Foo Fighters: The Inside Story Of Their Self-Titled Debut Album
No-one passing along Seattle’s Mercer Street on the afternoon of February 19, 1995, would have paid much attention to the four men carrying guitars, amps, PA speakers and drums into the West Marine boating store.
With the rapacious major record label A&R scouts who had descended en masse upon the Emerald City in search of fresh meat in the aftermath of the phenomenal commercial success of Nirvana’s Nevermind album and Pearl Jam’s debut Ten having long since returned to their offices in New York and Los Angeles, the local music community had once again retreated underground, with unsigned bands opting to play DIY shows in backyards, basements, thrift stores and garages rather than the city centre’s remaining dive bars, which now largely chased tourist dollars with grunge cover bands and Sub Pop-themed club nights. That The Stranger, Seattle’s clued-in ‘alternative’ newspaper, carried no listing for a gig in the fishing supplies shop on the evening of February 19, would have suggested to casual observers that the band hauling a keg of beer upstairs into the makeshift venue were set to play a private party. Consequently, no random strangers or uninvited interlopers stumbled upon Foo Fighters undertaking their first ever live performance, which was exactly as Dave Grohl, Pat Smear, Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith had intended.
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Cheered on by supportive friends and family members, the quartet’s debut show was never going to be as “terrifying” as Dave Grohl had feared. But given that Nirvana’s former drummer had never previously fronted a band, and that this particular unit had been in existence for less than two months, it’s easy to understand why he elected to wait until everyone was “wicked fucking drunk” before premiering a set of songs that only a handful of those in attendance had heard. Dave’s most indelible memory of the gig was feeling “a huge relief that we just made it to the end”. It was only weeks later, upon listening to a cassette recording of the show, that the then-26-year-old musician realised just how much work lay ahead for his new group.
“I was fucking mortified!” the Foos’ frontman laughed, speaking to Rolling Stone magazine 20 years on. “I thought we sounded great… [then] I heard the recording. [I was] like, ‘Oh… that’s the Foo Fighters? We’ve got to practice!’”
There were times in 1994 when Dave Grohl considered where he might ever play music again. In the wake of his friend Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Dave couldn’t even listen to music, much less countenance stepping onto a stage. “Losing Kurt was earth-shattering, and I was afraid of music after he died,” he recalled. “If I heard a song that even touched on an emotion in me, I would turn it off. I was so terrified because to me, that’s what music always was. It was a direct connection to my heart.”
Cocooned at home with his fiancée, photographer Jennifer Youngblood, he was depressed, disoriented and disillusioned, unable to see a path out of the darkness. Musicians in Seattle’s tight-knit musical community, no strangers to loss, rallied around. One group, 7 Year Bitch, sent a postcard offering condolences to his Shoreline home. Having lost guitarist Stefanie Sargent to a heroin-related death just two years earlier, the group’s message was simple but heartfelt: “We know what you’re going through,” they wrote. “The desire to play music is gone for now, but it will return. Don’t worry.”
“That fucking letter,” Dave later confessed, “saved my life.”
Honeymooning in Ireland in the summer of ’94, “totally disconnected from the rest of the world”, Dave came to realise that he would never outrun his past. Driving down a remote country road, the newlyweds passed a teenage hitchhiker in a Kurt Cobain T-shirt, and the impact which Nirvana had made worldwide struck home. “And then I realised that music was the one thing that was gonna help me out of that place,” Dave later conceded. Sitting in a Dublin hotel room, he penned a song bidding to lay ghosts of the past to rest. With its references to “pretty” fingernails, balloons and Ritalin, the verses of This Is A Call were elliptical and bizarre, but the song’s chorus, and specifically the lyric ‘This is a call to all my past resignations’, was unambiguous and utterly impactful.
“I intentionally wrote nonsensical lyrics, because there was too much to say,” Dave later explained. “With This Is A Call the verse is just bullshit, it’s nothing, I wrote it in a bathroom. But the chorus, on the other hand, means a lot to me. This was me finally saying goodbye to my past.”
Back in Seattle, later that summer, Dave would soon be afforded the opportunity to lay more memories to rest. He and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic returned to Robert Lang Studios, 10 minutes from his home and the site of Nirvana’s troubled final recording session (which yielded the posthumous You Know You’re Right) to guest on a session for former Minutemen/fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt’s debut solo album, Ball-Hog Or Tugboat?. Thrilled to revisit the simple pleasure of playing together again, out of the spotlight, the duo contributed rhythm tracks to two songs, Big Train and the Eddie Vedder-fronted Against The ’70s: more significantly, this nurturing, welcoming environment galvanised Dave to reignite his own creative urges.
Though he had received just one songwriting co-credit (for the grinding Scentless Apprentice) on Nirvana’s final album, 1993’s In Utero, Dave had been writing and recording his own material since his early teens, initially for laughs alongside his school friend Larry Hinkle in the HG Hancock Band, and later, more seriously, in Washington DC hardcore bands Freak Baby, Mission Impossible, Dain Bramage and Scream. In 1990/’91, during Nirvana downtime, he recorded a 10-track cassette album, Pocketwatch, with his friend Barrett Jones, under the pseudonym Late! for his friend Jenny Toomey’s Simple Machines label, singing and playing all of the instruments on the tape. Kurt Cobain was sufficiently charmed by one track, Color Pictures Of A Marigold, that he utilised a Dave/Krist re-recording of the song (as Marigold) on the B-side of the trio’s Heart-Shaped Box single. While sharing a house with Barrett Jones in Bellevue, Washington, Dave had committed scores more solo compositions to tape: while on a productive roll, he decided to re-record the best of these, if only to stop the fug of depression descending once more.
“After we went to Robert Lang’s and did a couple of songs with Watt, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m gonna get my shit together and demo some stuff at home and then book a session, for myself,’” Dave told this writer in 2009. “So I booked six days with Barrett. It was some cathartic thing: I needed to punch through this place I’d been trapped in for a while, and I thought this would be the best therapy for me. Before, at Barrett’s, I’d record songs in 15 minutes, so I was planning on recording three songs per day this time.”
Between October 17 and 23, 1994, Dave recorded 15 songs at Robert Lang Studios, playing every note himself, save for some guitar noise on X-Static, that was supplied by Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli, with whom Dave had previously collaborated in recording a selection of Beatles cover songs for the Backbeat soundtrack.
“The first four hours was spent getting sounds,” Dave revealed in the first Foo Fighters press release. “By five o’clock we were ready to record. Over the past six years, Barrett and I had perfected our own method of recording. Start with drums, listen to playback while humming tune in head to make sure arrangement is correct, put down two or three guitar tracks, do bass track, and move on to next songs, saving vocals for last. This time, though, it became sort of a game. I wanted to see how little time it would take me to track 15 songs, complete with overdubs and everything. I did the basic tracks in two and a half days, meaning I was literally running from instrument to instrument, using mostly first takes on everything. All vocals and rough mixes were finished on schedule: one week.”
Dave ran off 100 copies of his demo at a cassette copying facility, and began distributing them among friends. As he had done with the Pocketwatch album, the drummer opted to title the demo with a fictitious band name: at the close of the year, Kerrang! exclusively revealed that his new project was called Foo Fighters. The news story quoted a ‘music industry source’ hailing the Foos as “a great band in their own right”.
At this point, of course, Foo Fighters existed only as a solo concern. But in mid-December, after watching Seattle emo kingpins Sunny Day Real Estate play their final show in Washington DC, Dave asked Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith if they might be interested in teaming up with him. Upon hearing Dave’s effervescent demo at home in Los Angeles former Germs/Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear signed up too: “I thought, ‘Oh shit, this is so great!’” said Pat. “I was just blown away.” By Christmas ’94, Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters were officially a band.
The wider world would not have to wait long to hear the Foo Fighters for the first time. On January 8, 1995, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder gave the ‘group’ their first airplay by playing two songs from the tape – Exhausted and a cover of the Angry Samoans’ Gas Chamber – on his Seattle-based Self Pollution Radio show. “I’m just going to let these songs fly,” said Eddie. “They’re really good.”
Introduced one month earlier by lead single This Is A Call, on July 4, 1995, Independence Day in the United States, the Foo Fighters’ self-titled album emerged on Dave Grohl’s own Roswell label, with distribution via Capitol. Kerrang! awarded the collection a full 5Ks, predicting the album would “sell by the millions”. Listened to today, Foo Fighters has lost none of its immediacy, excitement, impact or charm. That it shares some DNA with Nirvana is undeniable, but given that Dave Grohl grew up on the same bands as Kurt Cobain – Black Flag, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Hüsker Dü, Minor Threat, R.E.M., The Replacements – how could it not? Crucially, following the anguish and agony of In Utero, Dave’s album sparkled with irresistible life and positive, carpe diem energy. Debuting in the UK albums chart at number three, and buoyed by three further killer singles, the punchy I’ll Stick Around (written about Courtney Love), For All The Cows and Big Me, it would go on to sell over 350,000 copies in the UK, and a further 1.5 million in America.
Statistics alone, however, only tell part of the story. If proof were needed that Dave Grohl’s band were set to be a sensation in their own right, one only had to look at the reception afforded the quartet at that summer’s Reading Festival, when tens of thousands of fans attempted to cram into one of the secondary stage tents to catch a glimpse of the band, leading to absolute frenzy. Out of the darkness, out of tragedy and despair, Foo Fighters were ready to fly.
“I remember there were people that really resented me for having the audacity or gall to fucking keep playing music after Nirvana,” Dave told this writer in 2009. “It was the most ridiculous thing. I was fucking, what, 25 years old? I was a kid.
“I’m sure that the thing I was supposed to do was become this brooding, reclusive dropout of society and that’s it. Nirvana’s done, I’m done, that’s the end of my life. Fuck that. It was a blast. I miss Nirvana with all my heart… I miss Kurt… I dream about him all the time, great dreams and sad, heart-wrenching, fucked-up dreams. I miss it all a lot. But if you’re dealt a fucking hand you deal with it. And I’m not about to drop out and stop living. When Nirvana ended, I wasn’t finished. I’m still not fucking finished.”
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