The Tao of Foo

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Photo by Matthias Vriens
WRITTEN BY
Steve Almond

YOUR HOME SHOULD BE YOUR TEMPLE

Which is why, when Dave Grohl greets you at the front door to his Southern California hilltop mansion on this September afternoon, his initial gesture is not the party-on devil horns one might expect from a rock star who's been famous for 15 years, but an index finger pressed to his lips. "Sorry, dude," he whispers. "Nap time."

Rest assured, the person who calls the shots in Grohlville these days is Violet Maye, age 16 months. Grohl tiptoes through the kitchen and offers his wife, Jordyn, a hug. The loudest noise in the entire house is the hum of the AC.

There are no nannies nor servants about, no gold records nor vintage Strats. Not even a crumpled cigarette box on the marble countertop. The only visible sign that the man of the house isn't, say, a software magnate is tucked on a bookshelf: a photo of Grohl and Jordyn with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. Both Springsteen and Grohl wear the dumb, lucky grins of men who know the women on their arms are far more beautiful than they deserve.

It wasn't always this way. A decade ago, Grohl lived in a bachelor pad off Sunset. That life got old fast. "I finally understood how people move here and disappear and die," he notes dryly. He does owe the strip something, though: It was at the Sunset Marquis Whiskey Bar that he met Jordyn, then an MTV producer. When the pair got engaged and started looking for a home, the chief criterion was tranquility. They settled on this secluded 2.5-acre spread in Encino, which has all the rock-star amenities -- Harley in the driveway, pool, tennis court, hot tub -- but none of the rock-star vibe.

This is not to suggest that the famously frenetic Grohl has mellowed, exactly. With the Foos having just released their sixth studio album, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace -- a collection of 12 arena-ready screamers and acoustic curveballs that should only further cement the band's status as one of mainstream rock's last remaining sure things -- Grohl has been prepping for a major tour and doing the sort of breakneck promo work required to keep Foo, Inc. thriving at a moment when even sure things are mired in uncertainty.

But all of this takes place, for the most part, at the office -- 606, his studio/rehearsal space down below in the San Fernando Valley. (He can see the building from his driveway.) It's there you'll find the gold records and cigarette packs, along with an ever-expanding coterie of bandmates, roadies, techies, and managers.

"The key to longevity is balance," explains the 38-year-old drummer turned frontman. "And I love the band like a family. But I've realized that the most important thing is my life outside the band." He casts a glance around his quiet home and smiles. "Without this, everything else would fall apart."

ALL THAT GLITTERS IS NOT PLATINUM

The band's last studio record, 2005's In Your Honor, featured one rock and one acoustic disc. Echoes essentially distills the two approaches and is front-loaded with anthems designed to please the base, such as propulsive lead single "The Pretender." But further in, the songs reflect Grohl's growing sophistication as a songwriter. "Stranger Things Have Happened" is a minor-key lament whose most prominent rhythmic signature is the fuzzy tock of a metronome. That's to say nothing of the acoustic instrumental "Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners" Grohl recorded with guitar goddess Kaki King.

"For the longest time I was afraid to do anything but make loud distortion-melodic rock'n'roll," Grohl says. "But after a while, those parameters dissolve and you lose those insecurities, and you think, 'Man, I only have a short time here, and I wanna do as much as I can.' "

If that means an end to the Foos' streak of five consecutive million-selling albums, so be it. But don't bet against them.

DON'T BE AFRAID TO TALK SHIT

"I think maybe her greatest dump," Grohl says proudly, "was the one on the way up to Napa Valley. It was up the shirt, dude! It was in her armpits, all the way up to the neck, and it was in the car on a road trip that was five hours long. We had to pull over and basically throw her clothes away."

Bassist Nate Mendel, your turn: "Noah was constipated, and we gave him some prune juice in a sippy cup and then went out to eat. In the middle of the restaurant, the prune juice did its magic. And it just went everywhere. He had crap seeping out of his diaper as we carried him out of the restaurant."

Guitarist Chris Shiflett: "I changed one yesterday morning that was just fucking brutal. I mean, the kind where you change the diaper and he still smells like poo and you smell like poo and you can't get it off; it just sort of permeates."

The only Foo without a decent scat story is drummer Taylor Hawkins, known among his bandmates as the Hawk, who wants it noted for the record that his first child is only a month old and has already peed on him several times.

GHOSTS MAY HAUNT YOU IN MANNERS UNEXPECTED Dave Grohl still thinks about Kurt Cobain. Of course he does. You try playing drums for the most revered musician of our generation, knowing that half the people you meet are more interested in hearing about Saint Kurt than your new album.

Grohl was all of 25 when Cobain killed himself, and he's spent the 13 years since working feverishly to establish his own artistic identity. But that doesn't mean he can erase Cobain's memory. "This morning I watched this thing on YouTube of Kurt's home movies. He's hanging out with his family in a park, sitting by this stream as these little girls run around, and it broke my heart, because I knew when that was, and I knew that he wasn't necessarily happy at the time."

Grohl tells this story out on his deck, the burnt haze of another L.A. sunset ready to flare beneath him. A few feet away, Violet Maye is tottering around a barbecue grill, murmuring to herself, "Hot, hot."

Given that the new album boasts lyrics such as "Beautiful veins and bloodshot eyes / Why'd you have to go and let it die?" I ask him if he's addressing anybody in particular.

Grohl sighs. "Most people just assume that any song I've written about loss or death or anger is about Kurt or Courtney. But I've been surrounded by musicians for 20 fucking years; there's a lot of people that have gone that direction." Still, he can't seem to shake that YouTube image. "He couldn't fully experience the joy of life," he says softly. "And I'm at that point now where I can."

He appears dour for a moment. But then he looks over at Violet, busts out one of his famously toothy grins, and scoops her up. And it's at this point -- with Grohl and his daughter giggling madly, off to pursue some new adventure -- that it becomes clear why the ghost of Kurt Cobain has been skulking around of late. It has nothing to do with the burden of living up to his creative genius or even his loss as a friend. It's the simple and horrifying fact that Cobain was, at the time of his death, the father of a young girl almost exactly Violet's age.

SOMETIMES GROWING UP MEANS BEING A GIANT HYPOCRITE, AND THAT'S OKAY

Upstairs at Foo HQ, Mendel, 38, is waiting for a haircut and stewing. Today's big assignment is recording footage that will be shown at Wal-Marts nationwide, as well as bonus downloads that will be available with the new album exclusively at the retail giant's online store. "Everybody knows that the way Wal-Mart runs is bad for small businesses, small towns, bad for the working class." Mendel shakes his head. "I'm definitely conflicted about doing this thing."

Downstairs, Hawkins, 35, offers a more blunt assessment: "It's hard to sell records these days, man. Gotta suck some corporate cock."

Grohl's rationalizations are a bit more nuanced. Like Mendel, he cut his teeth in the hardcore punk scene of the '80s. "We both still feel like our inspiration is rooted in that. But it's kind of a different ball game now."

With music retailers going under left and right, Grohl knows that Wal-Mart is just about the only game in most towns. "Anything that has to do with promoting the music through a chain that will sell albums we kind of feel okay about," he says, sounding only half convinced. "I mean, we've had Ford come to us and say, 'We want "Times Like These" for this commercial,' and everybody's begging us: 'It'll be a million dollars! It'll be huge!' But that creeps me out."

Then there's the family to consider. The way he figures it, if working with Wal-Mart means 15,000 fans waiting for the band in Boise, Idaho, and the ability to tour with his wife and child comfortably, Grohl will live with a few pangs of punk-rock guilt. It's called selling out. Or growing up. You decide.

MINIVANS: NOT BAD, ACTUALLY

Chris Shiflett hates a lot of things about the San Fernando Valley: the broiling climate, the grueling commute. But at the moment, he's piqued by his inability to find a restaurant open on a Tuesday morning.

For the past ten minutes, he's been wheeling his hybrid SUV -- "I bought it so I can be a guilt-free fucking jerk and drive around L.A." -- through an endless maze of strip malls. He stops at a California Chicken Cafe. Closed. Baja Fresh. Closed. Delicious Bakery. Sorry. "We could go to Starbucks," Shiflett says finally, with an air of surrender. "They'll have a fucking muffin or something."

Shiflett, 36, whose bantam build and baby blues lend him a passing resemblance to Roger Daltrey, is hoping to slam some calories before a mandatory rehearsal at 11. "Right now we're in that weird place where we've made this new album and we don't know how to play it yet," he notes between bites of ham-and-egg sandwich. "I looked at the set list, and I'm like, 'Whoa. Don't know how to play that one or that one, and, oh, that one we don't have down either.' "

The pressure is magnified, in this case, because the Foos are slated to play a live set at MTV's Video Music Awards in four days that includes -- at Grohl's friendly insistence -- guest appearances by half the musicians he's ever played with and songs such as the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia."

This is actually the exciting part, Shiflett notes. "Is it a rush to play 'Learn to Fly' every night? Not really. It's fucking boring. But you have to play it, because that's what people who are paying money want to see."

When Shiflett joined the Foos eight years ago, he was a bachelor, thrilled at his sudden access to, well, let's call them the fringe benefits of stardom. Today, he's the ranking dad of the band, with four-year-old Liam and one-year-old Dashiell.

"There's never dull a moment at my house, believe me," he says. "Going on tour used to be like work...and coming home was like downtime. Now it's the exact opposite." Shiflett is even considering trading in the SUV for -- the very word seems to cause him physical pain -- a minivan.

But for the most part, he's made his peace with the rock star/daddy duality. There are, after all, points of overlap. "My oldest boy comes to shows. He's obsessed with rock music in general and Foo Fighters in particular," he says, adding with a grin: "He knows our new album better than I do."

DEMOCRACY IS OVERRATED

"When you have a clear-cut leader, especially one who's not a dick, it just makes things easier. We're not going to sit around and squabble for three days like little fucking high school chicks over a T-shirt design or a lyric or a tempo to a song. At the end of the day, Dave can say, 'Hey, this is it.' And it kind of keeps the peace, because when it comes to making art, there aren't many democracies."

So sayeth the Hawk, who, in addition to being the Undisputed Silliest Foo, is also the most candid.

Fresh from a ferocious rehearsal session for the VMAs, Hawkins is now ferociously attacking a chicken quesadilla and a mound of guacamole and holding forth on the Benign Dictatorship of Dave. "Everybody here is rich because of Dave, and he cuts people in on an artistic level, too. If I was just sitting there, with Dave saying, 'This is exactly the drum part you're playing,' I would bail."

Shiflett agrees: "It's annoying when you have everyone going, 'Come on, dudes, do mine!' That's exactly what breaks bands up."

And if they feel the need to write their own songs or play frontman? Hey, that's what side projects (like Taylor Hawkins & the Coattail Riders, Shiflett's Jackson United, and Mendel's the Fire Theft) are for.

SHARE YOUR BLESSINGS WITH THOSE IN NEED

As he approaches elder-statesman status, Grohl stops short of considering himself a mentor to younger bands. He prefers to think of himself as a friend -- with benefits. Upon first hearing My Morning Jacket, for example, he invited them out on tour, captivated by their Flying V's and their flying locks. "I wanna see a band go up there and bleed beer. I wanna see a band that isn't perfect, that doesn't sound like the album. Those are the bands I'm sticking up for," he says, four days after the VMAs. "It's disconcerting when you see someone who's supposed to be considered an artist lip-synch a routine in a bikini. That's not music. I don't know what the fuck that is."

And so Grohl remains (without exactly meaning to be) perpetually on the lookout for fresh beerlike blood. "There's a band here right now in the [606] studio from Detroit," he tells me excitedly. "They've been recording for the past two days -- and it sounds amazing, so I just asked them to come out on our fall tour." He pauses for a moment and then adds, under his breath, "I gotta get their fucking name."

BE FOOFUL AND MULTIPLY

"Last night our keyboard player Rami [Jaffee] was about to split the band to go back to the Wallflowers," Grohl tells me. We're back out on his patio, watching the shadows stretch toward dusk. "I had to make that decision: 'Rami, I want you in the band, and I don't know if you know how it works around here, but once you're in, you're in, so I don't think you should go anywhere, because we have a lot to look forward to.' And so I got a text message from him last night saying, 'I'm all good, I'm in.' "

Does this mean Jaffee will be a full-fledged Foo?

"I hope so," Grohl says. "That's what I'm trying to do."

Specifically, what he's trying to do is make the Foos an eight-piece band, one that includes Jaffee, violinist Jessy Greene, percussionist Drew Hester, and guitarist Pat Smear, who had performed with Nirvana and was the Foos' original second guitarist (after Grohl himself, who played nearly all the instruments on their eponymous 1995 debut album).

"I was pretty upset he left," Grohl admits, recalling Smear's departure just after the release of 1997's The Colour and the Shape. "I'd been through a lot with this guy." A few years ago, though, the pair "got together and laughed and apologized and told each other we loved each other." When it came time to recruit a third guitarist for last year's Afoostic tour, Grohl figured, "rather than just get some Rolodex rocker, why not get someone who knows what it's like to be a Foo Fighter? I wanted the dynamic that we have when we play and when we just hang out together. It felt like a much bigger family. I remember seeing a Dead Can Dance gig and how cool it was that there were all these people onstage. Sometimes they played and sometimes they didn't. It seemed so musical, like a twisted orchestra. That's what I wanted to accomplish."

GOOCH IS AN AWESOME WORD

"Gimme bones!" Grohl says. He's kneeling beside his daughter on the patio, holding out his fist. "Gimme bones!"

Violet, however, is busily splashing in a contraption called a water table, which amounts to a tiny, artificial pond for babies.

"Come on," Grohl pleads. "Don't leave me hanging."

With an air of obligation, Violet holds up her chubby fistlet and allows her father to bump knuckles.

"Bones!" Grohl cries. "Boooooones!"

"Bo," Violet murmurs.

She is, as Grohl has mentioned a few times now, a striking child, with enormous, ice-blue eyes that appear to have been directly transplanted from her mother.

"Okay," Grohl says. "This is the flip." He carries her to the lawn and assumes the position. "Baby in front of you, arm here, across the abdomen, other arm around the back, holding the legs. Ready? One! Two! Three!"

Grohl executes the flip, as deftly as he might a drum roll or a fret run, and Violet winds up back on her feet, squealing with glee.

"We have her in this gym class where they teach you all these things," Grohl says. "Here's another little thing -- oh, wait a second! You're all wet, Violet. We need to change that diaper." So it's off the nursery, where Grohl plunks Violet into a device that allows her to bounce up and down in the doorway, while Jordyn and the family dog, a miniature pinscher named Mia, watch from a safe distance.

If Grohl's enthusiasm for fatherhood feels a bit frantic, consider his dilemma: "It's that horrible feeling that it's borrowed time and I'm going to have to split." Which is why he was up at 5:30 this morning, cruising around the property with Violet. This is the first tour cycle Grohl has faced with a child, and he's determined to do it right. He'll be installing Violet and Jordyn in London for this fall's U.K. dates, and returning there for visits.

That's not to say he's ruled out taking his daughter on the road. "I don't know if you've seen the new tour buses," Grohl says, "but they're pretty gooch. You can say, 'I want a bedroom for the family, space for the crib, four bunks.' Personally, I'm looking forward to the romper room."

Note: Dave Grohl can change a diaper in seven seconds. I've timed him.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

A long time ago, someone tipped Grohl off about the secret of a long life in rock'n'roll: It's not about how many albums you sell; it's about how many tickets you sell. Ever since, he's devoted much of his time to transforming the Foos from a solo studio endeavor into a well-oiled stage machine.

"When I joined the band, we sucked live," Hawkins recalls. "And we're still not Rush. We're sloppy, rough around the edges. That's part of our charm. But we've gotten really good, and I think on our best nights, we can take anybody."

No need to take the Hawk's word for it. Because the Foos -- all eight of them -- have at last assembled for the dreaded Wal-Mart shoot. They immediately launch into a blistering rendition of "The Pretender." Grohl churns at his guitar and growls the lyrics, his face darkening to the hue of a plum tomato. Hawkins pounds his kit, grimacing like an epileptic, while Mendel drubs out a seismic bass line. What makes this performance even more impressive is that their rehearsal space is crammed with stage lights and production assistants and half a dozen cameramen. The Steadicam guy keeps swooping in, like some kind of manic tai chi instructor, to capture the band's facial expressions. As the song comes to a perfectly calibrated halt, the entire crew looks positively stunned. Then the Foos play the same song again, note for note.

The session runs four hours, give or take a few cigarette breaks. During a lull, Grohl looks up at the director and deadpans, "Are we getting any free firearms out of this deal?"

Such mugging is par for the course. The Foos not only nail each song twice, they continually launch into covers, such as an aborted version of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," which Grohl initiates after Jaffee breaks out his electric organ.

Afterward, the Foos are forced to endure questions posed by a Wal-Mart interviewer. Grohl, clearly exhausted, comes alive only for the ad-libs. "Come on down to Wal-Mart!" he hollers, in redneckese. "Where anyone can git a gun!"

WHAT COMES AROUND, GOES AROUND

The Prince cover is something of an inside joke. Back in 2003, the Foos recorded "Darling Nikki" for an Australian B-side. The Artist returned the favor in grand style. "I was on vacation in Hawaii," Grohl recalls. "It was Jordyn and Violet and me sitting around the pool, and someone came up and said, 'Hey, man, Prince just played your song ["Best of You"] at the Super Bowl.' " Grohl raced back to his room to check out the clip online. "I got chills. I couldn't believe that someone I consider a genius would know my band's name, much less sing words I wrote."

Never one to shortchange an idol, Grohl and his colleagues (including Cee-Lo Green) turn in a funked-up cover of "Darling Nikki" for the VMAs.

BE FOOTFUL AND MULTIPLY, REDUX

Shiflett: "Hey, Taylor, did I tell you? We're gonna have another kid."
Hawkins: "Boy or girl?"
Shiflett: "Another boy."
Hawkins: "Cocks all around!"

DON'T BE AFRAID TO USE THE F-WORD

"After doing this for 12 years, we're starting to talk about the long term," Mendel says. "Which is strange. This should be when we're winding down as a band -- some of us are approaching 40. We've done our sixth record. But now is when we're laying the groundwork for doing another six records."

Shiflett, as close as anyone in the band comes to a realist, offers a more cautious assessment: "There's no job security in this. We could break up tomorrow or keep playing till we're all little old men. I hope I'm not doing it at, like, Magic Mountain. I hope I'm not in the Cirque du Soleil house band. But I wouldn't mind being on a Foo Fighters tour playing the House of Blues."

As for the Benign Dictator himself, he's not afraid to use the F-word. Especially after paying a visit to one of his own heroes, the aging but still artistically valid and challenging Neil Young. "That was the first time I realized, 'Oh, you can do this,' " Grohl says. "You can make it last forever, if you do it right."

GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT YOU WANT

The song Grohl is proudest of on the new album is "Home," which he performs mostly solo, at the piano. It's a plaintive waltz, and the track from which the title of the album derives. He wrote the lyrics in five minutes, sang it once, and immediately knew he'd made a breakthrough.

"And I could give a shit whether our fans like 'The Pretender' more than 'Home,' because to me, 'Home' is the best song I've ever written. It might not be a typical Foo Fighters song or something you expect from the band, but man, I finally did it. And it gives me hope that maybe I can do it again."

Grohl tells me this at the end of another long day of rehearsal. He's standing in his driveway with Violet, gazing at her adoringly while she locks and unlocks a car with a set of keys she's found. I can't help but think of his performance of "Home" for the Wal-Mart shoot. It was the last song the band performed, a kind of gentle coda. Grohl's voice sounded more vulnerable than I'd ever heard, mournful even, as he sang: "People I've loved, I have no regrets / Some I remember, some I forget / Some of them living, and some of them dead."

There was a slight hitch in his voice on that last word, and the rest of band, instinctively, bowed their heads. The track may not be a hit, but it turned that room, however briefly, into a church.

There was a long silence when the song ended, broken finally by Hawkins, who said simply, "Don't get much better than that."

Grohl, clearly shaken up, gathered himself for a moment.

"Let's do one more."

Steve Almond is the author of the new essay collection (Not that You Asked), which features a long, raunchy tribute to the joys of Tesla and heavy metal in general.

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