“If the Foo Fighters want you to show up somewhere, you just do it,” Ben Gibbard tells Rolling Stone. So when Dave Grohl reached out to the Death Cab For Cutie frontman to ask if he’d participate in the Foos’ HBO documentary series Sonic Highways, Gibbard didn’t hesitate.
The eight-part doc finds Grohl and his bandmates traveling to some of America’s most historic music cities, including Austin and Los Angeles, and interviewing iconic musicians at each stop. But the most logical destination was grunge mecca Seattle, where Grohl rose to international stardom in the early Nineties as the hard-hitting drummer for Nirvana. Gibbard, a Washington native, was a teenager during that pivotal era, giving him unique insight on the ethical and musical purity that drove the local scene.
Earlier this year, Grohl recruited Gibbard for an interview in Los Angeles as Death Cab were recording their upcoming eighth album. The collaboration extended further, with Gibbard joining the Foo Fighters at Seattle’s Robert Lang Studios to sing backup vocals on the dreamy “Subterranean,” a track from the Foos’ recently released Sonic Highways album.
Gibbard spoke to Rolling Stone about the grunge boom, the Foo Fighters’ inspiring chemistry and his emotional reaction to Kurt Cobain’s death.
Were you and Dave friends before this? Obviously there’s a mutual respect, but was there much of a history?
We’d played some shows with them in the past. I knew [Foo Fighters bassist] Nate [Mendel] before I knew Dave. We’re not super, super tight. But running in musical circles and having this connection with Seattle, we were fortunate enough to play some shows with them at points. Everyone in that band, but certainly Dave, strikes me as someone who’s very aware of what a charmed life he’s been able to lead – in not only one, but two, of the greatest rock bands of all-time.
The trajectory and legacy of Foo Fighters – I wouldn’t dare say it’s eclipsed Nirvana, but certainly the body of work has become very vast, and their legacy is such that they’re not just the band the guy from Nirvana started after Nirvana. Dave had always struck me as a person who doesn’t take anything for granted, and that’s a rare trait for someone as successful and famous as he is.
Did he tell you specifically why he sought you out? What was the conversation like?
I was a teenager going to shows in the early Nineties, so I was coming of age as a music fan at a time when the world had its eyes on Seattle. We obviously touched on the major players, but we also discussed what makes the Seattle aesthetic and ethic what it always has been.
How would you describe that aesthetic?
For me, seeing bands not only being great but also humble and acceptable – that’s something that’s always been built into the ethic and aesthetic of this city. It doesn’t matter how famous you get outside of Seattle; you can’t come back and act like an asshole “rock star.” If you move to New York or Los Angeles or maybe Nashville, you could go out and be like, “That’s a super famous rock star. That’s just how he acts.” But Seattle doesn’t play that shit.
For me, as a teenager, you have those heroes that seem silly now, but when you’re a kid, you don’t realize that, “Oh, there’s a band that loads their own equipment into a show, and they set it up themselves and they play and sell their own merch?” You didn’t see that on MTV. You didn’t see Winger doing that.
Let’s talk about “Subterranean.” What’s your impression of the song sonically, and what was the experience like recording with them?
It’s a really beautiful song. It reminds me of Notorious Byrd Brothers-era soft psych with Beatle-y chord changes and stuff. When Dave asked me to sing on the song, I was like, “Ahh, man, I have this tiny, reedy voice, and they’re such a big rock band with a capital R. Is it going to sound like, ‘la la la’ on this wall of guitars?” But the song they chose for me to sing on was totally perfect, and we were able to do these Beatle-y harmonies on it. I’m really proud of it.
Did you get a sense of the Foos’ dynamics off-camera?
It’s refreshing and cool to see a band that’s been around as long as they have, and you get the sense they enjoy hanging out with each other. They’re amused with each other after all these years, and they’re just loving this [experience]. It’s very easy for bands to get jaded. I’m sure they have things that they bitch about. But it’s refreshing to see Dave be like, “I’m gonna go do vocals now,” and have [drummer] Taylor [Hawkins] and Nate go, “We’ve gotta go check this out!” As if they’ve never heard the guy sing a vocal before! [Laughs] It all seemed natural and earnest.
You grew up as grunge was blooming and even performed Nirvana’s “All Apologies” on a solo tour. What’s your appreciation for the genre today?
It’s funny. I almost feel like the term “grunge” started to encapsulate – it was more the bands that came here and tried to be those bands. It became a pejorative. In the same way that people call Sunny Day Real Estate an “emo band,” but in reality, they were just the first ones doing it like that, and then a bunch of shitty bands came along and just ripped them off, and they were “emo.” It’s the same thing with grunge. The big players – Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam – all sound like themselves. They don’t sound similar at all. But what started happening is all these shitty bands were coming from like Tempe, Arizona to get signed.
Was it weird talking about Kurt Cobain to his bandmate?
Dave totally Barbara Walters-ed me during the interview. He was like, “Alright, let’s talk about Kurt.” And I was like, “Ahh, fuck, man.” It still feels like it was yesterday. I remember being a kid, like 16, 17, and having my mom come in my room before school and be like, “Sit down, this just happened.” Even talking about it now, I’m trying not to cry.
It’s this weird thing that happens with musicians where they get intertwined in your life. I never met this dude, but his loss…it was like losing a friend. It sounds so cliché to say that, but as a kid — and I’d never met this person in my life — it was really devastating. Even as you’re feeling it, you’re like, “Why am I reacting this way? He’s just a guy who played guitar.” But he wasn’t just a guy who played guitar. It’s probably what people my parents’ age felt like when John Lennon was killed. This person you think is always going to be there and who you’re looking for to musically make sense of things in life. When they leave, it’s devastating. People don’t feel that way about other entertainers.