Bamm Bamm! Who’s there? Why it’s Dave Grohl barreling through the hotel entrance with a cartoon grocery bag, brimming over with French bread, a sliced loaf and all the necessary vittles. He hails the doorman, crosses the corridor and stops. He then turns around and legs it back the way he came. Baam baam! The process is repeated until Dave – today’s video director, regular singer and songwriter and occasional drummer with Foo Fighters – has built up a sequence of takes. He checks his performance on the TV monitors and volunteers to try the scene one more time. Then he’ll be done, definitely.
The method behind this shoot is perplexing to all but a few insiders. The storyline will involve scenes in a retina-burning red room, in which unspeakable acts will occur. There is also a part that requires the band to dress entirely in black and to act like chase-maddened fugitives. Between takes, we will speak to the boss about the Foo Fighters’ changing circumstances, about fame, heroes and the ever-swelling legacy of Nirvana. But more of this later. Dave is in charge today because all of the suggested treatments for the band’s ‘Monkey Wrench’ video were stupid, expensive and insulting. Dave wanted something more imaginative. After all, hadn’t he taken a walk-on roll in The X Files and registered some of the creative atmosphere over there? Then he woke up in New York one morning during a business trip and reckoned he had the issue sussed. ”I’ve just had an amazing dream,” he announced to the rest of the band. “And the dream is gonna be the new video.”
Dave is all sinews and whip-crack reflexes, smoke jetting from his mouth and nostrils as Marlboros are sparked up and consumed. His palms work over the bristles of his General Custer beard as he deals with the multiple complications of album artwork, filming, promotional interviews, touring and rehearsing with a new drummer. The single, ‘Monkey Wrench’, is imminent, followed closely by an LP. The band managed through 1996 in a state of chaos, as the original album recordings from Seattle were scrapped. The band moved to Los Angeles as the deadlines sheered up and the budget became scary. Their drummer, William Goldsmith, quit after a period of dissatisfaction. But there’s no time to stall now, and Grohl must marshal the Foo Fighters as best he can.
Nate Mendel, the Foo’s bassist, is quietly thumbing over a copy of Don Quixote in one corner, studious and cool. Pat Smear, an elegant dresser and a footwear junkie, is pulling a pair of jazzy two-tone shoes out of a bag, and looking estatic. By far the most noisy member of the gang is new boy Taylor Hawkins, who looks like Brad Pitt (“I would like to hear the end of that”, counters Dave in his most amusing, bitchy voice) and has taken up the goofy role that Grohl patented during his Nirvana days. Taylor brightens the afternoon by unleashing his deadly impersonation of Freddie Mercury – the voice, the strut, everything. Then he holds up his forearm and points out the scars that resulted from a series of teenage games of ‘chicken’. “Those burns were cigarettes; there and there,” he explains. “That one was a match. And this one with the spiral design, that was a car’s cigarette lighter…”
Back on set, and the 60-year-old doorman is whistling a familiar tune – a muzak version of the Foo’s old song, ‘Big Me’. Why is that? And what causes the band members to race upstairs and peer out of the window of the upstairs chamber? – a crimson-walled womb with a view? Anyhow, just why is this beautiful and expansive hotel so empty, musty and odd?
SPOOK STORY #1
The Ambassador Hotel, once a classy location on Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard, closed for business eight years ago. Decades before, it was famed for its Oscar Awards Parties, and the radio broadcasts from its lovely Coconut Lounge. Sinatra and Crosby played the joint, so did the likes of Nat King Cole and Gloria Swanson. But then the big money shifted to another part of town, and something tragic occurred. That’s what’s causing us to pass the ‘Do Not Enter’ sign downstairs and to step into a room walled in tile and aluminium. A massive old kitchen, filthy and decrepit. Is this the place where Senator Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in 1968? An old security guy steps out. He must be 80 at least. He tells us we shouldn’t be here and we feel like the kids from Scooby Doo, out of our depth. He was actually there the night Bobby was assassinated. Very sad. So was it in this very place, we ask?
“No,” he says. “It all happened in another kitchen… way down there. The FBI came and took away the keys. Nobody’s ever been there since.”
We get back to the ground floor and square this story with Dave. Could it be true?
“Sure,” he says. “It’s all true.”
The Colour And The Shape, the new Foo Fighters album, is pacey and fierce. Most of it was written on tour, although the lyrics were added last. This is an important point, because, in the autumn of last year, Grohl was going through some powerful emotional changes. Almost all the entire record deals with the politics of relationships.
‘Monkey Wrench’ translates in the English phrase ‘a spanner in the works’. The singer is messing up the lives of other people, and he decides to get offside. But soon he’s involved in another affair, and this enflames songs like ‘Everlong’ and ‘February Stars’.
Even the landscape of his adopted home town of Seattle is carved into the record. On the closing track, ‘New Way Home’, Dave recalls the drives back his place via Highway 99. As he headed up to his house, he’d pass the boats moored on the left and the football arena – the King Dome – on the right. These became his totems of good luck, signs that all would be well in his life. So he notes them in song. He even shaped the track sequence on the new LP to reflect his change from chaos to new-found happiness. “I think that albums should be like a roller-coaster,” he explains. “Or like a set-list when a band plays live. There should be a beginning and an end. It’s so important, and so few records I hear these days make me think, this is the intro and this is the finale. It just makes a better journey through 13 songs.
“When we finally did sequence the album, I had this realisation that it runs like a therapy session. The first song, ‘Doll’, is all about your fear of entering into something you weren’t prepared for, which is the way I feel about mostly everything – it can pertain to the band as well; being a singer, songwriter and, uh, freaked out.
“I go through this whole therapy session, and I end up at the last track, when I realise that it’s OK, I can make my way through all of this, and I’m not that freaked out at the end. We were joking for a while when were thinking about work for the album. I thought, why don’t we put a picture of a therapist’s couch on it? For the rest of my life, when I listen to this record, it will be the Fall of 1996, and my journal entries, which is a little strange”
Do you keep a diary?
“No, I just make records.”
On the song ‘Everlong’, you detail the buzz of falling in love. It’s like the best drug. That’s why love junkies eat chocolate – because there’s a similar chemical in there.
“Yeah, definitely. This is the reason why I never eat chocolate, because I fall in love so very easily. I think I might have an over abundance of whatever that endorphin is in my system.”
SPOOK STORY #2
Like Dave, the Heaven’s Gate cult based at Rancho, San Diego, were fascinated with UFO’s and the idea that alien beings were a reality. They also had some musical interests, and designed an unofficial Madonna website to show to prospective customers -internet design was their trade.
Marshall Applewhite, the cult’s leader, earned a music degree at the University of Colorado, and appeared in college productions of Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma. Once the cult was up and running, the believers would apply tuning forks to their heads to dislodge ‘human’ thoughts.
After the mass suicide, there was a statement from Ted Turner, the Vice-Chairman of Time Warner, who helped to sell Madonna’s records. He called the event “A good way to get rid of a few nuts.”
Dave and the VOX team look at the LA Times cover, which runs a four column photo of a deceased Heaven’s Gate believer, lying on his death bed, shrouded in purple. On his feet are a brand new pair of Nike jogging shoes. We decide that the photo caption should have read: ‘Just Do It’.
“My God!” Dave squeals, “You’re ruthless!”
Dave doesn’t want to talk about UFO’s much. He feels that his interest in the subject has become exaggerated. He even came up with a song title on the new record, ‘Enough Space’, which tries to put that side of his personality into perspective. “Every time we got together to do an interview, or every time we read a feature on the band,it had more to do with UFO’s and science fiction than the music.
“I’m a sci-fi buff; I’m a UFO buff. I named the band Foo Fighters (a name for alien balls of fire, spotted by US air fighters over Germany during World War II). It’s just this added identity – the gang mentality of being in a band. I named the record company Roswell Records because of the UFO crash in New Mexico (in 1947). So, for good reason, people suppose I’m obsessed with outer space, which I’m just not. I love reading about it, I love science fiction movies, but I don’t prey to the alien God in my fucking pyramid temple. It just doesn’t happen. So I just thought, enough of this space shit.”
Has this interest attracted many weirdoes in the past?
“No. Every so often, someone will come up and share UFO sighting stories, but no, we don’t get many cult fan letters.”
On the song ‘My Hero’, it seems like you’re trying to break another preconception – making a statement about the nature of fame. You sing: ‘There goes my hero – he’s ordinary’.
“When I was young, I didn’t have sports or astronaut heroes. I had people who were like friends of the family; the guy who would take me out to the country when I was young, and try to introduce me to wildlife and camping and fishing. Then there was the guy who watched Sesame Street with me when I was a kid, and helped me to read.
“The song is also about having friends you consider your hero, and they’re just ordinary people. And sometimes there are people you know, who you’re connected to, who other people consider to be a fucking God. Whereas you know this person as a human being. And he can be your hero in that way.”
Is that Kurt Cobain you’re talking about?
“There’s definitely an element of Kurt in that song. It was probably inspired by him. That was probably my realisation that these people who are normal human beings can be way more than a famous figure.
“I don’t understand the rock star persona. It doesn’t make sense. For me, there should be some kind of connection. When you come to see the show, I don’t want people to stand there and feel like they’ve got to look at me for an hour and fifteen minutes. I’d like to think that we can all laugh together – when you walk out on stage, you know what kind of people they are.”
How involved were you with the production of last year’s Nirvana live album, ‘From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah’?
“I was on tour when it was happening, and Geffen was getting the tapes together. Kris was going through the tapes, and I was getting tapes sent out to me. And a lot of it was, well… can you imagine how many versions of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ there were?
“You probably remember that we weren’t the most pristine live band in the world. It was all about the moment. Not about whether your guitar was in tune. And then, finally, it got narrowed down to some stuff, and that’s when we really got all our heads together. But Kris really took the bulk of the burden.”
Was it easy to be objective listening to those recordings?
“I can do that. There are certain things I have a hard time thinking about or listening to. But for the most part, it’s like a diary or scrapbook. Every so often it’s nice to go back and just remember. Sometimes it grounds you. And it’s nice to have a perspective and nice to have a feeling of growth and progression. Just to listen back to the tape you made when you were 13 years old and to think: ‘Wow – I can’t believe I played like this.’
“Whereas with Nirvana, you look back and think: ‘God I can’t believe I had anything to do with this.’ I can’t believe that’s me playing the drums. It’s an honour, y’know? And it’s something I hold in a very high place. So in that sense, yeah, it’s great to listen to it because I feel very proud. But there are certain things I can’t listen to, or things that I can’t think about.”
“Oh, just certain things. But it was back and forth. It was easy to be objective sometimes. Then sometimes it wasn’t.”
Patti Smith cites Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged’ album as a chief inspiration behind her comeback LP of ’96, ‘Gone Again’. The same record that contains the track, ‘About A Boy’, which is dedicated to Kurt.
“Wow – Patti Smith! Shit, I can’t imagine her even picking up our CD. I feel horrible that I haven’t even heard her record. Shit, it’s strange when you do something that inspires someone, who has been so inspiring to you. It’s kinda like recycling or something.”
SPOOK STORY #3
It’s a late March evening, and Dave steps out for something to eat at Barney’s Beanerie, just below Sunset Boulevard, in West Hollywood. This is a cheap and sociable place to meet, and there are many photos all over the walls of celebrities who’ve partied here in the past. Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin were both rowdy regulars.
Dave is talking to some friends, and the conversation turns to the subject of Courtney Love. It is hardly exaggerating to say that there is no affection lost between Grohl and Love. Some journalists have even speculated that the Foos antagonistic song, ‘I’ll Stick Around’, is addressed to Kurt’s widow. He turns around and sees another party of people walking in, also here for something to eat. Courtney Love, Frances Bean, and Ma Cobain, come on down. The atmosphere is politely cheerful.
The new Foo Fighters track, ‘Wind Up’, is a particularly savage affair. What’s going on in those lyrics?
“It’s about the relationship between the musician and the journalist, which annoys me in some ways. There are some artists who have nothing more to do than bitch and complain about everything under the sun. Never a word of how fortunate they are. They can put a plastic card in the wall and it will spit out 20 quid like that.
“That’s what some journalists expect of me – the reluctant rock star. Sure, I don’t wanna be a fuckin’ rock star, but I feel pretty luck that I can just go up with a guitar and play to more than two people a night, and people come up to me on the street and say: ‘Hey, I really like your record.’ That’s not torture – that’s fucking flattery, y’know?
“Why is it that your average person can go and confess to a priest in a booth, but some skinny 22 year old rock star will confess to the entire planet about how he can’t walk outside for the fear that someone will come up and say he likes the album. Fuck you! I can’t stand it.
“Sure there are deadlines, legitimate pressures. But is that as bad as feeling you have only 50 years left to achieve your lifetime goal, and you don’t feel like you’re gonna do it? That you’re going nowhere pumping gas at the station?”
You were forever larking around in old Nirvana photo sessions, weren’t you?
“That’s the only way you can survive stuff like that. It was like: ‘Wait a second; my band’s at number 1? We knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the charts? This is fucking ridiculous! Everyone’s fucking crazy! They’re making a mistake; it’s not supposed to happen to some stupid kid from Nowheresville.’
There’s some guilt to it, too: ‘Wait a second, why is it that I deserve this recognition and someone else doesn’t?’ Because if I wasn’t in this band, I’d be one of the people watching this band play.”
Dave Grohl has always looked like a man who was at ease with himself and with his place in rock’n’roll. Is that a fair reflection?
“You know what – it’s a fucking facade. I’m so scared. I’m really freaked out about it. Maybe I should be an actor, because I suppose that I pull it off. But I’m horrified, really.”
So was last year’s live LP the full stop on the Nirvana story?
“You mean, like closure? It could be seen as that, yeah, but it’s probably not the last thing you’re ever gonna see from Nirvana. There are issues and remasters from The Doors and Led Zeppelin.
“Those are ridiculous examples because those bands are totally legendary, but when a band comes to a halt, and it hasn’t run its full course, there is a need for more. They weren’t finished with you, so they’ll always want more, and record companies are always willing to give…
“Look at what The Beatles did with ‘Free As A Bird’. You know what, I actually liked the melody of it, it reminded me of that last John Lennon record.”
So would the remaining members of Nirvana ever think of doing that?
“Fuck no, we wouldn’t do that! But there’s some stuff people haven’t heard. Someone asked me that the other day, if there were eight Nirvana songs that no one’s ever heard. I said, no, I don’t think so. Then I started thinking about it. I don’t fucking remember. There could be. It’s a bit of a blur.”
Spook story #4
During a Thanksgiving party in 1994, Dave realised he had a ghost in his house. Friends felt a presence standing behind them. Dave heard footsteps in the kitchen, when there was no one around. They messed with a Ouija board, which resulted in scary messages about a child murderer.
Dave is free of the problem now. ”I moved. That was my solution. I haven’t had any trouble with that for a while.”
The band are outside, dressed in black – just like (cue more spook stories) those mysterious figures who turn up at reported UFO crashes in America. Dave is shouting into the walkie-talkie, making sure the crew and band members are ready for work. Taylor, who’s clearly enjoying this fun (well, his last gig was with the Alanis Morissette band), wants to know what his motivation is. “You’re scared!” Grohl barks. “You’re a wingnut and a grommett!”
When the director gives the nod, this dark foursome goes charging over the courtyard wall. They look back, registering fear when they see the upper floors of the hotel. They then sprint over the flagstones and disappear behind a palm-lined path. The reason for the rampage? It’s a Dave thing. We may never know the full story.
But we can summarise one fact from our time spent with the man. He’s a survivor and a philosopher; able to withstand chaos, personal grief, bad luck and misconceptions. He’s funny, and, in spite of the bum deals he’s experienced, Dave makes alright music. An admirable guy.
You can’t stop a Grohl.
© Stuart Bailie
This feature originally appeared in Vox magazine, June 1997