‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ Is ‘Exactly The Same’ As ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – and 11 Other Things We Learned From Dave Grohl
You don’t have to spend too long with Dave Grohl to realize why he called his new memoir The Storyteller. In his interviews with Rolling Stone for Foo Fighters’ new cover story, as well as in his book, due October 4th, the Foo Fighters frontman shared memories that ranged from hilarious to heartbreaking. Here’s more from Grohl:
Back when he was a teenage drum prodigy living in the suburbs of Washington D.C., Grohl was in serious contention to join GWAR as a drummer – and even started designing the costume he’d have to wear.
“GWAR were looking for a drummer,” says Grohl. And I talked to their guitar player Dewey about it. And he’s like, it’s great, and you get to design your own costume. As drummer, you don’t want something that covers your face fully. You want your arms to be free. So I was like cool. So I started kind of drawing this thing. At the time Gwar was a band that would draw like 700 people, right? Which is huge. And then the more I thought about it, am I really gonna invite my uncle to see me play when there’s like fake blood and cum shooting all over the place? ”
When Grohl broke his leg in a 2015 stage accident, the injury turned out to be far more serious than he first imagined.
“I still think I’m fucking 18 years old, as most aging men do,” Grohl says. “I was like, put a cast on it, and I’ll be up and around in a month. I was so fucked. I had no idea how bad it was. And when I first met the physical therapist he basically said, the first words out of his mouth, ‘This is a lot worse than you think. If you do what I tell you to do, you’ll be able to run around with your kids. If you don’t, you’ll be walking with a cane.’ It fucking freaked me out. So it was three or four hours a day for six months. Just to get it back.’ His therapist also encouraged him to play drums, which Grohl partially credits for his recovery.
Grohl wrote a batch of pre-Foos songs – including “Friend of a Friend,” which ended up on his band’s 2005 album In Your Honor – in Olympia, Washington, as his roommate, Kurt Cobain, slept in an adjacent bedroom.
“When I had just joined Nirvana, I didn’t have a guitar,” Grohl recalls. “I would play Kurt’s guitar, and Kurt [was] left-handed, so I learned how to play the guitar upside down. That’s a little weird, but you find chords that you otherwise would never find. Kurt would go sleep and go in his room and I’d just be, like, sitting there. I slept on this little couch. I would spend all night playing guitar, but I had to be quiet because I didn’t want to wake him up. So I started writing all these moody, whispery songs.”
When Grohl and the Foos began working on a cover of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” – which they ended up performing with Astley himself – they noticed a startling resemblance to another song.
At the Summer Sonic Festival in Japan, the band decided to play “Never Gonna Give You Up” after noticing that Astley was on the line-up. “We started kind of learning it true to the original,” Grohl says. “And then I start to realize that the arrangement is exactly the same as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The chord progression has an uncanny resemblance. It’s true. There’s a riff and then the drums kick in, and then there’s a verse… there’s a lot. I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ So we start joking around playing it in that same style, and it was so funny that we did it ten times in a row. And then we walk out on stage and fucking Rick Astley is standing on side stage. Had we gone through all of the typical logistics that you would go through to ask a famous musician to jam with you, it wouldn’t have been as fun. I walked over to him. I’m like, Hey, ‘I’m Dave.’ He’s like, ‘I’m Rick.’ I’m like, ‘Do you want to do it?'”
After the Foo Fighters reopened Madison Square Garden this past summer, Grohl sat backstage, where Covid restrictions kept most visitors out, talking for two hours with Dave Chappelle (who had just joined the band for a super-random cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”) and Chris Rock.
“When we did SNL with Chappelle in November, Chris Rock came backstage. We were hanging out in Dave’s room. And, we realize, ‘Holy shit, like, been here before. Like in 1992 when we were kids. And so whenever we see each other, we kind of revisit how wild it was to be so young at Saturday Night Live, which we had our entire lives both considered the most important television show… So whenever I see him we’d fucking talk about the old days and Farley and Sandler and shit. It was fun.”
In his memoir, Grohl recalls breaking a drumstick live on camera right at the beginning of Nirvana’s January 1992 SNL performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He also sees it as the start of a dark turn for the band; at the “Come As You Are” video shoot two weeks later, Cobain – who Grohl had learned a year earlier was using heroin – turned up high. “As we filmed the video, Kurt’s fragility came as a shock to me,” Grohl writes. “To this day, it is still hard for me to watch ‘Come As You Are’ knowing the state Kurt was in at the time. Although our images are blurred by camera effects… I see a very clear picture of three people entering what would become a period of turbulence that we would feel for years.”
Grohl’s pretty sure he had undiagnosed ADHD as a kid.
“I once read my early report cards to my kids,” he says. “We were at my mom’s house in Virginia, and I found all of them. And I mean, it was abysmal from first grade. And they said the same thing my entire life. ‘Dave has potential, If only he could sit down and focus and stop trying to entertain the fucking class.'”
Though they’ve long since gotten past it, Foos bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins didn’t immediately hit it off when Hawkins joined the band in 1997.
“Nate and Taylor did not did not vibe right out of the gate,” Grohl says. “But as Taylor does, he he’ll fucking bear hug you until he cracks the shell. He’s just so full of love and vibe that you’d have to be a cold, dead-hearted motherfucker to not let him in.”
Grohl realized that he and Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo have very different songwriting philosophies these days.
“I had this conversation with Rivers a few years ago when we toured them in Australia,” Grohl says. “Clearly the dude writes fucking great songs. We sat down next to each other at this group dinner. Eventually, he goes, ‘Hey, so when you write songs, how do you do it?’ I started explaining how we do it, which is pretty simple. l make some demos. I show them to the guys. And then we get together and play them. He says, ‘Do you listen to top 40 radio?’ I said, ‘Now? Not really. I mean, unless I’m in the car with my kids, I guess.’ He said, ‘So you don’t write songs to try to get on top 40 radio?’ And I said, ‘No. I don’t think I don’t think we’re allowed there! Do I expect to knock Cardi B off the fucking charts? Absolutely not.’ I said, ‘No, I kind of write songs for the stage or a setlist, and I write them for Foo Fighters fans.’ And he said, ‘Wow. So you write for the show?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, don’t you?’ And I don’t think that he does. I think that we’re sort of on opposite ends of that spectrum. Which is funny.”
Grohl can’t imagine continuing with the Foos without recording new music.
“Long before anybody listened to anything I recorded,” he says, “I recorded these things by myself. Basically, just to impress myself, in my friend Barrett [Jones’] basement studio, playing all the instruments, not wanting anyone to hear them because I was so insecure and embarrassed by my twee little voice and bad guitar playing and stupid lyrics. Didn’t want anyone to hear that. But I would bring it back to my room on a cassette, take a few bong hits, and listen and be proud that I had done this myself. So it’s the same feeling now. Demoing songs, showing it to the band, going into the studio, recording them together as a band, and then listening to it afterwards. The feeling of accomplishment matters to me. If I walked into a studio, and I couldn’t fucking record a song, then we wouldn’t be a fucking band. It’s still this exercise in proving to yourself that you can do it.”
Every Nirvana rehearsal started with a “noise jam.’
Grohl writes that he, Krist Novoselic, and Cobain would break into a “sort of improvisational exercise in dynamics, ultimately honing our collective instinct and making it so that song structure didn’t necessarily need to be verbally arranged; it would just happen…This method was instrumental in the quiet/loud dynamic that we became known for, though we hardly invented it. That credit was due to our heroes, The Pixies.”
Even Kurt Cobain had his moments of being excited by success.
“We want to be the biggest band in the world,” Cobain told one record exec, according to Grohl, who initially assumed his bandmate was joking. And as Grohl recalls in his memoir, when he and Cobain sat on twin beds in a hotel room on September 29th, 1991, watching the debut of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video on MTV’s 120 Minutes, they both freaked out: “We elatedly picked up the bedside phone and called room to room, shouting, ‘It’s on! It’s on right now!’ like kids at a slumber party.'”
Grohl’s experience of grief for Cobain was complicated by a close call in March of 1994.
When Cobain went into a coma on March 3rd, 1994, after a painkiller overdose that he ultimately recovered from, Grohl was briefly given some incorrect information: Cobain, he was told, had died. Grohl fell to the floor, stricken by what he calls “a more profound sadness than I had ever imagined,” only to get a second phone call informing him that his friend was still alive. “In the course of five minutes I had gone from the darkest day of my entire life to feeling born again,” Grohl writes. When Cobain actually died a month later, he felt his emotions “blocked by the trauma from a month before. Kurt was more than just a name to me; he was a friend, he was a father, he was a son, he was an artist, he was a human being, and over time he became the center of our universe… But he was still just a young man with so much to look forward to.”