Dave Grohl Q&A
I jumped on a Zoom call with Dave Grohl last week, shortly before President Biden's inauguration (at which the Foo Fighters played) for a chat about his new album, US politics and funky drumming.
Pretty much the entire conversation ended up being used, in some form or another, in my BBC News write-up. But for the completists, here's a full transcript of our chat, with all the rambling asides left in. It won't come as a surprise to learn that he comes across as a genuinely nice guy, even by the medium of video chat.
Hey Dave! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk. And it's just a couple of hours before the inauguration concert...
I should do my hair. I'm a bit unkempt.
I take it the performance was pre-taped?
Yeah, we taped it about a week ago. Unfortunately, we couldn't be in Washington, DC, which is my hometown. I would have loved to have been there.
You're playing Times Like These. Why choose that song?
It just seemed appropriate. The song was written, maybe 18 years ago when I was at this crossroads in my life - questioning which way to go but hopeful in some sort of rebirth. And as terrifying as that can seem, it's necessary to be hopeful, when you have to start again.
And, this is a bit morbid, but whenever someone close to me has passed away, I've always found that you have to do everything in life once without them before you can move on. You have to learn to live again, you have to learn to love again. So, you know, there's optimism in the lyric and I think it's something that the world needs a lot of now. So we were asked to play that particular song. And it seemed to make perfect sense because of everything that our country has been through. I think there needs to be this hopeful re-examination of which direction we'll move in.
Your dad, if I'm right, was a republican speechwriter wasn't he?
He was. He was a conservative guy.
So where did you get your politics from?
Dead Kennedy's records! It's funny, that's partially true.
My mother is a very liberal former public school teacher and my father was a rather conservative journalist and political speech writer, so I was raised somewhere in the middle. And I realised that these things can co-exist somehow. It's never easy. But there has to be some sort of co-operation or understanding or collaboration to keep the wheels from falling off, and that was the way I grew up.
At the same time, the time I've spent in Washington DC... One of my fondest memories was the first time the Foo Fighters played at the White House, which was on the Fourth of July, in the first year of President Obama's administration.
No pressure on that gig, then.
Just a picnic in the backyard! But I invited my mother and I invited my sister, and we were standing on the South Lawn of the White House. I looked down to the Lincoln Memorial, where I used to attend these Rock Against Reagan concerts - these, like, punk rock protest concerts in the early-to-mid 80s, which would happen on the Fourth of July. So you'd have a million people coming down to the mall to see the national fireworks display and, over here in the corner, you have these punk rock bands screaming about the conservative Reagan Administration. And here I was, years later, on the South Lawn of the White House, celebrating the first African-American president on the Fourth of July. It meant something to me, in a way. It meant that progress and change is possible.
You know, if you look back at the policies of the Reagan administration, and then to stand beside the first black president, you'd think that maybe change, as slowly as it may happen, is possible.
I guess we should stop talking about politics and talk about this record.
Please. I'm not running for President, that's for sure.
Absolutely not. It's hard enough to be the singer of the Foo Fighters, I can't imagine being the fucking president!
[Laughs] You've been you've been sitting on this record for almost a year. You must be going crazy waiting for people to hear it.
Yes, you know, usually when you're finished making an album, the energy is so high, you hit the road as soon as possible. And you see the songs go from the early stages of being written on a notepad, to them being performed in front of a microphone, to the mix in the studio, and then take it to the stage and share it with your audience. Well, that process was scrambled this time around. So, when we finished the album, everything just stopped, and there was silence.
We've always taken the live element into consideration. It's been a huge part of our band for 25 years. But when that's taken away, you just have to sort of adapt or re-examine how and why you do what you do. And after months of waiting and waiting, and waiting, I finally realised that these songs were meant to be heard, no matter where. No matter whether it is in a stadium or a festival or in your home alone or in your car as you sit in traffic. Whatever it is, these songs were written for people to share them with me.
And the key finally turned, and I thought, 'Okay, I'm not just doing this so that it'll blare at 120 decibels, out of a fucking stadium PA system. I'm doing this so that people can maybe share what I feel.' So that's basically when I decided I don't want to wait until I can stand in front of you and sing this. I want you to sing it on your own before we meet again.
There's a lot to sing along to... But I'm a drummer so I really appreciate the kind of Sly & The Family Stone references and the groove-based stuff on there - because that's the sort of music I grew up playing.
That's the thing: That's the type of music I did not grow up playing, you know? Like I've always loved dance and disco, and go-go music in Washington DC, funk and R&B. The Motown songs and the Motown rhythms - these are things that I've loved my entire life but I've never been in a band that that played that type of music. Not that the Foo Fighters have become a Motown review, but those grooves are somewhere in all of us as the Foo Fighters, and it was just a matter of time before we decided to let it out. It felt so good to to focus on that, rather than focus on any sort of expectation from our catalogue of records. It was like, 'No, no, no, let's let's turn that off and let's let this out.'
So, as a drummer, a lot of my favourite albums are based on the rhythm. So, when I referenced Let's Dance by David Bowie, it has so much to do with the rhythmic quality of that record, whether it's Tony Thompson playing drums or Omar Hakim playing drums - it's the engine that makes that music move. And that's the thing that I've always been really into but have never really peeled back with the Foo Fighters - so this time it was priority number one. Like, this is where it's going to start. There's some songs that are exceptions - Waiting On A War is an exception - but for the most part the other stuff is like, 'Let's start here with this fucking drumbeat, and this drumbeat is glued to this riff. And then let's make the song.'
I read that Taylor was resistant to that approach at first...
Damn right, Taylor was resistant. I mean, you're a drummer, you'll understand...
No, I'm terrible so I need the loops. That's fine. Quantize me.
[Laughing] First of all, every Foo Fighters record we've ever made, I've been in the way, right? Typically, I'm hovering over the producer, drawing these boundaries and saying, 'No, I don't think we should do that. No, I don't think we should go there.' So, in a way, I've kept the band from doing so much over the past 25 years, only for the sake of keeping the music within my own personal restrictions. It's weird.
So, in meeting Greg Kurstin, and working with Greg Kurstin, I felt some sort of security where I could just back away. I eventually got to the point where I thought, 'the less involved I am with the Foo Fighters record, the better it will be'. And so, yeah, there aren't too many people in the world that I would just hand, the wheel to, you know? But with Greg Kurstin being the best producer of the fucking world, I felt entirely safe saying, 'Yeah I'm gonna go make a sandwich, do whatever you want.'
And so, with the drum loops in particular, we entered into this album with a very open mind. Whatever it took to make a good sound, whatever it took to make a good song, that's what we would do - if it were a drum loop, if it were an instrument that we didn't possess or have never used before. Whatever it was to make the song as best as it could be, that's what we would do. And of course, I'm a huge believer and proponent of the human element of music, but this time we decided, 'Okay, well let's stretch a little bit, do something that might surprise us.'
Melodically, it's a really strong album, too. Chasing Birds sounds like a McCartney song.
You know, to me, dissonance and chaos is easy. Having listened to a lot of very difficult music in my formative years, I eventually found that the challenge of simplicity and melody is more rewarding than just putting on a fucking delay pedal with screaming feedback, and distorted drums. The simplicity and melody is really my biggest challenge. And so, there were songs that we recorded that didn't make the album because they sounded too much like the Foo Fighters, to be honest. I kind of wanted to stretch.
Something like Chasing Birds - a song like that, some people might hear and question where that comes from. And, you know, to me, we've had years of songs that are maybe similar in tone or dynamic - but that song is on the album because of its melody. Melody has always been so important to me. And I realised a lot of that when I was in Nirvana. Kurt's songwriting was very simple. And ultimately, it really grabbed people's hearts because of its because of its simplicity and melody. But, yeah, it's not easy to do.
No, it's the hardest thing in the world to write a pop melody isn't it? But tell me about Waiting On A War - it seems to be about growing up under that threat of nuclear war, which is something we would both have experienced in the 70s and 80s.
Yeah, so growing up outside of Washington DC in the early 80s, I was always afraid that if there was a war, we would be the first people to die - because of the proximity to the Pentagon, and the White House, within a few miles. I would have these dreams of missiles in the sky and soldiers in my backyard. I mean, I vividly remember a dream where I was standing in my back yard and I saw a soldier come out from behind a tree and, as I turned to run back to my bedroom, I was shot in the back.
At 11 or 12 years old, these were the dreams I was having and I think they were fuelled by seeing the news and the tension of international conflict, whether it was between the US and Russia or whatever it was at the time. So I just always imagined that there was going to be a war and that's how I would die.
Then, while we were making the record in the fall of 2019, I was taking my daughter to school. And she turned to me and said, 'Dad is there going to be a war?' And I guess that she had turned on the television and had seen something. North Korea or Iran, or whatever it was. But it immediately brought me back to those dreams I had when I was a kid, and it was heart-breaking to think that she was feeling that same hopeless fear, at the same age, 40 years after I had felt the same thing.
So, you know, it made me think of her, like, what does she have to look forward to, if that's the dark cloud that she lives under? And so I wrote the song the next day and brought it into the studio and we recorded it really quickly. But you know, it makes me sad to think that my own child has a sort of a bleak outlook on her future. It really made me sad. Because there's got to be more to life than that, you know? But unfortunately it's true - there's millions of children around the world that feel the same. And, you know... It kind of broke my heart.
I think that age as well is when you start to take notice of the news and the things that are going on in the world. And as soon as you pay attention to all the negativity there, it occupies your mind until you learn how to live with it and cope with it. Funnily enough, my son's 10 and he had a dream the other night where he was shot, just like you did.
That's so fucking terrible. I mean, it's very difficult time for any of these kids with the pandemic and the quarantines and lockdowns. So, you know, I think it's important to somehow instil hope, not just in in our kids but in the world, because I've always considered myself a hopeful person. And it's the thing that gets me to the end of every day. So I think the world needs a little bit more of that right now.
The thing we always tell our kids when something bad happens is: Don't look at what's going wrong. Look at all the people who've turned up to help. Look at the doctors and the nurses and everybody else who's working together to fix the problem. That's what the world is really like.
That's great advice. You might have to email that to me.
But actually, talking about kids, isn't Violet on the album doing backing vocals? Was that her request or yours?
It just sort of happened by accident. I mean, Violet is an incredibly talented musician. She can pick up an instrument and learn it within a week on her own. She has perfect pitch and sings from her gut, and has done since she was seven or eight years old. I mean, she sings with soul. And she's well aware that she's the best vocalist in the Grohl family. She's said it before. She said, 'Dad, you're not even the best singer in our family.' And I said, 'I know'.
But, yeah, we recorded the album in an old house. We didn't do it in the studio. We recorded it in this funky old house down the street from where I live. So, at around two or three o'clock, I would take a break and go pick her up from school. Sometimes she'd want to come back to the studio - to the house. And she'd sit on the couch as we worked and she'd do her homework. And one day, Greg Kurstin, who knows Violet is an amazing singer said, 'Hey Violet, would you like to do a backup vocal on the song?' And she said, 'Yeah, sure, what do you think?' And she got behind the microphone, she did a few takes, they sounded perfect and the chorus of Making A Fire, that's Violet's high vocal in there.
And then, after school, she would just come by the studio and get behind the mic every now and then. It seemed very natural, you know? First of all, it wasn't planned, but it felt comfortable and right and natural. Because, in a way, we're all one big family in the Foo Fighters. It didn't seem official until my accountant called a few months ago and asked where she should deposit Violet's cheque. And I said, 'What are you talking about?' She said, 'Well, she sang on the album so she has to be paid.' And I said, 'You can take that money and give it to me. And I'll put it in an account for Violet, that she can open when she's 18 years old!'
That's brilliant, and I saw the video of Violet singing at the Nirvana reunion last year. She was blowing everyone off the stage.
Yeah, I mean, we had talked about the different vocalists that we'd like to have sing with us - Annie Clark, St. Vincent, was one; Beck was another. I think we had asked Joan Jett but Joan Jett couldn't make it. So I thought, 'Oh maybe Violet will want to sing a song.' And you know, Violet and I don't really have in depth conversations about Nirvana. It's just not a part of our everyday life. I'm more interested in what to make her for dinner or, you know, trying to get her on her fucking Zoom call for class.
But anyway, so I say, 'Hey Vi, do you want to sing a Nirvana song at this thing that we're doing?' She said 'yeah, sure'. I said, 'What song do you think you want to sing?' And she thought for two seconds and then said, 'Heart Shaped Box'. Perhaps the darkest of all Nirvana songs. So, I mentioned it to the guys and they said, 'Wow, she really picked a doozy'. And we did it at soundcheck and, you know, beyond the sound of us playing together, there was this beautiful feeling of connection - that I was sharing a chapter of my life with her that she never got to experience, and doing so without words. So, in a way, she got to feel what it was like to be on stage when I was 24 years old.
But the one thing that I think stood out was, here you have all of these musicians in their 40s and 50s, playing Nirvana music, and then a teenager in an old sweater, ripped jeans and Converse chucks, singing the song from an entirely different place. There was some generational return, where, when she sings Heart Shaped Box she feels it just as the teenagers did in the 90s. So it was interesting. It was a trip. To be her drummer, is one of my life dreams. Maybe someday, she'll let me be her drummer again.
Oh my God, you're like, you're like Haim's dad, who turns up to all their sound checks and plays the drums for them.
Oh my god that's funny
Speaking of Nirvana - I don't want to ask loads of Nirvana questions - but this year is the 30th anniversary of Nevermind. And there was talk of a reissue of the album but didn't the masters get destroyed in that big fire at Universal Studios?
Yeah, I think they may have been. I honestly don't know. I've been asked this a few times in the last few weeks, and I don't know of any specific plans [for the anniversary], I just don't. I'm sure that there'll be some sort of something, but I honestly don't know what anyone is planning at all.
And obviously, with anniversaries, last year was supposed to be the 25th of the Foo Fighters' debut album. Take me back just quickly to Seattle, in 1994, when you put together that cassette and stuck it in the back of your truck and started handing it out to people. What were your aspirations for that music, then?
Since I was about 18 or 19, years old, I had been recording songs on my own, where I played all of the instruments. It was always just an experiment. If at the end of the day, there was an extra three or four minutes of tape on the reel to reel, I would ask my friend Barrett Jones if I could do a quick experiment. And I'd perform a song by myself where I play all the instruments and try not to take up too much of his time. So I'd run from the drum set to the guitar, from the guitar to the bass, maybe do a quick vocal and then make a cassette copy of what I just recorded, bring it back to the house and listen to it and think, 'Okay, on to the next one,' and then I would do it again and I would do it again.
So I had this collection of songs that nobody had ever heard that were really only done as some sort of personal experiment. I never imagined that I would jump up on stage with a guitar and sing the songs. I never imagined that they would really become a band.
But after Nirvana was over, I turned off all the amplifiers and put all of the instruments in their cases and didn't really want to have anything to do with music because I was still heartbroken and that feeling was so raw that it was almost impossible, just to pick up an instrument and play. Until I got to the point where I realised that music had been saving my life my entire life, and that that's what I needed most now.
So rather than just go join another band, rather than become someone else's drummer, I thought 'I'll start again with this experiment that I've been hiding for fucking years.' And so I went to this strange underground recording studio - literally underground, I mean that place is built under a house, within the side of the hill - and booked six days, which to me was an eternity.
Like I said, the songs that I've recorded by myself before I would do in five minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes. Never more than half an hour, it would just go super-fast because I didn't want to inconvenience my friend Barrett, who was my roommate, and my producer-engineer. So, six days to me - fuck, I felt like I could make Dark Side Of The Moon. I was like, 'This is amazing! Six days!' And I recorded three or four songs a day for the first three-and-a-half, four days and then did my vocals on the fifth day mixed on the sixth day, took those reels to a tape duplication place and made 100 cassettes, and they were in a cardboard box with a simple sleeve in every cassette.
I mean, I remember standing at the desk at the tape duplication place, picking the font for the lettering on the cassette. That, to me, was the most exciting thing - just deciding which type face should be used on this cassette. I didn't know who I was giving them to. I didn't necessarily have a plan on what to do with them but it just felt good to hold this in my hand and know that I'd done it.
And that box was in the back of my truck and I literally would meet people and say, 'Oh wait, hold on, let me go to my truck I'll give you this thing I just worked on,' and I would hand them to them. I didn't know what I was doing. I still don't really know. But it was mostly just an exercise in having something to look forward to.
And now we're here and it's 10 albums in. And if you look at 10th albums: The White Album is the Beatles' tenth; Exile On Main Street is the Stones' tenth; Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots that's the Flaming Lips tenth - so it's a good place to be.
You know I think maybe there's something to be said for making it this far. There's no turning back, right? So, in order to keep moving, you just have to make sure that your head is face forward and you go for it.