Clash is almost 100 issues young, and to celebrate, the website you’re looking at right now is going to be revisiting some of the magazine’s greatest cover features from the past 10 years of publication. We begin with Foo Fighters, who starred on the cover of issue 22, way back in 2007, around the time of their sixth studio album, ‘Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace’. The band is gearing up to release its eighth LP, ‘Sonic Highways’, in November, so it feels like a good time to revisit their patter of two records ago.
Frontman Dave Grohl answers our questions.
- - -
‘The Pretender’, from ‘Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace’
- - -
‘Echoes, Silence, Patience And Grace’ is a curious title. Where did it come from, and what does it mean?
Well, it’s always been a challenge to name any of our albums, just because they’re usually diverse in their musical dynamic and in their lyrical theme. It just seems strange to make an album and have a slogan that represents every aspect of the record, and some of our albums had these really direct titles, like ‘One By One’ and ‘There’s Nothing Left To Lose’ and ‘In Your Honour’. So this time, having an album that’s the most diverse music we’ve ever made – musically and lyrically – it was tough to find something that really did sum it all up.
I picked through the lyrics and I found a lyric from the last song, ‘Home’, which says: “Echoes, silence, patience and grace, all of these moments I’ll never replace.” I thought it was nice because it’s open to interpretation and it’s a beautiful title and I think the album is beautiful in its diversity and its melody and its musicality – it goes from delicate acoustic moments to the heaviest shit we’ve ever done.
Are you quite confident that your fans are going to follow you in whatever direction you go in?
You know, at some point you turn that warning light off. Now, having done it for as long as we have, it becomes a little more introverted. As a musician you need to do the things that satisfy yourself. One of the great things about our band is that we’ve built this little world with our own studios and our own label and directing our own videos and finding our own producers and producing ourselves. We’re able to walk into our fortress, Studio 606, and lock the door and turn everything outside off, and I think it’s helped us survive this whole time. So at some point you do turn that off. I mean, of course, I hope the people enjoy what we do. But it’s not a main motivation for doing it. It’s a challenge.
If you’re handling all aspects of the band, and are locked away in your own studio, how do you avoid becoming self-indulgent?
Honestly, to me, at this point, simplification and melody and meaningful lyrics have become the challenge. I mean, I’ve been stepping on distortion pedals since I was f*ckin’ 13 years old, you know? So it’s been a long time. You get to the point where the challenge is in dynamic and simplicity. Yeah, we could stroll down there and spend all day recording loops and feedback, but that doesn’t get me off anymore.
When you simplify your songs and break them down, it means that your lyrics are more open to analysis. Do you feel and pressure or apprehension at having your words laid so bare?
I used to be scared. I used to be afraid to say certain things and I used to be afraid to write in that way. But after becoming a father, you know, the big picture really does open up a lot and you realise that life’s too short to hold back those things that you’ve always wanted to do, or always wanted to say.
When I started writing for this album I wasn’t afraid to say certain things, and as we were choosing the songs for the record, the idea wasn’t to choose a specific dynamic. It was just to select the songs that were the most moving or that had the best lyric or the best melody. So, it could have been an album full of f*ckin’ accordions and cellos; it could have been an album full of walls of amplifiers, you know? But the dynamic of the record dictated itself with melody and lyrics in mind.
You describe yourself as “simple” twice throughout the album – “A simple man and his blushing bride” in ‘Let It Die’, and “such a simple animal, sterilised with alcohol” in ‘Come Alive’. Do you consider yourself a simple-living person?
I consider every human being extremely simple. When it comes down to basic science or biology, we’re just f*ckin’ squishy organisms, you know? Of course everyone has their emotionally complicated side, but I think people are pretty simple; I don’t think we’re the wunderkinds we imagine ourselves to be. It’s pretty easy to figure people out, I think. You can get a sense of a person in the first f*ckin’ 15 minutes of conversation. Well, that’s pretty simple; it’s easier than a chessboard, you know?
- - -
‘Long Road To Ruin’, from ‘Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace’
- - -
In ‘Long Road To Ruin’ you sing “Dear God I’ve sealed my fate / Running through Hell / Heaven can wait”. Do you think you’ve led a sinful life?
I’ve had my share of sin. I’ve done my time. Just as anybody else, you go through your periods where you do things that are bad because they make you feel good. And just like anyone else, I ain’t no saint. I went to Catholic school for reform, you know? (Laughs) I’ve never been to church in my life; I wound up going to Catholic school with a f*ckin’ uniform on for two years because I was getting in too much trouble spray painting shit and taking acid.
When was the last time you prayed?
Not long ago actually. A couple of months ago? I do that every once in a while.
Just to stay in contact?
Well, you know, there’s a part of me that really does believe that there’s more to life than just this… You’re talking to a guy who believes in UFOs! (Laughs) So I’m sure you can imagine me getting down on both knees and praying to something!
‘Statues’ was the first time you’ve played piano on record, right?
Yeah. My wife bought me a piano for my birthday about a year and a half ago. I’ve always been really intimidated by them because I just didn’t understand how they worked, you know? I’ve never played one before. I’ve played ‘Chopsticks’, but I’ve never really tried to play a song. Someone said, ‘OK, see that there? That note is middle C.’ I’m like, ‘Oh that’s a C? Oh well that’s an E… F*ckin’ A, there’s a chord!’ And then I just started writing songs. Pretty simple; it’s not Beethoven.
So you’re still building your confidence?
I haven’t learned a new instrument in f*ckin’ 25 years, so when you sit down at something like that it’s like putting a kaleidoscope in front of your face; it’s like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a whole beautiful world out there.’ And I just started writing. Five years ago those songs wouldn’t have been on a Foo Fighters record because I would have been too concerned that it was too much of an abstract direction; it was too much of a shift in the band. And now, I just wanna make music. So a song like ‘Statues’, or a song like ‘Home’, I think those are two of the best songs that the band has ever written, just because after 13 years it’s still changing; the band is managing to evolve somehow. We’ll just change rather than suffocate in the same f*ckin’ cage that a lot of bands get trapped in.
Can you believe that you’re still together after this long?
Man… (Laughs) This wasn’t supposed to be a career, you know? This was a fluke. The same thing with Nirvana. Both of these things were accidents, and I’d be doing the same thing had either of the bands just stayed in the vans and the clubs. I’d still be doing the same thing, but no, I never imagined this to happen.
Going back a bit, what was the first band to really bite you seriously?
Well, I was a Beatles fanatic when I was a kid, so I had all of The Beatles’ records, and a songbook that was the Complete Beatles Anthology with chord charts. And at 10 or 11 years old I started learning how to play guitar and I would play along with all of those records. But I think the first time a band made me lose my mind was when I saw AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock movie. I think I was probably 11 or 12 years old – maybe 12 – and it was a midnight movie downtown in Washington DC. I think my friend Larry had one AC/DC record but we hadn’t listened to it much, so we went to go see this concert film. It was filmed in 1979 in France, and it was one of the last tours that Bon Scott did with the band before he died.
That show, that live performance, still to this day is one of the most electrifying live performances I’ve ever seen in my life; just pure, stripped-down, sweaty f*ckin’ hard rock, and it was the first time I’d ever experienced that feeling of wanting to just f*ckin’ smash a window, you know, just to break shit. It completely energised me, and I worshipped Angus Young – all I wanted to be was Angus Young. So that was the first time I was ever moved by a band.
- - -
Eventually you just get to the point where you say, ‘F*ck it. I’m just gonna do whatever the hell I wanna do.’
- - -
You refer to going home to the “sweet Virginia countryside” in ‘Summer’s End’. Do you retreat back home to get away from things, or is it just a mental escape that you like to imagine?
Yeah, the idea of home is so much bigger than just a place, you know? Virginia represents something to me that’s more than lightning bugs and thunderstorms and the neighbourhood I grew up in. It has to do with a sort of reality or a truth, you know? Like a stability or foundation that everything is based on, everything I’ve ever done. And the person that I am now is all because of that just as much as when I refer to home now it means my family, you know? My mother or my wife or my daughter – those are the things that are most real to me, so when I refer to Virginia it’s usually just referring to those parts or those places in my life that I consider real. Because, you know, a lot of what we’re surrounded with is so superficial – especially doing what we do. A lot of it can seem imaginary.
Could you see ever a time when you weren’t doing this?
What would you do?
I dunno. I’m not really sure. Making music is an everyday thing, whether it’s in public or at home. I love writing and I love performing, but I don’t imagine that it will last forever. I mean, there are times where I could just imagine being a stay-at-home dad, you know? Waking up in the morning… My routine now is I get up at 6.30am, I get Violet out of her crib, make her a bottle, hang out, read some books, have some breakfast, put her down for a nap, get her up, get her dressed, then I go to the studio at noon. The days where I don’t go to the studio it’s a good f*ckin’ 16-hour day of just being a father and…it’s great man. You get her down at night to go to sleep, you sit down on the couch and you think of all the shit that you did that day. It’s a great feeling; you’re exhausted but, you know…
To me it seems like the idea is to stretch your days. Who knows how long you’re gonna live for, so why not try to get as much in as you can? A full day with a 16-month-old baby is a f*ckin’ full day! When you go to sleep you go down hard!
Were you worried at all about the negative effect that having a child might have on your songwriting? Someone like John Lennon would write sappy ballads…
No, because I don’t think that that’s a negative effect. As long as it’s a direct reflection of the way you feel, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
It might get a bit too sentimental though,
I don’t necessarily think that there’s anything wrong with sentimentality. Like we said earlier, it’s all based on that Let There Be Rock movie, so I can’t imagine I’ll be dancing round the stage with a f*ckin’ harpsichord anytime soon. You have to shed that sort of expectation or you have to erase that preconception from what you do, you know, just to be able to write and just make songs should be enough. I’d hate to be someone else’s idea of myself forever. Eventually you just get to the point where you say, ‘F*ck it. I’m just gonna do whatever the hell I wanna do.’
- - -
‘Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make-Up Is Running)’, from ‘Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace’
- - -
How large does the Nirvana legacy loom over you?
It’s always there. It’s a huge part of my life, you know? I wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for that, so it’s a massive part of my timeline. It happened in such a short period of time, but it was huge. So it will always be there, yeah. And I’ve never wanted to deny it, you know. I mean I’m really proud to have been in a band that achieved something like that, where we managed to connect with so many people. I wish that things had turned out differently – obviously – but it will always be there. Honestly, I’m really proud to have been a part of something so special.
At what point did interviews go from being all about Nirvana to all about Foo Fighters?
Well, the first few years… I remember when we first announced that we were a band, everybody wanted to do an interview, and it was obvious that there wasn’t much to talk about except the past. We hadn’t f*ckin’ done anything yet. We’d played maybe a handful of shows and we were still rehearsing. So we shied away from doing too many interviews right off the bat, and we slowly gradually dipped our feet in and started talking to people.
It was understandable that so many people would have so many questions about Nirvana, and it was difficult to talk about at the time because it was still only a few years after Kurt had passed away and after the band had fallen apart, so I had to be really careful – as did the interviewer. Because, as you can imagine, it was a personal tragedy, and to have a complete stranger start asking you questions about something that was still painful – and then go tell everybody about it – it was a little weird.
But then after a while, maybe five or six years, the questions just sorta stopped. And then there were anniversaries so then, you know, the questions came back. They’ll always be there. I don’t refuse to talk about anything – well, there’s certain things I refuse to talk about – but it’s understandable, you know?
Do the emotions you went through after Nirvana still come through in your writing, or have there been so many things happen subsequently that there’s enough to draw from?
Well, I think that if I write about loss or death or pain or heartbreak there’s this tendency to make the correlation between that and Kurt or Nirvana. I’ve had a whole life outside of both of these bands that’s had its share of all of those things; they are general emotions that most people have felt one time or another in their lives. For a while I was afraid to say some of those things for fear that the listener would make that correlation, but I’m not afraid of that anymore, because I felt that like it kept me from saying some things that were really important to me, and so it hinders the process, you know? I don’t wanna keep myself from saying anything, so it definitely was a roadblock for a while, but I made my way past that.
When you first joined Nirvana you really relished the role of being ‘just’ the drummer. After Nirvana, what made you want to make the leap to being the frontman?
I didn’t wanna be just the drummer. I love being a drummer in a band. It’s kinda where I feel most comfortable and confident. I don’t consider myself a larger-than-life frontman that can capture a stadium full of people with my otherworldly personality – so as a drummer, just being the backbone or the foundation of a song, I’ve always felt really comfortable. But then after Nirvana was finished I couldn’t imagine doing it again with someone else, because it always would have reminded me of being in a band with Krist and Kurt, and it was sad, you know? I didn’t wanna continue life dwelling on the past and what had happened, so I thought I’d give being a frontman a shot. I didn’t know what the f*ck I was doing – I still don’t.
- - -
Interview by Simon Harper
Please note that this is a slightly edited version of the feature that ran in issue 22 – you’re going to have to find a copy of the magazine for the full, 5,000-words-plus original.
Foo Fighters release ‘Sonic Highways’ on November 10th. Find the band online here. More Classic Clash Cover Features, coming soon.