So Happy Together: Dave Grohl Finds Nirvana in the Foo Fighters
Three years since Nirvana's glorious run came to its catastrophic end, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters may finally be free of the ghosts and expectations that followed.
Forget Dolly the Sheep: Hawkins seems like he’s a clone of Grohl, only three years younger. With his mop of dirty-blond hair and goatee, Hawkins is looking kind of Skeet-like himself, and he’s as skinny, antic, and hyperkinetic as Dave, maybe even more so. “I can’t wait to go on tour so I can see if Taylor ever sleeps,” laughs Grohl. Besides the ability to play like John Bonham, Stephen Perkins, or his idol, Stewart Copeland, Hawkins brings his own, surfer-influenced dialect to the Foo mix: a sample glossary includes “winger” (complainer), “Hessian” (hick, redneck, unsophisticated, burnout), and “flobe” (“when you fuck something up,” says Hawkins, “like, if you’ve floundered, you’re a flobe”). “He’s the whitest Southern California surf kid I know,” opines Smear.
Hailing from Laguna Beach, about 50 miles south of L.A. in Orange County, Hawkins just spent a year and nine months of constant touring in Morissette’s backing band, which offered excellent preparation for the Foos’ six hours of nightly rehearsal overseen by General Grohl. “You have to be an athlete to play these drum parts,” says Hawkins. “I play really hard, and that’s the key to playing drums for Dave Grohl—you’ve got to beat the shit out of the drums.”
Grohl himself got a late start at his brutal, ferocious thudding, since he never owned a drum set as a child; his family couldn’t afford one. He didn’t get his own kit until he was in his third band, couldn’t figure out how to build the high hat stand until he was in the Washington, D.C. hardcore outfit Scream, and still can’t tune his drums. Grohl learned to play drums on his bed in the D.C. suburb of Springfield, Virginia, using a chair as the high hat, a pillow on the floor as the snare, and the bed as the toms, hammering along with fat, heavy marching sticks to such high-velocity fare as Minor Threat and the Bad Brains on the Fairfax County Public Schools-issue record player that his single mom brought home from her job as an English teacher. “That’s why I started hitting the drums so hard,” explains Grohl, “playing on pillows, pushing down and pulling up with these fucking bats listening to ‘Violent Pacification’ by D.R.I. I’d do that until the windows in my bedroom were dripping with condensation from the sweat in the room. It was like a workout tape.”
In high school, Dave played in a series of groups—Freak Baby, Mission Impossible, and Dain Bramage—performing on bills with bands like Minor Threat, Trouble Funk, and the Melvins before getting the chance to become a member of Scream, one of his absolute favorites. It wasn’t long before Grohl dropped out at 17 to tour full-time, and he remained with Scream until they broke up in July 1990. In the process, Grohl learned the fine art of stretching $7 a day on tour to cover food, cigarettes, and pot. “It was the best education,” says Grohl. “If you were to sit me down in a classroom, with fluorescent lights humming and some woman trying to teach me Italian, there’s no way. But Scream goes to Italy, we stay in a squat, and the only way you can ask someone where to take a piss is to do it in Italian. So I learned Italian.”
When Scream’s bassist bailed on them in L.A., leaving them stranded and broke, Dave called the Melvins’ Buzz Osborne, who brokered Grohl’s move to Seattle in September 1990 to join Nirvana. Although Grohl had been writing songs, there wasn’t much opportunity to use them in his new band. “When you’re in a band like Nirvana and the songwriter is someone like Kurt, you try to step back and not pollute the process. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.”
Despite being at the helm of the Foos’ success, Grohl acknowledges that “I’ll probably be forever known as ‘that guy who played drums in Nirvana.’ You can think of it two ways: Like the kid who was caught masturbating in the bathroom in high school and for the rest of his high school career he was the kid who was caught masturbating in the bathroom no matter what he did. Or you can be proud of it. And I’m proud of it. I am.”
It’s a few weeks after what would have been Cobain’s 30th birthday, and a few weeks before the third anniversary of his death. So despite Grohl’s demonstrated reticence, later that evening, as we continue our discussion at the hotel, I ask him how he planned to mark the upcoming milestone. “Believe me,” he sighs, “I realize that it’s the three-year anniversary.” He pulls at his mustache and averts his eyes from mine. I’m left staring at the tape recorder.
How often does Kurt cross your mind? I finally ask.
“Always. A lot. Daily. In dreams.”
When was the last time you thought of him?
“Six nights ago, in a dream,” he answers, his voice tinged with resignation. “It’s hard not to think about something that everybody wants to talk about all the time.”
Grohl lights up a cigarette, then runs his fingers along the tattoo of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham’s personal rune on his right forearm and gazes out into the cool California night.
“You’re dealt a hand,” he says finally, exhaling a puff of smoke, “and you just have to deal with it.”