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Dave Grohl's SXSW Keynote Speech: The Complete Text

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When we pulled into the parking lot of Sound City, I quickly realized that this was not the big, fancy, major label Hollywood recording studio I had imagined. Not at all. It was a shithole. It was a run-down, burned-out, dumpy old joint in a warehouse complex deep in the sunburnt San Fernando valley, miles away from any Fred Segal or Benihana. It was perfect. Famous for such legendary albums like Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, Fleetwood Mac's Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedoes, Cheap Trick's Heaven Tonight and Rick Springfield's Working Class Dog, it was hallowed ground . . . but it looked like no one had cleaned up the place since fucking Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were runners there. Brown shag carpet ON THE WALLS. A couch that they had been RENTING for 10 fucking years. I thought . . . it looked like a Chi Chi's that had a fire.

But upon listening back to the first take of "In Bloom," we instantly understood Sound City's legacy. That room, and that old Neve board captured something. Something we had never heard before. It didn't sound like our first record, Bleach. It didn't sound like the Peel Sessions we had recorded for the BBC, or the "Sliver" single, or any of the demos. Nope. It sounded like Nevermind. It was the sound of three people playing as if their life depended on it, like they had waited their whole lives for this moment to be captured on a reel of two-inch tape.

How Nirvana Made 'Nevermind'

After a week or so at SOUND CITY, for whatever reason, I started getting worried that no one from the label had come to check out what we were doing. I called my manager John Silva and asked "Hey . . . should we be worried?" His immediate response was "FUCK NO! YOU SHOULD BE HAPPY! YOU DON'T WANT THOSE FUCKING PEOPLE DOWN THERE!" As usual . . . He was right. And, they left us alone.

Just as WE couldn't imagine making the slightest ripple in the mainstream, no one else really seemed to imagine that happening either. The initial pressing of Nevermind was around 35,000 copies. Enough, by their estimate, to last the label a few months. A pretty good indication of everyone's expectations. Well . . . those were gone within a few weeks. Within a month, the record went gold. By Christmas, the record went platinum. By the new year, we were selling 300,000 records a week. That ripple that seemed so unimaginable had become a tidal wave.

I've never really figured out why that happened. Timing? Perhaps. Legions of disaffected American youth fed up with Wilson Phillips? Probably . . .

But, I like to think that what the world heard in Nirvana's music was the sound of three human beings, three distinct personalities, their inconsistencies and their imperfections proudly on display for everyone to hear. Three people that had been left to their own devices their entire lives to find THEIR voices. It was honest. It was pure. And It was real.

Up until that point, no one had ever told me how to play, or what to play. And now, no one would ever again.

The follow up to Nevermind, In Utero was a brazen example of this. Twelve songs recorded virtually live in only a few days by infamous record producer and opinionated pundit on the music industry, Steve Albini. It truly was the sound of a band IN A PLACE OR STATE CHARACTERIZED BY FREEDOM FROM OR OBLIVION TO PAIN, WORRY, AND THE EXTERNAL WORLD. Now it was US that had the power. We weren't Nirvana anymore, we were NIRVANA. Now you HAD to fucking leave us alone. The latch key children that unexpectedly inherited the castle? Maybe. More like Lord of the Flies with distorted guitars . . .

But, where do you go from there? As an artist raised in the ethically suffocating punk rock underground, conditioned to reject conformity, to resist all corporate influence and expectation, where do you go?  How do you deal with that kind of success? How do you now DEFINE success? Is it still the reward of playing a song from beginning to end without making a mistake? Is it still finding that new chord, or scale that makes you forget all your troubles? How do you process going from being one of "us", to one of "them"?

Guilt. Guilt is cancer. It will confine you, torture you, destroy you as a musician. It is a wall. It is a black hole. It is a thief. It will keep you from YOU. Remember learning your first song, or riff, or writing your first lyric? There was no guilt then. Remember when there WAS no right or wrong? Remember the simple reward of just . . . playing music? You are still, and will always be that person at your core. The musician. And, The musician comes first.

Fuck guilty pleasure. How about . . . just pleasure? I can truthfully say, out loud, that "Gangnam Style" is one of my favorite fucking songs of the past decade. It is! Is it any better or worse than the latest Atoms for Peace album? Hmmmm . . . If only we had a celebrity panel of judges to determine that for us! What would J-Lo do? Paging Pitchfork, come in, come in!!! Pitchfork, we need you to help us determine the value of a song!!! Who fucking cares!!!! I fucking LOVE IT!!! Who is to say what's a good voice and what's not a good voice. The Voice? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing "Blowin in the Wind" in front of Christina Aguilera. "Mmmmm . . . I think you sound a little nasally and sharp. Next . . ."

It's YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it's fucking gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last . . .

When Kurt died, I was lost. I was numb. The music that I had devoted my life to had now betrayed me and broken my heart. I had . . . no voice. I turned off the radio, I put away my records, and packed up my drums. I couldn't bear to hear someone elses voice singing about pain, or joy, or love, or hate. Not one note. It just hurt much too much.

But eventually . . . that feeling that I had Independence Day, July 4th, 1983, at the base of the Lincoln memorial steps, that feeling came back to me. The same feeling that made me feel possessed and empowered and inspired and enraged, and so in love with life, and so in love with music that it had the power to incite a riot, or an emotion, or start a revolution, or just to save a young boy's life. I felt it again.

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