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These days, it's good to be Dave Grohl. His highly successful band, Foo Fighters, released an ambitious, well-received double album (In Your Honor) last year, he's happily married, his first child was born recently, and he just embarked on his first acoustic tour to support In Your Honor's second disc. He speaks enthusiastically and laughs a lot, clearly enjoying himself and his success—partially because he knows how easily it could disappear. When Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, Grohl lost a friend and his place in Nirvana. But it never meant he would stop playing. Songs that he had written on his own, but never intended to release, eventually became Foo Fighters' self-titled debut in 1995. That began Grohl's second act.
After its initial success, the band suffered numerous lineup changes, and Grohl's first marriage ended in a bitter divorce, which he chronicled in painful detail on 1997's The Colour And The Shape. With Foo Fighters in tatters and his marriage ending, Grohl lived in a sleeping bag in a friend's back room in Los Angeles for a while. (Foo Fighters' next album was called There Is Nothing Left To Lose.) But the band eventually stabilized, Grohl met his current wife, Jordyn Blum, and apparently lived happily ever after. Well, drummer Taylor Hawkins nearly died from an overdose in 2001, Grohl has squabbled with Courtney Love about Nirvana's legacy, and earlier this year, a bizarre rumor circulated that he had died. Before he left on tour, Grohl spoke to The A.V. Club about adding life to his band, feeling trapped by his style, and being inspired by Jägermeister.
The A.V. Club: What's it feel like when people think you're dead?
Dave Grohl: Flattering.
AVC: Did you see premature eulogies?
DG: I was doing an interview the other day, and it was for an English magazine. They said, "Well, we actually already started preparing a cover issue in memory of you." I mean, come on, that's kind of flattering, right? It really does a lot to the ego. I guess mostly just because it's nice when people are happy to hear that you're still alive, rather than feeling like "Oh, finally he's dead?"
AVC: You're about to leave for your first acoustic tour. Are you anxious at all about the transformation in sound?
DG: I'm looking forward to it, mostly because we spent the last 11 years jumping around the stage, screaming our balls off. This tour is all about the smoking jacket and some pinot grigio and a stool. I think it's going to be great. It's a major shift in dynamic for the band. Plus, we're going out with an extended band, so we have additional players. At times, it sounds like our own mini-orchestra, and some songs are just an acoustic guitar and a vocal. It's really powerful when you can break it down to pin-drop silence, which is a vocal and an acoustic guitar—sometimes more so than stacks of amps. So it's pretty great, and it's like being in a whole new band. You know, after 10 years of being married to this rock 'n' roll four-piece, it's nice to have this acoustic mistress to go fuck on the weekends. [Laughs.]
AVC: Some people consider Nirvana's unplugged album to be its best. Was that on your mind when you made In Your Honor?
DG: Not really, no. Because my whole life, I have listened to people like Neil Young, or Crosby, Stills & Nash, and artists that have made a career out of that mellow, folky, acoustic dynamic. So I have always appreciated that sort of music. For every Foo Fighters record, we've had two or three beautiful, acoustic-based songs, but they never usually make their way to the record, because we want to make rock records. This album, the double-album concept, was really just an excuse to finally let some of those songs see the light of day.
AVC: So it was a catchall for older stuff, too?
DG: Yeah, which is great. 'Cause when you're sequencing a record, you want the listener to stick with it from beginning to end, and in order to do that, you really have to map out the journey from the first song to the last. What we feel most comfortable doing is playing loud, screaming rock songs. When you throw something like "Friend Of A Friend" or "On The Mend" in the middle of a rock album, it jerks to a halt. It's difficult to sequence albums like that. The concept of In Your Honor being 10 rock songs on one CD and 10 acoustic songs on the other made it a lot easier to sequence those two different dynamics together.
The Nirvana unplugged album was something we'd always knew we were capable of doing, but it was just a matter of doing it right. We'd seen a lot of other bands do Unplugged tapings, and what they'd done was basically rock out the songs as if they were playing electric instruments. They didn't do anything to change the songs; they just basically plugged in acoustic guitars instead of electric ones. There was no way we were going to try to pull off "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with fucking acoustic guitars. It wouldn't work. So we'd throw in a Bowie cover, or we invited the Meat Puppets along, or we brought a cello. I remember as we were doing that, we only rehearsed maybe two or three times. I had this small cocktail drum set and these really light sticks. In rehearsal, we would do a song, and Kurt would turn to me and say, "Hey, do you think you could play it a little bit lighter?" "Oh yeah, I'll try." So we'd do another take, and he'd turn around and go, "Could you bring it down just a little bit more?" And we'd do another take, and he'd say, "You know what, just still, could you bring it down?" And I was like, "Should I even fucking be here?" Then someone handed me these little bundle sticks that made a huge difference and actually saved the whole show. I think Kurt wanted to bring it down to just the lowest, most dirge-like, Leonard Cohen level, which was really fun. I think that's what made it so special; it wasn't just acoustic versions of Nevermind.
AVC: So this record wasn't going to be acoustic versions of "This Is A Call" or something.
DG: No, most of our songs were written on acoustic guitar before they made it to the practice stage. So songs like "Learn To Fly" or "Times Like These," they were all written on acoustic guitars, and we sort of turned them into rock songs. In a way, as much as we love to be a big, loud rock band, the acoustic album was a lot easier to make than the rock records. I think because it was brand new territory for the band. After five albums, you're making a rock album, and you think, like, "Fuck, how do we make it different from the last? How do we make it better than the last? How do we reinvent this formula that we've used for the past 11 years?" Whereas with the acoustic record, everything was fair game, and everything we did was different than anything we had ever done. We made it really quickly—maybe it took about two weeks. The rock album, we started with that and worked on it for a few months, and I thought, "Okay, we have to get going on this acoustic album, or else we are never going to complete the concept." So we had this little band meeting, and I turned into this fucking coach with the whistle, like, "Okay, here is what we're going to do: We're going to come in every day. We are going to record a song a day. That is what we have to do in order to really make this double album." And we did. Every day, we would record a different song, and I'd walk out of the studio and think, "Man, I think we tagged on another 10 years to the band."
AVC: How so?
DG: Well, it's the Ramones factor, or the AC/DC factor. Those are two bands that have managed to keep their signature sound and their signature formula for years and years and album after album after album, without it seeming like a dead-end street. And that formula and that signature sound, it's what you love the band for, but creatively, you feel kind of confined to this thing. After a while, it just doesn't satisfy you any more. I'm fortunate that I can go off and play drums with Queens Of The Stone Age or Killing Joke or fucking Nine Inch Nails or whatever. I can go out and be in another band for a few weeks and come back to mine. But after 10 years, I have been touring for 20, playing basically the same type of music, a four-piece or three-piece type of music with loud, crashing drums and screaming vocals. It gets to the point where you're looking for something new, and you don't want to do something that's way too left-field, for fear that it might seem contrived.
For all our albums, I've always tried to lay pieces of songs, put songs on the albums that give us the opportunity to branch out in that direction, rather than just stay on this one-way street. So a song like "Big Me" off the first record established this sweet, two-minute-pop-song foundation for that side of the band, so that the next album, that song made other songs possible. Whereas a song like "Weenie Beenie" from the first record was some fucking heavy, old-school Ministry rip-off that stretched it in that direction as well. It's kind of like you're just stretching the sound of the band, and every time you open the door with a new song, you can move in that direction further next time. So with the acoustic record, we managed to establish that mellow side of the band, so that the next album, we can elaborate or take it further—and the same thing with the rock side of the record. Some of it is fucking thrash metal, and we can go in that direction. Then ultimately what happens is that you're left with a fork in the road, and you think, "Okay, are we going to make a Slayer record, or are we going to make a Crosby, Stills & Nash record?" That's where we're at now, like, "Wow, did I just fuck myself in the ass? What am I doing? This is completely schizophrenic." [Laughs.]
AVC: You've said you want In Your Honor to be the Foo Fighters record, so in 20 years, when some kid asks his dad what Foo Fighters album he should start with, it'll be this one. How did you know when you succeeded?
DG: We always entertained the idea of doing a double album. Usually, when you go in to make a record, you have 30 songs, and you record 30 of them, and 12 of them make it to the record. As you're recording all of them, you're thinking, "Oh my God, this is actually a double record! We're doing it, we're fucking doing it!" Then you stop, step away from it, and really listen to it, and you think "This sucks shit. Throw that away." But this time, the concept was so clear that we really worked on it. There were charts and pie graphs and plans and faxes, and we had our heads in it. We knew what we needed to do even before we started. So we were given a deadline, and we made it. We finished the day we were supposed to be finished, and I felt like we had done exactly what I wanted to do. I think this is the first time we ever made an album where we accomplished where we set out to do.
It's a weird thing when you make records. You try to hear it before you make it, so you walk into the studio with this idea of what you expect to happen, and that usually changes. That usually turns into something else, and that's a good thing. It's good to wander into the studio and walk out with something that's better than you'd imagined it to be. If everything was as you imagined it to be, it just wouldn't be as much fun. There are some albums that we have released, some songs that we put on records, and I think, "What the fuck was that? What were we thinking? That's weird." This album, we really made sure. I didn't want to hand it to anybody until I could truly say "I love it."
AVC: Do any of your songs make you cringe now?
DG: Well, the record One By One, there's some questionable shit on that. A song like "Burn Away," I was in love with my future wife and had some romantic fucking prom ballad. Ugh! We'd never play that fucking shit live.
AVC: Heartbreak always triggers better songs.
DG: Yeah, that's true. There's something about heartbreak that makes for great music, but the same could be said for Jägermeister. Hangovers make for great music, too.
AVC: Are you taking a break after all this?
DG: You know, after about a year of touring, I get a little grumpy. I think about two months ago, I was in full Grumpelstiltskin mode, and now, I've mellowed. I've just had a child. I've always imagined taking that three- or four-year hiatus, so when you return with an album, it's almost like a comeback. But that's just not how I roll, homey. I fucking like making records. I like my band and the people in it.
AVC: Do you get restless when you're home for too long?
DG: Not so much anymore. I didn't really have home much to miss—cue fucking sad music—for the longest time. I swear, I had a bag of clothes and a place to keep it. To me, it didn't really matter if I were at home or not. The past four or five years, I've really started to settle in, and eventually you get to the point in your life where the big picture is a lot clearer than when you were 28, wandering Sunset Boulevard with a bottle of Jägermeister in your hand.
AVC: Do you think that comes from being happily married?
DG: Absolutely. And I moved out here to Los Angeles—I think it was four years ago now. I grew up in Virginia and moved to Seattle for about seven years, and then moved down to Los Angeles for about a year in 1997, then went back to Virginia with my tail between my legs, like, "I hate that place. I'm never going back!" But now my family lives here in Los Angeles, and my time here is spent mostly at family barbecues, family dinners, lunch with family and friends—it's so domestic it makes me want to fucking puke. I love it, but at the same time, we are leaving to go play for 80,000 people in Hyde Park. I know that I'll miss home, but goddammit, I can't wait to jump up onstage and freak that many people out. Eight years ago, I made this decision, "I'm not going to be doing this when I'm 33, so when I turn 33, I'm gonna stop, and real life will begin." And now I'm 37—just another promise I broke to myself. No willpower. [Laughs.]
AVC: In '97, you were living in a friend's back room in L.A., going through a divorce and losing band members—and this was after the high of your first album. Even with all the success now, do you think it could evaporate just as easily?
DG: Oh yeah, rock stars are like sports stars: If you snap your ankle, you're done. I've always considered this temporary. A long time ago, I made another promise to myself: "Okay, you know what? I'm going to play music, and hopefully I'll make enough money that I can go back to school. Once I make enough money to put myself through school, that's what I'm going to do." Fuck that shit! That'll happen, yeah. [Laughs.] I'm a little hungover—I can't remember what the question was.
AVC: How do you address losing it all?
DG: Music will never go away, and I will never stop making music; it's just what capacity or what arena you decide to do it. Neil Young is my hero, and such a great example. You know what that guy has been doing for the past 40 years? Making music. That's what that guy does. Sometimes you pay attention, sometimes you don't. Sometimes he hands it to you, sometimes he keeps it to himself. He's a good man with a beautiful family and wonderful life. That seems like what it's all about. Being on the cover of a magazine or playing to 85,000 people, that's one thing, and it's a fucking great luxury. We all definitely feel grateful and blessed that it has happened to us. It's amazing. It's not often that this band takes its success for granted; we know how lucky we are. But at the same time, nothing's going to keep me from making music. If I were in the want-ads in the back of the paper or playing to six people at a coffee shop, I'd still love to make music. I think that's one of the things that has kept the band going, because none of us, for one second, expected to be in the position that we are in today. A series of bizarre turns or happy accidents or just luck got us to where we are. I know it's a good place to be. I don't need much, and I've got more than I could ever ask for, so I'm fucking stoked.