Grohl simply wanted to liberate songs he’d kept locked away while his life was consumed by drumming in what was then the world’s most pivotal band. But Grohl has the Midas touch. Everything he handles turns to gold records, which line the walls of his studios and homes. With the band’s first five records, they crafted a sound which made good on Nirvana’s loud-quiet stylings while adding a raucous buoyancy to the recordings, and laid down a template that would carry through their now nine-album strong career.
Here, Grohl and drummer Taylor Hawkins revisit the turbulent early history of Foo Fighters, one record at a time.
Foo Fighters – 1995
“After Nirvana, I wasn’t really sure what to do,” says Grohl, who was 25 when Kurt Cobain’s suicide brought that group abruptly to an end. “I was asked to join a couple of other bands as the drummer, but I just couldn’t imagine doing that because it would just remind me of being in Nirvana; every time I sat down at a drum set, I would think of that. And other people would think of that as well. I thought, what do I do? Do I even play music any more? I don’t know. Maybe that was it. Maybe it’s time to do something else. Maybe real life starts now. Because at that point I had been touring in bands since I was 18 and I’d seen the world and got to be in this huge band.”As Grohl contemplated his next move, he was well aware that anything he did was going to be overshadowed by his association with Nirvana whose influence only grows with the passing years.
“When I was young, someone played me the Klark Kent record that Stewart Copeland had done. I thought how cool that he could make a record and people can listen to it objectively because it wasn’t Stewart Copeland from The Police, it was Klark Kent. That’s kind of what I wanted to do. There were some songs I’d recorded in my friend’s studio while Nirvana was still a band and an independent label in Detroit wanted to release something.”
It wasn’t the first time Grohl’s compositions had been the subject of outside interest. In 1991 he’d released a 10-track cassette called Late on the Washington-based Simple Machines label. Initially contractual restrictions prevented him from releasing any more new material, but with the demise of Nirvana in April 1994, multi-instrumentalist Grohl was free to pursue a solo career.
The reaction to the tape was swift. “I’d get calls from Virgin, RCA, MCA, Columbia or Capitol or whatever.” In the end Grohl signed with Capitol after being courted by President Gary Gersh who, as an A&R man with Geffen, had signed Nirvana.
Recording all the instruments in the studio was one thing, but even the talented Grohl couldn’t play them all live. For that he would need a band. After securing bass player Nate Mendell and drummer William Goldsmith from the recently defunct Sunny Day Real Estate he gave a tape to guitarist Pat Smear, a man who had also played with Nirvana.
“He said, ‘God, this stuff is really poppy!’” squeals Grohl in his best Smear impersonation. “I’m like: ‘Really?’ He goes: ‘I love it.’ ‘Wow, thanks. We’re looking for a guitar player.’ He’s like: ‘I’ll do it.’ I’m like: ‘You will?’ No shit, because he’s like the coolest fucking guy in the world. That guy was in The Germs. He was great in Nirvana, and I thought he’s way out of this league; this is just a stupid demo.”
With a band assembled they began rehearsing. But the role of frontman was a new and uncomfortable one for Grohl: “Standing up and singing a song with a guitar with shredding volume did not feel natural. It still doesn’t.”
He also found the experience of performing his own material in distinct contrast to that of playing with Nirvana: “It’s a different feeling when you’re singing words you’ve written and playing songs you’ve written. It’s so much more personal.”
When the Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album arrived on shelves in July 1995, its cover depicted the band’s name above a photograph of a gun. Considering Grohl’s former bandmate had shot himself to death only 15 months earlier, the choice of cover image might appear to some to be tactless. “Yeah, people kind of freaked out on that,” admits Grohl, whose love of sci-fi had led him to choose the picture of the Buck Rogers toy gun. “You know, honestly, that never came to mind once. Obviously it didn’t, because if I thought people would associate that with that, I would never have done it.”
The cover aside, reaction to the album was positive. It reached number 23 in the Billboard chart. The Foo Fighters had arrived.
The Colour And The Shape - 1997
It was almost as if Foo Fighters had evolved accidentally but now, as a fully fledged group with a hit record and tour behind them, it was clear the approach to the second album would be different.
“Going into making The Colour And The Shape I knew it had to be good,” says Grohl. “It couldn’t be a basement demo. It couldn’t be that second raw album that most people were doing at the time.”
Grohl, though, was still uncertain about exactly what it was he’d created. “The foundation of the band was that demo tape recorded by one person and at times it could feel flimsy. It would make you question: Are we a band? Or ‘How does this work?’ So we immediately started writing new songs like My Hero, Enough Space and My Poor Brain. We hired Gil Norton to produce. He’d produced some of our favourite records: Pixies and Echo & The Bunnymen, stuff like that. Gil is awesome in that he fucking wrings you out. He wants every last drop of performance and song. It was intense. I learnt more from that guy than anyone.”
But by the time they’d nearly completed the album, it had become obvious all was not well. “We’d finished like 12 songs,” recalls Grohl. “We’d recorded Monkey Wrench, Wind Up, Doll and My Poor Brain and everyone knew that it wasn’t really happening. William, our drummer, wasn’t really gelling. It didn’t sound powerful. It just didn’t sound how I’d imagined it to sound.”
The group took a Christmas break, during which Grohl went into a friend’s studio and started recording new material, playing drums himself. He played the songs to Norton: “He’s like: ‘Those are good. I like those’. So I started recording newer songs, playing the drums, playing the guitar and William was bumming out. That turned into a breakdown and then I realised he wasn’t coming back, so I recorded all the drums on the record myself. It was basically Pat, Nate and I for that album. We did it pretty quickly. We re-recorded the record in about four weeks. When we were done, I knew we had a fucking great album.”
In addition to the personal differences within the group, Grohl was also in the midst of domestic upheaval. “Oh, I was getting a divorce too,” he adds nonchalantly. “You know what’s funny? People come up to me – it’s usually men – and say: ‘Man, that album, it helped me through my divorce’. I’m like: ‘Really? It caused mine.’”
If contentment is artistic death, then at least Grohl’s woes were having a positive influence on the music. “I was living out of my duffel bag on this cat piss-stained mattress in my friend’s back room with 12 people in the house. It was fucking awful. Made for a good record though.”
There Is Nothing Left To Lose – 1999
For two whole weeks Foo Fighters were a quartet again. Alanis Morissette’s drummer Taylor Hawkins had joined the group but, three days before they were to head out on tour, “Pat said: ‘Guys I have to quit’,”recalls Grohl, the sense of shock still palpable. “I’m like, what the fuck? What next?”
“That was a splintered fucking band at that point,” Hawkins reflects of his first days with the group.
“It really was,” concurs Grohl. “The band was just holding on by our fingertips this whole time.”
Grohl convinced Smear to stay on until he found a replacement in his old friend Franz Stahl, guitarist with hardcore band Scream who Grohl had played with prior to Nirvana.
After the tour, Grohl was finding the Los Angeles lifestyle too distracting. “We had the bachelor pad in Laurel Canyon. We would just go drag the Sunset Strip and bring it back to the house.”
Returning to the more tranquil pastures of his Virginia roots, he built a studio in the basement of his house. They extricated themselves from their record contract when Gersh left Capitol, and became a three-piece again. “It didn’t work out with Franz,” Grohl states succinctly. The Foos brought in producer Adam Kasper and set to work.
“It was so great,” smiles Grohl. “We were in a basement in Virginia with sleeping bags nailed to the wall. There’s no record company, there’s no suits knocking on the door, there’s no one telling you what’s good or bad. It was four months of the most mellow recording.”
The relaxed conditions were reflected in the music which was softer than anything they’d produced to that point. “It’s easy to fucking stomp on a distortion pedal and make a chorus blow up,” explains Grohl. “That’s easy. It’s easy to turn up to 10 and scream your balls off. What’s not easy is to write a song that’s a mid-level linear dynamic that moves from beginning to end with melody.
“So that was the idea with a lot of that record, whether it was Learn To Fly, Ain’t It The Life, Gimme Stitches or Next Year. We were more focused on melody and songwriting, and it took a lot of people off guard. A lot of people thought Foo Fighters were selling out or going soft. It was more about getting into the music and writing. That album opened up doors for us to make anything possible.”
One By One - 2002
“The making of that album was a fiasco,” says Grohl bluntly. “We spent four months and nearly a million bucks recording that record and we threw it away. We just fucking scrapped the whole thing. It was not good enough.” There were a number of factors which contributed to them dumping an album for the second time. One was Hawkins’s increasing drug use, which culminated in him overdosing during a trip to London.
“After that I started getting my shit together,” says Hawkins. “I wanted to get over that hurdle and start working. I think we all wanted to start working, but in hindsight we jumped into it a little quick.”
“That’s exactly what happened,” agrees Grohl.
When the band – which now included ex-No Use For A Name guitarist Chris Shiflett – did get to work, it was with the express desire to adopt a more meticulous approach than they’d used on the previous album. “For One By One I thought: Okay we’ve got to make this sound fucking perfect,” says Grohl. “So we went in, and ultimately what happened was we sucked a lot of the life out of the songs. It wasn’t inspired. I’d listen back to rough mixes and think this sounds like another band playing our songs. I remember looking at the calendar of the promo tour and imagining having to do interviews for an album that I wasn’t 100 per cent convinced of. I thought: ‘I can’t do that. I cannot go out and lie. I just can’t fucking do it.’”
In addition to his day job with Foo Fighters, Grohl had been moonlighting with Queens Of The Stone Age, playing drums on their Songs For Their Deaf album. Given the choice of touring with Queens or promoting an inferior Foo’s album, he made a tough decision. “I just thought: ‘No that can’t come out. It’s not good enough. We need to take a break. I’m going to go do this thing which is inspiring me’. It felt great, but within three months, I started missing the guys and the music. So I came back and we thought we’d just go back into the basement with Nick [Raskulinecz] and start demoing.”
“Dave came to my house one day and we did a couple of demos,” says Hawkins. “One of the songs he had written was Times Like These, which was kind of about the band breaking up and remembering why we’re doing it and all that stuff. Then we did Low. It felt good. So we’re like, let’s just go back to your pad in DC and record those tunes.”
Starting at 11 o’clock one night, Dave and Taylor rattled off three songs. For Grohl, the magic had returned. “That feeling was back. You could hear it. And that’s what was missing from the first time. It was like: ‘Holy shit, are we making a record right now?’” They were. And two weeks later, after Nate and Chris had added their parts, they had.
In Your Honor – 2005
The tour for One By One had elevated Foo Fighters to a new level. “We had finally established ourselves to the point where I thought we can play an hour-and-a-half set and make 50,000 people sing all the words. That’s fucking cool.” As proud as Grohl was, it also served to make him question the band’s next move.
“We toured so much for the last record and it was such a fucking blast, but it was gruelling. I was 36 and I’d been doing it for 18 years and I thought: ‘Is this what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life? I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to have the band take another left turn.’”
Inspired by Tom Petty’s solo work on She’s The One, Grohl considered doing a soundtrack. “So I started demoing all this acoustic music with that in mind. After an hour or two of listening to it, I thought, why can’t this be a Foo Fighters record? Maybe we should do this kick-ass mellow acoustic record. So I thought maybe that’s what we should do. And then I thought no, I have to have loud rock music in my life somewhere.”
Faced with reconciling an acoustic album with Grohl’s need to have “loud rock” in his life, the Foos frontman came up with a solution. “Why not make two CDs?” he thought.
Why not indeed? Nine years and four albums had given Grohl the confidence and licence to do whatever he wanted. “I eventually want it to get to the point where when people ask me what kind of band I’m in, I say: ‘I just play music’. It’s not one specific genre of music, it’s not one specific style. I’m just a musician. I can play all these different instruments, I can write a bossa nova, I can write a thrash tune. It’s such an incredible freedom. That was the point of this album.”
Nine months in creation, In Your Honor was an assured work of musical chiaroscuro and one of which Grohl was duly proud. “It’s exactly what I imagined it to be and it sounds better than I hoped. It’s my shining achievement of my life,” he said at the time of its release.
It would have been easy for Grohl to rest on his Nirvana laurels. He could have dined out musically on that connection forever, but he chose to look ahead at Foo Fighters, who offered him a future. It’s why he got the band’s initials branded on the back of his neck: In Your Honor solidified that feeling. “It’s the first time I‘d ever imagined 10 more years of being in this band.”
As he reflects on the turbulent and triumphant career of Foo Fighters’ earliest days, the humble Grohl allows himself a rare moment of pride. “Going from the demo tape that took six days to record to what it became, it was like having your child grow up to be the head of the U.N. Unbelievable.”