Foo Fighters Are Keeping Their Underdog Spirit Alive
"Whether it's the biggest artists in the world, like Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus, or bands you've never heard of but that play with incredible passion, we're all connected somehow," says Dave Grohl
Published Feb 02, 2021As one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, Dave Grohl is something between a loveable mascot and an elder statesman. On the one hand, he's a goofball who spent 2020 locked in a viral drum-off against 10-year-old social media star Nandi Bushell; on the other, his band Foo Fighters hold the all-time Grammy Awards record for most Best Rock Album wins with four.
Grohl doesn't attempt to cultivate the slightest bit of mystery surrounding his public persona: his songs are earnest, his music videos are funny, and he's made cameos with everyone from Nine Inch Nails to the Muppets. If Foo Fighters have a 'brand,' it's that they seem like they'd be fun to have a beer with.
"What we do, and what most musicians do, really begins with just a kid with an instrument in a bedroom," Grohl tells Exclaim! "Some of the biggest artists I know play with the same passion they did when they were that kid in their bedroom. Like jamming with Paul McCartney — when you watch him sit down at a drum set, he's playing with the same enthusiasm that Nandi does. I think it's really beautiful."
It's that childlike passion that makes the 52-year-old Grohl so universally loved. Having cut his teeth in the D.C. hardcore scene as a teenager, he exploded onto the mainstream as Nirvana's drummer in the early '90s before launching Foo Fighters in 1995. Twenty-six years and millions of record sales later, he's still got that same everyman charm with his big smile and big riffs.
A phone call with Grohl plays out exactly like you'd imagine. He calls me "man," cusses good-naturedly, and, when I ask him about his upcoming plans, he responds emphatically, "Goddamnit, I'm having a drink tonight. I promise you that. I will have a drink tonight." He's friendly and unpretentious, making the conversation feel more like talking to a fun uncle than to an internationally beloved celebrity.
His down-to-earth demeanour is reflective of someone who, despite being famous enough to fill arenas, still considers himself a part of the DIY music community.
"The Washington, D.C., underground music scene was beautifully independent of any sort of mainstream corporate structure. Most of all, it was a community of people," he remembers. "And there was something about that sense of community that, at an early age, maybe 14, 15 years old, influenced me for the rest of my life. I love to imagine that all music is a community of people. Whether it's the biggest artists in the world, like Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus, or bands you've never heard of but that play with incredible passion, we're all connected somehow. I feel like, just as I did when I was young, if a local band or some friends needed any sort of help or support, I would be there to give it to them."
In his philosophy, Grohl remains connected to his D.C. roots. Geographically, however, he's travelled as far away as possible while still remaining in the United States: he has spent most of the pandemic at his property in Hawaii, where he and his family have been regular visitors for the past 15 years. They were there when lockdown began last March, returned to Los Angeles over the summer, and then headed back to Hawaii around Thanksgiving. It was a very different year than what Grohl had planned for.
"We thought that 2020 was going to be the biggest, most beautiful year in our band's history: going on 25 years and making our 10th album," he says wistfully. "The idea was that it was going to be this huge celebration. And then, of course, everything kind of stopped. We had so many plans, you have no idea."
For a guy who has spent his entire adult life in a near-constant rhythm of recording and touring, 2020 was a big adjustment — one that required exercising his creative muscles in new and challenging ways. "We've been kind of working the same cycle for 25 years," he says. "It's practically refreshing to have some sort of break in that cycle. As disconnected as I felt from the world, I've actually felt that a lot of new processes were kind of rewarding."
In addition to his drum battle with Nandi Bushell, Grohl shared anecdotes from his life on the Instagram account @davestruestories, teamed up with producer Greg Kurstin for a series of cover songs called The Hanukkah Sessions, and parodied his caffeine addiction with a faux-pharmaceutical ad called "FreshPotix." Even without touring, he was a constant fixture in the music press.
According to Grohl, it was all about keeping people entertained throughout a grim year. He says, "The only purpose it served was to bring joy and happiness to everyone at a time when people were desperately in need of that. They could find three or four minutes of happiness. I realized that we don't just have to jump up on the stage to deliver that kind of escape, or that kind of relief. We can do it in other ways. I thought, you know, maybe that's our place in this world, and since we can't come share it in person, we have to think of ways to do it otherwise."
All the while, the Foos were sitting on a new album, made prior to the pandemic. They recorded it in Encino, CA, in the same house where Grohl briefly lived a decade prior; back then, he didn't find anything particularly unusual about the home, but once Foo Fighters showed up to record in late 2019, he immediately got the sense that something was wrong.
"If you've ever lived in a place that's considered haunted, you'll understand what it's like to have to share a space with something you can't explain," he says. "There were times where you just felt like you were either being chased or followed, like there was someone right behind you. It got spooky enough that we recorded nine songs and got the fuck out of there. Like, 'Fuck this place!'"
The house may have felt a little ominous, but the same definitely can't be said for the results of their sessions, since the new album, Medicine at Midnight, is bursting with joyful adrenaline. The arena-sized alt-rock anthems sound like classic Foos, while the clickity-clacking percussion loops on "Cloudspotter" and title cut "Medicine at Midnight" hint at dance and funk influences. "Waiting on a War" is an apocalyptic acoustic ballad that speeds up to a cathartic rock finale, while the ecstatic "Making a Fire" is a collision of soul harmonies and crunchy 6/8 power chords.
These songs were intended as a 25th anniversary victory lap. "We wrote these songs specifically to celebrate all the time that we've spent together," says Grohl. "Rather than go in and make some sleepy acoustic funeral dirge and ride off into the sunset of our career, I was like, 'Fuck that, man. Let's make a boogie rock record. Let's go out and fill those seats with people that want to dance.' I'm used to watching people climb all over each other at these festivals — what if they actually locked arms and started dancing together?"
Of course, Grohl's vision of audiences dancing joyfully won't come true anytime soon. For the time being, he's living what he calls "a day-to-day existence" in Hawaii, which mostly involves looking after his kids and helping them with online classes.
The band's only performance of 2021 so far was totally out of step with the celebratory spirit of Medicine at Midnight: two days before our interview, Foo Fighters appeared at the U.S. presidential inauguration, where Grohl offered a heartfelt tribute to teachers prior to a dramatic, organ-driven version of the 2002 track "Times Like These."
"Our performance was pre-recorded," the singer reveals. "We did it a week and a half before, live in our studio in Los Angeles. When it was on television, I was sitting on my couch with a beer and a tie-dye T-shirt, watching this happen. It was so surreal. It was almost like I was watching another band. I wasn't watching the Foo Fighters, I was watching some rock band that was invited to be there and tried to get as formally dressed as they possibly could."
Eventually, Grohl and his bandmates — drummer Taylor Hawkins, onetime Nirvana collaborator Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mendel, guitarist Chris Shiflett and keyboardist Rami Jaffee — will hit the road in support of Medicine at Midnight. And when they do, fans can expect a show that honours their legacy without leaning too heavily on nostalgia.
"I don't want them just to come to hear 'My Hero.' I don't want them to come to hear 'Everlong,'" asserts Grohl. "I want them to come and sing along with the new music as well. I hate spending too much time in the past. I would rather make a new record, and work these songs into a fashion where we can all sing along to these new ones."
By continuing to write chart-topping anthems, Grohl is carrying the torch for guitar-based music. Grohl counts Paul McCartney, Rush and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones among his collaborators, and he has directed documentaries like Sound City (2013) and Sonic Highways (2014) that pay tribute to the history of music. Foo Fighters are one of the most recent bands that could feasibly be considered "classic rock."
And yet, Grohl resists the suggestion that he is a caretaker for old-school rock music. He loves the past, but he's not stuck in it. "I had this conversation with my daughter yesterday as we were driving to a music store," he explains. "She said, 'My wrists are so tiny, but my fingers are long.' And I started talking about how funny it was, the way life grows. We're looking at these lava rocks that have flowers growing out of them. And I said, 'The purpose of life is to grow.' That idea of evolution — whether it's a flower growing from a lava rock, or just watching your body stretch as the years go by — I think of music in the same way. It's constantly growing."
He continues, "I entertain myself by digging into the history of music. I love to share it with other people. But I don't see it as some obligation or responsibility, or like I'm the nightwatchman at the rock'n'roll museum. But I do love and appreciate the lineage of music and why we are where we are. It gives me hope that there's a future and we will continue evolving."