“God damn, it’s bright in here.” Dave Grohl winces and draws the curtains out of respect for his burgeoning hangover. It’s midday and he thinks he got to bed maybe four hours ago. He’s making the most of his time in London. Last night he swung by his favourite Soho rock hangout The Crobar before attempting to pay a visit to burlesque club The Box, which turned out to be closed. That didn’t stop the party, but one hanger-on nearly did. “There was this English singer with us who was completely wasted. We almost had to throw him out,” he explains. Which of this country’s hard-living rockers is he referring to? You’ll never guess: “Have you heard of this band… Blue?”
That’s right, the greatest drummer of his generation spent last night being tailed by conspiracy-spouting pop crackpot Lee Ryan. “The guy kept telling us how many million records he’s sold,” Grohl shrugs. “I was like, really? You?”
The mind recoils at the idea of the pair propping up a bar, but then Grohl does have a reputation for being “the nicest guy in rock” and he’s no stranger to surrounding himself with a weird and varied cast of characters. Last night he played a show with his Sound City Players, a band that included the Foo Fighters as well as Grohl’s former Nirvana bandmate Krist Novaselic, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielson and 80s heartthrob Rick Springfield. They’re in town to for the premiere of his documentary, Sound City, which tells the story of the legendary LA recording studio where Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Rage Against The Machine, Arctic Monkeys and many more all laid down masterpieces. The place holds a special significance for Grohl, because it was there that Nirvana went in 1991 to record ‘Nevermind’.
As he sits down for a revitalising breakfast of sausage and eggs, Grohl opens up to us in-depth for the first time since he was named Godlike Genius at the 2011 NME Awards. There’s a lot to talk about, from his plans for the next Foo Fighters record to how his musical idol Paul McCartney came to front a reunited Nirvana lineup and why he still wants to throttle the charlatans who produce manufactured pop.
NME: Your film starts with Nirvana in a beat-up van going to Sound City to record ‘Nevermind’. When did you realise how big that record would get?
Dave: When I joined Nirvana they had demoed ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Lithium’ with the original drummer Chad so there was already this buzz about the band. We signed to the David Geffen Company and they gave us money to go down to Los Angeles to record ‘Nevermind’. I don’t know why we picked Sound City. I think it was because of the board, which was an old Neve, and because it was cheap. It was like $600 a day. Our budget wasn’t much because nobody thought anything was going to happen with the record. When we got there we were surprised that it was such a shithole, but we weren’t accustomed to the finer things in life anyway. It was such a quick session and nobody thought anything was going to come of it. We only took three pictures while we were making the record. That’s all there is to document the making of that record, other than the record. It was so far outside Hollywood that none of the fucking posh A&R people would ever come out. I asked our manager if I should worry, and he said: “No, consider yourself lucky! You don’t want those assholes there.” We recorded in April and the record came out in September and then we were just touring in the van as we’d usually do. Things started to change by Christmas. I knew things were going well because our per diem went like from $7 to $10 a day. It was a sweet gig! Audiences started getting bigger and bigger and by the end of the tour the album was gold. Something was happening with the other bands too: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. In two months, everything changed.
What was it like to go back into that room at Sound City where it all started?
The first time I went back after we recorded ‘Nevermind’ I went in and right as you walk in the front door there’s a huge Nirvana plaque. It was an incredibly emotional experience for me because when I first walked in to Sound City I thought: ‘Oh my god, what a shithole.’ Then I looked at the wall and saw Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and Neil Young. I couldn’t believe that these legendary records had been made there, because it was such a dump. It was good to think that another kid would say the same thing when he walked in the front door: “I can’t believe ‘Nevermind’ was made here, it’s a shithole.”
What’s the wildest thing you got up to at Sound City?
Once I was producing a band called Verbena and it was the singer’s birthday so I bought him this mini motorcycle that went fucking 45mph. We spent an entire afternoon jumping the ramp that goes up to the parking lot like Evel Knievel. It was the stupidest, most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. There were countless nights where we’d just abandon the session and start drinking. It’s not like you were going to mess anything up in there. Once you got into that back hallway where it was really dark and all the walls were carpeted, some really nasty shit went on there. It was fun.
When Sound City closed you bought the soundboard. Now you’ve got it in your studio are you desperate to record the next Foo Fighters record on it?
Yeah, but it’s funny because I’ve just made the biggest infomercial for my studio. We’re getting calls from really popular bands who want to come and record on the Sound City board. I’m fucked because it’s my studio and I don’t have anywhere to go! I think the reason they sold the board to me was because they knew I wasn’t going to chop it up and sell it for parts. I wanted to use it the way it’s supposed to be used. That thing hasn’t been turned off, other than like power outages and earthquakes, for forty years. You’re not supposed to turn boards off, and those tubes have been glowing for forty fucking years.
You’ve said you’ll start working on the next Foo Fighters record as soon as you get home. When can we expect to hear it?
Eventually! We have a lot of music, we just need to turn it in to a record. You know, I think we do best when we step away from things and regroup. One of the reasons we’ve been a band so long is that we eventually learned how to say no to things. I mean, we’re on hiatus now and we’re busier than we’ve ever been in our life. Pat Smear calls it ‘I hate us’! We can’t spend that much time away from each other because we’ve been friends for a really long time. Whenever we get back together just to do something as silly as the Sound City project it’s always fun. The next record is going to be good. I’m looking forward to it.
When will you next going be onstage as the Foo Fighters in the UK?
I don’t know. Not any time soon.
I can’t wait that long! God damn, if I waited five years I’d almost be 50 years old! I’ve got to come back before then. You’d have to fucking wheel me onstage…
Well if it was Reading it wouldn’t be the first time someone was pushed onstage in a wheelchair…
[Laughs] Exactly! You don’t want to go through all that again.
Last year at Reading there were rumours you’d cover Nirvana. Is that something you’d ever consider?
Every once in a while we talk about it. For the Sound City gig here in London we were thinking about musicians that we could invite because Stevie Nicks and John Fogerty couldn’t make it. Someone came up with the idea of doing a Nirvana song with Polly, PJ Harvey. Kurt loved her, and we love her, and we thought: “Yeah, what would we do?” I said: “God, what if we were to do ‘Milk It’ from ‘In Utero’ with Polly singing?” We all looked at each other like: “Woah, that would be amazing…” and then she couldn’t do it! The thing is, it’s sacred ground. If we were ever to do something like that it would have to be right because you want to pay tribute. There’s a reason Foo Fighters don’t do Nirvana songs, and it’s a good reason.
At that Hurricane Sandy benefit show a lot of people thought you were reforming Nirvana with Paul McCartney…
When he came to our studio to record with us that day we didn’t know what to expect. Some musicians need to know what they’re going to do before they get in the studio, others are just willing to get weird and experiment and jam. Paul likes to just walk in and see what happens, which I have so much respect for because he’s fearless. He has a confidence that you don’t find in a lot of musicians because he’s really good! I knew that we weren’t going to do a Beatles song and I was pretty sure we weren’t going to do a Nirvana song, so when I talked to him he said: “Well, why don’t we just write something?” I said “Oh great, that takes the pressure off!” Then with the Hurricane Sandy benefit he called and said “Hey, um, I’m doing this benefit, would you like to play?” I said: “Of course.” He said: “Maybe you could play a bit of drums. Hey, why don’t we do the Sound City song?” I would never have suggested that! I wouldn’t have been like: “Hey Paul, let’s do one of my songs”, you know? So I asked Krist and Pat and it just happened. Of course, there was a lot of speculation. People didn’t know what our intentions were, but I was really happy that we were the one band that went out there and did a song that no-one had ever heard. A song that no-one knew existed at that point! We’d kept it a real secret.
What was your most surreal moment with him?
We were in the studio and he says: “Go in there and double my vocal”, and I said: “Ok, you mean put a harmony on it?” “No, no just sing what I sang. Me and Lennon used to do it all the time…” Like, what?! Who am I? What’s going on here? This is crazy! I had to pinch myself. Even had we not filmed it or recorded it, that still would have been the most special day of my entire life. It was so awesome to sit with my absolute hero, my musical hero, the person that influenced me more than anyone else and to record on the board that I think is responsible for me being here. It was incredible.
Your film emphasises the importance of bands playing together and sounding shitty while learning their craft rather than taking the X Factor route to the top. What is it that talent shows lack?
I think people should feel encouraged to be themselves. Music is meant to be a basic expression and it should be entirely human, like hearing someone speak or watching someone move. One person’s Beethoven can be another person’s fucking Throbbing Gristle. That’s what bums me out about those shows where people are judged so harshly by fucking musicians that hardly even play an instrument on their own fucking albums! It makes me really mad. I swear to God, if my daughter walked up on stage and sang her heart out and some fucking billionaire looked at her and said: “No, I’m sorry you’re not any good”, I’d fucking throttle that person, I swear to God. Who the fuck are you to say what’s good or bad? If you were to put Keith Moon up on stage and have him judged by prolific fusion drummers they would say: “Well, your time’s not great, you’re all over the place, you’re hitting rim-shots when you weren’t supposed to, your cymbal work is a little sloppy….” It’s ridiculous. It homogenises music so that everyone sounds like fucking Christina Aguilera. I mean, really? In my world I listen to fucking drummers that sound like they’re falling down the stairs as much as I love listening to a beautiful disco track where someone’s got perfect time like Tony Thompson. People need to understand that if you’re passionate about something and you’re driven to do it then don’t be fucking scared, do it. The next time someone says you’re not that good a singer, say: “Fuck you!” I interviewed Neil Young, and he said in his first band someone said to him: “The band’s really great but honestly you shouldn’t be the singer. Please, don’t sing.” If Neil Young had listened to that person, we wouldn’t have Neil Young!
The Foo Fighters are supposed to be on hiatus but you’re working harder than ever. Can you ever imagine retiring?
Retiring? You should see the house I have to make payments on! No, look, I’ve had jobs. I’ve had shitty jobs: manual labour, pizza restaurants, fucking record stores, whatever. This is not a job. I’ve already retired. I retired the fucking day that ‘Nevermind’ went gold. The thing is, I have more opportunities thrown at me now than ever before in my life and the hardest part is doing as little as possible. I get all these amazing opportunities and you’d be crazy not to take them.
You get called the ‘nicest guy in rock’, but don’t you need to have an edge to be successful in music?
Evidently not! I think that it’s important that you try to treat the people that work with you with respect and that you try to take as much time as you can with the people that come up to say hello. Sometimes it gets overwhelming when you just want to sit down and have a fucking drink and you can’t, but it could be worse. I have this motto in life: ‘It could be worse’. Some people have a ‘It could be better’ mentality, but not me. Even when it’s bad, it could get worse, believe me. I don’t have any complaints.
With that it’s time for Dave Grohl to head off into the sunset. He’s got to start whipping those Foo Fighters songs into shape, not to mention maintaining his reputation as the world’s most in-demand drumslinger-for-hire by playing with everyone from Queens Of The Stone Age to RDGLDGRN. Judging by his unstoppable workrate, don’t be surprised to see him back prowling a UK stage before too long. It means too much to him not to. “You know it’s funny, recording at Sound City and playing the Reading Festival happened within six months of each other,” he says. “It was such a crazy year in my life. I was 22, I was a child. I was so dumb, but all those huge experiences happened in a short period of time so I look back on that period in a very romantic light. To be young, and to have the world in the palm of your hand… I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Cover story for NME, 23 March 2013.