How Dave Grohl Triumphed Over Tragedy With ‘Foo Fighters’
"This is the only thing I do, really, the only thing that I have extreme passion for. It's nice to know that people enjoy what I do."
That's how former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl explained his re-emergence as a recording artist in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone following the sudden death of the band's frontman Kurt Cobain. But as succinctly as Grohl may have summed up his passion for music, his journey back from Nirvana's dissolution took a lot of time — and hard emotional work.
"How can I explain it? If you have someone that's close to you, a family member or someone that you love, and they disappear or pass away ... Imagine walking into their bedroom full of things every day," Grohl asked MOJO. "That's exactly how playing music felt to me, because that was my whole world. It was difficult to listen to music, whether it was Ry Cooder's soundtrack to Paris, Texas, or [Metallica's] Ride the Lightning. I had to disconnect. And I couldn't imagine getting up there and playing the drums with someone, and not thinking about Nirvana. I think about Nirvana every time I sit up to play the drums."
Grohl's journey back from despair started slowly, and was nudged along by key invitations from a couple of friends — starting with Mike Watt, who asked him to sit in during the sessions for his solo debut, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, and including Tom Petty, who invited Grohl to fill in for the departed Stan Lynch when he and the Heartbreakers made a 1994 appearance on Saturday Night Live.
When he realized he was ready to get back to work, Dave Grohl had a pre-existing cache of demos he'd started working on while Nirvana was still together. Some of them, he later claimed, Cobain had heard and enjoyed. Looking back on an early track years later, Grohl said "Kurt heard that, and kissed me on the face, as he was in a bath. He was so excited. He was like, ‘I heard you recorded some stuff with [co-producer Barrett Jones].’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He was like, ‘Let me hear it.’ I was too afraid to be in the same room as he listened to it."
Wanting to keep things low-key, Grohl booked roughly a week at a studio near his Seattle home, where he quickly completed an album's worth of recordings while handling virtually all of the vocal and instrumental duties himself. Yet as Grohl-centric as the music became, he insisted he didn't envision the album as his grand solo debut. Instead, he circulated a handful of cassette copies under the made-up "band" banner Foo Fighters. Rather than worrying about making a career move, he was still focused on his own healing.
"I can't sit on my ass and do nothing, and I had almost a year of sitting on my ass and doing nothing, and I realized that I had to get out and do something now or else sit on my ass forever," Grohl told Melody Maker. "I can look back at the past and think of all the good things that happened — and I think of the bad things that happened too — but there's nothing you can do, there's nothing that you can do to change that happened, and that's the bottom line."
As fate would have it, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder was one of the recipients of those first few Foo Fighters tapes, and he ended up giving the music some key early exposure.
"Eddie Vedder did a pirate radio-type show and he played a demo of the song 'Exhausted,'" Grohl told Kerrang! I remember him saying, 'I love this song, it makes me want to drive off a cliff,' or something. So, Eddie gave me my first big break! And then suddenly record companies were calling my house."
Listen to the Foo Fighters Perform 'This Is a Call'
Those calls led to Grohl signing a deal with Capitol Records, complete with his own imprint, Roswell Records — a reference, like the band name, to UFO phenomena. The 12-track Foo Fighters album arrived in stores on July 4, 1995, and was immediately besieged by comparisons to Nirvana — something Grohl knew he'd never be able to avoid.
"I knew that when I was recording the album, people would say 'OK, that song has some distorted guitars and heavy drumming and a strong melody to it, it must be like Nirvana,'" Grohl admitted in his Melody Maker interview. "The instant I realized that, I thought 'Fuck it, I don't give a shit!' What else am I going to do? It's just what I love to do. The stuff I do at home on my eight-track, whether it's acoustic or just noise, is not the kind of thing I like to walk onstage and do. It's fun to bounce around to this kind of music in front of people."
Of course, in order to get out on stage, the Foo Fighters had to actually be a band — something Grohl took care of by recruiting former Sunny Day Real Estate bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith as well as Nirvana's former touring guitarist, Pat Smear. The fact that everyone in the newly constituted group had been through a difficult band breakup wasn't lost on its members.
"This band is really just about the love of playing music," Grohl told Big O. "The four of us were in other bands that had broken up and we missed being in a band, we missed touring in a van. ... It sort of helps people realize that things keep moving."
Things moved quickly for the Foo Fighters — the album quickly lodged itself in the Top 40, while three singles ("This Is a Call," "I'll Stick Around," and "Big Me") gained deep traction at the Mainstream and Alternative Rock formats. "Big Me" proved the record's biggest mainstream hit, peaking at No. 11 on the Hot 100 while accompanied by a video whose cheeky humor made it clear Grohl's new band wasn't burdened by the same existential weight as Nirvana.
Having been through the whirlwind with his previous band, Grohl was far better equipped emotionally to handle being in the spotlight's glare with the Foo Fighters. "This band has the feeling of being fresh and exciting. You don't know exactly where it's going to take you. That was one of the greatest feelings about 1991 — we had no idea what was going to happen," he mused in conversation with Rolling Stone.
"The Nevermind tour just felt like everything was going to pop. I'd have numerous panic attacks every day," Grohl added. "I mean, sweating, heart-pounding, have-to-sit-down panic attacks. It was so cool to be that close to going insane yet somehow not. I really thought every time I sat down on the drum stool that it would be the night where I fainted onstage. It was all so hilarious. It wasn't supposed to happen, and it did. One of the saddest things is that it can never happen again – but the greatest thing is that it did."
While plenty of fans and pundits tried to read between the lines of Foo Fighters' lyrics in order to tease out hidden meanings or look for messages about the emotional aftermath of Kurt Cobain's passing, Grohl insisted the bulk of the record had been written well before it happened — and anyway, the band and the album represented a triumph over tragedy, not an excuse to dwell on it. More than ever, Grohl and his fellow Foos understood the redemptive power of rock 'n' roll.
"There are a few exceptions, but for the most part I could never understand how someone's ego could just get blown sky-high by something as silly as playing music," he mused during a later discussion with Melody Maker.
"I mean, it can be a serious outlet for some people, but I just don't – what's the big deal? I just don't understand the ego thing at all. We're just, I hope, a great night out. And you know exactly how totally irrelevant and infinitely important that can be."