Foo Fighters: How Dave Grohl Got His Groove Back
As Concrete And Gold announces Foo Fighters’ surprise return, we’ve some questions. What was behind cutting short the hiatus? What’s the deal with those collabs? And what does life after music look like? Emily Carter heads to Chicago with Dave Grohl and the gang in search of answers…
You’ll never believe what just happened to Dave Grohl.
“I was in the elevator,” he begins. “I walk in, and these two girls go, ‘(Gasps) Oh my God! Wait – you’re… Are you in the Red Hot Chili Peppers?’” The Foo Fighters frontman flashes a hearty grin, tucking his shaggy, dark shoulder-length hair behind his ears as he recounts his surprising journey up the lift to meet Kerrang! this evening. “And I go, ‘No!’ And they’re like, ‘But… what’s your name?’ And I said, ‘Dave…’ and they’re like, ‘Right! But you’re not in the Chili Peppers?’ And I said, ‘No! Foo Fighters…’”
It’s 6pm on a grey Thursday at a luxurious hotel in Chicago, and Dave is animatedly explaining how currently “it’s all happening” in the Windy City. Based just off of Chicago’s extravagant Magnificent Mile, there are stunning panoramic views of the gorgeous Lake Michigan in the distance, and classy, elegant marble fittings encapsulating the venue we’re currently chatting in; this is a hotel very much suited to Foo Fighters’ status as one of the most prestigious bands in the world, yet also juxtaposed with their everyman attitudes.
But what’s the fuss about being in Chicago right now, anyway?
Well, for a start, the Foos are in town for a one-night-only gig, billed as a Lollapalooza Aftershow (though they’re not actually performing at the huge music festival, also going on this weekend). Second – and most importantly – the band have also made the four-hour flight from LA to tell us about their new album, Concrete And Gold. But not before Dave Grohl enquires about Kerrang!’s trip here. Because that’s just the kind of guy he is.
There was a bit of a delay with the flights due to bad weather, actually…
“It’s the fuckin’ worst, man,” Dave empathises. “I hate that shit.”
Dressed in a crisp, plain white T-shirt and wearing a pair of thick, round-rimmed glasses, Dave’s all casual attire and no-rockstar-bullshit presence; every bit the ‘Nicest Guy In Rock’ stereotype you’ve heard about a thousand times before. Scribbling on a notepad his signature teatime recipe, the frontman settles down to describe the grub he cooks for his three children (“We’ll do some sweetcorn – cobs – two tablespoons of butter, and then salt and pepper to taste… Mmm-hmmm!”), before happily reflecting over a brief encounter he just had with the drummer of The Killers, Ron ‘The Nooch’ Vannucci.
“I just saw The Nooch! He has a very attractive suede vest, and a colourful shirt. He’s got a lot of style,” Dave nods. “He’s, like, the best fuckin’ drummer ever!”
In fact, the only time he switches from being the effervescent figure we all know and love is when chatter turns to what sparked his hasty return to Foo Fighters. Though he’s still light-hearted, the 48-year-old swiftly becomes more thoughtful, considered, and even quiet, reflecting on the band’s 2015 ‘indefinite hiatus’, which was consequently ended after just six months.
Foo Fighters - Run
Foo Fighters’ ‘break’ was brought about after a whirlwind few years for the band – completed by drummer Taylor Hawkins, guitarists Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel and keyboardist Rami Jaffee.
There was that leg break, when Dave tumbled off of a 12-foot-high stage during a show in Sweden in the summer of 2015. There was the heartwarming viral Learn To Fly video that brought the Foos to perform in front of thousands of super-loyal fans in Cesena, Italy. There was the free release of the band’s Saint Cecilia EP, dedicated to the victims of the Paris attacks in November of that year and described by the frontman as a reminder that “music is life”. Hell, Dave even squeezed in an appearance on The Muppet Show, partaking in a drum-off with Animal. And then, of course, there was Foo Fighters’ extensive, worldwide ‘Broken Leg Tour’. After all of that, you can’t blame a man for calling a time-out.
“When we came home from that last trip, everybody was really exhausted,” Dave sighs, exhaling a puff of smoke before discarding the newly-lit cigarette in his hand – something he does frequently. “And I was still trying to walk. I was still on crutches, and just trying to get my body back in shape, and I was so drained from touring. Usually, at the end of a couple of years of being on the road, you blame the music and the band for all of your problems, so you want to get away from it. And I didn’t want to pick up a guitar. I wasn’t feeling creative, or prolific, or inspired. So I just went back to normal, quiet domestic life.”
In between evading his usual busy schedule and looking after his family, a different venture entirely reared its head, tempting Dave away from Foo Fighters for what might have been even longer than their planned hiatus.
“I was supposed to start another project that wasn’t music-related,” he recalls. “And I thought that the band would have to wait another year or so…”
And what was this project?
“It was a movie. It was an actual film that I got approached to direct. Y’know, the great thing about being in the Foo Fighters is when we have an idea and we want to do something, we just go like that (clicks fingers). We do it. The movie world isn’t like that… It can take years and years and years… I imagined that it would be like our perfect little world, but then I realised that it could actually put our perfect little world in jeopardy…”
For the frontman, it became evident that sweeping the band under the rug wasn’t as simple a solution as he initially expected. Foo Fighters, to Dave, is so much more than just albums, tours and interviews. Music consumes his entire life. Clearly it’s not something he can leave untouched for extended periods of time.
“After we finished all of that touring, I went through a really weird depressive phase where I got the beard and I had the pyjamas and I didn’t leave the house for weeks,” Dave reveals. “That was at the point that I realised the music wasn’t the thing that was making my life worse – it was actually the thing that always made my life better.”
It was time, then, to get serious about Foo Fighters once more.
As with every Foos album – from their 1995 self-titled debut, written and recorded as a bedroom project, to their ambitious 2014 Sonic Highways saga (and accompanying HBO blockbuster), based off of the frontman’s desire to explore eight cities in the U.S. and write their musical histories – Concrete And Gold began via one essential, connecting factor: Dave Grohl.
Three months into his hiatus from the band, Dave’s recovery and recuperation was in full swing. Retreating to the studio in the upstairs of his California home, the musician would aimlessly set up microphones and “turn on all the gear” around his drum kit, finding himself recording whatever noise came out. In 15-minute bursts, every day, he would hammer at the instrument he first cut his teeth on in bands 30 years prior, with no real purpose other than to help with the physical therapy on his broken kick-drum leg. Then he would walk away from it and carry on with family life.
This continued for “about a month or two”, when Dave moved onto the next instrument: his trusty guitar.
“Once you wake that back up, it’s like the dam bursts and you start getting more and more ideas,” he smiles, eyes lighting up while tapping a spoon on the rim of his freshly-poured mug of coffee. “I did it on my own for a little while, and got really excited that my heart was still in it, so then I started sending the guys these ideas, riffs, melodies.”
Just like a river in full flow, the music itself started oozing through smoothly. The lyrics, on the other hand, behaved in a manner opposite to Dave’s aforementioned dam metaphor: they were all dried up.
“The last album, I was basically just reporting on all the places where we were making those Sonic Highways episodes – Chicago being one of them,” Dave explains, gesturing to the bustling city directly below the hotel’s sky-high windows. “So it took the burden off of me personally, because I got to write about all these other people’s experiences, which I’d never done before.”
Another all-too-brief puff of a new cigarette.
“It’s strange, because, after making a bunch of records, you kind of wonder where you’re going to tap into next, y’know? It’s kind of like hitting veins that aren’t there anymore.”
Fortunately, lyrical inspiration smacked Dave when he snuck off for a week-long trip to a rented Airbnb on an olive tree farm, in a little town called Ojai, just outside of LA.
“I just brought a guitar and microphone – and a case of wine!” he beams. “I spent most of my time just singing things off of the top of my head. I wasn’t really playing the word game in a journal and cutting and pasting, like I had done before, but just really singing things unfiltered as I was drunk in my underwear.”
With a certain orange-faced politician in the public eye during said sessions, Dave found a clear message in his newfound improvisational lyric-writing technique.
“I look at all of the different periods of time where I’ve written lyrics,” he says, “and they all have their own references and different phases. This one came out pretty clear: I’m a father now, I have to consider a lot more than I used to, and I think I’ve realised we’re not all as free as we were before…”
In what way?
“In every way. I mean, as the political arena started heating up in America before the elections, it became clear that there was so much more threatening all of our lives than I’d considered before,” the frontman confesses. “I’m looking at a candidate that has blatant disregard for the future environmentally, when it comes to women’s rights, diplomatically… I have three daughters that are going to survive me for decades – how are they going to get on unless there’s some positive and progressive change?”
Thinking back to his upbringing and teenage years in Virginia, when his home country went through a “conservative wave”, Dave worried about America being sent back years into a regressive past, courtesy of one Donald Trump.
“It’s weird… it really sparked a lot of my early, alienated, freakish punk rock feelings from when I was a teenager,” he remembers. “I was one of those little freaks in his blue bedroom in the middle of a really conservative part of Virginia feeling like I was just an alien. I started feeling that way again.”
Enter: Run, the storming, explosively heavy and wonderfully grand lead single from Concrete And Gold – the first song properly written for the record.
“It’s basically that need to escape when you feel like everything is coming down around you, that you just want to find a perfect place, or another perfect life, where you’re free to run,” the Foos leader envisions.
Of the 11 tracks that make up the band’s ninth album, there’s a running – pardon the pun – theme, Dave says, of, “trying to find your place in a world that seems to be taking a wrong turn sometimes.”
Not only is a dark undercurrent coursing through Concrete And Gold’s 46 minutes and 57 seconds, but the record also sees the frontman taking personal jibes, lamenting ‘There ain’t no superheroes now’ over the finger-picking brilliance of Happy Ever After (Zero Hour), and confessing ‘I’m a natural disaster’ on one of the record’s sublime highlights, Dirty Water.
Do you actually feel like that, Dave?
“Absolutely. I’m a fucking handful (laughs). Most people don’t realise that. I feel like a pretty stable person, I suppose, but everybody has that side of themselves where they look in the mirror and think, ‘God, I’m a fuckin’ mess.’”
Dave’s introspective side is heard best on the brooding Arrows. “I wrote that about my mother raising two children on her own on a dead-end street,” he reminisces. “As a parent now, I understand more how much of a struggle that must have been for her to keep the family not only together, but happy – which we were. I think that if you’re writing from a place that is real, then everything influences you.”
Foo Fighters - The Sky Is A Neighborhood
Musically, too, Concrete And Gold isn’t a straightforward ride. Produced by Greg Kurstin – a GRAMMY award-winning pop titan, who previously worked with the likes of Adele – Foos’ latest effort sees the sextet going off on trippy, space-rock tangents, while also collaborating with Sir Paul McCartney (who drums on the delightful Sunday Rain) and Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman (whose vocals bolster the choir on the magnificent title-track). Then there’s also the album’s top-secret special guest, who is, according to Dave, “probably the biggest popstar in the world”.
Fear not, though: these all-new factors haven’t destroyed Foo Fighters’ edge. Take La Dee Da, for example. Arguably the heaviest track on the album, it contains those “dark clouds” that Dave believes are a part of every Foo Fighters release.
The song, though, has caused a stir among eagle-eyed listeners. ‘Whitehouse, Death In June / Jim Jones playing in a blue bedroom,’ Dave spits throughout, referring to a neofolk British band – Death In June – who have been linked thematically and image-wise to Nazi Germany.
“Of course I didn’t think of that as I was writing the lyric!” Dave breathlessly assures us. “When I was 14 or 15 years old, I had this one friend, his name was Phil, who listened to really crazy industrial shit. We all started listening to Psychic TV, Current 93, Coil, Hunting Lodge… all of these really crazy industrial bands. So this band, Death In June, had eventually got a really bad rap for their fascist imagery – something that I never considered when I was, like, 14 years old. I had just completely forgotten about it, and I put their name in the song. Someone asked me, ‘Are you a fascist?’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck? Really?’”
Dave is well within his rights to jump to his own defence – and even more so considering the horrific events in his home state that occurred on August 12. Just eight days after our chat, white supremacists clashed with protestors in Charlottesville, resulting in the death of Heather Heyer, and an immense backlash against the U.S. president for his seeming inability to place blame on the violent Neo-Nazis – an astonishing event that has no doubt plagued the singer’s mind ever since.
Though Dave penned his troublesome lyrics before Donald Trump was even in office, it’s clear his worries are more relevant now than ever. Maybe running away to find that elusive perfect life isn’t such a bad idea, after all…
When Kerrang! last interviewed Dave Grohl, surrounding the release of Sonic Highways, we speculated what his reaction would be if any of his three children turned around and informed him they would pack their bags and tour the world – following in their dad’s footsteps of jumping in a grotty van and hitting dives across Europe. The Foos man was unsure, explaining that he’d have to cross that bridge when the time came.
With his eight-year-old daughter, Harper, recently joining the Foos onstage in Iceland to play Queen’s We Will Rock You at the Secret Solstice festival, though, could that moment be nearing? As Dave approaches The Big Five-Oh, some three decades into his career, can he hang up his boots and entertain a passing-of-the-torch moment anytime soon?
“I can’t imagine that they would really want to do this – who would want to do this?!” he scoffs jokingly, scanning the fancy suite and instantly relieving the sobering gravity of what a life without the Foos might be like for him. “You have to imagine as a kid – as a child of someone that does this for a living – that their perspective might be a little different to most other people. So they know how unglamorous it is, but they also know how incredibly rewarding it can be, too,” he smiles. “I’m surely not pushing them into the world of music, but they’ve got it in them already – it’s just a matter of deciding if they actually want to do it.”
Whether or not his offspring take that leap, fast-forward some five hours and Dave Grohl is very much in the midst of ‘doing it’. Backstage at Chicago’s Metro club, warming up for what is set to be an electrifying three-and-a-half-hour set, the frontman is hanging out in the venue’s not-so-flashy dressing room making sure every single person in the room feels accommodated.
Because, as we noted earlier, that’s just the kind of guy he is.
Running up to Kerrang!, Dave pretends to take an exaggerated gulp of our complimentary red wine, before shooting off to greet yet more adoring attendees.
Drummer Taylor Hawkins sidles up to us shortly after, producing a packet of earplugs from a box.
“Here’s a gift from the Foo Fighters to you – your hearing!”
The equally-bubbly drummer then wanders off, like Dave, to enjoy the company of the buzzing room.
Above: Foo Fighters - The Making of Concrete and Gold
It’s an incredible night, complete with a guest appearance from Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell for a run-through of Mountain Song, as well as superb covers of The Rolling Stones, Queen, Tom Petty and more. And then there are those new songs. New single The Sky Is A Neighborhood’s stop-start funk. Dirty Water’s compelling build into a genuine rock’n’roll anthem. Sunday Rain’s chilled vibes and Taylor Hawkins’ captivating vocal performance.
And this is just the start of the Foo Fighters machine rolling into gear again.
Once Concrete And Gold is unleashed, Dave Grohl has got another colossal tour to contend with – a 27-date run throughout the States in support of the album in the winter, as well as a night at London’s O2 Arena this month. Then there are the rumours of a second Sonic Highways series – reportedly being set in the UK or Europe – which will no doubt consume another few years of his life. And beyond that? With Dave Grohl, the future is never set in stone.
“There’s a part of me that has always imagined that at some point this will stop and real life will begin…” he acknowledges.
What keeps you inspired right now, then, Dave? Surely you’re at a point in your career where you can settle down and enjoy that “normal, quiet domestic life” you had previously been craving?
“I’ve always felt like the thrill of accomplishment is the reward to any of this,” he finishes, puffing on one last cigarette before heading off. “When you start writing a song, you’re writing it so that you get that feeling once it’s recorded and mixed. You listen back and think, ‘I did something good.’ But I could say the same thing for a simple day at home where I actually fuckin’ survived, y’know?
“At the end of the day, I love being exhausted. That’s my favourite feeling, I swear to God. It’s fucking badass. I can sleep after a day like that.”
Concrete And Gold is out now via Columbia. Foo Fighters play the O2 Arena on September 19.
Main image: Grizzlee Martin