Dave Grohl: 'I never imagined myself to be Freddie Mercury'

Dave Grohl: 'I never imagined myself to be Freddie Mercury'

Dave Grohl at Glastonbury, 2017. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

As Foo Fighters prepare to headline Reading and Leeds, Dave Grohl talks us through his landmark songs, from the ‘blood and guts’ of Nirvana to an anthem for a doomed election

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Main image: Dave Grohl at Glastonbury, 2017. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Foo Fighters HQ is a warehouse in LA’s San Fernando Valley that acts as a temple to Dave Grohl. Every corridor is plastered with discs awarded to the bands he has put his stamp on: Foos, Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, Tenacious D, not to mention various other projects. There are awards from countries all over the world (and custom surfboards from Australia). The hangar in the back is home to fan-made flags and paraphernalia. Pinball machines are never far from reach; the wifi network is called “Suck It”; there is even a painted portrait of Grohl in a smoking jacket. The sofas are decorated with pillows that Grohl’s mum made out of old band T-shirts. “My mom asked me one day: ‘What are you gonna do with all your T-shirts in the attic? Can I make pillows outta them?’” he says, holding a Led Zeppelin one. “I thought: ‘Mom this is your second career.’ Could you fucking imagine?”

Grohl, now 50, spent his youth in Virginia before flying by the seat of his pants all over the US in the name of rock’n’roll. He lived in Washington DC and LA with hardcore band Scream. He spent time in Olympia, Washington and Seattle after joining Nirvana. His Foos duties saw him settle in LA. Today, in his studio’s control room, he sits opposite the sound desk that Nirvana’s landscape-changing Nevermind (1991) was made on. “This thing will outlive us all,” he says. It’s signed by Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett, even Paul McCartney. Tacked to its left corner is a picture taken of Grohl’s drumkit. “Oh look!” he says, picking it up. “Here’s the only picture I have of recording Nevermind. Isn’t that funny? That’s all I got.” He’s joking, of course. It gave him everything …

Nirvana Molly’s Lips (BBC session) (1990)

Nirvana first came on Grohl’s radar when he drummed in Scream. “I was staying with a friend in Amsterdam,” he recalls. “Whenever Scream toured Europe we’d stay in his apartment, buy hash, and get high listening to records.” Nirvana’s 1989 debut Bleach was in this collection and Grohl was immediately struck by the aesthetic. “I loved the dissonance and the chaos, and then there was this beautiful song About a Girl right in the middle that could have been off a 60s Beatles record.” At the time he was dating a girl who was a fan. “It may have been one of the first times I knew a girl who liked a band I liked.”

Scream disbanded in LA in 1990, and Grohl had no money to get home. He was 20 and doing tile work at a coffee shop. A friend – Buzz Osborne from the Melvins – told him that Nirvana were looking for a drummer. Grohl had seen Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic backstage at a Melvins show. “Novoselic is 6ft 8in and Kurt was quiet in a corner. I said to Buzz: ‘Who’s that?’ He said: ‘That’s Nirvana.’ I laughed. As with everything Nirvana, it didn’t make sense.” He auditioned in Seattle for Nirvana’s UK tour. Thirty minutes in, it was a done deal. Molly’s Lips was his first Nirvana recording, made in a session for John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show in London.

Peel wasn’t at the session, but it was momentous regardless. “The engineer was Dale [Griffin], the drummer of Mott the Hoople!” he says. “That blew my mind.” Grohl was accustomed to recording in basements and playing in pubs to a dozen people. “Nirvana were playing to 600 people a night. I felt like I was in the biggest band in the world already. I was jet-lagged, drinking too much tea, we were staying at this bed-and-breakfast in Shepherd’s Bush: the Dalmacia. It was the first time I had fried toast.”

Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirit, (1991)

“Nothing changed my life like Smells Like Teen Spirit,” says Grohl. It is the song that defined Gen X, yet radio stations refused to play it back in the day. “Let me tell you something,” says Grohl. “The day Foo Fighters learned how to play Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley I realised that the arrangement is exactly the same! Kurt had a beautiful grasp of songwriting in its simplicity and depth.” It’s one of the only songs all three members have writing credits on. They never really discussed composition. “We spoke to each other in the rehearsal room at volume 10 as we were playing. I knew when the verse was coming because I could see Kurt’s foot getting close to turning off the distortion pedal. We would watch each other’s body language and the song built into this crescendo, then exploded.”

It was never intended as Nevermind’s statement song. “I didn’t think it was the anthem,” says Grohl, who preferred Lithium and In Bloom. He attributes its success to its lack of pretence. “It would be as moving if it were Kurt and a guitar. We were very protective about our music. We wouldn’t pick up instruments and start singing for no reason. We wouldn’t go play shows that meant nothing to us. Every time we played it was blood and guts. To hear that song on the radio is one thing but to stand in front of us as we did it in the room? Fuckin’ A. It was more than sound. You could actually feel it. Wow.”

For Grohl, the song didn’t feel radical. He grew up on noise-rock and death metal. “It wasn’t an intentional battle cry. It was a piece of the puzzle.” MTV wouldn’t show the video during the day. “What teenager didn’t want to start a riot in the fucking high-school gymnasium? We all did. At that point, we just kept our heads down and played shows. Our expectations were not lofty. Fuck no. All I wanted was my own apartment so I didn’t have to sleep on Kurt’s couch any more.”

Nirvana You Know You’re Right (1994)

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This is the last song that Nirvana recorded with Cobain. “I listened to it for the first time in 10 years,” Grohl sighs. “Oh God, it’s hard to listen to.” It was written during soundchecks on tour. “It was not a pleasant time for the band. Kurt was unwell. Then he was well. Then he was unwell. The last year of the band was tough.” Nobody had anticipated just how much touring Nirvana would do for Nevermind. “By the time we got to Europe I remember it being cold. It was the first time I felt depression. There was one day where I couldn’t get out of bed. I started to question why we were even there.”

Cobain wanted to find a studio when they got home. Novoselic and Grohl set up and recorded for a few days. Cobain came on the last day to put vocals on (lyric: “I will move away from here, you won’t be afraid of fear”). His suicide came soon after, on 5 April, 1994. Years later, talk of releasing a greatest hits brought it out of the archives. “You look back on it and you read it through a different lens,” says Grohl. “Lyrically, it’s heartbreaking. He was in a place we may not have recognised. Musically, there’s something cathartic.” He starts to buckle. “You know, I miss his voice. I miss him …

“I don’t think he was comfortable in the place that he was at the time,” he adds. “I don’t know if anybody was. But his experience was much different. I used to think it sounded like he was singing the chorus. Now I listen to it and it’s like he’s wailing.”

Late! Friend of a Friend (1990)

Grohl always wrote songs for himself on a multitrack, playing every instrument himself. This was written when he was living on Cobain’s sofa. It is about his new bandmates – a pretty bleak impression. “My experience of music was: van touring, sleeping on the stage of a club in a sleeping bag, having some squatters cook you pasta, then going to the next town.” When he arrived in Olympia, he felt like “an alien”.

“I remember this friend of Kurt’s – a guy called Slim Moon – looked at me and said: ‘You’re a rocker …’ I was like: ‘Is that bad?!’ I felt really alone,” he says. “I was stuck in this room that had cigarette butts all over the floor and this turtle tank. Every night as I tried to fall asleep on a couch half my size, this fucking turtle would just bang its head on the glass. Kurt liked turtles. I don’t even think it had a fucking name.” When Cobain went to bed, Grohl would record. “There was no TV. We had four records: Divine, Mark Lanegan, Devo and a Bobcat Goldthwait comedy LP. I was sick of those, so I recorded some songs whispering, barely playing guitar. I didn’t wanna wake Kurt.”

Foo Fighters Alone + Easy Target (1995)

After Cobain’s suicide, Grohl received invites to join the likes of Pearl Jam but refused offers. In October he made the Foos’ self-titled debut instead, recording all the instruments himself as an exercise in grief. “I never imagined I would be the singer of a band,” he says. “After Nirvana ended, I didn’t wanna play music. I sure as fuck didn’t wanna go be someone’s drummer. I knew that it would remind me of Nirvana. I’m very proud. Nirvana changed my life for ever but there were times when I wanted to escape it. Just picking up an instrument or turning on a radio made me so sad. Then I realised that doing the thing I’d always done – go to a basement, record by myself – might restart my heart.”

This song was written in Grohl’s basement in 1992 after the Nevermind tour ended. On a trip to New York to play Saturday Night Live, Grohl went to Cobain’s hotel room to share it with him. “He was having a bubble bath,” recalls Grohl. He pressed play and left Cobain to soak in it. “I went back in and he kissed me! That might have been the only time I ever felt validated by the band.” Some resented Grohl’s decision to keep playing. “I didn’t imagine I was gonna pick up where Nirvana left off. I didn’t imagine myself to be Freddie Mercury,” he says. “I made 100 cassettes and handed them to friends. I called it Foo Fighters because I didn’t want people to think I was trying to be Tom Petty.”

Foo Fighters Everlong (1997)

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After the self-titled debut album garnered interest and took Foo Fighters around the world, Grohl committed to the idea of being frontman and hired Gil Norton to produce follow-up LP The Colour and the Shape – their biggest seller. Everlong, its standout, was written in Virginia during Christmas 1996 as Grohl’s first marriage to photographer Jennifer Youngblood ended. He had fallen for Louise Post from the band Veruca Salt.

“I hadn’t become a band leader yet,” he says. “It was still this experiment. I had no idea what I was doing. I almost made that second record to prove the first one wasn’t a one-off.” The process was fuelled by drama: drummer William Goldsmith went awol, guitarist Pat Smear quit and Grohl was mid-divorce. “It was a fucking mess,” he says. “I don’t believe in the idea that conflict breeds creative results, but oh man! That was a difficult time that made for some really good songs. Again I was on someone’s fucking couch in a sleeping bag. I was basically homeless but I was free.”

Queens of the Stone Age No One Knows (2002)

A reputation follows Grohl that he is the guy to call when you’re in a bind. Josh Homme, frontman of Queens of the Stone Age (QOTSA), has used this card. “That’s because I don’t charge him money to play drums,” jokes Grohl. Grohl and Homme met in Nirvana’s heyday. Homme was in desert psych band Kyuss. QOTSA and Foos have toured the world together. In the late 90s, a magazine asked Grohl what his biggest regret of the year was. “I said: ‘That Queens of the Stone Age didn’t ask me to be their drummer.’”

During the making of third QOTSA album Songs for the Deaf, their drummer Gene Trautmann quit. Homme asked Grohl to finish the record. “I said: ‘Absofuckinglutely’. It’s not the last time he called me to rescue him.” During the recording of QOTSA’s 2013 album …Like Clockwork, Grohl got a text from Homme. “I was reading stories to my daughter. So what’s up?” Again, their drummer had quit. “I’m like: ‘All right, when do you want me?’” He has since formed a supergroup, Them Crooked Vultures, with Homme and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. They put out an album in 2009.

“Josh is one of my best friends,” he says. “We’re like brothers. We go out and have waffles together. We ride motorcycles. There is nobody I’d rather play drums with. He’s the guy.” He cannot keep his cool around Jones, though. “There are times when you’ve relaxed into a sofa and you’re not thinking about his time in Led Zeppelin. Then you start playing and you’re immediately reminded that you are a musical speck compared to this man. It’s still hard to accept that I got to play in a band with that guy. Technically we’re still a band.” Does that mean something’s on the horizon? He teases: “We practise once every decade, and we’re coming up on another decade aren’t we? I don’t have any official news but there’s always something cooking.”

Foo Fighters Best of You (2005)

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In 2004, Grohl went on the presidential trail with the Democrats’ John Kerry. When he returned to write Foos’ fifth LP, In Your Honor, he was inspired by resistance. He was convinced that Kerry would win. “Didn’t happen. C’est la vie, mon cherie.” Grohl’s mother was a liberal public school teacher, his father a Republican speech writer. “I know what it’s like to be in the middle. Difficult, but there is a middle.” When he is playing to 50,000 people, he knows it’s a mixed bag out there, but he hopes that music can unite. Booze helps, too. “One of the things that’s wrong with Washington, DC is that no one drinks any more,” he says. “We have a president who’s never had a drink. That terrifies me more than his Twitter. The guy needs a drink, big time. Today.”

Dave Grohl Play (2018)

Last year Grohl recorded a 23-minute long jam, setting himself the challenge of playing every instrument. His daughters were the inspiration. He has three. His eldest, Violet, is already on the musical path. “She can pick up an instrument and learn how to play it in a week,” he beams. Violet rehearses in kids’ covers bands. “I would watch them learn Don’t Stop Believing by Journey, going home and practising. It’s a challenge. When that spark ignites you cannot think of anything else. From 13-year-old kids learning a Journey song to a 50-year-old man trying to record a fucking 23-minute long instrumental in one take, it’s the same feeling.”

Grohl advocates for being resourceful when it comes to learning how to play because the public school system in the US is so lacking in financial support for music. “You have to be imaginative and do things on your own,” he says. “Making music is everybody’s right. Fucking pick up a harmonica and blow the shit out of it. See what happens.” For this track, Grohl played piano. It wasn’t easy. What instrument is he going to attempt next? “I’ll try anything, baby,” he smirks. “I’ll fake it till I make it!”

Foo Fighters headline Leeds festival on 23 Aug and Reading festival on 25 Aug.