10 Things We Learned Hanging With Dave Grohl

From the day he jammed with Prince to the Nirvana session that broke his heart, incredible stories from the Foo Fighters frontman

Dave Grohl told David Fricke how he earned his rep as "the nicest guy in rock." Credit: Henry Ruggeri/Corbis

"We all love sitting around and telling stories – well, listen to these, because they might make you fall in love with music," Dave Grohl says in our current cover story, talking about his HBO documentary series, Sonic Highways. There wasn't enough room to fit all of the tales the Foo Fighters leader, his bandmates, friends and mother Virginia told me in more than 10 hours of interviews about the road to Sonic Highways and the group's new album of the same name. "He likes to talk," Foo Fighters producer Butch Vig says of Grohl in the story, noting that there is always "an hour or two" before band rehearsals and recording sessions for everyone to shoot the breeze. "You just get caught up in the life and times of Dave Grohl." Here's more.

1. He was sent to the school shrink for trying to kill Loverboy.
"In my neighborhood in Springfield, Virginia, there was a guy, Jimmy Swanson – we were like brothers. We both fell in love with the guitar when we were eight or nine years old. But eventually our interests split. I discovered the B-52's and Devo; he was going off to Loverboy and Def Leppard. We would draw comics in class to each other. I'd draw Devo killing with Loverboy with laser guns. I got sent to the school shrink for that."

2. Grohl never expected to leave Springfield, Virginia.
"I was a manual-labor worker, doing masonry and working at a furniture warehouse. I worked at a nursery breaking fucking rocks. There were not a lot of career opportunities for me. At one point, I thought, 'I know how to play drums. I'll learn to read music, become a session drummer and from that money, I'll put myself back through school." I wanted to have a kickass job downtown, in Washington, D.C. But that wasn't going to happen. In Washington, D.C., you're either in the Army or the government. I was too skinny to be in the Army and too stupid to be in the government – or too smart.

"I had this conversation with the school shrink that time I got sent in: 'What are you going to do with your life?' I said I'd like to do something in music. And her first reaction was, 'You only want to do that because you know where the drugs are.'"

3. He plays guitar like a drummer.
"I was never taught how to play the guitar. I don't know what the chords to 'Everlong' [on 1997's The Colour and the Shape] are. I only know what happens when I put the fingers there. But that riff is a good example of how I look at the guitar.

"The low E string is the kick drum. The A and D strings are snares. The G, B and high E are the cymbals. So you have a kick-snare relationship in the riff. Then when the chorus comes around, you wash all the high strings as you would wash a cymbal. It makes it percussive, and it gives that dynamic. It's why I play those Trini Lopez-model guitars – you can play them real soft. And you can beat the fuck out of them. They have that range." 

4. Producer Butch Vig broke Grohl's heart during the sessions for Nirvana's Nevermind.
Vig: "It was the night we were recording 'Lithium.' It wasn't sounding right. It kept speeding up. It wasn't Dave's fault; it was the whole band. But I said, 'Have you ever tried a click track?' That was like a dagger in the heart for him. He went back to the hotel that night, freaking out a bit. He had a sleepless night, then came in and slayed it in one take [without the click]. It was perfect."

5. Grohl took awhile to learn to enjoy his stardom.
Drummer Taylor Hawkins: "This was on one of my early tours with Foo Fighters. We were still doing clubs and theaters. We were in this hotel, and I was talking to a guy that worked there. I asked him if he liked our band. He said he did. I asked if he was interested in tickets and passes. He said yeah. I said, 'Can you upgrade my room?' At the time, I was doubling up with my drum tech.

"So he got me this suite. I called Dave and said, 'Dude, you gotta check out my room.' He comes up, and he's like, 'What the fuck? How did you get this? This is like the presidential suite.' I told him I traded it for tickets and passes. 'Dude, you can't do that. That's not cool.' The thing is, the other guys in the band were out of this Pacific Northwest seriousness, those indie-rock ethics. I'm this Orange County dude. I wanted to enjoy what we were doing. Dave just shook his head and laughed: 'Dude, you're such an asshole.'"

6. How Grohl became "The Nicest Guy in Rock":
"There was an Ozzfest in England in 1998, and Korn canceled. So we got the call. It was Slayer, Pantera and Black Sabbath. We had to go on after Pantera. I was so terrified: 'There's gonna be a riot. I'm gonna get drawn and quartered. No one's going to like our band.'

"But we played, and I looked to the side. The guys from Pantera are watching us and singing the lyrics to our songs. Afterwards we made friends with Pantera. I was nervous and scared; I didn't think I fit in. But they were so open to us. That backstage hospitality we try to have – it all came from Pantera. [Guitarist] Dimebag Darrell was the nicest fucking guy in the world. He could walk in and do a shot of Crown Royal with Justin Bieber, with Rick Nielsen, with James Brown – he was everybody's best friend. And you could feel that energy when he was playing.

"After that day, I was like, 'From now on, everybody's allowed in this room. I don't care if it's Britney Spears.' I became the backstage best friend. Whenever I showed up at a festival, the first thing I'd do is grab a bottle of whiskey and go knocking on doors to see who the funniest people are. You'd be surprised who the real fucking nutcases are."

7. Grohl worked hard to raise money to make the Sonic Highways series.
"I was on the phone conferencing with agencies and corporations, trying to round up money to do this. Part of me felt sick inside. But I justified it: 'I'm doing something good. I'm doing something people will appreciate.'

"There was one guy. We were having trouble getting footage of Hurricane Katrina for the New Orleans episode. Finally, one of my producers said, 'Look, the only way we're going to get this footage is if you help this guy propose to his girlfriend.' I said, 'Okay, you got it. What do I have to do?' I sat in front of the camera and said, 'Hi, blah-blah-blah, so-and-so really wants to marry you,' and sent it to her. Hopefully she said yes. I got my fucking footage."

8. The hardest thing about being in Foo Fighters:
Bassist Nate Mendel: "It's a joke in the crew. The hardest thing about the job is getting fired."
Hawkins: "Dave's not the buddy-buddy guy, We don't talk on the phone all the time. He's always like, 'I gotta go!' But he wants to be surrounded by people he knows. I hear about bands where they fired their entire crew. They're always getting rid of somebody in the band. They've changed management three times. It would be awful to have to reassimilate so many times. It can get fucking personal here. But it's okay. Because it's family."
Guitarist Chris Shiflett: "I don't assume this is going to go on forever. To this day, I look at every big check I get as possibly my last. It puts me in that frame of mind every time. But there's been moments over the years: 'Fuck, this could go on for awhile.' Like when we built this place [Studio 606]. 'We're committed to something here.'"

The studio was a band investment?

Shiflett: "Yeah. We just bought the building next door. When we do shit like that, obviously we all intend not to go anywhere anytime soon." 

9. Grohl gets stage fright – but doesn't show it.
Vig: "He used to get stage fright, really uptight, before a show. But you never see that. He doesn't pace around backstage, worrying. I was at some of these gigantic shows they did in London. I'd be backstage with him, and he'd be like, 'Man, let's have a shot of Jagermeister.' Or talking: 'Hey, I've got this idea.' Somebody would go, 'Dave, time to play.' He'd get up, throw his guitar on and twenty second later, Foo Fighters were playing a song. He didn't need to be isolated, do a warm-up ritual. He just goes, 'I gotta go play a show now.' You get the sense that he's so at ease with that. You would never suspect that he has his own inner terrors or anxieties."

10. The day Grohl jammed with Prince:
"Foo Fighters recorded this version of [Prince's] "Darling Nikki' in Taylor's basement. KROQ [in Los Angeles] got their hands on it. They started playing it all the time. We thought we should put it out as a special feature on a DVD. We ask Prince. Prince says no. Then the year Prince plays the Super Bowl., we get the call: 'He's doing one of your songs.' In the middle of this medley, he does 'Best of You' [on 2005's In Your Honor]. He turns it into this gospel-rock experience that blows our version out of the water.

"Then three years ago, Prince books 21 nights at the Forum [in L.A.]. I can't fucking wait. I go to the first show, in a party bus with all my friends, boozing it up. I walk into the Forum Club and bump into somebody from a road crew I'd work with before. He says, 'Prince knows you're here. He wants to jam.' The end of the night, I'm standing next to this black curtain. I pull it back – there's Prince with Sheila E. I go, 'Hey, man, great show.' He says, 'When do you want to jam? How about Friday?' All right, cool!

"For a week, I held that cellphone, on vibrate, waiting for it to ring. Friday comes around and I just go down there for soundcheck. The person who works with Prince says, 'He's a little under the weather. He's not going to soundcheck today.' So I go to catering. I'm talking to my tech; I have no idea what's going on. And Prince just appears: 'Hey, man, what are you doing here?' I thought we were going to jam. 'Alright. Do you want to play drums?'

"We start playing. He's got the whole band up there, throwing chord changes with his fingers, conducting the band as we're jamming. I can't believe this is happening. And it's happening in a completely empty Forum. Then he puts on a guitar and starts playing [Led Zeppelin's] 'Whole Lotta Love'. It's fuckin' bad-ass. We do that for ten minutes. It slays. He says, 'We should do that, man. What are you doing next Friday?'

"I go back to catering. I'm confused. I don't know if I should stay. One of his guys says, 'He knows you're here. He might call you up.' And his shows are long. I lasted two hours, tried not to drink. But I had to go. And the next Friday I had a fundraiser at my kid's nursery school.

"I never heard from Prince again. But I swear it happened. I swear. And nobody saw it."