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Dave Grohl - The Rolling Stone Interview
By Simon Wooldridge
Transcribed from Australian Rolling Stone Issue 669, September 2007-08-12
Between becoming a dad, helping save a life, and trying to save the planet, Dave Grohl also quickly turned around the album of the Foo Fighters' career - and finally wrote a song that moved him to tears.
"About a week before Live Earth, I saw Wembley Stadium on TV for that Concert for Diana," says Dave Grohl of the show that must go down as the biggest he'll ever play, considering its TV audience and line-up. "That fuckin' place was so huge, it made my stomach turn. I immediately wanted to throw up. I'm like, 'Oh my fucking God! There's no way we can do that; that's insane!'" That the Foo Fighters were the second highest on the bill - under adopted Brit Madonna, and above Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys and Genesis - fits with a long line of wins for the little stadium band that could. Grohl is proud to not the band is thirteen years into its career, and is still hitting its stride. The 2005 album In Your Honor marked both a new level of popularity for the band (in the U.K. the Foo Fighters headlined Hyde Park before a crowd of 85,000) and a new musical breadth, thanks to its double album format. One album was based in the four-on-the-floor arena rock/pop the band is known for, the second was a new form - acoustic and more traditional, with guest turns from Norah Jones and QOTSA's Josh Homme. The music of the second CD allowed the band freedom to tour with the likes of Bob Dylan and to play rooms like the Sydney Opera House. The end of their touring for the album saw them take to smaller stages in this filled-out eight-piece acoustic format, turning anthems into campfire sing-alongs. In the interim, Grohl became a father (he and second wife Jordyn Blum welcomed daughter Violet Maye on April 15th 2006), and later that month helped save a life (his music was requested as a morale booster by Brant Webb, a miner trapped in the Beaconsfield collapse on April 25th). Even as all this was happening the band was turning around a follow-up album, Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace in quicker-than-ever time. Understandably, Dave Grohl is excited.
It's been noted that there are no awkward silences with Dave Grohl, but more to the point there are no breaths. After a full day promoting the new album, he's ready to talk. It's a function of this gregarious nature and enthusiasm that his thoughts are driven forward quicker the he can properly order them: each one flows onto a new distraction or tangent, following and folding back on itself in what's probably best called a Stream of Dave-iousness. Of course, it's tough to keep your head together, even when recalling a moment as gargantuan as Live Earth. So how do you cope with a show like that, especially when you've effectively been off the road for a year? The Foo Fighters warmed up and nearby Camden's 500-capacity rock room Dingwalls.
"We played like it was the last show we'd ever play," says Grohl. "I was kinda drunk and I was on the PA system fucking my guitar like Prince from Purple Rain, and throwing guitars all over the place." "Just before going on (at Wembley) we were standing behind the curtain, and I thought, 'OK. Alright, we gotta make this good.' I wasn't even thinking about the two billion people that were watching it on TV. I realised that we had to do it right. And then just before stepping onstage, I thought to myself, 'Just do it like we always do it. Just do it like we did it at Dingwalls two nights ago.' And we waled out there and played like we always play, and walked offstage feeling like that's all we ever need to do. When it's the four of us in Taylor's basement studio, it's the same feeling as when you get up in front of that many people; you do it for the same reasonÖ that feeling of 'Hey, I'm glad to be here, and fuckin' I love these other three guys in the band, andÖ. Watch this!' It was pretty awesome.
"I wanted people to celebrate the reason we were there, celebrate the cause and the music, just fuckin' all come together. And for those twenty minutes, all of those people were connected by this thing. It was really powerful and I was really proud." Time to party then, you'd expect. The next step speaks volumes about Grohl's new life as a father. "I just fuckin' walked offstage, my daughter was standing with my wife on the side of the stage, I picked her up, walked in the dressing room, put on a dry shirt and we went back to the hotel and played with toys."
So you're working hard on the promo trail. My understanding is you're hoping to make Europe a priority this time as well?
We were thinking about taking a year off, about just sitting back and relaxing after the whole In Your Honor trip, because it proved to be a whole new experience for the band. The level of the band's popularity has got to a certain place, and then doing the acoustic shows, the level of the band's musicality had too, and the gradual rise of this band has been really comfortable and really easy for the past thirteen years, you know? The foundation of the band was just such and accident-demo tape experiment that you could never imagine being when we are now thirteen years later. If it had happened overnight, I don't think we'd still be here, but the fact that it has happened so comfortably and gradually makes all the difference. After that whole In Your Honor thing, I thought, "Shit, we just went down to Australia, we played these arenas, and we went to England and we sold out Hyde Park." You just think, "God, how could it get any better than this, man? Now is the time we can take that break we've been talking about for thirteen years. Every time we finish touring, we think we're gonna take that three-year break that some bands take, and then come back. In a few ways I've always been afraid to do that. One, I've been afraid people are just going to forget about who we are. And another reason, I've always been afraid of being away from the band for that long. It's hard to be away from your best friends or what you consider to be your family for that long.
But still, after those tours, you would suffer from exhaustionÖ..
But we never did, no matter how fucking tired we were. This time, having a daughter, life has changed so much, I thought, "OK, well, now's the perfect time to do it." Then I realised that was a terrible idea: I had these songs that were on cassette tapes at my house, in my head, and that I had just discovered on piano. I thought "Man, we should get right back in." I think this is the shortest break we've ever had between tours and records. We had a total of maybe three weeks off before we started working on this record.
So when you're saying your life has changed, is that a change of perspective, or more a change due to the practicalities of a different kind of sleep deprivation?
All of the above. That's the funny thing about having a kid. When I started telling my friends that I was having a child, all of them said, "Dude, just so you know, you're not gonna sleep for, like, sixteen years." And I said, "Man, I haven't slept for the last sixteen years, what's the next sixteen years?" That's the one thing in my life that hasn't changed. Everything else, your whole world turns over, you turn a page and you have a perspective on everything that's a little bit brighter and bit deeper and a little bit more romantic. You get a dose of mortality, and this feeling of love that you've never had before. An it's inevitable that yking of this is going make it's way into your music, because as long as your music is a real expression of what goes on in your heart, then everything is amplified. When I listen to the record, I think the reason why it sounds like it does is because life a beautiful place right now.
Yet you haven't directly referred to your new family life in your new songs.
No, when I write lyrics I tend to stay away from specifics, because I don't want to rob anyone of their own idea or interpretationÖ. I have my reasons to write the songs and I hope that everyone else has their reason to sing along. I listen to any record we've made and they're all autobiographical, so they all represent where I was at the time. They're almost like watching a person grow up from the bratty little child to someone who is ready to experience life as an individual and, you know, fuckin' grow up. So every single one... There's the bratty kid: there's the pre-pubescent/adolescent trip, where you think you understand the world; and then there's the leaving the nest; then the confusion of first-time independence. Then there's the romantic falling-in-love-with-everything album. Then you settle into this album that's free of any insecurities, and you have a feeling you've finally found your place in the world. All of those things in that order represent each of those records for me, when I look at them now. And that's where that big picture comes from. I probably wouldn't have noticed that a year and a half ago. Now that everything feel's a little brighter and a little clearer, I can see that stuff, and I listen to those lyrics on those records and I think, "God, what a pain in the arse I must have been."
You've always said every record was the most amazing thing you've done - and you are also on of the few people who will look back on a record and say, "No, actually that was a dud." Is this a different level?
It's tough, because we criticise ourselves for saying that. Every time we make a record, we're fresh out of the studio and we think, "You know what, we did it, we finally made our best record." And the idea behind that is real, and when we say that stuff, we truly feel it because we wouldn't walk out of the studio unless we felt that way. If I felt the second or third record was the best we've ever made, I'd quit making records. But I still don't feel like we've made our best record. I still don't feel like I've achieved that, because it's like a carrot dangling in front of your face. You take the thing away and there's no reason to be. But this time, without saying this is the best album we've made; I just know we've managed to do something we've been dying to do for years.
What song represents that for you?
I've been trying to do a song like 'Home' since I was fuckin' eight years old. I'm more proud of that song musically than any song I have done in my life. I finally captured that part of me, or a moment, or an emotion, or a feeling, and put it into a song that really relays the exact feeling. And it's so personal; I don't even want to listen to it. It breaks my heart that I wrote that song. That's what I've been waiting to do for so long. That song in itself is such and accomplishment for me that everything will live in its shadow. All the other songs we've recorded are tiny compared to that song. That's the song that I waited forever to write and will last forever. I'm really proud of that.
My notes on that from hearing it are "one to make the missus melt".
[Laughs] When we started working on this record, we did a lot of demos, and we were demoing songs on the acoustic tour, because I was inspired by the whole experience - the extended band and the mellow, gentle dynamic. I was still writing rock songs but I was exploring that acoustic territory. We'd just let it choose itself by which songs were the best. No matter if it was an acoustic guitar and a vocal, or sixteen guitars with a string section and B3 organ in a weird time signature and massive orchestration, like the middle of "Erase/Replace", which is probably the most complex thing we've ever done. It just had to be moving, real, powerful and good in its structure and lyric and melody. The ones that move you and touch you the most are just totally raw, bare vulnerability, you know. Something like "Home", I knew itÖ. I sat in this little room in the back of our studio for a week and a half and wrote all the lyrics to the record in a really short period of time, and I sat down with a white piece of paper and a pen - a totally clean slate - and wrote that song in, like, ten minutes. It was so simple and there wasn't a lot of thought put into it, it was just an absolute spilling of a really strong emotion that I have. I sang it once and I listened to it back and I was in tears, man, I was so Ö I couldn't believe I was saying that to myself, much less anybody else. And then I never wanted to listen to it again [laughs]! Fuck that!
So your daughter Violet Maye is trundling around OK at this stage?
Oh yeah. She's a little ahead of the game actually. She didn't crawl; she learnt to run. She didn't crawl at all - one day she just started walking around, and within three days it was hard to catch her.
Could be dangerous in an environment like WembleyÖ
Well, we don't let her fuckin' run around the stage [laughs]. She's usually in Mummy's arms while she's watching the gig.
Does she like the rock show?
She loves it. It's funny, we had her come out for one of the acoustic shows, and at the time she was maybe four months, she was really little, and I think she was just like totally confused. Like, "What are those things they're holding? And why are the lights so colourful?" The first real gig she came to see was when we opened for the Police [on June 23rd at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles]. Since it was the Police's stage, they didn't have a place for Violet to stand on the side and watch, so she went out front. We have these firing-range headphones for protection, and there was these massive video screens, and she was staring at these, saying "Da-da-da" and dancing. She was really into it. At Live Earth we'd taker her out to watch a band for a couple of minutes, and bring her back to the dressing room. And once you put her back on the floor, she'd just run over to her headphones and put 'em back on because she wanted to go back out there to watch more music. She's a little rascal.
So that's her first real experience of what Dad does for a living?
She's gotta learn some time. She might have some understanding. I mean, she knows music is a big part of our lives - we listen to it every day, she has her favourite songs, we have our routines, she has her favourite records. I know that when I put on Amy Winehouse, she could be running across the room and the minute that record kicks in, she stops and turns to me and starts dancing. Or like the Zombies' Odessy and Oracle. That was a record we listened to everyÖ singleÖday. And we both love it.
So if kids are born to rebel against their parents, what would she end up listening to that would disappoint you?
Oh God. My range of musical taste is pretty wide, so I'd probably try to keep her way from music that turns little girls intoÖ.[laughs] prostitutes. I think maybe that's the only restriction. Don't listen to anything that will turn you into a fuckin' slut, please, OK? Don't do that. There's a lot of that out there; we don't need any of that.
Do you have the parent thing, where you understand otherwise indecipherable words and directions?
When you're a father you have a connection with your child that goes beyond body language. When she cries, I know what she is crying about. She has ten different cries, and I know which one it is just by hearing her. She has her own language. She's really good; she points at things and says "yellow" or "plane". She can communicate, but more than that there's a language between father and daughter that goes without words. There are some times where she'll point at something and I'll be really proud that she said banana or bottle, and other people around me will be, "what the fuck did she just say?" To them it sounds like gibberish.
I got the impression from your lifestyle and even the fact that you run the BBQ's backstage at your shows that the "family guy" thing has been ingrained into you.
I was always like that, before any of the music stuff started blowing up. Back when Nirvana became popular, my family and friends and my life at home were the things that kept me from getting swept away. All of those things were my anchor: I would retreat to them when things got too chaotic. And it's still that way. A lot of the people that do get swept away are the ones that don't have the foundation to rely on. Because, more than just people and places, the idea of family relates to a reality that can sometimes get blurry when you're thrown into something like being in Nirvana or being in the Foo Fighters. It's easy to feel lost, because a lot of it is so surreal and bizarre, it doesn't feel like reality. Everybody needs to remember and recognise that there is a reality. I was able to find that in Virginia, and in my family and now in my daughter and in my home. So you have to carry that with you in order to get you through a lot of this shit.
Thatís always been the point for me. Life is a lot bigger than rock & roll. I love the band Iím in, and Iím very proud of the music Iíve made over the years, but thatís not the most important thing in the world to me. Music has never been my first love. Music has been my second love. And I got to great extremes to live out this passion of being in a band, but I wouldnít do everything for it. For family Iíd do anything and everything. Theyíre connected, but on overshadows the other, for sure.
So at some point you have a build a bridge between your rock and roll lifestyle and family Ė the realities of not being under thirty anymoreÖ
Usually when youíre young and in a band, you put a backpack on and you just wander around playing music for year after year, so much that the band youíre in or the music youíre making totally envelops your life. So life is this piece within this musical idea. Then I realised that needed to be changed, that life outside the band needed to be balanced with life within the band in order for it to survive. That happened after spending time at the Bridge School Benefit, and seeing someone like Neil Young. Heís a great example of integrity and longevity, and a musical legend.
And heís made some of the loudest music ever.
Yeah! And you see Neil and his wife and family, and his home and the wonderful life that he has, and you look at his history of music, you realise the reason why itís still happening is because heís always done things on his own terms, and I imagine he dictates that balance. Thatís what happens with us; weíve always controlled what we do with Roswell Records, which is our record company, having our own studio, making our own videos, deciding when and how and when weíll tour and with whom, which songs we like and believe are singles. Weíve been in control of everything weíve done. Itís the reason why weíre here and Iíd imagine Neil Young has been in the same position for much longer than we have. Itís important to gauge and balance everything under your own control. Itís when you start feeling like things are taken out of your hands; you get swept up in this hurricane of insanity. When we met Neil and experienced that whole Bridge School thing, I realised, like, ďOoh, I get it.Ē I had this idea that the band would just end some day and then normal life would begin. Then I could get on with life and experience all the things Iíd been missing. But I realised the two can happen together; you just have to make them happen together. If that means backing off on the band a little bit, so be it. If it means touring as hard as I can, so be it.
Did you ever get to the bottom of where the rumour of you own death started?
I donít know. Those things are funny.
Have you had other celeb moments like that? Youíre not really a paparazzi-style celebrity, are you?
No. You know where we get it? Fuckiní Australia! Thatís pretty much the only country we get followed around. I go down to Bondi to have breakfast, I feel like I am having a nice peaceful day on the beach, and I look out thereís a telephoto lens pointed up my nose. Thatís really one of the few places in the world it happens. I mean, itís funny, because Australia and the U.K., theyíre the two places that the band does really well, like ďMan, God I wish weíd have success like this in America! Itís our home, thatís where weíre from! I wish we could achieve that there.Ē And then I go on a trip, get followed around by cameras, get home to America, nobody gives a fuck, and I realise, ďThis is the best of both worlds!Ē I get to come home and go to the dry cleaners in my pyjamas, and nobody gives a shit, then for two weeks of the year I come down under and get treated like Iím in some big rock band. Itís like fantasy came, and then I go home and everythingís normal again.
So the plan is to be bigger in Europe, but avoid being big in the U.S.?
Thatís what weíve been trying to do. And succeeding for a long time [laughs].
So, 2007 is the 20th anniversary of two rock milestones. One is the anniversary of the release of Guns ní Rosesí Appetite for Destruction album, and another is the on-paper formation of Nirvana Ė before you joined. First things first, Nirvana feuded with Guns ní Roses; what was your experience of the Appetite for Destruction album?
[Laughs] At that point, when that record first came out, we didnít listen to that kind of music. If we were listening to any kind of metal, we were listening to Celtic Frost and Slayer, underground death metal and thrash metal. Thatís the metal we listened to. If we were listening to rock, we were listening to Zeppelin, Sabbath and AC/DC, or we were listening to straight-up punk rock like Bad Brains and No Means No, shit like that. So that was off my radar.
Then inevitably, around 1989, you hear that shit on the radio. I didnít get it because I didnít know anything about it; I didnít realise they were different to all the other bands around at the time. Only because I didnít research it, I didnít know what was going on because it wasnít my scene. I can honestly say Iíve never bought that record, but Iíve heard every single song, because itís a classic album thatís made its way into the greater consciousness of popular culture. When I listen to it now, I can appreciate it more than then, because I was a pretty snotty little punk kid for a long time. After a while you start opening up to a lot of other things. Musically, you quit slamming doors shut, you start peeking inside of places, thinking. ďLetís check that out for a bit. Thatís coolÖ ď The Nirvana/Guns ní Roses thing was funny because it was more about an ideology. It wasnít so much that we didnít like each other; it was like the two things we represented totally clashed, so we felt a responsibility to stand up for this thing we believed in, as Iím sure they did too. At the end of the day, man, I know a lot of bandsí music, but I donít know a lot of musicians who donít like other musicians. I know Slash and Duff and those guys now; I didnít know them then. Duff and I are friends, man Ė we live close to each other, and he is wife and me and my wife go out to dinner. Every time I see Slash its fuckiní great, I love that guy. I was out at a bar one night getting drunk Ė Slash, me and my mother [laughs]. Theyíre great guys, you know. And we donít ever talk about that old shit because really we were just young and dumb and fucked up.
As for Nirvana, what sense do you have of what the guys were doing back in í87?
They were working shitty jobs, living in shitty apartments and making music as an escape, and as a way to carve their own little borders around themselves, living in the middle of a fuckiní nasty little place like Aberdeen, Washington. Iíve only been to Aberdeen a few times, but itís not the kind of place youíd imagine Kurt or Krist living, so they probably felt like outcasts, foreigners in their own town. And I think when you listen to the early music; itís a pretty good representation of that. Itís. Fucked. Up. For a redneck town like Aberdeen to have a band make music like those early Nirvana Faecal Matter tapes or the early stuff they recorded with Dale [Crover: early Nirvana drummer]Ö. Knowing that came from such a weird place made it ten times weirder. Itís not like they lived in New York City and were surrounded by subculture. They were creating it. And thatís why it was so real. Iím sure that twenty years ago those guys were just trying to get away from everything that was around them.
Do you feel any weirdness about twenty years passing?
I feel weird about time passing a lot. Thereís a certain suspended reality when you do what we do. You feel forever young. My ankles and knees might fucking go out on me after a show, but I still have a big smile, same as I did when I was eighteen years old, and my heartís still in the same place. So time is probably and illusion.