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A Quietus Interview

Foo For Thought: Dave Grohl On The Song He Wrote For Kurt Cobain
John Doran , September 8th, 2008 11:38

This week sees the release of a Foo Fighters DVD Live At Wembley Stadium. John Doran takes the opportunity to talk to Dave Grohl about music and his life.


Eighteen years ago a young musician just 21-years-old was sitting in his bedroom in Washington State. He shared the house with another young man who just so happened to be in his band as well. They were both bored and passed the time writing songs. One of them was writing a melancholy pop song, hooked through with bittersweet observation. The song, ‘A Friend Of A Friend’, finally saw the light of day on the In Your Honour album. It was written by Dave Grohl about Kurt Cobain a few months before Nevermind came out and changed the face of rock music for good. He was penning a song because there was nothing else to do.

Recently in The Independent Grohl recalled how dismal the time was and said: "The sun would come up at 8:30 in the morning, and go down at two in the afternoon and those were the hours I slept. I didn’t see daylight for months. It was fucking depressing."

Even then it shows that there were two talented song writers in Nirvana not just the one. Grohl, as affable a chap as you could hope to meet, admits that the song is about his relationship with Cobain and Krist Novoselic. The lyrics paint a sombre picture of a serious young man preparing for fame; they have an added extra edge of poignancy now by the fact that we know the story doesn’t end well. ("He needs a quiet room/With a lock to keep him in . . . He's never been in love/But he knows just what love is/He says nevermind/And no one speaks/He thinks he drinks too much/Cause when he tells his two best friends/'I think I drink too much'/No one speaks.")

Two decades before this David Eric Grohl was born in Warren Ohio in 1969 to a young couple of newlyweds called James and Virginia. The pair split when Dave was just seven meaning his mother, who was a high school teacher, also had to work long evenings and weekends to provide for him and his elder sister, Lisa. Virginia would end up giving him one of the most useful pieces of advice he would ever receive.

Grohl grins and says: "My mother advised me to join Nirvana. Thanks mum! I think that counts as pretty good advice! If anyone just starting out in a band asks me for advice I usually tell them that music should not be a career decision. When I joined Nirvana being in the biggest band in the world was not an option. I joined because I fucking love playing music and I wanted to be in a band. If you’re not satisfied with playing music and nothing else then you kinda shouldn’t be doing it.

"Expectations for kids starting in bands these days are pretty high. 'We’re going to have to make a video someday', 'Imagine if we were on a tour bus', 'I hope we have a platinum record'. But if you really love doing it, the main focus should be on making music for yourself - don’t worry about record deals and stuff like that."

Dave says he wasn’t much for "book learning" and continually played truant from school when he was younger. Instead he poured all of his time and effort into music. He received his first guitar when he was just 12; a 1960s Silvertone with amp built into the instrument case. There was always music playing in the Grohl household (his mother had been the singer in a group when she was younger) and pretty soon he had learnt how to play many standards such as ‘Smoke On The Water’. It turned out that the schoolboy had an uncanny knack for playing by ear and quite soon he was in demand; to play guitar in a covers band that played songs by The Who and The Stones. It wasn’t long before he became aware of nearby Washington DC’s hardcore scene and when local punks heard of his guitar skills he was asked to join Freak Baby.

It was at this time he decided he wanted to be a drummer. Now he didn’t have a drum kit at home, so he improvised by bashing pillows in his room with a mighty force so he could hear a beat as he played along to the radio. And it was this ‘everything louder than everything else’ attitude that led to the current armour piercing sound he is famous for today. After several other hardcore bands (including the improbably named Dain Bramage) he called up Virginian post punk legends Scream and managed to persuade them to let him audition. He had to lie to the band telling him he was twenty rather than 17 as he didn’t want them to know he had been expelled from school for being "so stoned I didn’t know what I was studying".

As with nearly every other aspect of his life, he is disarmingly open about drugs and admits: "One of the hardest lessons in life I’ve learnt is the one about drugs. I quit doing drugs when I was 20 and I’m 39 now. I didn’t damage myself but I stopped because it was starting to freak me out a little." And when he adds: "But I’ve seen too many other people learn about drugs the long and hard way." You don’t need to be a genius to work out who he is talking about. Of course, he is still a rock and roll guy and when we ask him what his poison is now, he grins, runs his hands through his mop lazily and says: "My thing these days is whisky. I’m a Crown Royal guy. It’s a Canadian blend which is pretty fucking sweet. It goes down great with a little bit of coke but just a couple of ice cubes is fine by me. It comes in a killer purple, felt bag. Pantera got me into it."

But as well as the uptight punk music that would inform both Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, Grohl was also deeply into another form of music that would shape his entire career: heavy metal. From the punishing dynamics of Corrosion of Conformity to the ‘none more black’, heavier than a skip full of canon balls riffage of Slayer, he would finally get to pay respect to his metal heritage with 2003’s Probot side project.

He is keen to stress that his metal credentials are impeccable and go much deeper than a bit of casual reminiscence and says: "Well I always liked bands with a harder edge when I was younger. Bands like DRI and Corrosion of Conformity had a harder edge to them. Dave Lombardo from Slayer was a fucking hero man - a fucking champion and I was inspired by this band and their music so I grew up a fucking pot head, Motorhead, punk kid. It is when I meet people like Lemmy from Motorhead that I really go ‘Yes!’ And when he agreed to do Probot with me I was amazed. He’s a fucking champion - he’s a hero and he walks it like he talks it. I realised that I’d never met a real rock and roller until I met Lemmy recently. And I don’t think I’ll meet anyone like him ever again. He was walking round drinking JD and coke and smoking Marlboro red. And it was fucking noon. It was great."

After a few minutes discussing the heaviest records we can think of including Gluey Porch Treatment by Nightmare Before Christmas curators, The Melvins ("That is a heavy fucking record") and Roots by Sepultura ("It’s a fucking crazy record sonically – nothing like that had ever been done before with all that Brazilian drumming"), it occurs to us to ask if everyone in Nirvana felt the same way about this sort of music. He declares: "Kurt and Kris loved Celtic Frost as well as me. It’s weird because people only really know Nirvana from 1991 onwards. Nobody realises that the people who made ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ were totally into Flipper and the Butthole Surfers. That was the music we grew up with and it didn’t necessarily surface in Nirvana’s music but the spirit of it was there. We all grew up listening to the same music. It was one of the first conversations that I had with Kurt and from Celtic Frost to Neil Young to Public Enemy, we all loved the same music."

But it was with Scream that Grohl really learned his chops; living on next to no money; lugging gear round the world on "ball-busting" trips and sleeping on various floors. It was after returning from one of these immense jaunts round the globe, one half of the band found eviction notices in their mail and decided it was time to quit. For Grohl, this would turn out to be great news indeed. After being tipped off by a mutual friend, Buzz Osborne of Seattle grunge legends, The Melvins, he applied to be the drummer of Nirvana.

Now he is in an enviable position. Foo Fighters are a gigantic live draw and as a drummer he has never been in more demand. Over the last few years he has provided his services to Nine Inch Nails, Killing Joke, Cat Power, Queens of the Stoneage and Garbage amongst others. Out of all these, groups his work on Killing Joke's eponymous album is the most impressive. Gargantuan tribal rhythms underpin the veteran UK post punk group’s best work in nearly twenty years. He agrees earnestly and says: "It was great working with them, it really came together. Nirvana had a song called ‘Come As You Are’ and the riff was pretty similar to this Killing Joke song called ‘Eighties’. It was pretty close. They were sort of pissed and there was potential litigation but it never came to that. But you know it was 14 or 15 years ago and I totally forgot about it. The first night I met Jaz (Coleman, singer, Killing Joke) it was in New Zealand and we went out and got fucking trashed. I was sitting in a hotel bar thinking I’ve seen photos of him but not for years and I was wondering if I was going to recognise him. In comes Jaz in a fucking priest’s outfit. We sat at the bar and got fucked up and talked about UFOs, the oil conspiracy and the World Bank. It was fucking amazing. We walked to another bar and I had to stop him from getting into fist fights the whole way. He was in traffic screaming at cars 'George Bush is a fucking murderer.' It was amazing but then someone mentioned the ‘Come As You Are’ thing and he just went for my throat. I had to run off down the road. But someone calmed him down and we ended up laughing about it. Eventually."

We often feel like congratulating ourselves if we can manage to get out of bed during the hours of daylight and this causes us to wonder how Dave manages to be in so many bands at once. He says: "Well, I don’t really consider what I do a job. It’s not like I’m going to do this for twenty years and then move to Hawaii. I feel like I’m on vacation all the time. At the moment I’m focusing on the Pro-Tools system. I’m not going to make a Ministry record or a house record or anything. When I’m in the studio, I prefer to work with musicians who know what they’re doing and don’t need a computer to edit what they’re doing. But I want to stay current. I don’t want to be that 45 year old guy in the studio who’s like ‘What the hell’s that? What the hell does that do?’"

But of course we’re lucky to have the Foo Fighters at all really. Grohl was still relatively young at the age of 25 to have to deal with that height of fame and then his friend’s suicide. He sighs and says: "I was really guarded and journalists were warned ‘Just be cool’. Every once in a while you’d get that rogue fucking journalist that wanted to please the editor by saying: ‘How did you feel when Kurt died?’ I remember I was in France – at that point it was really only a year or so since he’d been gone – and I remember saying: ‘Imagine if one of your good friends killed himself and I’ve just met you. I wouldn’t ask you about that. That’s rude. And then go and tell everybody. That’s even worse. So get the fuck out of here.’ Mind you this was 10 years ago. Now I can sit down and tell people how I felt. It doesn’t bother me any more. After Nirvana, I wasn’t really sure what to do. I was asked to join a couple of other bands as the drummer, but I just couldn’t imagine doing that because it would just remind me of being in Nirvana; every time I sat down at a drum set, I would think of that. And other people would think of that as well. I thought, what do I do? Do I even play music any more? I don’t know. Maybe that was it. Maybe it’s time to do something else. Maybe real life starts now. Because at that point I had been touring in bands since I was 18 and I’d seen the world and got to be in this huge band."

As always, the allotted half an hour or so seems to grind to a halt really quickly but we’ve still got time to ask him out of all the songs he has played on which is he likes the most, prompting the answer: "I’m very proud of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ because it touched so many people. Even though it became this cartoonish, gen-x anthem that spread around the world like fucking ebola. But when we first played it in front of 300 people at the OK Hotel, the place went off. And that was amazing."