All His Life

Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl is always between rock and a hard place

Dave Grohl didn't intend to fill a niche. Not really. When he released his first album as the Foo Fighters in 1995--a self-titled disc he calls "a demo tape that one person recorded in, like, five days"--he wasn't applying for the job his old bandmate Kurt Cobain had tragically retired from a year earlier: Serious Rock Musician with Heavy Things to Say about Life Who's Not So Serious that He Can't Enjoy a Good Laugh, and Oh, He Can Write a Nice Melody, Too. Foo Fighters was just something to make for fun while Grohl figured out where to turn after Nirvana, and it sounded like it, a home-recorded blast of rough-edged power-pop that suggested Grohl had been disguising a sweet side behind his controlled drum-kit fury. (And it also trounced that still-mind-boggling Sweet 75 album as Best Post-In Utero Endeavor by a Former Member of Nirvana.)

Yet by the Foos' second album, 1997's The Colour and the Shape, Grohl's ambition had begun to shine through the cracks of his increasingly substantial songwriting. For one thing, he actually assembled a band, hiring Sunny Day Real Estate agents Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith and ex-Germs (and occasional Nirvana) guitarist Pat Smear to help lift his music out of his cozy home studio and the band out of its questionable side-project status. On the phone from L.A., where he now spends most of his non-touring time, Grohl explains that that was crucial.

"One of the reasons why we put out the second record so quickly was because we didn't want people to think that it was a side project," he says. "I was really pretty careful with everything on the first album. I didn't wanna just jump out and make videos right off the bat. Then [after forming the live band] we jumped in the van and started doing some touring before we let the whole thing go. We tried to hold it back as long as we could."

"I just can't stop," Dave Grohl, left, says. "But that's good, right?"
"I just can't stop," Dave Grohl, left, says. "But that's good, right?"

Once freed from self-imposed constraints, the band quickly began to grow into itself. As an alt-rock record, Colour is about as slick as they come, but there's also a clear-headed gravitas to it that late-'90s rock fans weren't getting from the Offspring and were only getting in a lamebrain version from Bush; take another listen to "Everlong" and check out how much bristly post-punk tension Grohl fits into such a pretty melody. Before the recording of Colour's follow-up, '99's There Is Nothing Left to Lose, the band experienced one of its frequent lineup shuffles: Smear departed and was replaced by Scream/Wool guitarist Franz Stahl (who later left and was replaced by No Use for a Name member Chris Shiflett), and Goldsmith made room for current drummer Taylor Hawkins. Nothing suffers for the instability--nice singles, but as an hour a little bland.

No such problems on the recent One By One. It's the band's best work yet, a tight wad of pummeling guitar roar and Hawkins' faux-Grohl drumming that's balanced by neatly defined melodies and Heavy Things to Say about Life. If you've had issues with the Foo Fighters before, the disc dissolves them: no power-pop flippancy, not much studio gloss, no boring tunes. Still, tell Grohl that you've taken a good look around and decided that in the commercial rock mainstream he's pretty much alone in representing for folks who identify with serious guitar music and he'll try to rationalize his way out of it.

"To me the sweetest songs aren't the ones that are made by fucking cute kids with pierced eyebrows," he says. "They're a little more emotionally twisted than that. Bands like Hüsker Dü or bands like Rites of Spring or bands that have this raw, emotional rock music--that always touched me the most. Having grown up listening to the '80s kind of post-hardcore college rock--or whatever the fuck you wanna call it--that stuff had a really big influence on me, whether it's made with an acoustic guitar or made with a fucking lousy rock band."

He remembers back to his days in the mid-'80s Washington, D.C., hardcore scene, when he drummed with the Dischord Records outfit Scream--a place and a time that's come to be known as emo's ground zero. "A lot of the music in the punk rock scene had lost any relevance or any meaning. There were bands that were still ultra-political, like MDC or Dead Kennedys, but for the most part music was lacking something. So you had Rites of Spring and Embrace, where the emotional quality of the music was on 10. These bands were writing songs that were truly overly emotional, and it was a fucking trip. A lot of them just kind of reminded you of Hüsker Dü, but for the most part you'd never seen anything like it. Going to a show and afterwards half of the audience is in tears--what the fuck is that all about?" He laughs.

"At first it was kind of funny, but you know what? It's infectious. You get in there and the emotions start working on you. It was a whole other side of music: 'Wow, emotion in music! Holy fuck!' And I was, like, 15, so to me music was just about taking acid and getting laid and being death metal."

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