Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters | Extended interview | Lollapalooza 2011
Foo Fighter and all-around nice guy Dave Grohl dishes on discovering punk, concert-going with Kurt and the healing power of bubble gum.
Dave Grohl is talking to me from his kitchen, in a swimsuit, chewing gum. I can tell. As much as he’s itching to jump in the water with his daughter, Harper, he talks with me. A lot. Words gush out of the drummer and guitarist. He slips into character voices. He tells me about his childhood, mountain-biking injuries, eating buckets of KFC in the studio, crushes on D.C. indie rockers, home remodeling and first meeting his Nirvana bandmates, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic (“They were like flannel and trailer-park dirtbags”). One of the biggest rock stars on the planet, Grohl is headlining the 20th-anniversary Lollapalooza with his Foo Fighters while celebrating the 20th birthday of Nirvana’s revolutionary Nevermind. Hell, I’m pretty sure the 42-year-old would invite me in for a dip if this were face-to-face in his Virginia home.
I talked with Perry Farrell. He told me an anecdote about you, something you shared with him once in Australia. You went to go see the first Lollapalooza in 1991 with Kurt [Cobain]. And you told Perry how you and Kurt had a moment of revelation there, that Nirvana was going to be big.
You know, it’s funny, even before then, Krist [Novoselic], Kurt and I all grew up going to punk rock shows. If there were more than 250 people at a show, it was considered a big fuckin’ show. You know, the first show I ever saw was at the Cubby Bear. Do you know that?
No, I did not.
I never went to rock concerts when I was a kid. I didn’t see any rock & roll bands. I had posters on my wall. I had Beatles records. Chicago gave me more music than any other city in America. My first Rush record was given to me by my older cousin, Trip Bradford. He gave me 2112 when I was about seven years old. His room always smelled like incense. [stage whispers] Because I think he was smoking pot! And then there was my youngest cousin, Tracy. I showed up in 1982, on a family vacation to Evanston, which is where they lived. They lived in a fucking mansion down the street from the lake. It was pretty unbelievable. I lived in a three-bedroom concrete box in Springfield, Virginia. But we would always drive up to Evanston every summer to visit my mother’s best friend. Anyway, so we showed up one year and Tracy was punk rock. I’d only seen punk rock on Quincy and CHiPs, shit like that. So this is the first time I’d seen it in the flesh. The first thing we did was we went to Wax Trax! so I could buy a punk-rock T-shirt. And then we went straight to the Cubby Bear where we got to see Naked Raygun and Rights of the Accused. And that is the foundation of my musical being. That’s the first time I saw a band play live on stage was Naked Raygun at the Cubby Bear.
How soon after that were you back in Virginia forming bands like Freak Baby and Mission Impossible?
I went home with more than one punk-rock T-shirt. And more than one punk-rock record. And you know, I didn’t realize that the city that I lived closest to, Washington, D.C., was one of the greatest, most legendary hardcore scenes in American history, you know? I had Minor Threat and I had the Bad Brains and I had Scream and I had Government Issue, and every band would come through D.C. So I got to see the Dead Kennedys and I got to see Black Flag. But that’s what started it all was that summer in Chicago. But anyway, that’s the scene that Krist and Kurt and I all grew up in. When I joined Nirvana, they were pretty popular in the underground scene, meaning two or three hundred people would go see Nirvana play, on a good night. That was huge. That was gas money. And corn dogs, you know? That was makin’ it. The first time I went to see Nirvana, before I joined the band, they did a show with Dan Peters [the drummer] from Mudhoney. [They said,] "Maybe you should fly up here and audition. We’re doing a show with Danny. The next day let’s have an audition." So I see them, and there were maybe, like, a thousand people in the audience. That was the biggest show I’d seen from an independent, underground band, outside of Fugazi. I was really blown away because these kids weren’t punk rock, at all, they were flannel and trailer park dirtbag. So it was this whole new thing. It was the very beginning of what eventually blew up into what everyone called the grunge scene. But after I joined the band, we went to go see a Jane’s Addiction show; it was the spring before that first Lollapalooza. Jane’s Addiction, Primus and the Pixies. And I think, well, we were huge fans of the Pixies and there were about 5,000 people there. We started feeling like something was happening. This is music that you used to get your ass kicked for listening to. And now it was kick-ass, you know?
And then you saw the first Lollapalooza.
That first Lollapalooza, we were in Los Angeles, recording Nevermind. We heard about the show and Kurt and I got tickets somehow and decided to go down. And when we arrived, there were more piercings, more tribal tattoos and more Rollins Band T-shirts than I’d ever seen in one place at one time. I thought, well, this could only happen in Los Angeles. There’s no way this could happen anywhere else. This is only Los Angeles, and I can’t imagine that the rest of the world is going to change into this. And it was a fuckin’ epic day. It really was. It was unbelievable. I remember sitting in my seat, watching the Butthole Surfers at a fuckin’ outdoor amphitheater! The last time I saw them they were at the 9:30 Club and there were 45 people there and Gibby [Haynes] was shooting a shotgun into the audience. I’m not kidding. It was insane. It was like the revolution had just begun. It was all of us, it was none of them. It was all of us, you know? It wasn’t like the Butthole Surfers were out of their element or out of place or the Rollins Band or Nine Inch Nails or Siouxsie and the Banshees. Even then, Siouxsie and the Banshees go onstage, and they were like the Led Zeppelin of that scene. I’d never considered them to be a huge band until they were second to last on this incredible bill. I mean really, it felt like something was happening, that was the beginning of it all. That was early summer. By that fall, radio and MTV and music had changed. I really think that if it weren’t for Perry, if it weren’t for Lollapalooza, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.
One thing I always loved about Nirvana and the Foo Fighters was how you pulled up other musicians, gave them notice. I learned about the Raincoats and Flipper and Daniel Johnston because of Kurt. And you brought in Pat Smear from the Germs, guys from Sunny Day Real Estate. There were ways for fans to discover great older music.
Well, I think that when you come from a scene, that’s such a close-knit community… [talking off phone] Hi, Boo. [Back to us] Sorry, that’s my kid. She just got back from her lesson. [To child] I know! I can’t wait! After swimming we’ll make popsicles [Back to us] Sorry. "Back to rock & roll." I think that back then, when your band became popular, your instinctual knee-jerk reaction was to try and make all of your friends' bands popular, too. It was never in the cards, none of us ever had this career ambition, that we were going to be in the biggest band in the world. Once it started happening, you just wanted to bring all of your friends with you. Some of ‘em wanted to be there, some of ‘em didn’t. Just as Sonic Youth opened the doors for Nirvana, I mean, I can’t even count how many people Perry’s opened the doors for. That was a big part of it back then, that finally there was some musical justice. Finally, the bands that deserved to be heard were being heard, not the bullshit that was being forced down everyone’s throats on the radio. And once one broke through, the floodgates opened. It’s like crashing a party. It was like a riot, like looting. Perry smashed a window, and fuckin all of us just ran in and stole as much shit as we could before the cops came.
Your daughter reminded me. In the new Foos documentary, Back and Forth, you are often taking breaks to go swimming with your family.
[Interrupted by his kid’s cute babbling.] I’m gonna come swimming. Hold on, I gotta to talk on the phone right now, but can I come swimming with you after?
Child Um, sure.
You want to talk to Time Out Chicago? Say hi? Say, “Hi, Time Out.” [To us] That’s a big no. [We laugh]
That’s fine. I can’t blame her.
What were you gonna say?
I was just watching Back and Forth. Do you still have the studio in your house?
Oh yeah. Well, you know, funny thing. After we made the record, my wife tore down the house. [Laughs] She left the garage and the studio, but the rest of it was just wiped off the face of the earth. So we’re in the middle of a little bit of a remodel right now.
When I read that you made the new record [Wasting Light] in your garage, I was picturing a lawn mower in the corner, bikes hanging on the wall. It was a little more fleshed out than that.
Oh yeah, it’s not like it’s some 1950s, Midwestern, John Wayne Gacy garage. It was a little more, um, civilized. Big enough to put a refrigerator full of root beers and a minivan. When were first started doing press, I think people imagined that I would have a Learjet in my garage, you know? Um, yeeeah, it’s actually pretty much just drywall and concrete! But yeah, fortunately it’s still there. For a while there, I thought that Butch Vig was going to use my garage for the rest of his life because it was so much fun making the record. Which I wouldn’t mind if it weren’t for musicians all over the house.
I have to ask this. Because when I told people I was talking with you, they all oddly brought this up. "Ask about how he chews so much gum.
People are fascinated by how you're always chewing gum while singing and playing.
Well, at this point it’s become this superstitious habit. At first I started doing it because most of the songs we have, I’m screaming full tilt, the entire time. I need something to keep me from gagging and throwing up. I’m not kidding. So I chew gum just to keep lubricated. Every once in a while it gets stuck on the mic, stuck in my hair, stuck on my lips.
Can you sing “White Limo” night in and night out?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s weird, Taylor [Hawkins] and I were talking about this today. We were on our daily mountain-bike ride. We just did this iTunes Festival thing in London, and he was complimenting me on my voice. Which never happens. No one ever says, “Hey, Dave, your voice sounds really good!” 'Cause, usually, it doesn’t. Is it bad that that’s the least of my priorities? That’s the last thing on my list in life is, like, “Have a good voice”? But I quit smoking like three years ago, and since then, I could blow out “White Limo,” like, five days a week, no problem. Talk to me when I’m like 65 years old. I’m gonna sound like Lemmy [from Mötorhead]. We’re gonna have a problem.
But Lemmy can still do it!
He can? Well, that’s what I said, too. I asked him once. I said, "Lemmy, have you ever lost your voice?" He goes, [extremely hoarse English accent] "Once..." [Laughs] I realized, oh, wait a minute, how would he know? His voice always sounds like it’s fuckin lost! It’s like asking him if he’s ever had a hangover.
You mentioned that mountain-bike riding with Taylor. Is this a regular occurrence?
I do every now and then. Our drummer Taylor is like a decathlete. As a drummer he’s fucking incredible. But as an athlete, with two drumsticks in his hands, I defy anyone to pull off the 2 hour and 45 minute set like Taylor Hawkins. It’s bananas.
C'mon. Couldn't you do it?
No, not like him. Not at all. I’m too old! He’s like a greyhound. It’s crazy. He’s in really good shape. And so while we were making the record, and I was eating, like, a bucket of KFC a day. He says, "You know what, I’m gonna buy you a mountain bike." I was like, “Fuck you! I don’t wanna.” And then he got me into it. And then I ate shit and broke a bunch of ribs. Not really helping.
I was listening to your first solo album [from 1992], the cassette for Simple Machines, Pocketwatch.
Oh, no way! Really?
Yeah, a few of us around the office had that. I looked it up on eBay and it is going for about $3,000.
Are you kidding me?! Oh my God!
So if you have some sitting around...
You know, I don’t even have one. Shit! Yeah well you know that was [Simple Machines founder] Jenny Toomey. Did you know Jenny at all? Well, I had a fucking huge crush on Jenny Toomey, basically. As did every other guy. My friend, Barrett Jones, he had an 8-track studio in his basement. Before I was in Nirvana, when I was in Scream, I would go over and record a lot of drums on a lot of his music. I realized, wait a second, I could probably record a song all by myself, if he would let me. Then I’d say, Barrett, can I please use the last minutes of tape? And I’d record a song just by myself. I’d do the drums first and then guitars and bass. It’s kinda how I did the first Foo Fighters record. And so I kept on doing all these little experiments. Jenny Toomey came over one day with her boyfriend, I guess, and heard one of the songs. She asked me if I wanted to do… I think maybe before the cassette there was a compilation that she did. Yeah, that was first and then I recorded another six songs with my friend, Geoff Turner. When she asked me if I wanted to do it, I said, yeah, sure, but I don’t want to call it the Dave Grohl Band. Let’s call it something else. Oh, I called it Late!, because I’m an idiot and I thought it would be funny to say to everybody, “Sorry, we’re Late!’” At one she was getting a lot of requests for it, and she was literally dubbing them on a double cassette deck in her bedroom. It had become a pain in the ass. It was a hassle for her. And she asked if I wanted to release it on CD and, um, I said no. Just because it was never intended to be a big thing.… Also, because I wanted to drive up the price of cassettes to $3,000.