Life, death and rock 'n' Grohl

Dave Grohl looks back on 20 years of playing music and talks about the birth of his daughter, the trapped Beaconsfield Miners and why Neil Young is his hero.

You can snapshot a point in most significant bands’ careers where they play so far above their own abilities and beyond their own limitations, they’re almost unrecognisable. Actors call it being in the moment. Athletes call it the zone. Kerouac called it ‘the click’.

It went largely unremarked upon in the music press, but for this viewer, the moment Foo Fighters made the leap was during their Live Earth set earlier this summer. As ‘All My Life’ gave way to powerhouse versions of ‘Times Like These’, ‘My Hero’ and ‘Everlong’, it became apparent that the quartet had elevated themselves from stalwart festival presence to full-on rock monster capable of creaming the competition, even if that competition included Metallica and Madonna.

“Well, we had to go on after the Pussycat Dolls, so we wanted to make sure we were in top form,” Dave Grohl quips on a beautiful morning in LA. In previous encounters Grohl has tended to avoid the confessional, preferring to dazzle and distract with a stream of jokes and anecdotes. Today, for whatever reason, he seems in a more reflective mood than usual.

“We only had to play five fuckin’ songs,” he continues, “but we were a little confused with the line up: ‘Wait, so we’re going on after the Chili Peppers and Metallica? How the fuck is that supposed to happen?!!”

Nevertheless, it looked like the band had consciously concocted a Queen-at-Live-Aid show-stealing strategy.

“Well, y’know, I had this conversation with Roger Taylor a couple of days before,” he admits. “We played this little club in London called Dingwalls, we just wanted to warm up for the Live Earth thing. So we did a couple of hours and drank a bunch and sweated it out, and afterwards I said to Roger Taylor, ‘So, uh, how big is Wembley?’ and he’s like, ‘Ooooh, it’s fuckin’ huge!’ And when someone from Queen says the place is fuckin’ huge, that means it’s fuckin’ huuuuge! And I said, ‘Hey, so when you guys did Live Aid, how long did you play for?’ And he said, ‘18 minutes’ or something. And I said, ‘How many songs did you play?’ And I know they did, like, a medley, but it was fuckin’ eight songs! They squeezed all that in. And I realised that Queen, being one of the greatest live bands of all time, had the ability to shrink somewhere like Wembley stadium into a club like Dingwalls, and it was just because Freddie could collapse that venue and he had everyone in the palm of his hand. And it really just comes down to breaking that barrier from the stage to the audience and making everyone feel involved. When we go to play live, it’s important to me that we’re all connected in that way, y’know? I don’t wanna do some crazy feedback-loop-prog shit that’s gonna make everyone sit there and scratch their heads. It’s like having a toast over and over and over again.”

The band have more to toast this month with the release of their sixth studio album Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, reviewed last issue. Any significance in the – unusually for the Foos – elegiac title?

“Well,” Grohl says, “it was tough to name this album. I don’t understand how bands can name an album before they’ve even recorded it, because there should be some mystery in the album-making process. And for an album like this, which was kind of diverse, it was hard to nail it down with one tag. We pieced through all of the lyrics and spent a couple of weeks trying to figure it out and we had a little board up on the wall of the studio free for anyone to give suggestions – that just turned into a fuckin’ joke! There were some good ones: The One With That Song On It, that’s what we were gonna call it.

“But there’s a line in the song ‘Home’, which is my favourite on the album, that says, “Echoes, silence, patience and grace/And all of these moments I’ll never replace/No fear in my heart/No absence of faith”. And y’know, it was, for lack of a better word, poetic. Most of our album titles have been really kind of direct, One By One or There’s Nothing Left To Lose or In Your Honor, and this one, it just seemed beautiful, and I consider the album to be really beautiful in its dissonance and in its volume and also in its subtlety and delicate moments. It’s meant to represent some sort of diversity, and I think that every one of those elements makes its way into the record some way or another. We’re very proud of it.”

If In Your Honor was conceptualised as a magnum opus divided into separate electric and acoustic entities, the follow up is also split into distinct acts, the second being something of a departure from the norm. The subtler moments on the record were, Grohl admits, in part facilitated by the Skin & Bones live acoustic album, which came about after the Foos were invited to tour with Bob Dylan. Feeling that a full-bore electric show might be inappropriate (although Dylan was game) the band put together an unplugged set that showcased Grohl’s songs in a surprisingly sophisticated light.

“Ever since The Colour And The Shape we’ve had moments of acoustic music,” he says, “and you plant those little seeds and it’s gotten to the point now where it’s in bloom and we can step into a theatre and do two and a half hours of that, and it feels great. And that tour definitely was a huge inspiration for this album too, just the layers of instrumentation. That was a big deal, because we did theatres, and then we went on tour with Dylan in arenas, fuckin’ 16,000 people a night.

“I couldn’t imagine this stuff translating in that environment, because we’d been relying on these really powerful pindrop silent moments in theatres. And when we stepped out on stage for that first (Dylan) show, I’d say maybe 10% of the people in those arenas were Foo Fighters fans, and then maybe another 20% had heard of us, but that other 70%? They were there for fuckin’ Dylan, and they couldn’t give a shit who we were. And every night we walked offstage with standing ovations, and that was the best feeling, like, ‘Fuck man, we’re a new band again.’

“You know, evolution is a key factor in this band’s longevity,” he continues. “It’s been 13 years now, and you look at the first album, it’s this screaming kicking baby that you chase around the room trying to get hold of, and then the second album is kind of a child going through some sort of adolescence, and then on the third album you discover independence, the fourth album is that difficult period where you’re not sure exactly who you are, and then the fifth album is the one where you think you know everything and then realise you don’t.

“But this album has a sense of confidence that we’ve never had before. I didn’t know what we were going to do after In Your Honor, I hadn’t the slightest idea. And when it came time to make this album, what I thought was going to be this incredible freedom became this incredible mystery, so that in writing these new songs, I had no fuckin’ clue what they were going to be about; there were pianos and country songs and thrash-metal songs and everything in between. And then I just realised, ‘We shouldn’t have any specific dynamic in mind, we should just write music.’ That’s when I realised we’d finally gotten to the place I’ve always wanted to be. And that was fuckin’ great.”

The two songs that represent this musical emancipation in extremis are ‘Statues’ and ‘Home’, which co-opt influences as unlikely as Todd Rundgren, Paul McCartney and Neil Young. Plus, the lyrics are clearer and more coherent than before.

“Well, you know, for this album I sat in a room in the back of the studio for about two weeks,” Grohl recalls, “I wanted to demo lyrics before beginning the record. That’s something I’ve never really done before, because I’ve always been afraid if it, y’know? It’s a funny thing, having to write your innermost personal thoughts and put em on a fuckin’ CD package that millions of people are gonna read, that’s not necessarily the kind of guy I am. But this time I sat in the back of the studio and just wrote every day for about 14 hours a day. And I think that confidence I was talking about helped me with that, because I used to be afraid to say anything too revealing or anything too personal, it put a lot of roadblocks and speed bumps in those songs. I’d almost get to the point. This time I wasn’t afraid to do that.”

Presumably becoming a father had a lot to do with that?

“Oh absolutely, yeah. I mean, anyone that has a child knows that age old cliché is true, that everything changes when you have a baby. If I had a fuckin’ nickel for every jackass that said that to me before I had a kid, I just kept hearing it over and over and over again, and y’know, you consider the logistics, changing diapers 20 times a day…I wasn’t worried about the lack of sleep ’cos I’ve been jet-lagged for 20 years, so that’s totally fine, but what I didn’t consider was the emotional impact that it has on a person.”

It’s certainly funny that such tiny creatures can make a grown man feel so raw. You think they’ll turn you into an overprotective chainsaw-wielding maniac, but really they just reduce you to emotional pulp.

“This is true. I mean, just when I thought I’d felt love at its deepest, just when I thought I’d seen the world at its brightest, Violet was born, and I realised that I’d been standing on the tip of this iceberg, and that everything was so much better than I ever imagined. And also, y’know, I’ve handled some responsibility in life, but realising that it’s my responsibility to provide for and protect my daughter and help her survive just made me feel stronger in a lot of ways. Things that I’d been afraid of before, phobias I’ve had, just melted away because there’s nothing more important to me than her, so all of the little worries and fears that I had before, I just let go of, because I feel like nothing can stop me now. I don’t know, I just feel like a fucking Viking when I’m with my daughter, she makes me feel like… it’s hard to put into words, but I think that all of the reservations or fears that I had musically disappeared when she was born.”

I’m reminded of one of Dermod Moore’s Bootboy columns, in which he maintained that children are good for men because the responsibility keeps them from devouring themselves. It’s why so many fathers go into a spiral if they experience an acrimonious divorce and are not allowed to see their children.

The other thing is, when people blather on about the gang mentality of a band being incompatible with domestic responsibility, the argument can be silenced with two words: Neil Young.

‘Y’know, it’s a funny thing,” Grohl considers, “when I was young, I loved buying records and listening to music. I had my Beatles songbook and I had my Beatles albums and I had my Silvertone guitar with the amp and the case, and I would sit down and play along with all of these songs, not because I wanted to be in The Beatles or because I wanted to be a rock star, it was just my favourite thing in life – to sit down and play my guitar with this music. And then inevitably I had a Kiss poster and started getting into this fantasy world that was rock ‘n’ roll.

“But then once I started playing in neighbourhood bands, I discovered underground punk rock and hardcore really kind of early when I was about 12 or 13, and y’know, that whole scene was very basement and garage and do-it-yourself, and there wasn’t any sort of career aspiration, it was purely out of passion and the love of doing something that was your own. So that really was sort of the foundation of everything that I’ve done since.

“Even when I joined Nirvana, there really wasn’t any career aspiration, it was just playing music with friends and travelling around in a van and doing shows, it was just a part of life. And I’ve always felt that way. And since it’s been almost 20 years that I’ve been doing this, rather than being my career, it’s a part of my life, I’ve been doing it so long. And so it doesn’t seem like there should be any imbalance between that and what happens at home; that’s as much a part of my everyday normal life as my home life is.

“And someone like Neil Young, who is one of my heroes personally, I mean, as a man he’s a hero to me, because you look at this timeline that he’s played, he’s made amazing music, he has a beautiful family, you know, the love for his family overshadows everything, and that’s what inspires him to make music I’m sure. He has a beautiful home, a beautiful wife, beautiful children, and he makes beautiful music still, and I think it’s the balance of what he does at home and what he does when he has a guitar in his hand that has maintained his longevity.”

Didn’t Foo Fighters play The Bridge benefit?

“Yeah, we played a couple of those. I mean, it’s amazing. You get there… have you ever been to one of those, Peter?”

Never had the pleasure.

“Oh, you have to go. I swear. It’ll change your life, I’m not joking. You get there, and all the bullshit is stripped away, all the surface crap that you’ve grown accustomed to dealing with in the music industry, it’s not there. You’re there for those children, and those children need you (Proceeds from The Bridge shows go towards the development of technologies to help children with disabilities).

“This isn’t some party that Neil throws for his friends, this is something that Neil does for his son, and to experience that basic and pure love totally changes everything. It’s one of the greatest experiences. Not to mention, the night before the first show he has a barbecue at his house. I mean, that is something to experience, ’cos it’s not like showing up to MC Hammer’s fucking mansion with a thousand people and a DJ. It’s this house in the woods, and the front door’s open, and you walk in and Peg’s in the kitchen making the food and David Crosby’s smoking a joint by the fireplace, and it’s the real deal.

“And for someone that’s considered a legend, to walk into their world and realise that it’s so grounded and beautiful and natural, it gives you hope and faith that real music is still there and made for the real reasons. When we came back from that, I was totally inspired, like, ‘Wow man, I think I could probably make music for the rest of my life as long as I do it on my own terms, at my own pace.’ It seems like that’s what he’s managed to do.”

The other thing you can learn from Neil Young is that old man anger is three times scarier than 20-year-old anger.

“Oh-ho yeah! Hell hath no fury like an old man scorned!”

The subject of music being more important than life or death brings us to the story behind the instrumental track on Echoes…, ‘The Ballad Of The Beaconsfield Miners’, dedicated to two men who were trapped for a fortnight in a collapsed gold mine in the town of Beaconsfield, Northern Tasmania, April 2006. When Grohl heard of the miners’ request to have the Foo Fighters’ music sent down on Mp3 players, he issued a message via fax. It said, “Though I’m halfway around the world right now, my heart is with you both, and I want you to know that when you come home, there’s two tickets to any Foos show, anywhere, and two cold beers waiting for you. Deal?” (One of the miners took him up on the offer after a show at the Sydney Opera House last October.)

For Grohl’s songs to have had such a fundamental resonance still gives him pause for thought. Indeed, one can’t hear the story without remembering Luke Kelly’s version of ‘Springhill Mine Disaster’, with it’s lines: “We’ve no more water or light or bread/So we’ll live on songs and hope instead.”

“Music has obviously had a profound impact on my life over the years,” he says, “but to consider something that I’ve done to have that same impact, that power, is strange, personally. I don’t think about it that way. But when I heard about the Beaconsfield guys, someone sent me an email from Australia and told me what was going on, I mean the back story is incredible, but these guys are good guys, y’know? And they made it through a situation like that because they’re good guys. So I was honoured to be able to put that song on the record.

“And that was a huge moment for me because for once… it was really the first time that I felt like what we do is maybe bigger than pyrotechnics and lasers and beers backstage. It felt like what we do had been legitimised. I was really touched, I was very moved, and I wanted to pay tribute to or honour these guys for giving me something that no one else has ever given me before.”b

Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace is out now on Sony/BMG


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