“The musician comes first” was the running theme behind Dave Grohl’s keynote speech at SXSW in Austin this morning, an address the Foo Fighters frontman called “without a doubt, my musical life’s greatest honor.” During the hourlong talk, Grohl dropped anecdotal wisdom and gave a lo-fi tutorial: he spoke fondly of his early exposure to 1980s Washington D.C. punk, recounted his rise to rock stardom inNirvana and rebirth with Foo Fighters, and used multiple, primitive cassette recorders to demonstrate how he made his first one-man-band bedroom recordings as a child. He also delved into the experience of directing his recent documentary Sound City and, ultimately, how all of this related to “the human element of making music.” (Watch the full speech, which was livestreamed by NPR, above.)
The rock & roll Renaissance man had big shoes to fill. At the top of the address, Grohl name-dropped last year’s keynote honoree and “wonderful dinner guest,” Bruce Springsteen. The Boss “laughed at me as if to say, ‘Good fuckin’ luck, buddy'” when Grohl told him he’d succeed him as speaker, he recounted.
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Grohl’s next shout-out was to a more unlikely 1970s rocker: “I have to thank Edgar Winter,” he said. Ever the merry prankster, he got a good collective laugh going when he briefly recreated Winter’s quintessential instrumental prog anthem “Frankenstein” via air guitar and onomatopoeia. There was a reason for it, however: Grohl told the crowd earnestly that the song’s inclusion on a 1975 K Tel Records Blockbuster compilation – the first album he ever owned – was “the record that changed my life.” Edgar Winter became a recurring punchline in the speech.
Talking about joining Nirvana, Grohl said, “They had songs. They had Kurt. What they didn’t have was a drummer.” He recalled how, at a time when the pop duo Wilson Phillips were at the top of the charts, Kurt Cobain boldly aspired to lead the biggest band in the world. Twenty years later, Grohl still didn’t have a definitive answer about why Cobain’s dreams came true, but he did share his theory: “It was honest, it was pure, it was real.”
Grohl got emotional in sharing how he couldn’t bear the thought of playing music in the wake of Cobain’s suicide — when the music he’d worked so hard to help create “betrayed” him. He noted at SXSW that the 14-day solo recording session that became the first Foo Fighters album was a healing process. “I was writing songs about starting over,” he said.
Weighing in on today’s pop music, Grohl ridiculed the entertainment industry’s current barometers for talent, especially American Idol-style reality shows. “Imagine Bob Dylan singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in front of Christina Aguilera,” he joked. By contrast, he unapologetically praised K-pop star Psy’s biggest hit in a diatribe against pretentious pop critics.
“Fuck ‘guilty pleasure!'” he said. “What about just pleasure? I can honestly say that ‘Gangnam Style’ is one of my favorite songs of the last 10 years.”