“IT WAS A PUNK ROCK SHOW. I WAS THIRTEEN. IT WAS RAW AND IT WAS LOUD. PEOPLE WERE BEATING THE SH*T OUT OF EACH OTHER, THERE WAS SPIT AND PUKE AND GLASS FLYING EVERYWHERE, AND I THOUGHT, THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE!”
Early last year, when the world stopped, so did Dave Grohl’s plans for celebrating 25 years of Foo Fighters. “We had finished all of our work with our album,” he says. “We had mixed it and mastered it and we had the artwork and everything was ready to go. And then it got taken away.”
But now, at last, that album, Medicine At Midnight, is released, and as Grohl speaks to Total Guitar from his home in Los Angeles, he’s in typically ebullient mood as he hails it as a radical departure for the band, inspired by 80s classics by Bowie and the Stones.
He also promises: “There’s still a few things that will be coming in the next few months that kind of celebrate that 25th anniversary.” And he adds, with a note of humility uncommon among rock’s major players: “At the end of the day, I’m incredibly shocked and proud that we lasted this long.”
In an hour-long conversation, Grohl traces his journey from teenage punk rock drummer to stadium rock superstar. But he begins in the here and now, with what he describes, only halfjokingly, as “a disco record...”
Medicine at midnight is a very different sounding Foo Fighters album. What was the thinking behind it?
Knowing that this would be our 25th anniversary and this would be our tenth album, we sort of felt obligated to stretch a little bit. There were different directions we could go. We could make a beautiful, sleepy fireside acoustic record, or we could make a really noisy, chaotic punk rocksounding record. We’ve done everything in between. But the one thing we haven’t done yet is make a party album.
Meaning what, exactly?
I thought about some of my favourite albums from the 80s, which were rock bands that made music that you could dance to. Whether it was The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You, or David Bowie’s Let’s Dance or The Power Station, there were these really heavy grooves that I loved. A lot of my favourite heavy music is kinda groove-oriented, like the Pantera stuff. Vinnie and Dimebag had this thing that was more of a ZZ Top southern boogie, but they would incorporate that into their really f*cking heavy riffs.
And what you’ve ended up with is a very different sounding Foo Fighters album.
For me, it’s about pushing things into further territories that we haven’t really approached yet. And that’s been important to me since the first record. On the first record you have Big Me, which is this bubbly, candy-pop song, like a Teenage Fanclub song. And then you had Weenie Beanie, which is like a Ministry song, and Wattershed is just an old school punk rock thing. Even on that first record, I was trying to broaden the playing field. And if you do that over 25 years, it’s time to make a fucking disco record!
I’ve always been a sucker for disco. Even the drumming for Nirvana was based on riffs from The Gap Band, Cameo and things like that. All of those flams as you hear in Come As You Are and Teen Spirit, those were disco riffs.
And on this album?
Making A Fire, that’s rooted in some old Sly & The Family Stone shit. Shame Shame, that has this rolling PJ Harvey/tom Waits groove to it. Cloudspotter, that’s a groove from the Dazz Band, and that riff I’d had for four years. I’d been telling (producer) Greg Kurstin, ‘Oh my god, it’s kind of like LL Cool J’s Going Back To Cali, you gotta hear this.’ He’s, like, ‘No way, are you kidding?’ So I sat on it for a long time, and we had finished the record, but I though, OK, let’s take a stab at this thing, this riff that I’ve been taking about forever...
Have you always had such a broad taste in music?
To me, musicality has always been my love, whether it’s something as advanced as a Rush record, or something as dissonant and chaotic as a Flipper record. There’s something about the musicality and expression of those completely opposite things that
I love. A lot of my favourite punk rock bands were the ones that were a bit more technically inclined, or musically inclined - like Bad Brains. They were raw and they were playing what seemed like simple music, but those guys were technically proficient, they were fucking amazing musicians. Or Nomeansno from Canada, they could do a jazz set if they wanted to.
As a kid you loved all the big rock bands of the 70s – Zeppelin, Rush, KISS. What made you gravitate to punk?
There was that rebellious spirit that I attached to – feeling like an outsider, feeling different or feeling misunderstood. That’s where I really connected to the punk rock music scene. Feeling like I belong. I didn’t necessarily feel like in belonged in the high school I went to, I didn’t necessarily feel like I belonged in the suburban neighbourhood where I grew up really. But when I went downtown to Washington D.C., surrounded by two or three hundred other little misfits like me, I felt comfortable, finally. I found my tribe. I’d found my scene. And Washington D.C. was a very politically motivated punk rock scene, as well as being very emotionally motivated – it’s where that emo thing began.
Were there other people in that scene who also loved classic rock as you did?
I once did a big long interview with
Raised on classic rock and fired up by punk,
Dave Grohl would emerge from the turmoil of Nirvana’s heady rise and tragic end to become the frontman of one of the world’s biggest bands. In this revealing interview, he explains how he has steered the Foo Fighters through good times and bad, and says: “I hope that we can somehow inspire the next
generation of musicians...”
Ian Mckaye (leader of DC hardcore legends Fugazi), where he was trying to convince me that Ted Nugent was a fucking genius: ‘Wait? You? Ted Nugent? What?’
Ted Nugent is a divisive figure these days...
He’s got some good riffs. Let’s leave it at that.
So what were the ambitions of the teenage Dave Grohl?
I think with a lot of musicians, you try to prove it to yourself first. There is something about that sense of personal achievement. Like, I’m gonna sit down with this Beatles record and I’m gonna figure out Blackbird. That’s gonna be the next five days of my life. And once you do it, there’s a sense of accomplishment that can sometimes be the most gratifying. I remember when I was playing drums with my friends’ bands when I was a teenager, and I could play guitar, I could play bass,
I could play the drums. It wasn’t until I was about seventeen that I realised I could record songs all by myself. And I really didn’t want anyone else to hear them. I didn’t think my voice was very good, in didn’t think my songs were any good, but I did love the experiment of putting this thing together and bringing it home and listening to it myself: ‘Wow, I did this!’
How did you overcome that sense of insecurity?
I think over time you grow more comfortable doing things. And with that, you also relieve yourself of some of the insecurity. Now, when I walk up onstage, I know I’m not gonna sing like Jeff Buckley. I fucking wish I could. But it’s just not gonna happen. For years I would torture myself with that. And then I just thought: let it go, man! Just get up there and do your thing. And the more comfortable you feel, the more comfortable the audience will feel with you. So of course I had incredible insecurities about being a performer, but after a while I sort of let that go. The vibe reigns over all. You get onstage, and you’re there to do your thing. You get everybody right there in the palm of your hand, and you bring them with you, and you’ve got yourself a fucking rock show! Jumping onstage with your band and seeing people bounce around... I love that!
So after all the success you’ve experienced in your career, first with Nirvana and then with Foo Fighters, you haven’t forgotten what it felt like to be a kid starting out?
In all honesty I think those early experiences do lay some sort of foundation, or something to keep as perspective for the rest of your life. When I left school at 17 and was touring the world, we were playing squats and sleeping in vans and sleeping in the clubs we had just performed at, and living off seven dollars a day. To this day, when I go to sleep at night, if I’m having a hard time going to sleep, I just remember what it’s like to be in a sleeping bag on a stranger’s couch, in Des Moines, Iowa, after playing a hardcore show for two hours, completely exhausted, with a no money, far away from home, and there’s some comfort in that, so I just go straight to sleep.
Was your attitude always to take everything one step at a time? Sure. And still to this day, that runs as a thread through my entire career. Let’s see if I can actually be the singer of the band. Let’s see if I we can actually play a f*cking festival. Let’s see if we can play Wembley Stadium. Every step of the way, I just want to see if we can do it. And once you achieve that, you just push it out the way and go, What’s next?
And the band has achieved all that you dreamed of.
It’s been f*cking heaven, the whole time!
Really? If you had to draw the pie chart of fun versus not fun, what would it look like?
Fun is 99.9 per cent. You have to understand, this band was not meant to be a continuation of Nirvana. It was meant to be a continuation of the spirit that drove us to play music in the first place. We don’t do things that we don’t want to do. The band is on Roswell Records, it’s our own record company, we distribute through another major label, and when it’s time to make a record, we decide who, what, where, how to do it.
Is the bond between you all still strong?
Everyone knows they’re allowed to leave any time. If you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to be here. We’ve had that conversation a couple of times. Every band has that moment, where they think, ‘God, should we still be doing this?’ We had the seven year itch, where we thought, maybe
it’s time to stop...
That was back in 2002, when you put the band on ice and played drums on the Queens Of The Stone Age album Songsforthe Deaf. How serious was that? How close did the Foo Fighters come to splitting? As close as you can get without breaking up. Basically, ‘F*ck this, this isn’t fun anymore, play this one last show and then call it quits’. That should be OK, it should be OK to do that. It’s not like a divorce. If you don’t feel great about playing music together,
“THIS BAND WAS NOT MEANT TO BE A CONTINUATION OF NIRVANA. IT WAS A CONTINUATION OF THE SPIRIT THAT DROVE US TO PLAY MUSIC IN THE FIRST PLACE”
MARCH 2021 TOTAL GUITAR
“SOME OF MY FAVOURITE ALBUMS FROM THE 80S WERE ROCK BANDS THAT MADE MUSIC THAT YOU COULD DANCE TO”
Let’s just not do it. Let’s find other things to do.
So, what changed?
Honestly, when the band got back together and started working again, I realised I how much I appreciated the guys in the band and our connection. I know some bands that have been around for 25 or 30 years, not all of them get along as well as the Foo Fighters. We genuinely like being in the same room with each other. And that’s something that the last year has given me, a new appreciation for not just the music and the career and the band, but the connection I have to these people. It’s f*cking real. My connection to Pat (Smear), oh my god, we’ve been to weddings and funerals and f*cking court cases and been bailed out of jail! Our lives are f*cking connected in a way that’s more than most.
If you had to pick one Foo Fighters song that showed everything about the band, which one would it be?
Times Like These comes to mind, because it’s a hopeful song. There’s some optimism to it. I’ve always considered myself an optimistic person. And hopeful. But, also, it’s introspective.
Over the years, you’ve met many of your heroes – Lemmy, David Bowie, Prince... When you’ve talked about them in the past, it seems you were in awe of these people when you met them?
Oh my god, yeah. Still. When you meet a hero, the anxiety and that nervous energy that you conjure is based on how deeply that person has touched your life. If I was to meet one of my punk rock heroes that has maybe only has sold four hundred records in his life and nobody knows of his band, but he was hugely influential to me, I’d be a nervous wreck. You know, I remember meeting the guys from Supergrass, they are one of my favourite bands of all time, and I felt like I was meeting an iconic classic rock band.
Do you have those moments when you realise just how famous you are?
It happens when I see someone shaking and crying and I immediately want to diffuse that nervous energy, because to me it makes no sense. I’ve noticed what Paul Mccartney will do. I happen to think he’s the most influential human being alive today, and when you see him or meet him in person for the first time, you’re faced with your entire life of memories that he’s helped build. But he’s a good man, he just wants to make you feel like you’re two human beings just saying hello. You know, I’m sitting here in sweatpants and a sweater, drinking a cold cup of coffee, not unlike anyone else reading this magazine right now. I don’t consider myself on the same level as the heroes I grew up listening to. I just don’t. But I can tell when people get a little nervous around me. The one-dimensional is turned to the three dimensional, and that’s just f*cking weird. But just imagine if you turned the corner and you saw Bigfoot standing there. What the f*ck would you do?
Have you embraced the idea that you’re a major rock star? You’ve seemed resistant to the idea sometimes...
Most of my days are spent with my kids. They’re 14, 11 and six - Violet, Harper and Ophelia. They remind me, quite often, that I’m just their f*cking sweatpants-wearing dad. And they’re right. I understand that I’ve done a lot in the last 30-odd years, and I’m very proud of that. But I do still consider myself a working-class musician in a lot of ways. When I was making that Songs For The Deaf record with Queens Of The Stone Age, I loved it, because I was a short-order cook. The producer would say, ‘Hey, in this section could you try this, this and this.’ ‘Okay, I got it.’ Josh (Homme, QOTSA leader) would say, ‘In this section, do this.’ And I f*cking loved doing that.
Why do you and him work so well together?
Josh and I have a very beautiful musical connection. There’s something about his riffs and my drums that just go together well, He could start playing something and I will play along with him. And it only takes a second for it to lock in. Plus he and I, when we write music together, we’re trying to make each other laugh. It’s, like, you’re gonna set up the joke, I’ve got the punchline. And the more ridiculous we can make it, we come up with ideas while we’re recording, on a whim or as a joke, and we decide to keep it. Unnecessary, that’s the word!
In 2008, when the Foo Fighters played London’s Wembley Stadium, you jammed with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones on a version of Led Zeppelin’s Rock Androll. In that moment, what gong through your head?
I don’t think the weight of the situation really hit until afterwards. It’s like jumping out of a fucking airplane. OK, here’s the two guys from Led Zeppelin, I’m onstage at Wembley... It’s funny, my monitor guy, Ian Beveridge, he’s from Scotland, he’s been my monitor guy for 30 f*cking years. He knows when I get choked up because my voice does a specific little thing. I try to keep it from cracking while I’m singing, but if there’s one person who can tell when those moments sink in, it’s Ian.
In the past few years we’ve lost so many legendary musicians. Is there responsibility for you to step up and fill that breach?
I don’t know if it’s a responsibility or obligation. But I do hope that we can somehow inspire the next generation of musicians to do the same. If there’s any responsibility I feel, it’s that. Often, people imagine that we live a total fantasy life that is not a bunch of people playing instruments. It’s important for to humanise it so people realise it’s available to them as well. So, when I jump out onstage and I see a ten year-old kid waving at me, saying, ‘Hey, I want to play guitar!’, I know that by handing him my guitar, it will inspire him to keep on playing. And if there are other ten year olds in the audience that see him doing it, they’ll think, ‘F*ck! I can do that too.’ And that’s what happened to me at my first concert...
What was that?
It was a punk rock show, Naked Raygun, in Chicago, when I was 13. I’d never seen a rock band onstage before, and my cousin took me to this little club. Naked Raygun jumped up onstage and they had three or four chords, and they played fast and it was raw and it was loud, and people were beating the sh*t out of each other, there was spit and puke and glass flying everywhere, and I thought, ‘This is what want to do for the rest of my life!’ And seeing how simple and human it was, that’s what made me feel like I could do it.
Do you still believe in the romance of rock ‘n’ roll?
Absolutely! If there’s one thing I was never concerned with, it was f*cking fashion. The other day, someone sent me a picture of my Battle Of The Bands in ninth grade, when I was 13 or 14 years old, and I was wearing the same f*cking sh*t as I wear now as a 51-year-old man! I was wearing flannel shirt, camouflage pants, and chequered Vans. Clearly my sense of fashion has been frozen in time. I don’t think that rock’n’roll is as fashionable as some people do. I think rock ‘n’ roll is more than visual, it’s more than something sonic or more than audio.
It’s a spirit.
Can you elaborate on that?
Well, of course you would consider Little Richard and Chuck Berry the originators. Of course, you would consider them rock’n’roll. Some people might not consider Motörhead rock ’n’ roll, but I do. Some people might not consider The Prodigy rock ’n’ roll. I do. There’s something about the spirit that connects all of those things together. Listen, man, I’m raising three kids who are discovering rock ’n’ roll now. My 14-year-old is already so deep in a Bowie phase that she shaved her f*cking eyebrows. My eleven-year-old is obsessed with The Beatles. I’ve watched them discover music, and it’s based on that spirit. So I don’t consider rock ’n’ roll out of fashion, because I never, ever considered it one.