True story. Dave Grohl walks into a coffee shop, and the kid behind the counter pushing caffeine says, “Hey, you’re Dave Grohl from Nirvana, aren’t you?” Grohl answers yes and then, based on his recent experience, waits for things to get worse. Which they do. “You know,” the youth continues, “I was really pissed off when that asshole blew his head off.” The kid pauses as if confiding to a friend. “I don’t mean to be so frank.”
That’s it, end of tale — another reminder that since the suicide of Kurt Cobain, virtually every mouth in the free world has spouted off about the loss. It seems, in fact, that the only voices that haven’t been heard in the last year and a half are those belonging to Grohl and former Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic.
“I didn’t jump over the counter and beat him to a pulp, which is half of what I would have liked to do,” says Grohl, reflecting on the encounter from the safety of the touring van that houses his new band, Foo Fighters. “You have to let it bounce off you and figure that it’s just some guy you’ll never talk to again. Not that many people understand what I’m going through, and I don’t expect them to. I don’t expect people to be nice or understanding or compassionate because it happens so rarely.
“I think about Kurt every day, and I miss him,” Grohl adds quietly, measuring his words carefully. “And I realize that I miss him. But at the same time things keep going, and I’ve got to make sure that things keep moving for me. I don’t know if this band makes anyone else feel better — I just know I have to do it for myself. I have to feel like I’m moving forward.”
And we are moving forward, hurtling down the road at approximately 85 miles per hour on a dark, humid night somewhere east of nowhere. Grohl has spent much of his life in vans, surrounded by bandmates, since he abandoned his Washington, D.C., high school midway through his senior year. Back then he was a 17-year-old punk drumming for the hardcore legends in Scream. Now he is 26-years-old, a married man singing in his own band and attempting to steer not only from Denver to Minneapolis but also from supporting musician to frontman.
Foo Fighters’ first club tour as headliners is a self-consciously bare-bones affair, and Grohl is trying mightily to let people know that he is simply an ordinary man attempting to rebound from extraordinary circumstances. He has returned to the do-it-yourself mentality that he knows best and, most important, is proceeding as quietly as possible. He even takes his turns driving the tour van. Unfortunately it’s not easy to convince the world that you’re just one of the guys when you write and sing your own songs.
Foo Fighters might sound like the work of four angry young men — screechy pop songs, swirls of feedback and tuneful punk anthems — but Grohl is to the band’s debut what Trent Reznor is to Nine Inch Nails or Wings reruns are to the USA Network. With the exception of the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli adding guitar to one track, the album is all Grohl all the time. Not that he was on a power trip. It’s just that Foo Fighters was finished before there were any actual Foo Fighters to assemble for a roll call. Since that is no longer a quandary, we’ll count them off now. To Grohl’s right, in the passenger seat, sits Pat Smear, former guitarist for the Germs and an 11th-hour member of Nirvana. As a member of the Germs (the first L.A. punk band to put its music on vinyl in the late ’70s), Smear helped engineer the West Coast punk revolution. With Nirvana, he helped finish what he started.
In a day or two, Smear will insist he is “too cool to be interviewed by Rolling Stone,” but at the moment he is munching from a box of Lucky Charms and approaching the world record for the most consecutive plays of Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.”
Behind Grohl and Smear, lurking amid a pile of cigarettes, magazines, sci-fi toys and vitamin jars, are bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, who once anchored Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate. During the next few days, Mendel will spend his time listening to the Jesus Christ, Superstar soundtrack and reading Harper’s magazine; Goldsmith will steal Grohl’s camera three times and yank down his own pants in order to take pictures of his penis. “I see pictures of Hootie and the Blowfish playing golf on tour,” says Grohl, “and I realize that we’re a little different.” Not that Grohl is particularly edgy or tortured. He may have apprenticed as the hardest-hitting drummer of his generation, but he insists that his intensity stems from a love of music, not from a painful childhood. He gets along with both his parents (they divorced when he was 7); when he is excited, his voice often rises in what sounds like adolescent astonishment; he spends his off day in Denver doing his own laundry; he even loves his in-laws (he is planning a band barbeque at their house during an upcoming tour stop).
Grohl’s only vice, it seems, is his need to manipulate the tide of his band’s popularity to better manufacture an organic feel. To establish a grass-roots theme, Foo Fighters held their inaugural show as a keg party (the band supplied the beer) in a friend’s bedroom. Thus baptized, Foo Fighters hit the road this spring as the opening act for Mike Watt before their album was released. After the LP’s release, the band bypassed filming a video for their first single, “This Is a Call.”
“There does come a point where it’s totally out of your control,” Grohl explains, “but I learned a lot of lessons from Nirvana. We don’t want to spend too much time whoring ourselves around because not only does it make everyone else sick of you, eventually you get sick of yourself.”
“Oh, my God, that boy just got fucked onstage by a man.” Pat Smear crosses his legs and takes a drag on the cigarette he holds between his fluorescent-green fingernails. He blows a thin rope of smoke into the air with the exaggerated mannerisms of a 1940s movie starlet and then sinks back into the dressing-room couch. “That boy got fucked onstage by a man and his guitar.”
Roughly five minutes ago onstage in Denver, Foo Fighters were thrashing through a menacing, hourlong sing-along. The band strolled into the club in an unassuming manner and proceeded to sprint through an entire set of tuneful chaos — “Alone and Easy Target,” “I’ll Stick Around,” “Floaty,” “Big Me” — great music developed from a childhood of sugary pop, an adolescence of angry punk and an adulthood spent reconciling the differences. And then smack in the middle of “Exhausted,” the musical therapy was interrupted by a would-be stage diver. Grohl instructed him to sit on the drum riser instead of fly off the stage.
A minute later, after Smear handed his guitar to the teenager and the boy started strumming along, Grohl grabbed this newest Foo Fighter in a bear hug, bouncing continuously and lifting him completely off the ground until their two guitars smashed together in an ecstatic drone of feedback. When it was finished, the elated kid raised his arms in the air and backflipped into the crowd; show over. Grohl wandered offstage to sit in the dressing room, where he is toweling off and smoking a cigarette. “Oh, my God, that was so fun,” he screams at the top of his lungs. “I wanna go play again somewhere, right now.”
Clearly Grohl is more comfortable in his hour onstage than he is during the 23 hours he spends as a band leader. The concept of guiding a band is still foreign to him, and he tries to fool himself by insisting that he is not the focus of the group. Listen: “I don’t consider myself a frontman at all. Out of the four of us, I’m probably the least charismatic of everyone.”
What Grohl is most comfortable with is recording songs. He’s been doing it since he was 19, and the 12 songs on Foo Fighters were chosen from more than 30 that Grohl had written during the past six years. “Most people would think that all these songs were written starting the day after Kurt died,” says Grohl, back on the highway, his Denver fling a memory. “Everyone wants so badly to make some kind of correlation. I’ve taken heat for a lot of lyrics I wrote four years ago. It frightens me to think that the line ‘one shot, nothing,’ in ‘Weenie Beanie,’ would be taken wrong. I mean, I wrote that in 1991.”
Actually, only three tunes on the group’s debut were written after Cobain’s suicide. That these songs — “This Is a Call,” “Oh, George” and “I’ll Stick Around” — are all standout tracks is reason to buy stock in the Foo Fighters’ future. The fact that they provide some insight to Grohl’s feelings, however, is enough to ensure that he submit to this interrogation.
“The only reason I wanted to do an interview was because as I was singing ‘I don’t owe you anything’ [from ‘I’ll Stick Around’], I realized people might think it was about Kurt,” says Grohl. “It would fucking break my heart to think that people are under that impression. That was my biggest fear. Besides that, anything else is trivial and stupid. And I knew while I was recording it that it was probably the strongest song I’ve ever written, because it was the one song that I actually meant and felt emotionally.”
A better theory is that the song — which features the lines “How could it be I’m the only one who sees your rehearsed insanity” and “I’ve been around all the pawns you’ve gagged and bound” — is about Courtney Love.
“It’s just a very negative song about feeling you were violated or deprived,” says Grohl, who declines to address the subject of Love. So there’s no one in mind? Grohl smirks. “Maybe,” he says. He expels a muffled laugh, turns to stare out the window and falls silent as the wind whips relentlessly against the side of the van and the road runs endlessly underneath his feet.
For the past year, silence has enveloped Dave Grohl like a cocoon, yet he is unwilling, even once, to address Cobain’s suicide in order to break free. “I have the same question as everyone else,” Grohl says when the topic is broached. “The last thing I want to do is answer a question with a question.” But it is clear that there is much more to things than that.
In conversation, Grohl is warm and open. He may have recorded the Foo Fighters album himself, but he insisted that his bandmates share album royalties evenly. He calls his wife, Jennifer (she took the Foo Fighters cover photo), virtually any time there is a phone at arm’s length. After shows, he spends his time talking endlessly with the swarms of fans that hover around the van. (No wonder this guy was voted president of his ninth-grade class.) It’s just that he doesn’t want to answer certain questions, no matter how they’re put.
What were things like toward the end of Nirvana?
“That’s what I don’t want to talk about at all.”
Did you get the chance to talk about things with Kurt before he died?
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
Later: Did you realize how bad Kurt’s drug problem was?
“Um, I don’t want to answer that.”
Later still: Is it strange to see Courtney Love playing the role of rock star more than anyone else?
“Hmm. Yeah … yeah. This is the moment I’ve been dreading.”
Finally, Grohl speaks in slow, deliberate tones. “I understand that people want to know this, but there has to be a line drawn,” he says, “because the day after your friend dies and American Journal wants to talk to you and Diane Sawyer wants to do an interview …” He pauses. “It made me so fucking angry. It made me so angry that nothing was sacred anymore. No one could just stop, not even for a day or a year or the rest of our lives, and just shut the fuck up. So I decided that I was just going to be the person to shut the fuck up.”
Instead of talking, Grohl dropped out of sight, focusing on family and a close circle of friends. He went on trips and spent time with his mother in Washington, D.C., periodically checking in with Nirvana’s bassist, Krist Novoselic.
“Krist and I kept in touch, and we would get together and talk, make sure we were each doing OK,” says Grohl. “Eventually, very slowly, things got back to a more normal pace. Everything changed, and it’s going to take a long time to get used to that.”
Contrary to widely circulated rumors, Grohl did not use even one moment of this period to contemplate joining Pearl Jam. He did team up with Thurston Moore, Greg Dulli, Don Fleming, Mike Mills and Dave Pirner in the all-star band assembled to record the soundtrack for the movie Backbeat. He also toured with Tom Petty and seriously considered signing on as a full-time Heartbreaker.
Grohl sits in the van and holds two fingers so close together that they’re almost touching. “I was this close to joining,” he says. “It was so much fun. I was really scared. I was most afraid that they had watched [MTV’s] Unplugged and decided to get me from seeing that. But when we rehearsed, they treated me like I was in the band. It was such an honor. But I figured that I was 26-years-old and didn’t want to become a drummer for hire at the age of 26.”
It also helped that Grohl was ready to begin work on the Foo Fighters album. Teamed with producer Barrett Jones, a friend and former roommate, Grohl holed up in a Seattle studio with a batch of songs he and Jones had recorded as demo versions during the past six years. “It was just something I decided to go in and do because it was time to finally do something,” says Grohl. “I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I just felt like it was what I should do because, as always, I saw it as an exercise or a release to see what I can accomplish on my own.” Grohl and Jones completed the entire record in one week last October.
“He’d do a whole song in about 40 minutes,” says Greg Dulli, one of the few people in the studio besides Grohl and Jones. “I was completely fascinated by it. He could do it because he has perfect time. He’d lay down a perfect drum beat and work off that. He’d play drums, run out and play bass, and then put two guitar layers over the top and sing it. I was just watching him record, and he asked me if I wanted to play. I didn’t even get out of my chair. He just handed me a guitar.”
Those of you familiar with the intricacies of Happy Days lore well remember why Mork was drawn toward Richie Cunningham. Mork was sent to find someone so normal, so humdrum, that all of Ork would understand just how mundane life on Earth could be.
It is perhaps an attempt to tap into this extraterrestrial need that the specter of alien visitation continually hovers around the Foo Fighters’ van. The name itself is World War II slang for UFOs. The band’s own label (licensed to Capitol) is called Roswell, after a New Mexico town and the site of a reputed alien landing in the ’40s. And the album cover features a Buck Rogers disintegrator pistol.
In fact, it was an extraterrestrial who helped create Foo Fighters: It was the Lord who saw to it that Mendel and Goldsmith were led not into temptation but into the band with impeccable timing. After Sunny Day Real Estate released one album, on Sub Pop, and recorded a second (due this October), singer Jeremy Enigk went off what is commonly referred to as the deep end. “He kind of spent two months in his room without talking to anyone, and when he came out, he was born-again,” says Goldsmith. “Finally he got so freaked out that he quit.” At the same time, Grohl was looking for bandmates, and his wife was friends with Mendel’s fiancée. The rest of the tale is easy to piece together. A month later, when Enigk changed his mind and attempted to re-form Sunny Day Real Estate, Mendel and Goldsmith were already confirmed Foo Fighters.
Smear won’t speak about his entry into the band, but we do know that he has a penchant for junk food, sleazy celebrity rags, endless television viewing, vintage guitars and boxing magazines. After the heroin-related death of Germs singer Darby Crash in 1980, Smear supported himself in part by serving as a movie and television extra. If Ponch and John ran into trouble with punk rockers on CHiPs, chances are Smear was an instigator. He even appeared in the 1982 film Blade Runner and, on a more surreal note, with a full head of dreadlocks in Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” video. Finally, Nirvana.
“For the longest time, we had looked for a second guitar player in Nirvana,” says Grohl. “We thought it would be great to get Steve Turner from Mudhoney or Buzz [Osborne] from the Melvins or Eugene [Kelly] from Eugenius. We were rehearsing one day, and Kurt came in and said, ‘Pat Smear from the Germs is going to be our second guitar player.’ Krist and I had never met him, and I just imagined this bloated, tattooed, bitter old mess. And he came to rehearsal, and it was so incredibly refreshing that it made everything instantly great.”
Grohl considers Smear the essential element of Foo Fighters because of his proficiency as an editor in Grohl’s songwriting process and his ability to provide comic relief in the van. Grohl is asked to assess each of his current band members. He pauses and laughs. “Hmm … Pat is definitely the star of the show,” Grohl says. “He’s the focal point of the band, and everyone looks up to him.” He pauses. “William makes things exciting. He’s like everyone’s little brother, and we love him and take care of him. Nate is like the foundation. He’s the solid, levelheaded, intellectual type.”
Once this lineup was intact, the group traveled to Los Angeles in March for the album’s mixing sessions and called ahead to sneak onto a bill at a local bar.
“It’s my favorite memory in the band so far,” says Grohl. “We cut out stencils and sprayed them on top of shirts we bought at a thrift store. There’d be, like, Hooters T-shirts with our stencil over it, and we sold them for three bucks. We opened for a band called the Unseen. We thought they’d be some wicked punk-rock band, but they turned out to be a cover band made up of 17-year-old kids who dressed like the Jam and could play any song you asked for.
“We just drank and danced,” Grohl says. “It was so fun, and there were no rules and no expectations.”
Everyone is waiting. We are sitting backstage in Minneapolis. Mendel is sitting down, playing his bass, his eyes closed. Grohl bounces up and down in place, and Goldsmith, stripped down to his underwear, stretches his arms in preparation to pound. Problem is, Smear is nowhere to be found. A dressing room is checked. Nothing. Crew members scramble around the club. No luck. Finally, the tour manager phones the band’s hotel, speaks briefly to someone and then rolls his eyes. Bull’s-eye. “He’ll be here in a second,” he says as he hangs up the phone. “He was watching Matlock.”
A short time later, Smear strolls into the dingy room smiling and carrying his omnipresent antique vanity case. Instead of getting angry, Smear’s fellow Foo Fighters break into laughter. Grohl grabs Smear’s hand and leads him to the stage. Five seconds later, as our nation’s elderly watch Matlock prepare another airtight case, Foo Fighters lurch into their set, and the club is filled with a deafening noise.
“This band has the feeling of being fresh and exciting,” Grohl says after the show. “You don’t know exactly where it’s going to take you. That was one of the greatest feelings about 1991 — we had no idea what was going to happen. The Nevermind tour just felt like everything was going to pop. I’d have numerous panic attacks every day. I mean, sweating, heart-pounding, have-to-sit-down panic attacks. It was so cool to be that close to going insane yet somehow not.” He laughs. “I really thought every time I sat down on the drum stool that it would be the night where I fainted onstage. It was all so hilarious. It wasn’t supposed to happen, and it did.” He pauses. “One of the saddest things is that it can never happen again,” he says, “but the greatest thing is that it did.”
Grohl considered inviting Novoselic along for this ride as well — “We talked about it, and then it just didn’t happen” — but the idea of the two former bandmates trudging forward might have seemed like a tasteless attempt to reap glory in the wake of their former leader’s death.
“For Krist and I, it would have felt really natural and really great,” says Grohl. “but for everyone else, it would have been weird, and it would have left me in a really bad position. Then I really would have been under the microscope.”
“Hey Willie, let’s hear about your night.”
It’s the morning after the show in Minneapolis, and Pat Smear’s voice cuts across the parking lot to meet the drummer, who staggers toward the van wearing the distinctively pasty look of someone with a drunken tale to tell. Or, in this case, a drunken tale to hide. Goldsmith slides himself into a seat and attempts to duck the topic. “So how long is this drive?”
Grohl steers toward the freeway, glances backward and ignores the last question. “Sooo, feeling a little sick today, William?”
“Ok, last night was a tough one,” says Goldsmith finally. He shifts in his seat and smiles. Foo Fighters are not a particularly debauched lot (Grohl rarely drinks, and Smear doesn’t indulge at all), but Goldsmith’s adventure — suffice to say that it begins with Jägermeister and ends with Goldsmith walking naked through the hotel carrying two buckets, the contents of which you really don’t want to know — is clearly an attempt to pick up the slack.
To this point the biggest controversy circling Foo Fighters has been criticism of the toy gun pictured on the album cover. “Most people don’t think it’s a reference to anything [specific] but that the fact that I did it was tasteless,” says Grohl. “To me it’s a toy. It has nothing to do with anything. I love kitschy ’40s and ’50s space toys. I thought it would be a nice, plain cover — nothing fancy. Then I thought I’d catch so much flak, but everyone said it would be OK if I made sure everyone knew it was just a toy. People have read so much into it. Give me a fucking break.”
The van pulls in for a pit stop a few hours outside of Chicago, and the entire crew spills out to stock up on junk food and soda. Grohl steps out from behind the wheel to stretch his legs and wanders slowly toward yet another truck stop. He might seem like he’s hiding, sequestered in a tin box in the middle of an endless interstate, but Grohl insists he has always seen music as a trade-off that allows him to live the way he has always dreamed, boorish fans and all. “This is the only thing I do, really, the only thing that I have extreme passion for,” he says. “It’s nice to know that people enjoy what I do.”
With that, the van is loaded and set for the rest of its journey. Mendel climbs in to take his driving shift, Grohl crawls toward the back to recline in the familiar seat he’s shared with members of Scream, Nirvana and now Foo Fighters. The engine turns over, and the entire horde is on the road again. Not an ending, but a beginning.