As Foo Fighters get ready to rock Dublin, Ed Power traces Dave Grohl’s journey from the wreckage of Nirvana to fronting another of the biggest rock bands on the planet. It’s a tale that also has a surprising Irish twist
A few years ago David Grohl looked me in the eyes and laid it out all out. “I’ve been navigating in and around the shadow of Nirvana,” he said. “When Foo Fighters first started as a band, I didn’t want to talk about Nirvana because Kurt had just died and it was hard for me to talk about it without getting really upset. Then, as time went by, it was easier to talk about. But there was more to talk about with the Foo Fighters.”
Grohl was at the time promoting Foo Fighter’s seventh studio album Wasting Light. It was a fraught record for a musician who, regardless of subsequent accomplishments, will be forever synonymous with Nirvana, the grunge icons for whom he manned the drum-kit until their tragic 1994 demise. In 2011, as he prepared to put out Wasting Light, the 20th anniversary of his previous group’s breakout LP, Nevermind, was approaching.
He had chosen to confront the occasion head-on. For the first time since the suicide of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, Grohl was speaking openly about his past. More than that, he had also reunited with Butch Vig, producer of Nevermind. And he had recorded a song with Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bass player.
“Nirvana… was a whirlwind,” he told me on another occasion.
Grohl, who brings Foo Fighters to Dublin’s RDS tomorrow night, is proof that in rock music there is such a thing as a second act. Nirvana were lightening trapped in a bottle. Yet, after Cobain shot himself in his Seattle mansion Grohl pressed reset and became a global rock star all over again. What had changed was that, as Foo Fighters’ frontman rather than drummer, this time he was the one in the driving seat.
One surprise is the role Ireland played in the story. After Cobain’s death, there was no question of continuing Nirvana. Shattered, Grohl knew he needed to be as distant as possible from the music industry. He got on a plane and flew to Ireland.
His mother’s side of the family has Irish roots. That wasn’t really what brought him here in late 1994 (some three years on from playing Sir Henry’s in Cork and the Top Hat in Dun Laoghaire with Nirvana). He just wanted to go to the ends of the Earth and get the tragic demise of his band out of his head.
Of course no sooner had he arrived and was driving through Kerry than he spotted a hitch-hiker. He pulled over. The kid was wearing a Nirvana t-shirt.
It was a reminder that Ireland in 1994 wasn’t quite as off the beaten track as Grohl may have suspected. And also that, no matter where he went, what he did, there was no escaping his past. With the holiday over, he had reached a decision.
Nirvana was over. His life in music was not.
Grohl had written songs prior to joining Nirvana. In 1992, still drumming with Washington DC hardcore band Scream, he had released a 10-track cassette solo album under the moniker Late!. One of those songs, the wispy, woozy ‘Colour Pictures of a Marigold’, had been re-recorded by Nirvana as ‘Marigold’ (with Cobain on backing vocals). In August 1993 the band put it out as the B-side to ‘Heart Shaped Box’.
Now, having returned from Ireland, Grohl went back to these DIY roots. He booked time at Robert Lang Studios north of Seattle. It was where Nirvana had recorded their final song ‘You Know You’re Right’ .
Surrounded by ghosts of the past, Grohl looked to the future. He set down on tape 15 of 40 tracks he’d had knocking around. He put out the the songs, choosing, on a whim, to name his project Foo Fighters — World War II slang for unidentified flying objects. Grohl didn’t want anyone to know it was the work of one of the guys from Nirvana. He simply felt the need to put it out in the world.
In the dim and distant mid-1990s, however, a hot demo tape could still attract record label interest. Which Foo Fighters duly did. Capitol Records was first out of the traps, striking a deal to release the recordings. In July 1995, a little over a year from Cobain’s suicide, Foo Fighters hit record stores. Grohl’s state of mind at the time could be gleaned from I’ll Stick Around, the album’s second single. “I’ll stick around I’ll stick around,” he sings.
He wasn’t going anywhere.
Foo Fighters was a surprise hit. To this day, it’s the band’s second best selling album in the US. It went top five there and across Europe. A shocked Grohl was fielding offers from live promoters. So he roped in Nirvana’s second guitarist Pat Smear (a Foo Fighter to this day) and members of Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate. Foo Fighters had gone from coping mechanism to actual band.
To say Grohl hasn’t looked back since would be an exaggeration. No project can endure for more than 20 years without picking up a few knocks. Foo Fighters have survived several line-up upheavals. After one particularly unpleasant disagreement with his bandmates, Grohl moved back in with his mother in suburban Washington DC. He was convinced Foo Fighters were done.
Even the glory days could be difficult. When I spoke to him for Hot Press two years ago, conversation turned to Foo Fighters’s widely acknowledged masterpiece, 1997’s The Colour and the Shape. It yielded favourites such as ‘Everlong, Monkey’ ‘Wrench’ and ‘My Hero’, all of which the Foos are expected to play at the RDS. Yet Grohl painted a gruelling picture of its gestation.
“I remember making that record while not having a place to live. I was sleeping in my friend’s back room in a sleeping bag. His dog would come in and piss on the sleeping bag every night… It was total chaos,” he said.
Still album followed album. One day Grohl woke up to find he was no longer sharing a mattress with a dog but fronting one of the world’s biggest bands. And though critics will always reserve their deepest awe for Nirvana, commercially the Foos have long since brought it to another level. Slane Castle, Wembley, festival headliners around the world — they’ve ticked every box on every bucket list.
In their journey from cult stardom to bells and hooters, ‘Hello Wembley’ stardom it’s arguable that the secret component was the recruitment of drummer Taylor Hawkins in 1997. Where Grohl is all indie sincerity, LA-raised Hawkins brings Sunset Strip rock’n’roll swagger.
He toured stadiums with Alanis Morissette prior to signing up to the Foos and did not share the rest of the group’s instinctive wariness of success.
As Grohl’s lieutenant he helped the Foos cast aside their alt.rock comfort blanket and become proper, preening rock stars.
He certainly isn’t obsessed with authenticity, as indie musicians typically are.
Nor is Hawkins inclined to keep his thoughts to himself or go quietly into the night. He is a large-living rocker of the old school.
Not everyone approves of Grohl’s progress from darkness to light. A decent percentage of Nirvana fans would happily never listen to Foo Fighters again in their lives. But for Grohl the band represent a necessary journey.
Whatever else happened with the Foos, it will always be about rock’n’roll. Not about death, scorched emotions or guilt about “selling out”.
Grohl has already had more than enough of that. “Yeah, we’re selling out stadiums,” he told me in 2011. “Put us in a room we’re the same f**king band we were in 1995. Guilt kills people. It’s not f**king cool. Don’t get me started on guilt.”
- Foo Fighters play RDS Dublin tomorrow