for power.”

Harmony-laden rocker “The Sky Is a Neighborhood”, which was a last-minute addition to the album and has since become one of Grohl’s favourite Foo Fighters songs, was inspired by a trip to Hawaii, where he lay on his back one evening looking at the stars. “I am one of those people who believes we’re not the only life in this universe, and so as I looked up at the stars I just imagined what they might think staring back at us. The last thing in the world you want is a noisy neighbour, so we need to keep it down. Cool it out a little bit.”

Despite its flippant title, “Le Dee Da” finds Grohl addressing the personal as political, raging against “people dictating their beliefs to me to the point where it becomes oppressive and perhaps against something I believe in”. Inspired by his upbringing in Springfield, Virginia, and how he felt “like an alien or freak as a teenager” listening to “fucking crazy industrial music and exploring the really darker sides of human behaviour” in such a conservative setting, it also addresses the oppression he sees many of his gay friends suffering. “They’re beautiful people who just want to live a loving, compassionate life and there are others that dictate their beliefs so much that it affects their lives,” he says. “I’m very passionate about that in my private life. It normally doesn’t make its way into song, but that one did.”

There is, he’s quick to point out, still “something about [the album] that seems fun to me, there’s still some boogie in it, and there’s still love and there’s still that tongue-in-cheek last sip of whiskey in the jar”. There’s also hope, most notably in the closing title track, which graduates from a sludge-like dirge into a chorus of celestial proportions. “I knew it would be the last song on the record because it’s meant to leave the listener with a sense of hope. Even a broken heart can find hope somewhere, and whether it’s our country or our planet, there’s got to be some hope to live for. I get dark enough that I just start thinking about total extermination. But as I look now, I’m standing in the parking lot of a fuckin’ grocery store, watching the roots of a tree grow up through the dirty concrete of Los Angeles, and to me I feel like we as people can do the same thing. We just need to get up from under it.”

Earlier this year, Grohl made headlines when he stated the album featured a cameo from “probably the biggest pop star in the world”. Today he won’t reveal who, though he’ll happily admit to standing in the hallways of EastWest “talking to Lady Gaga or Jason Bonham or fucking Timbaland or Shania Twain”, and that Paul McCartney plays drums on one of the songs. A chance encounter with Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman in the parking lot resulted in the singer recording 26 vocal tracks on the chorus of the title track after Grohl asked if there’s “any way we can build something that sounds like an entire choir”. “It sounded so huge that when he left the room I looked at everybody and said, ‘That’s what the record should sound like’,” recalls Grohl. “‘This is the starting point right now, this is what we need to do.’ And so for the rest of the record we just started stacking these choirs of vocals all over these massive riffs. That was one of my favourite moments of the entire album.”

“Dave always wanted to make a weird sounding record, and I think for the most part he’s got as weird as we’ve ever gotten sonically speaking,” says Hawkins. “I think it’s a challenging record, I think you have to listen to it. ‘The Line’ is the only song on the record that sounds like a Foo Fighters song. Everything else, there’s elements there, but then it goes, ok, that’s a little strange. I like how heavy it is. When we did ‘Run’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s going to be our first single?’ I’m proud to say we put out maybe our heaviest single as our first single at a time when it might be the lightest, poppiest time in alternative rock, for lack of a better term.”

The release of Concrete and Gold will, naturally, be accompanied by a mammoth trek around the globe. For Hawkins, staring out over the Pacific Ocean from his Laguna Beach hideaway, it’s a “daunting but exciting prospect”. “The road is amazing and fun, but it’s also a lot of work and a lot of time away from your family. But at the end of the day, every new album, every new tour, is a gift. I know deep down that we’re so blessed to have the opportunity to do it all.”

“The most important thing is we walk onstage, do our job and get home safe,” says Grohl. “It’s not very rock & roll, but I’ve been around the block a couple times and I’ve learned a few things. To me, the most important thing is, we give you the night of your life, and then we get home safe.”

The world is, of course, a different place since the Foo Fighters wrapped their Sonic Highways tour, with terror-related events such as those at the Bataclan in 2015 and at Ariana Grande’s Manchester concert in May meaning safe passage home from a show is no longer quite the certainty it once was. It’s a fact not lost on Grohl.

“The tour we just finished [around Europe] was the first time we’ve been on the road in about a year and a half,” he starts. “And so much has changed in that time that before the first show we actually had a meeting to talk about what to do in the event that anything happened. And it was a very sobering conversation to take these things into consideration that we’ve never had to before. We had the meeting, I looked at our team and said, ‘OK, you guys seem to know what you need to do, we know what we need to do, now I never want to have this conversation again.’ Because the last thing in the world that I want to think about before we walk onstage is something as dark as that. So, yeah, the world has changed, but it’s not keeping the band from going out to do what we feel we need to do.”

If security concerns are a sobering topic, they pale in comparison with the news that broke on the morning of this interview that Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington had taken his own life, on the same day that Chris Cornell — who committed suicide on May 18th — would have turned 53. Cornell and Grohl had been friends since their days in the Seattle scene, and he directed the video for “By Crooked Steps” off Soundgarden’s 2012 album, King Animal. Mention of Cornell’s name and how his passing affected Grohl finds the normally verbose and upbeat frontman struggling for words, his voice breaking audibly. “God, it’s so hard to even talk about, I get… he, um… He was such a sweet person. It really hit me because… well, for a lot of different reasons, but I just instantly missed him. We weren’t best friends, but we were friends, and there’s something about that connection that a lot of Seattle musicians had that was deeper than distance or time. When you bump into a member of one of the bands that exploded in the early Nineties from Seattle, we all had this common bond. It didn’t matter if you were drinking buddies or would just bump into each other once a year on the road, you just had something in common. And that was a chaotic time for everyone to make their way through, and some of them survived, and some of them didn’t. And I felt like we had gotten to the point where everyone had made it through… well, most of us had made it through, and…”

He sighs.

“It just broke my fucking heart, man. And… the other thing that really affected me was thinking about his band members, because… that’s a long, hard road, man. You know? Fuck, so sad. I’m still sad about it. And then today I just heard that fucking [Chester Bennington] had died. God, it makes me so fucking sad that we’re here, we’re blessed enough to have this life filled with music, and I just wish that everybody could grab a hold of that and find happiness. Or peace. I understand these things are much more complicated, but it really breaks my fucking heart.”

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With Chris Cornell in 2013: “I just instantly missed him,” says Grohl of Cornell’s passing.

Grohl, for one, has managed to grab a hold of the music and find happiness, as evidenced by the excitement with which he talks about an impending Australian tour — “It’s only a matter of time before we make our way there to do the thing we love to do the most” — and his pride at the new album. “I am more proud of this record than anything we’ve ever done. Usually I have a little bit of nerves about some of the things we’ve done on albums and I don’t necessarily go on the street and hand them to people, but this time I’m sending it to everybody I know saying, ‘Listen to our new record, you have to hear it!’ It’s bigger and better than anything we’ve done. I’m literally texting my friends saying, ‘Send me your e-mail address, I want to send you the record.'”

For all his success, Grohl refuses to acknowledge his abilities as a songwriter.

“I don’t look in the mirror and think I’m the most handsome person in the world. I don’t listen to my live recordings and think I sound like Pavarotti, and I don’t look at my songs like I’m a great songwriter. I just keep chipping away at it, and imagine there’s no finish line, that until the day I die I’ll try and write the song I can finally rest upon.”

Do you think you’ve come close?

“There are songs I’m very proud of over the years, but my perspective is so different from the listener because I see those songs in my own handwriting, and I understand every subtle reference in every verse and every chorus. Most of the songs that people consider to be our best are songs that took no work at all. A song like ‘My Hero’ came out of my mouth as I was demoing it in the basement in Seattle in 1995. A song like ‘Everlong’ happened pretty quickly as well. ‘Best of You’ I wrote sitting smoking cigarettes in my garage on a welcome mat with a fucking boom box next to me. I always see pictures of Nick Cave sitting at a desk with a typewriter, and that’s how I imagine brilliant writers to write, not sitting on a welcome mat next to a mini van in a fucking garage with a pile of cigarettes next to you.”
He laughs.

“But I’m mostly proud that our band has survived. And over the years it’s turned into a gigantic organisation that works like a family. At the end of the day, it’s my name at the bottom of the cheque, so I’ve become the head of this massive organisation where I have to steer the ship, and it’s something I couldn’t have done 22 years ago. It’s taken me 22 years to figure out how to do it. But also to just grow comfortable in ourselves as a band. When I look at photos of us back in the day I can see that I was really trying to do this. And I don’t necessarily feel like I need to try to be in the Foo Fighters anymore. It’s just become my life.”

From issue #791 (October, 2017), available now.