The name of Dave Grohl’s new autobiography is The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, but it could have just as easily been titled There Goes My Hero, a line from a hit Foo Fighters song of his. The book is a soulful celebration of friends, family members, bandmates and an astonishing list of legendary musical acquaintances and collaborators. The Foo Fighters front man and former Nirvana drummer talked to The Globe and Mail about Kurt Cobain, Paul McCartney, keeping it real and the value of working well with others.
There’s a self-depreciative tone to your writing, calling yourself lucky on more than one occasion. Do you realize it’s not just luck? That there’s a reason a Paul McCartney or a Tom Petty wanted to work with you?
That realization came later. I always wanted to be a great drummer. I always wanted to be a fully formed musician. But that’s a lifelong quest. At some point I realized that I just do what I do. I’m not a great drummer and I’m not a fully formed musician. When people call me, they want me to do the thing that I do.
Which is what?
No one’s calling me to make a jazz-prog fusion record. They’re going to call me because they want a big kick drum, a big snare and a big drum roll before their chorus.
You’ve got a reputation as a nice guy. Maybe they want you for your vibe.
That probably has something to do with it. I tell my kids one of the most important things in life is to work well with others.
You write about Smells Like Teen Spirit. At what point did it hit you that that song was just going to go crazy?
We were rehearsing in small barn outside of Tacoma, Wash. We were experimenting with this dynamic where the verses were bit more subdued and quiet, and when the chorus came around we would explode. I don’t think anyone expected it would do what it did. We just thought, “Okay, there’s one more song in the bank we’re going to take down to Sound City in Los Angeles and record.” It wasn’t until we recorded it and heard the playback that we heard the power of it.
After Smells Like Teen Spirit and the album Nevermind were released in 1991, there was a riot at a show in Dallas. You write that you were surrounded, and that there was no way out, which seems like a metaphor for what you guys were going through in general.
That’s why I included that story. Not only to describe the chaos and that hurricane that hit so fast, but to explain how it felt emotionally. There was no escaping it. There was no slowing it down at the time.
Kurt Cobain said he wanted Nirvana to be the biggest band in the world. Is that a matter of being careful of what you wish for?
I don’t think any of us were ready for that level of fame or attention. It happened so quickly. There was a time when our only rescue or release was getting in our little van and speeding off to the next town, leaving these clubs destroyed in our wake. We were young, without the emotional skill set to navigate through it. Then again, I was just the drummer. I was the mop of hair in the background. Kurt definitely carried a lot of that weight on his shoulders.
After Kurt Cobain died by suicide in 1994, you formed Foo Fighters, which also became one the biggest rock bands in the world. Are you ambitious by nature?
The foundation of the Foo Fighters isn’t so much careerist as emotional. When Nirvana ended, I didn’t even want to listen to the radio. I put the instruments away. I couldn’t imagine joining another band. But music had been my best friend my entire life. Eventually I had this revelation that music would heal me again, and that maybe Foo Fighters was going to get me through this.
You mention a lot of interactions with musical legends and heroes of yours, from Paul McCartney to Iggy Pop to Little Richard to Joan Jett. It doesn’t come off as name-dropping, but were you wary of that?
Writing stories about the famous people I had incredible interactions with is meant to describe this out-of-body experience. Every time I meet one, I immediately tie it all together in a full circle of emotion. The first time I was face to face with Paul McCartney, I immediately flashed back to sitting on my bedroom floor learning Eight Days a Week as a kid. The thing about meeting your heroes or musicians you grew up loving, is that you’re reminded that life actually happened. You’re reminded that they’re human beings – that it really is flesh and blood.
We see you on stage with these guys and your joy is clear.
Listen, it’s easy to get distracted when it’s all lasers and smoke machines and explosions. But when you meet Little Richard, the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll, and you see he’s a real human being, it’s so reassuring. You think, oh my god, life is real.
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