Dave Grohl: "I still treat every cheque like it's the last"
Updated: Jul 1
A former teenage grunge devotee, speaking to Dave Grohl is still up there in my all time greatest moments. This article was first published in The Big Issue in May 2011, but later spread through global street papers as far as the cover of Argentina's Hecho en Bs. As.
Dave Grohl has cut back on everlasting tours so he can spend more time with his family. But as his Foo Fighters prepare for a handful of UK dates, Laura Kelly finds that rock's nice guy still has a ruthless streak in him.
The day after playing to a sold-out crowd at Wembley Arena and being awarded the NME's Godlike Genius Award, The Nicest Man in Rock™ and likely the most beloved guy in the entire music industry is explaining that we've got him all wrong. Behind the perma-grin and (barring a bit of salty language) impeccable manners, there is a steely centre, swears Dave Grohl. You don't spend two decades at the peak of rock 'n' roll - first as the drummer in Nirvana, pounding away on the definitive songs of a generation, then as frontman of million-selling stadium rock kings Foo Fighters - without breaking a few eggs.
"There are more than a few uncomfortable moments where I've had to be the leader of this band and make decisions," admits Grohl of his time as commander-in-chief of Foo Fighters. "I've had to do things that hurt other people."
The most controversial example of these "unpleasant decisions" was way back during the making of 1997's The Colour and the Shape. It was the album that saw the band become staples of rock radio and with Monkey Wrench and Everlong proved that it was more than just a sympathy offshoot of Nirvana. None of that would have happened, Grohl says, if he hadn't taken the rather brutal decision to re-record all the drums on the album behind the back of then rhythm section William Goldsmith, who promptly jumped ship after the betrayal. It's a hint of ruthlessness that has resurfaced in recently released Foos film Back And Forth, which tells the story of the band's 18-year history right up to current record Wasting Light.
"I did it for a few reasons but had I not re-done those drums, you and I wouldn't be speaking today," says Grohl. "I wouldn't be in Foo Fighters and I wouldn't have the wonderful family that I have today and the band wouldn't be as strong as we are today. There are just some moments in life when you don't think about being the nicest man in rock, you think about the reality of the situation. You watch the movie, then you decide."
The instinct to do what's best for number one goes back to the key moment in Grohl's life, the moment where he went from just another rock wannabe to future behemoth. It was the day he decided to abandon his best mates to go and drum for a promising young Seattle band. "Years and years and years ago, I was stuck in Los Angeles with nothing - nowhere to stay and no food and my band had broken up," recalls Grohl. "I called my friend [who just happened to be the Melvins' Buzz Osborne] and he said: 'You know, Nirvana's looking for a drummer.' I didn't know what to do because I was in a band with my best friends and we had broken up and we were all stranded together.
"I called my mother for advice and she said: 'You know, sometimes in life you have to do what's best for you.' That's all I needed to hear. I bought a ticket to Seattle."
Grohl's propulsive drumming helped drive Kurt Cobain's introspective and melodic heavy rock to the top of the charts and the forefront of popular consciousness, but it proved to be the drummer who had the better head for those heights. Now, 17 years after his friend died by suicide, Grohl has chosen to recreate the energy of their peak by going back to the producer and the method that made Nevermind one of the best rock records of all time. Recorded with iconic producer Butch Vig in Grohl's garage, which more usually houses a mini van and his daughters' bicycles, Wasting Light saw the band turn their back on all the digital accoutrements that have taken over the recording studio since Smells Like Teen Spirit was committed to tape.
"I've only made two records with Butch Vig - I made this one and I made Nirvana's Nevermind, 20 years ago," says Grohl. "To be honest, the way Butch makes records hasn't changed a bit. Time has gone by and we've all gone on to do different things, technology has changed and the world has changed, but put Butch Vig in a studio with a rock band and you get a fucking massive record. Put Butch Vig in a garage with a rock band and you get a nasty fucking record."
Getting Vig on board shaped the entire sound of the record, which is noticeably heavier and more stripped back than the Foos have sounded in a long time. "When I decided to do it with Butch I immediately realised what album we should make," Grohl continues. "I wouldn't want to go into the studio with Butch and make some Renaissance, lute, acoustic album. I knew that if we were doing a record with Butch it had to be a big rock record, so I kind of wrote a lot of the songs according to that criteria. I wanted it to be quick, I wanted it to be 11 songs of four and a half minutes long, I wanted them to be hooky, I wanted them to be heavy. I just wanted it to rock!"
Determined to recreate the youthful energy of the last time he worked with Vig, the 42-year-old even went so far as to ban any computers from his house during the recording. Vig was told he could forget even downloading the old-fashioned tape used in the recording on to computer for editing - for the first time in 15 years he had to get his razorblade out to edit the analogue way. A flash of ruthless Dave glints again as he explains his hardline approach. "It got to the point where I was yelling at people: 'If I see one computer in this studio, you're FUCKING FIRED! It's my house, you know?," he bellows, before breaking into a belly laugh. "It was great, man, it really challenged everybody."
Despite his popularity as a drummer for hire - notably with Queens of the Stone Age, Jack Black's Tenacious D, Nine Inch Nails and The Prodigy - Grohl is clearly a man who likes to have it his own way. Even rock gods have to report to a higher power sometimes, though, and when he's at home this one is under no illusions over who is boss. After being on the road for years with nothing but the manliest of rocking men for company, he nonetheless says he has the secret to a happy home life. The key, he says, is to spend every minute making sure his wife Jordyn Blum and his two young daughters Violet Maye and Harper Willow are kept happy.
"I grew up in a house of women," says Grohl, with the air of a man imparting great wisdom. "My parents split when I was seven years old. It wasn't a tragic, traumatic thing, but I was with my mother and sister, so I'm used to that female energy. I think my role at this point is just to make sure that the ladies are comfortable so that at the end of the day I don't get screamed at.
"Ask any married man and he'll say the same thing. You spend your whole day trying to keep your wife from chewing your head off and at the end of the day, if she's happy, you can sit down, have a drink and you'll be fine."
The arrival of Violet Maye in 2006 saw Grohl cut back the constant touring that has been his life since his early twenties to limit himself to six-month tours of duty so he doesn't miss his girls growing up. He has never lost his addiction to sweaty, adrenaline-fuelled live shows, however. Even after all these years, the first date of the tour still feels like "getting dressed for a first date with the most beautiful chick in town". His love for the fans is such that he says: "Sometimes I look out at the audience and I honestly feel like I could have a pint with each one of them. Maybe not 8,000 pints in one night, but you get what I'm trying to say."
It's a sentiment that goes both ways - who wouldn't want to share war stories with Grohl over a cold one? The unique blend of being both impossibly starry and an essential everyman - the sort of guy who can start an interview with an expansive "How are you, my friend?" without sounding like a Wal-Mart greeter - means that no matter how many dodgy tales we hear about his hard-nosed business practices, nothing can quell the immense amount of affection for this incredible rock survivor.
Though he must surely have made a goddamned fortune between his ridiculous number of mega-successful bands (we haven't even had a chance to mention Them Crooked Vultures and Probot), Grohl says he always lives by a pessimistic bit of guidance that his dad gave him 20 years ago. "When Nirvana first became popular, my father gave me the best advice. He said, treat every cheque like it's the last one you're ever going to make, because this isn't going to last. So I don't throw it around like Puff Daddy. Just so you know, I still treat every cheque I get like it's going to be the last. That's burned into my brain. I'm a high school drop-out and if this ever ends I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't even have a high school diploma."