The Chosen Foo
Dave Grohl and his band of cut-ups can hardly contain themselves. From (sorta) saying no to drugs to using the other N-word, the Norah Jones-loving nicest guy in rock opens up.
To hear Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, tell it, Grohl’s niceness is merely a cover for his amazing Zelig-like ability to be around the right people at the right time, from wandering into the first show of emo-forefathers Rites of Spring to drumming with hardcore stalwarts Scream to moving to Olympia, Washington, and joining his new roommate Kurt Cobain’s band. After all, this one-third partner of Nirvana, LLC, was the group’s sixth drummer. “Dave gets to walk away unscathed and be the happy guy in rock, when he’s one of the biggest jerks,” says Love. “He’s been taking money from my child for years.”
Even Grohl himself couldn’t have predicted a second career like the one he’s had with Foo Fighters. After what was essentially a homemade solo demo tape transformed into a 1995 1.3 million seller, the next album, 1997’s The Colour and the Shape, kick-started radio-friendly emo and led two members—drummer William Goldsmith and guitarist Pat Smear—to quit (Goldsmith because he tired of playing in a band with “two drummers,” and Smear because he was sick of touring). Two more albums followed, as did one more guitarist, and Hawkins’ near-fatal booze ‘n’ pills overdose.
You’re famous for being able to get along with nearly everyone—from your ex-punching bag Gavin Rossdale to former members of Led Zeppelin. What’s your secret?
No matter how much I dislike a band, I could still get drunk with them. My musical taste is irrelevant when it comes to social situations. Also, when I started playing in hardcore bands, it was strictly for the love of playing music. There was no career option. It was something to get out of the furniture warehouse. A $7 per diem was more than enough and it was that way when I joined Nirvana. Even after we signed that fucking contract [with Geffen], we all slept in the back of that fucking gasoline-smelling Chevy van. It was disgusting! But it was also fun. At some point it became more and more flooded with career ambition, and that can pollute things. The people who are usually dissatisfied are the ones who aren’t getting what they think they deserve.
Even so, Foo Fighters were not particularly satisfied with One by One. “If you think about things too much, they get kinda sterile, as we found out,” says Hawkins, 33. “There are great songs there,” says Shiflett, 34. “And then there are…parts of great songs.” In contrast, In Your Honor, despite its ambition, was recorded quickly and (relatively) painlessly. On the rock disc, Grohl’s vocals are raw and exposed as never before, shredding to bits on anti-Bush screeds like the title track and on the lacerating (yet still radio-friendly) first single, “Best of You.” (That song, like many on the album, was inspired by Grohl’s experiences traveling on John Kerry’s campaign bus. Says Mendel, 36, with a sad smirk, “We’re responsible for tens and tens of new voters.”) But it’s with the acoustic disc that Grohl really steps outside of his wheelhouse. Chock-full of mopey and dreamy sketches, it features an eclectic range of guests, from Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on “Miracle” and “Another Round” to Norah Jones on the bossa nova-inflected “Virginia Moon” (“She’s a pro,” Grohl says of his unlikely duet partner). Even the emblemlike cover art seems to scream, “Take me seriously!”
But back at 606, Grohl is merely screaming with laughter. Hawkins, clean and sober but still manic, is showing Dave his favorite Freddie Mercury outfits from a dog-eared ’70s Queen tour program and suggesting which might be best for a photo shoot. The skintight jester costume? Or the schoolboy knickers, sans shirt and shoes? This is the real Foo Fighters dynamic: a bunch of married—or, in Hawkins’ case, engaged rock’n’roll nerds cracking each other up. Shiflett is amusingly complaining about his hellacious commute to the Valley from his home near the ocean and about how Quentin Tarantino—or Hall of frames: Posters and other rock ephemera line the walls of Foo HQ “Fatty Queerantino,” as he calls him—sat behind him at the MTV awards and spilled red wine down his wife’s shirt. Bassist Nate Mendel, the second-longest tenured Foo, is the quiet one. Yet even he can be wound up, and after Hawkins teases him about masterminding the Foo Fighters’ mega-success while still on tour with his previous band, Sunny Day Real Estate, Mendel begins concocting a series of fake hobbies (falconry and collecting Jimmy Carter memorabilia) to make his contributions to the band seem more interesting.
And then there’s Hawkins, a man who within five minutes of meeting someone is liable to have his shoes off, his hands wildly air-drumming favorite Dennis Wilson solo tracks while he expounds on the glories of trading award-show gift bags to his fiancee in exchange for “thank-you lovin’.” The drummer—who will be releasing a good-natured, glammy solo album early next year credited to Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders—is so California he borders on self-parody. At 606, in between bites of a steak lunch, he tells a long story about how he once berated Flea for living in L.A.’s boho Los Feliz neighborhood because it was, in the Chili Peppers’ bassist’s words, “more punk rock.” (“I was like, ‘Dude, if I had as much fucking money as you do, I’d live in a bigass mansion on the water in Malibu!’ And guess where Flea lives now? Fucking Malibu, bro!”) But he also has a genuine sweetness to him—even when he’s wondering if Lindsay Lohan is “a puker.” And he obviously feels indebted to Grohl, his “best friend” and the one person fit to go toe-to-toe with him on Styx trivia, for standing by him through his 2001 OD.
Camaraderie aside, this is still Grohl’s show—no matter how hard he tries to hide it. The hierarchy of the band is evident, from the other Foos joking about why the 606 was built so far from where they live (Shiflett: “Dave lives five minutes from here. It’s straight downhill from his house. He could just get on a skateboard and shoot straight here!”) to their explanations for the acoustic disc (Mendel: “Because Dave wanted to do it.” Hawkins: “It’s not like a Foo Fighters record — it’s like the fucking Dave Grohl Orchestra!”). Even the building’s mail slots are labeled dave and chris/nate/taylor. Yet, whether it’s the eternal humility of drummers or his grounding in the egalitarian D.C. hardcore scene, Grohl refuses to admit to his own stardom, describing his role in the band as “the one who takes out the trash.”
These days, a lot of so-called punks are down with glitz and following all the rules. There was a switch after the early ’90s, which I totally understood. I mean, come on:
You get sick of seeing a guy who looks like the gas attendant down the street running a band. You want Marilyn Manson. You want something larger than life.
But the cycle is so sped up now; there are fans switching their allegiance from Dashboard Confessional’s stripped-down acoustic to the glam makeup of My Chemical Romance in, like, 18 months.
See, that’s the thing that freaks me out. It’s that risk of regret. [MCR will] undoubtedly regret that red eye makeup in six years, and we’ll look at it like they were Winger or something. But a lot of the bands that get a bad rap I actually like. The beauty of the melody in that song “Helena”? Oh my God, that could be a fucking Queen song!
Do you ever get the urge to put on your Gandalf the Grey hat and caution these younger bands against making mistakes?
Bands can recover from bad hair, from genres that have disappeared, from members quitting, or lineup changes. The things that bands can’t recover from are death and drugs. And that’s bottom line. If there were anything I could tell a young band, it’d be just “Don’t do coke.” Go take Ecstasy and fuck your friends and buy giant bags of weed and wear a condom. But it happens over and over again anyway. Musicians are a funny bunch of idealistic dreamers and self-destructive depressives. Those are the type of people that usually flash out quick. And it’s easy for me to say—I haven’t done drugs since I was 20 years old. I don’t want to sound like a self-righteous straight-edge freak from D.C., but…
Not when I heard you referring to Jack Daniels as “rocket fuel” earlier.
There’s that. So, yeah, do whatever you want. Just don’t fucking die. That’s the one thing that’ll change everything. Slap on all the makeup you feel like. Just don’t stick needles in your arms.
If, ten years into his new life as the “emotional lightning rod” of a band (a phrase best uttered, as he himself does, with a faux-French whine), Grohl isn’t living in the spotlight, he’s at least grown awfully comfortable in it. A few days after first speaking with me, the Foos take a private plane from San Francisco (where they had played a sold-out concert) to New York, with new friend (and Hawkins’ idol) former Police drummer Stewart Copeland in tow. Then the band “hosts” MTV2 for 24 hours straight, during which time they lead a street drum circle with Copeland, referee a hot-dog-eating contest, marry a couple of fans, send a roadie on a date to Bubba Gump’s shrimp restaurant, wrap Grohl in foil and put him out in the sun, and dance wildly to A-Ha videos. They also program their favorite videos in their favorite categories (Mendel’s is indie, Shiflett’s is glam, Hawkins’ is prog, while Grohl does Headbanger’s Ball) and laugh it up with such comedy buddies as Amy Poehler, David Cross, Fred Armisen, and Janeane Garofalo.
In the green room about 12 hours into the silliness, the mood is remarkably festive. All of Team Foo are present—manager, road crew, wives, and friends—and everyone is drinking light beer and eating chips and dip. After a midnight plugged-in performance, the band, exhausted yet wild-eyed, arrive for high-fives and drinks. Nate and Chris change into Paul Frank pj’s (they were free) while shirtless Taylor gives everyone sweaty hugs. Grohl calmly pours shots of Crown Royal and beams from ear to ear. I commend him on looking so strangely fresh, and he laughs: “I haven’t slept in three days, and I don’t know when it’s going to stop. But it’s okay!” He leans in close. “Because I’m a litte drunk right now!” And then he rubs his eyes, downs another drink, grabs his wife of three years, former MTV producer Jordyn Blum, and leads a parade of cameras outside into the crowd of insomniacs, cops, and fans gathered on Broadway. When everyone in the green room notices what’s going on, they drop their nachos and run after him. As usual, it’s impossible for anyone to keep up.