Dan Griffiths and Jason Hirshhcorn discuss the career of mega-star Dave Grohl, from Nirvana through Foo Fighters and more.
JASON HIRSCHHORN: Greetings old chum. Today we’re going to discuss one of the most important musicians of the past 25 years who almost never gets the spotlight: David Grohl.
DAN GRIFFITHS: Here we go again!
I’m looking forward to this. It’s criminal that Grohl isn’t a monlithic figure in music industry by now; he is in the rock world, but even then he seems understated. A man with so, so many strings to his bow is going to be fun to discuss. Where do we start?!
JASON: I think we should tackle this at his start, or at least, the beginning of his prominence: drumming for Nirvana. Now you have an interesting take on Nirvana, no?
DAN: Aha, the monster that is Nirvana. I’d say it is interesting: From the age of 13 I had Nirvana shoved down my throat by classmates who thought they were gods. I was bought up on classic rock, so for me there were bands with far better vocalists, far better guitarists and more interesting sounds that I could divert my attentions to. Most of the things they raved about really didn’t interest me, and besides, when one gets an onslaught of “You should like this” most days and you don’t see what’s special about the band in the first place, it quickly turns you against the band. It’s only in the past 4 or so years I’ve given them a chance. People always think it’s me being different for the sake of it, but it was overkill, and that gets tiring real quick!
I’m guessing you didn’t have the same experience with them?
JASON: My experience with most music was different. I was raised without either parent really playing music in the house, and by chance I didn’t end up having friends who played music very often. Between that and having been born a little too late to really know what was going on during the first half of the nineties, I didn’t get my first taste of Nirvana until about 2000. By then the hype had settled, and I was able to take it in at my own speed. Probably not coincidentally, I think they’re fantastic. Nevermind was the first non-classic rock album I really took to, so it’s personally significant as well as culturally.
DAN: I always think that my generation was just a hair too late for Nirvana; it wasn’t just that the hype had died down by 02/03, it was music of a completely different generation. I can see why my peers get so heavily into it, but I was more excited by the likes of Muse, QotSA, The White Stripes et al because they were starting out being big bands while people my age were just starting to get into music. I’m always funny around bands of a different generation because I don’t normally feel the emotional connection. I guess that’s why I’m not fanatical about them.
JASON: I can see that. For me, Nirvana was the last “big band” that I would consider before my time. While I wouldn’t get into them until later, what I consider “my generation’s music” started in the late 90s with Radiohead and the manufactured super-pop.
But let’s bring this back to Grohl. He’s sort of had two careers that weigh about equally in my impression of him. He was only in Nirvana for a short time, but those years changed the direction of popular music. On the other side, he controlled the artistic direction of the Foo Fighters, and that group has not only become huge, but they’ve been around for almost 20 years. I guess the question at the heart of this is: Who’s the real Dave Grohl?
DAN: That’s a tricky one. He’s been in his role as Foo Fighters’ captain for so long now, I’m tempted to say that the scruffy, bearded, energetic man front and centre is the real Grohl. I mean, under his stewardship Foo Fighters have become the biggest rock band on the planet right now, and they’ll be considered amongst the greats of the genre when all is said, done and written purely because of how massive they are, and Grohl’s achieved that while displaying genuine enthusiasm, passion and enjoyment for what he does.
Then, you look at all his side projects, and he’s the drummer. Always. Arguably, he’s already the head of a supergroup (super as in big, not who’s in it) so why would he want to do it again? If he wanted to he could, but his first choice is always the stool. Example: The Foo’s show at Wembley. Where did Grohl go straight to when Page and JPJ came out on stage – the drumkit.
JASON: I think your idea of the Foo Fighters’ size/prominence is overblown. I’ve never considered them to be the “biggest” or “one of the all-time greats.” They have made some very good music, though, even if he’s been mining the same vein for the duration of the Foo Fighters’ career.
As for his perception as a musician, I agree that he’s always viewed first and foremost as a drummer. Part of that is because he’s so goddamn great at it. One of the cliches about Grohl is that he is his generation’s John Bonham, and I’ll actually stand by that. Both Bonham and Grohl employ a lot of finesse to their style, but both are known for the sheer power of their drumming. I know Jason Bonham had to be the choice for Led Zeppelin’s reunion show a few years ago, but Dave Grohl would have been more interesting.
DAN: This is what I love about these discussions with people in different locations. Over here, Foo Fighters are, hands down, the biggest rock band of the 00’s. They’re a surefire ticket seller for festivals, they can pack out Wembley twice, albums and singles chart high and are constantly being played, and they have that rare ability to be liked by everyone regardless of their usual musical denomination. A guy you wouldn’t look at twice in the street will be the guy with his arm around you singing along to “Best Of You” at the top of his lungs. That’s how transcendent they are in the UK. Personally, I’d lump them in with other greats because they’ve almost owned the 00’s. I wouldn’t for a moment say they’re on the level of, say, Led Zeppelin or AC/DC, but if the history of rock were written down, someone would have to have the 00’s. I can think of maybe Muse and Green Day that have a big enough audience reach to be considered, but even then they aren’t really close. Well maybe Muse are over here.
Anyway, almost every American I’ve discussed the Foo’s with has been of the same opinion as yourself, whereas for us, they’re part of the fabric. They’re the starting point for a lot of kids.
I love how powerful his drumming is; it’s just so ‘Grrrrrrr’. It would’ve been fun to see him with Led Zeppelin, I wonder if he’d have added his own little things in while doing it. That would’ve been cool. This might clear up how he’s perceived as a musician: Have you ever read how he describes his guitar playing? He says he plays his guitar as if it were a drum kit. Each string represents a different part of the drum kit; the lower strings the kick and the snare while the higher strings are like the cymbals, so he composes accordingly. Dude’s a drummer!
JASON: That’s interesting. Here in the US people know when a Foo Fighters album comes out, but usually it isn’t a huge deal. Sadly, Nickelback seem to have a bigger following here. Being an American is difficult.
That quote of Grohl’s guitar playing sounds pretty cool, but it also sounds more like it was designed as a soundbite rather than an actual description of his guitar playing. Do you think he sounds like he’s playing the drums on guitar?
DAN: Not all the time, but there are moments when he does follow that rhythm. He always uses the higher strings like cymbals anyway, but that might be down to the Rush influence. And I promise that’s my only Rush reference.
Oh, and I’m glad my fellow countrymen picked the right path.
JASON: So here’s a question: What’s your favorite album Grohl has contributed on? I think this will be interesting, because you claim to be a bigger fan of the Foo Fighters than Nirvana (though we don’t have to limit the albums to just those two bands).
DAN: Ah man, I want to limit myself to one but I’m going to be selfish. There Is Nothing Left To Lose is up there and I would say In Your Honor but I’m not keen on the second disc. Wasting Light was a favourite from last year so I’m going to say that aswell. But the big one has to be Songs For The Deaf. It’s a classic. How about you?
JASON: Mine is the far less interested answer of Nevermind. As I said before that album was my introduction into contemporary music, and frankly it’s one I still listen to frequently. Even as I’ve moved onto things less “rock” than Nirvana, Nevermind remains a great listen the whole way through.
So can you explain your selections in more detail? I’m curious as to why those albums are your favorite.
DAN: I’m a big Foo’s fan, as we’ve said earlier in the discussion, so I feel I have to put at least one of theirs in; I feel like they’re ‘My’ rock band. There Is Nothing Left To Lose is as strong and diverse as it gets with their catalogue while being a cohesive album – it can be a relaxing listen or it can be energetic, especially at the start. Depends what mood you want to be in when you listen to it. I also happen to believe “Stacked Actors” is the greatest Foo Fighters song. Wasting Light was such a pleasant surprise for me I found myself constantly listening to it last Summer, because I love its ballsy and energetic nature. It’s a genuinely good and engaging rock record so it gets a third of my vote. Songs For The Deaf is more of a nostalgia trip; my introduction to a world other than Classic Rock; it’s edgy and fresh sounding.
I think those are my reasons!
JASON: There Is Nothing Left To Lose is a very good album so I’m not surprised you picked it. I am surprised you didn’t mention The Colour And The Shape which I think is the best Foo Fighters’ album. Fairly or not, I like to assume Grohl builds his albums the way Jimmy Page used to: a balance of light and shade. On Nothing Left you have some very strong moments that balance each other out. “Monkey Wrench” is as good as any pop-punk from the mid-90s, and then you have a softer moment like “Everlong.” There’s nothing groundbreaking on the album (though that could probably be said about any Foos album), but it’s a solidly built piece of music.
DAN: I would put The Colour and the Shape in but the softer moments on nothing left are absolutely sublime. I was just listening to it today, and I was astounded by how relaxing it is. I think Colour suffers from having three mega, mega songs that overshadow everything else. It’s like the Miami Heat of the Foo’s catalogue whereas Nothing Left is a “Chicago Bulls” kind of album; a big important song, but a more even, balanced approach from start to finish.
You’re right, Grohl does go for that light/shade approach, and that’s kind of been missing over the last few albums.
JASON: Since we’re talking about LeBron now anyway, let’s talk legacy. How will we remember David Eric Grohl?
DAN: Grohl’s legacy is going to be huge. He’s got the Nirvana years firstly, then there are the years when he was, and still is, the only real rock god around. He’s such a big personality how does he have anything other than a big legacy?
JASON: I believe Grohl’s legacy will be that of music’s Scottie Pippen. Work with me on this one. He’s always there to help out with whatever project you have (when you need a powerhouse drummer sub, he’s always the guy), and he’s been the main creative force behind some very memorable music. However, he’s never achieved true greatness on his own. Nevermind benefited greatly from his drums and backing vocals, but that’s still Kurt Cobain’s album. No Foo Fighters album is generally regarded as well as that album, an opinion I agree with. He’s the perfect sidekick, but he can’t quite do it as a lead dog.
DAN: I think you’re spot on with the Pippen comparison. His collaborations, be that him playing with other bands or him bringing classic bands on stage with him (Rush, Queen, Led Zep) will be one of his defining characteristics. What’s neat about all those collaborations is Grohl seems to be a guy who just wants to celebrate rock and all the history that goes with it. That’s another part of his legacy; dude loved doing what he did and had a blast while doing it.
Something Kobe Bryant recently said got me thinking about Grohl and his legacy. Kobe was on about not having a real rival, at his position, throughout his whole career and that’s true. He’s THE guy from ’98 to around the time LeBron really made it around ’07 (Duncan doesn’t really enter this – Fundamental PF’s don’t really have a big crossover and marketable appeal). You wonder if a T-Mac or a Carter had had the same drive and determination as Kobe and won a couple of rings in the early 00’s, they’d be muscling in on Kobe’s overall legacy; we wouldn’t see him as the only real superstar to come out of that era. Same with Grohl; he’ll be seen as THE rock guy in this era purely because there’s no-one else. Had Nickelback actually been good or QotSA more prolific, they’d have eaten some pieces of the pie that Grohl and the Foo’s have pretty much had to themselves for quite a while. As much as I love them, I don’t think any Foo Fighters album would really stand out alongside some substantial competition. We’re seeing that now with some newer bands.
I guess what I’m trying to say is he could be seen as a superstar by default.
JASON: I follow you. In terms of mainstream exposure there really aren’t a lot of “rock stars” anymore. I don’t know if that’s the new reality or just a temporary change. Grohl is certainly one of rock’s more interesting characters. He’s one of the few contemporary artists who I could actually see fitting in with, say, the Traveling Wilburys and at the same time sitting in with Metallica (assuming they’re over that whole “stop releasing crap” letter fiasco