Dave Grohl: “I know I’ll always be ‘that guy from Nirvana’ – and proudly so”

In the late summer of 1994, Dave Grohl was driving down a country road in a remote corner of southwest Ireland, when he spotted a young hitchhiker. Slowing down, he was about to offer the kid a lift – until he noticed what he was wearing.

It was a Kurt Cobain t-shirt. The same Kurt Cobain whose death just a few months earlier had prompted Grohl’s own flight to this secluded, far-flung shore. Panic rising in his throat, the man who, as the drummer in Nirvana, had been the self-styled “engine room to Kurt’s screaming vision”, put his foot down and sped on. “This was the moment,” Grohl recalls in a new memoir, The Storyteller, “that changed everything” – the moment he realised that, “no matter how far I ran, I could never escape the past”.

“Yeah, as metaphors go, that was a big one,” says the ever-genial First Gentleman of rock when Weekend catches up with him over Zoom, 26 years on. “And you know what? I’m grateful that happened, because it really did send a message to me.”

The message being: it was time to stop running, and “learn to live again”. So that’s what he did, digging out a bunch of demos he’d made during downtime from Nirvana and reworking them into what would become the first album by the Foo Fighters – Grohl’s sort-of-accidental new band, with him as its sort-of-accidental frontman.

“A lot that’s happened with me and this band over the last 26 years is entirely un-choreographed,” he reflects. “Things just kind of happened. We’ve always felt we should follow our gut feeling. We certainly don’t take many people’s career advice. Maybe we should…”

And yet, for all the Foo Fighters’ achievements – 10 albums, 12 Grammys, 30 million sales and a catalogue of certified stadium anthems like Everlong, All My Life and Times Like These – Grohl knows that he will always be, first and foremost, “that guy from Nirvana”. 

“And proudly so,” says the 52-year-old. “It’s not something I would ever wish away. I mean, it’s funny, we’re speaking 30 years after that f**ing record [1991’s globe-conquering Nevermind, the 30th best-selling album of all time] and it’s still a really big part of what I do.

“With Nirvana, I was only in the band for three-and-a-half years – but something as deep and substantial as that experience can be more formative than a relationship you’ve had your entire life. It was a short window of time, but it’s a big part of who I am.”

It’s also a big part of The Storyteller, which finds Grohl spooling back through the mixtape of his life with his trademark humour, humility and hard-won wisdom, from his “suburban, Wonder Bread” childhood in North Virginia – where he taught himself to drum by pummelling away on his pillows – to hanging out with Presidents and Beatles, via a spell in the most important rock band of a generation.

Having dropped out of high school to play with local punk heroes Scream (his mother, a teacher, had simply told him “you’d better be good”), Grohl joined Nirvana at a point when they were already being courted by every major record label in America. But they were still penniless, Grohl spending a long, miserable winter sleeping on the couch in Cobain’s tiny apartment while the band woodshedded material for their second album in a freezing makeshift studio in Tacoma, Washington.

In September 1991, the world heard the first fruits of those labours when Nirvana released Smells Like Teen Spirit. Accompanied by a video in which a bunch of high school kids ran riot and burned down the gymnasium, the song’s howl of nihilistic despair plugged into a generation’s feelings of disaffected alienation with immediate, electrifying effect. But as they embarked on a chaotic North American tour, it soon became clear the teen spirit Nirvana had unleashed was in danger of overwhelming them: there was, recalls Grohl, “an atmosphere of psychotic, raw energy”, as waves of fans spilled onto the stage each night. In Dallas, the band literally had to flee for their lives from a bloodied security guard and his gang of angry heavies.

For a band who prided themselves on being outcasts, learning that Nevermind, the album they’d bashed out in 10 days in an LA studio, had knocked Michael Jackson off the number one spot, was a disorienting experience. As the relatively faceless drummer, Grohl was at least spared the full force of this “hurricane of madness”. But for Kurt Cobain – the “gentle, kind soul” suddenly elevated to the role of reluctant Gen-X prophet – there was no such escape: the man who, only a few months ago, had confidently told a record company exec Nirvana were going to be the biggest band in the world, “was now faced with the terrifying prospect of it coming true”.

Nirvana was a short window of time in my life – but it’s a big part of who I am

Dave Grohl

 “The sudden success of Nirvana was definitely a double-edged blade,” Grohl tells Weekend. “I couldn’t believe I had enough money to pay the rent, never mind knocking Michael Jackson off the number one spot. It was almost like I was standing next to the person this was actually happening to. I still feel the same way today.”

The first time he saw Cobain after the end of that tour, Grohl was shocked at how fragile he seemed – and when he heard he’d started using heroin, the drummer instinctively threw up an emotional firewall. “You’re preparing yourself for something to happen,” he says. “As if you’re being vaccinated, so that when the event does happen, you’re somehow immune…”

On March 3, 1994, Grohl received a call to tell him Cobain had died of a drug overdose in a hotel in Rome – shortly followed by another telling him he was actually still alive. “From that day forward, I built my walls higher,” he writes in The Storyteller. “And thirty-six days later, they closed in.” At the Seattle home he shared with his wife Courtney Love and their baby daughter, Cobain had taken his own life. He was 27.

Having spent 30 years being asked about Cobain’s life and death, Weekend wonders if those chapters of The Storyteller are an attempt, in part, to draw a line under it all? “As if it’s going to stop?” says Grohl, with a rueful laugh. “No, no. I mean, that chapter in particular, losing Kurt, was a difficult one to write. I know what people want me to write, I know what the audience wants to hear. And I thought I would steer around that. But it was difficult. That was the last chapter I wrote. Like the student I’ve always been, I procrastinated until the deadline, then I sat in a hotel room for two days, ordered room service and blasted it out. So yeah, I mean… what more is there to say?”

While he concedes there are “moments in the book that are shattering, terrible, dark”, The Storyteller is also shot through with Grohl’s trademark Tiggerish enthusiasm. There’s a particular joy in the way that, despite being one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, he still feels “like a little boy in a museum” when it comes to collecting famous friends – including a lovely moment in which he hurriedly tries to hide away his “mountains of Beatles stuff” before his good pal Paul McCartney comes round for dinner. “I’ve never seen Bigfoot, I’ve never seen a UFO, and I’ve never a seen a ghost,” grins Grohl. “But I’ve seen Paul McCartney, and if that’s not a supernatural event, I don’t know what is.” 

A few years earlier, Grohl had found himself in the East Room of the White House, performing Band on the Run to a front row audience of McCartney and President Barack Obama. It may only have been a short, 12-mile hop from where he grew up, but it felt like the culmination of a lifetime’s journey – especially as his dad, a celebrated Republican speechwriter on Capitol Hill, had always insisted his son’s rock and roll career would lead to ruin.

In contrast to his own father’s remoteness (his parents divorced when he was seven), Grohl has made strenuous efforts to balance work and family commitments – including taking his three daughters on tour and, on one occasion, making a 20,000-mile emergency round trip from Australia and back (complete with food poisoning and explosive diarrhea on the plane) to attend the Daddy-Daughter School Dance. “Perhaps I love so fiercely as a father,” he ponders in The Storyteller, “because mine could not”.

“You know, it’s funny,” he reflects. “As I was reading the audiobook, I thought, ‘I’m really giving it to my dad on this one!’ But here’s the thing: we did have a very difficult, strained relationship, but he had a very difficult and strained relationship with his dad, so I’m not sure he knew how to be a father. It wasn’t until I was about 20 or 21 that we decided to become good friends. And then it was great. I mean, he was the person who inspired me to write. He was a brilliant writer. He was so sharply dressed, so cultured – he loved art, music, literature, he was a f***ing badass. He was like 007… except the George Bush version.”

Weekend asks if writing The Storyteller has been a cathartic experience. “There were a few chapters that required a bit more emotional focus than others,” he says. “And those pieces… not only did they make me reflect, they also helped frame the now a little better. So yeah, it felt good. The day I hit ‘send’ on the last story, I actually cried, because I didn’t want it to be over.”

From high school dropout to rock and roll royalty, it’s certainly been some ride… “And it keeps going,” grins Grohl. “I’m still surprised every time I wake up and think, ‘What’s next, what’s coming around the corner? Let’s go!’”

Best of all, he’s still, at heart, that kid in the museum. “I’ve never got blasé about this, not once, never ever,” he says, emphatically. “When I see a hero of mine, I run up and attack them with so much love that I do seem like a little boy, I really do. It happened just the other night, I saw Buster Rhymes in a hallway and I just ran up to him and attacked him and started rapping with him. Because I mean, honestly… what a life, right?”

The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music (Simon & Schuster) is out now

FAMILY GUY

“My mom is still my best friend and my hero,” says Grohl of his mother Virginia, who raised him and his sister Lisa as a single parent. “She allowed me to become myself, and I did that knowing the greatest consequence was disappointing her. I didn’t want to do anything she didn’t think was cool, because she was the coolest f**ing person in the world.”

“I think that serves as the relationship I have with my kids [daughters Violet, 15, Harper, 12 and Ophelia, seven],” he adds. “I’m friends with my children. We’re cool, we’re tight.”

Grohl is famously, of course, The Nicest Man in Rock. But would his wife of 18 years, Jordyn Blum, agree? “First of all, I have never called myself that,” he insists. “That’s a trademark that I refuse. I’ll take all the others. We’re human beings, right? We have bad mornings, we have great mornings. It happens. But I know a lot of rock musicians that I would consider more pleasant than I.”

This interview appeared in the issue of Waitrose Weekend published October 7, 2021 (c) Waitrose Weekend

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