Shortly before he began working with Nirvana on Nevermind, co-producer and engineer Butch Vig got a phone call from Kurt Cobain. “He said, ‘I’ve found the greatest drummer in the world,'” Vig recalls. That drummer was Dave Grohl, an Ohio native and a veteran of the Washington, D.C.-area hardcore scene with the band Scream. Grohl’s move to the Northwest in August 1990 ended Nirvana’s troubled parade of drummers — five since 1987 — and brought a forceful groove to the serrated radiance of Cobain’s songs. An aspiring singer-songwriter, Grohl made bristling one-man-pop tapes during his Nirvana years and, after Cobain’s death in 1994, formed Foo Fighters, now among the few thriving survivors of the Nineties alt-rock revolt. But Grohl remains best known for his thunderous tom-tom roll at the start of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which sent the song into overdrive and announced Nirvana to the world.
When was the last time you listened to “Nevermind” all the way through?
Six or seven months ago. It’s funny to listen to it back-to-back with other albums from the time, like Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual and the Smashing Pumpkins album Gish. It’s easier to think about production values than to think about the emotional value that Nevermind has for me — not in a negative way, just in an overwhelming way. That time was such a whirlwind.
But that was the greatest achievement of my life. I celebrate it every now and then. Krist and I actually listened to a little bit of it recently as we were mixing a new Nirvana track, just to compare.
That track, “You Know You’re Right,” from the last Nirvana recording session in January 1994 — what does it sound like?
It’s pretty melodic. But it has probably the most feedback I’ve ever heard on a Nirvana track. With Nevermind, we wanted to capture the raw energy of the band but with optimum performance. In Utero was all about capturing the vibe on tape. This song is somewhere between the two — but stranger.
What was the reason for doing the session?
We had been touring America and we had this new song we had been fucking around with in sound checks. The first two days [in the studio], it was just Krist and me messing around. Kurt came in on the third day, and we did the song in one take. Then he sang three vocal tracks. That was it.
When you joined Nirvana, they had been through a lot of drummers. Why did Kurt and Krist have so much trouble finding the right guy?
Kurt was kind of a drummer himself. When he would play guitar or write songs, if you ever looked at his jaw, he would be moving his jaw back and forth, like he was playing the drums with his teeth. He heard in his head what he wanted from a rhythm, and that’s a hard thing to articulate. I think one of the reasons they wanted me was that I sang backup vocals. I don’t remember them saying, “You’re in the band.” We just continued.
Butch Vig talks about how he had to work around Kurt’s mood swings in the studio. As the new guy in the band, how did you deal with his changes?
There would be times when we would really connect — smile and laugh and feel like a band. And there were times when you felt lost and questioned what you were doing there. There were times when I had to back off completely and think, “I’m just the drummer in this band.” And there were other times when we’d all share something really beautiful, like a show or recording or just a vocal harmony. That’s when you really felt like you were part of something great.
Were you shocked by the money that suddenly appeared — advances, recording budgets — when Nirvana signed to Geffen?
Fuck, yeah. It was unbelievable. We went from selling amp heads and “Love Buzz” singles for food to having millions of dollars. Coming from Springfield, Virginia, I went from having no money at all and working at Tower Records to being set up for the rest of my life. I remember the first time we got a thousand-dollar check. We were so excited. I went out and bought a BB gun and a Nintendo — the things that I always wanted as a kid.
How would you describe the relationship between Kurt and Krist?
Krist was Kurt’s best friend — always. The two of them had a connection beyond words. I think they were closer to each other than they were to anybody else. Krist is a very lovely, gentle, sweet and huge man. If he’s your friend, he’s your friend for life. He protected Kurt in a lot of ways and situations. The perfect example is Krist keeping that huge bouncer from killing Kurt after Kurt smacked him over the head with his guitar in Dallas, Texas. The first person to jump up and protect Kurt was Krist. You have a 400-pound bouncer wanting to kill Kurt, and Krist just got up and said, “Don’t even try it.”
Do you have any particularly fond memories of the “Nevermind” sessions, when you knew you had something special?
Hearing your music played on the big speakers for the first time after the track’s been completed — that’s the payoff, like when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” first came through the speakers. The only demos we’d done of that song were on a boombox — we were used to hearing it sound like a shitty bootleg. All of a sudden, you have Butch Vig making it sound like Led Zeppelin IV. And as we were mixing the album, Krist and Kurt and I would take a tape of the songs and just drive around the Hollywood Hills, listening to it. That was something else.
Did you have any sense that the album could he a hit?
It didn’t seem possible. The charts were filled with fucking Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton. It seemed like we were about to make another pass through the underground. One of the first people to say they thought the album was going to be huge was Donita Sparks of L7. And I didn’t believe her. I was going, “There’s absolutely no way.”
It was playing the Reading Festival in England in [August] 1991 — we were maybe fourth on the bill — watching the audience respond to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was something about the song. People just bounced to it. Basically, it’s a dance beat — the verses are like Cameo-disco drumming and the choruses are heavy-metal Sixties go-go.
Could you see Kurt already withdrawing from the mania on that U.S. club tour in the fall of’91?
Yes. There was that punk-rock guilt. Kurt felt, in some way, guilty that he had done something that so many people had latched onto. The bigger the shows got, the farther we got from our ideal.
We were all in such a weird state. It was such a whirlwind that no one really had any time to feel comfortable with it. From the time Nevermind came out to the time that Kurt died — that’s not even three years. That’s not enough time to get used to something that life-altering.
If there is anything you could change about those last six months of 1991, what would it be?
It would have been interesting to wait six months before we put the “Teen Spirit” video on MTV. I would have rather had everyone listen to the record and get into the music before they had this four-minute teenage-rebellion commercial.
You’re still in the thick of rock with Foo Fighters. Do you hear “Nevermind” in the music around you now?
That would be far too egotistical. I’m proud that I was a part of that band, that I had an opportunity to mean so much to so many people. When the Foo Fighters play shows, kids will walk up — kids from new bands who are huge, who are twenty-two, the same age I was when we did Nevermind — and they tell me that I was a great influence on them. And all it does is make me feel old [laughs], like Neil Young or something.
You have been touring and recording with Foo Fighters longer than you were in Nirvana. Has it gotten easier or harder for you to be in the game?
It’s become some sort of normal life to me. One of the good things about being the drummer in Nirvana was that I wasn’t the focus of all the attention. I was the guy who never got recognized. I got to sit back and discover what the pitfalls were, because none of them happened to me.
Did you learn from Kurt’s mistakes and trials?
Absolutely — and the mistakes and trials of the band in general. Making albums and going out on tour shouldn’t be that difficult. I make the album in the studio in my house and go out on tour with the same road crew we had in Nirvana. We play shows to people who come back every time we come into town. I come home and have a barbecue with my mom and my sister until it’s time to go back out on tour again.
Kurt definitely had a lot more inner pain than I did. I’m generally a pretty upbeat, happy person. I can laugh at almost anything. The whole time the band was blowing up, I was laughing my ass off, thinking, “This is absolutely ridiculous. These people are getting duped somehow.” I don’t think Kurt’s reaction was the same.
There were times when it was so overwhelming that, yeah, I thought I was going to lose my mind. I had this amazing panic attack at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, where we opened the show playing “Polly.” The curtains were closed, and this stagehand kept coming up to me, saying, “You’ve got one minute. Are you ready? One minute!” I’d never gotten nervous before in my life. I’m like, “I’m fine.” Then he’d come back: “You’ve got thirty seconds. Are you ready?” I’m like, “Dude, I’m fine! Relax!”
Then I hit my kick drum to make sure it was in place. The PA was on and the crowd went “Waaaaagghhh!” The curtains opened up and it’s a wall of people from floor to ceiling. I almost fainted. I had to sit there and sing backups on “Polly” — it was fucking torture. Every show after that, I’d have panic attacks — throughout the show, not just before. I’d be counting down the set list: “I’ve got eight more songs to go. I’ve gotta get through this verse.” That was every night of my life, the whole time I was in the band.
When you think of Kurt now, what do you remember — and miss — most?
I think about his smile a lot. And his laugh. He had a funny laugh, this fucking cackle. I remember him being happy. It’s easy to remember him being sad. But the things that I like to think about are his happiness, and how much he loved music, whether it was sitting in a living room and playing an acoustic guitar, or playing at the Off Ramp in Seattle. He really, really loved creating music. Every night, when we were living together, he used to go into his bedroom, I was sleeping on the couch, and he would go in and write for hours in his journals. His bedroom light would be on for hours, and he would write pages and pages.
He was a gentle, sweet, caring person. He was always so nice to my mom [laughs]. A lot of people imagine him as this terror, when, honestly, he was one of the nicest people you ever met. And I like to think about the shape of his hands, and the way he moved his mouth when he played the guitar.
Those are the kinds of things I remember. I definitely feel lucky to have known him. He changed my life forever in so many ways. And I miss him. I think about him a lot.