What’s Dave Grohl up to these days?
Oh, just reviving the classic Sound City studio, making a documentary about it, touring with his supergroup the Sound City Players (who are performing at SXSW later today), and delivering the festival’s keynote speech. Y’know, no big deal.
This afternoon in Austin, Grohl stood before a crowd of rock journalists to talk about what’s inspired him (Edgar Winter, his cousin’s record collection, the punk scene in Washington D.C.), share some stories about Nirvana (like the time Kurt Cobain told everyone that he wanted to be “the biggest band in the world”), and shared a few surprise opinions. (He loves ‘Gangnam Style’! Pitchfork’s record reviews? Not so much.)
The main theme of his speech was this: If you want to be a rock star like him, do everything yourself, from the recording to the releasing to the screenprinting of t-shirts. He even coined a catchphrase of sorts: “The musician comes first.” You can read the highlights of his conversation below. (Be warned, though: the guy really loves to f–ing curse):
On the eyeglasses he wore while reading his speech: “i got these at the drug store cause I’m going blind. I hope I still look like a rock star.”
On why he’s a natural pick for this year’s keynote: His political speechwriter father and his public school teacher mother taught him how to “stand in a room of total strangers and bulls–t them.” Also, when he told last year’s keynote speaker Bruce Springsteen that he was taking over, the Boss smiled at him. ”And then he started laughing. At me. As if to say, good f–ing luck, buddy.”
On the album that inspired him to write his first songs: Growing up in Springfield, Virginia, the first record he bought was Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” and that DO-do-DO-do-do-DO-do-DO guitar part changed his life. ”I gave it all up for a f–in’ riff,” he said. The song inspired him to buy his first guitar, an old Sears Silvertone that smelled like mothballs. “It sounded like that goats yelling like humans YouTube clip that’s popular right now,” he joked. He taught himself to play along to the radio, and then he started recording the various parts on a handheld tape recorder, first playing the guitar part, then the drum part over it. ”At 12 years old, I was multi-tracking songs in my bedroom. All by myself,” he said. “To my chagrin, though, what I got was not Sgt Peppers… Rather [it was] a collection of songs about my dog, my bike, and my dad.”
On his first band, and its terrible name: When he and a few friends submitted themselves to compete at his high school’s battle of the band, they needed a name. “We applied as Nameless,” he admits, laughing. “We just couldn’t f–in’ come up with anything better than that.” You laugh, he said, but picking a name is still the hardest part of being in a band: “Foo Fighters, it’s the stupidest f–in’ name in the world!” So in the Thomas Jefferson High School battle of the bands, Nameless played Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose.” They didn’t win. But they later got their big break playing the Rolling Stones’ “Time is on My Side” at a nursing home.
On his first introduction to punk rock: When he was 13 years old back in 1982, his family took a trip to Chicago to visit relatives. His older cousin Tracy was now a punk, complete with clanking chains, a leather jacket, a shaved head, and bondage pants. “She was a f–ing superhero come to life,” Grohl remembers. “Something I’d only seen on TV, on Quincy or CHiPS.” She brought him a stack of records from bands like the Misfits, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and the Germs. “I sat down and I played every last one,” he said. “This was the first day of the rest of my life.” She took him to his first punk show in a dingy little hole-in-the-wall club called the Cubby Bear, right across from Wrigley Field, to see the local Chicago punk band Naked Ray Gun. ”Bodies were flying everywhere,” he remembered. “Spit and sweat and leather.. broken glass and piss and f–in’ puke. I was in heaven! And it was our secret.” The next day, he bought a Killing Joke t-shirt and the soundtrack to the Decline of Western Civilization. At 13 years old, he realized that he could start his own band, book his own shows, silkscreen his own t-shirts, do it all by himself. Later, he’d find himself checking out the Rock Against Reagan show at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on Independence Day. He heard the band Dirty Rotten Imbeciles play their song “I Don’t Need Society” and bought the record from the lead singer out of his van. “It was a 33 song seven-inch stuffed in a homemade sleeve, and it is still, to this day, one of my prized possessions.”
On his early years with Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain’s huge ambition: During the years when he was sleeping on floors, on stages, on the floors under the stages, or crashing in a Laurel Canyon bungalow with a bunch of female mudwrestlers (“Don’t ask!”), he heard that Kurt Cobain needed a drummer. So he moved to Seattle. “We practiced in a barn eve day. It was all that we had. There was no sun, there was no moon. There was just the barn. And those songs.” Soon, they’d find themselves in a bidding war between labels, with A&R reps fighting to take them out to dinner. It was, he joked, “f–ing Benihana every f–ing night.” They played “In Bloom” for Sony chairman Don Ienner, and when Ienner turned to Cobain and asked, “So what do you guys want?” Cobain replied, “We want to be the biggest band in the world.” “I laughed,” says Grohl. “I thought he was f–ing kidding. He wasn’t.” Grohl notes that, in 1990, the No. 1 song in the country was Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On.” ”How Kurt could even think we’d make a ripple in this ridiculous mainstream world of polished pop music was beyond me,” he admitted.
On recording Nevermind in a dirtbag studio: They recorded 13 songs in 16 days at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, which had been home to Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac. It wasn’t the fancy studio he expected: he remembered “brown shag carpet on the walls, a couch they’d been renting for ten years. Personally, I thought it looked like a f–in’ Chi Chis that had a fire.” The label’s initial pressing of the album was 35,000 copies, supposedly enough to last the label a few months, but they were all gone within a few weeks. Within a month, Nevermind had gone gold. By the new year, they were selling 300,000 records a week. He never figured out why they struck a chord like that. “Legions of American youth fed up with Wilson Phillips? Probably,” he quipped. But he thinks it might be something else: “It was honest, it was pure, and it was real.”
On the guilt that comes with success: Grohl admits that, in the years after Nevermind, he often wondered why Nirvana made it big and other bands didn’t. “Guilt is cancer,” he confessed. “It will confine you, torture you, destroy you as an artist.” Later, he railed against the idea of guilty pleasures. “I can truly say out loud that ‘Gangnam Style’ is one of my favorite f–ing songs of the past decade.” He said. “Is it any better or worse than the latest Atoms for Peace album? Hmmm…paging Pitchfork! We need you to help us determine the value of a song! Who f—ing cares?” On behalf of the music critics in the audience, let me just say: Ouch.
On Kurt Cobain’s death: “Whe Kurt died, I was lost,” he said. “I was numb. The music that I’d devoted my life to had now betrayed me. I had no voice. I turned off the radio. I put away my drums. I couldn’t care to hear someone else’s voice singing about pain or joy. It just hurt too much. But eventually that feeling that I’d had at Independence day, July 4, 1983, at the base of the Lincoln Memorial steps, that feeling came back.” He booked a studio six days and dubbed a hundred cassettes under the name Foo Fighters so that people would think it was a group instead of just a guy. “I was singing songs about starting over,” he explained. When an A&R guy called, he was surprised. “I considered it therapy. They thought it was a record.” So he started his own label, Roswell Records, instead, starting his own mantra: “The musician comes first.”
On his legacy, and his daughters’ future rock band: Recently, Grohl brought home a Beatles vinyl box set. His daughters Harper, 3, and Violet, 6, were curious about it, so he set up a turntable in their room and showed them how to play it. ”They were absolutely blown away.” He left the room and came back half hour later, and there they were dancing to “Get Back.” “As proud father, I pray that some day they’re left to their own devices and they realize that the musician comes first, and they find their own voice and they become someone’s Edgar Winter.” Then he smiled, realizing that he was coming off a little strong for a guy who’s so anti-authority.
“Then again,” he added. “What do I know?”