“I was the new guy. I was the youngest, and I was the drummer,” said Dave Grohl about his three-strike mentality with Nirvana. While performing as a drummer with Kurt Cobain, Grohl started to write songs that would later become the Foo Fighters. In an exclusive interview with Sam Jones, he spoke about beliefs, music, and life.
With punk rock, “There was this underground network, run by kids. There were people making fanzines and people trading tapes with record companies that didn’t even have their driver’s license yet.” Grohl started the interview by talking about the early days of punk rock.
Sprinkled throughout, the musician provided enough life advice for anyone to go out and start a band, as long passion was clearly the driving force.
Stretch Your Playing Field And Push Limitations
“For years, I would write things that I didn’t think were Foo Fighters songs.” At the time, that meant it couldn’t be too bitter or too delicate. Eventually, he realized that he could break out of the Foo Fighters box and do whatever he wanted because it was coming from him and the band.
Most people are scared of taking chances and basically aim for “perfection” as a crutch. When Grohl started to finally stretch out his limitations, he was then able to drop in new sounds and new songs for the band. By stretching the playing field, he literally had more room to run.
Find An Outlet For Balance And Normality
“Bands are like families that go through uncomfortable growing pains. If it happens all at once, it’s just too much,” said Grohl about Nirvana. Whenever things got too hectic with the band, he would just leave and head back to Virginia/Washington D.C. There, he would sleep in his childhood bed and hang out with old friends.
The drummer for Nirvana quit taking drugs about the same time that things got crazy with the band. Whenever things were too out of hand, he would simply leave and visit his childhood home. There, he could basically just be a kid again and click the reset button on his mindset.
Independence As A Musician Is Vital
“I try to encourage any musician to just do it themselves. With the Foo Fighters, we try to keep it simple. We have our own studio. We make music in my garage. We find that it’s the people outside of the bands that complicate things so much,” he said. This is also why the last Foo Fighters album was recorded to tape.
The Foo Fighters made their last record in Grohl’s garage. He wanted to record the album to tape so no one could manipulate the song. By avoiding computers, they decided to use tape where edits would be made with actual knife and tape. Grohl still encourages people to be classic and to focus on playing live.
Accept Your Style And Voice
“It took me a long time to realize I was never going to sing like Freddie Mercury.” Eventually, Grohl accepted his self-criticisms about his voice. Finally, he realized how ridiculous it could be to try and be something that you’re not. “I want to be a drummer, singer, father, driver, whatever… Expectations as an artist are funny.”
Grohl then compared Radiohead to Queen. Both experiences are awesome and very different but it’s hard not to prefer one over the other. In this example, the artist said he wanted to see Queen in front of 75,000 people singing the same song. This is different from Radiohead’s light show. But neither could perform like the other.
”The Challenge Is Simplification.”
While Grohl performed with Nirvana, the goal was simplification rather than complexity. Kurt Cobain’s songwriting was a process of simplification. At the time, most people thought Grohl was merely a drummer. But the singer, guitar player, and songwriter came into his own. However, he didn’t want to interfere with Cobain.
In addition, he still knows that the simplicity is as good as it gets. He never wanted to be on the cover of a magazine. Instead, he wanted to “beat the f*ck” out of his drums so people would know he played his heart out. “If playing live is enough reward for you, then you’re set. But you’ve got to be badass,” he added.
Avoid Being A Sheep In The World
“At 13 or 14, I realized I’m going to figure out what I want to do. I didn’t believe you had to join the stream…go to college…or join the military. I didn’t do anything that I was expected to do. I wanted to find my own way to do stuff,” he said. Grohl also spoke about this very subject at a recent SXSW event.
In front of thousands (and millions online), Grohl proudly spoke out against the shows like American Idol and The Voice. Rather than having someone judge you and your performance, he wants to see people get out there and make it on their own. Determination beats anything given to someone by Hollywood.
You Don’t Need Any Outside Help To Start
“I never took lessons to play drums. I did it on my bed by listening to Rush records. I took one drum lesson and he said, ‘That’s how you hold your sticks?’” similarly, he learned guitar the same way. In fact, he only knows the basic chords. He actually looks at the guitar like it’s a drum set of kicks and snares.
This is usually true for great directors, iconic screenwriters, and everyone else in between. Some of those things simply come later. It likely took Grohl longer to learn this way, but he didn’t have $30 an hour to pay someone to teach him. So, after his first lesson, he set out on his own.
”Extend Your Hand To The Listener.”
“I know the Foo Fighters are capable of doing things that people have never heard us do,” he added. “I know that we’re capable of doing things that you wouldn’t expect us to do. But that might not be what you want to hear. I don’t want to be a band that plays with his back to the audience.”
Somewhere, as the audience matured, he realized he could write for himself and write for fans. In order to feel both creative and fulfilled, he needed to do both. Grohl feels great writing songs, but he feels fulfilled when a stadium is singing his song. The challenge is actually within the simplification.
Great Things Happen Through Ignorance
“I don’t want any f*cking Hollywood people involved. Great things happen when you have no idea what you’re doing.” Dave Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters record by himself in five days. Likewise, when he decided to make a documentary, he avoided the Hollywood regulars and did it alone.
For Sound City, he wanted to make sure that all of the people in the room could jam, cared about music, and cared about Sound City. “I made Sound City because it meant that much to me. Sound City was really special to me. The studio was all about music and musicians and the work done in those rooms.”
Embrace Inconsistencies And Imperfections
While performing as Them Crooked Vultures, Grohl said his bandmate John Paul Jones would purposefully allow picks and scratches to be on the album. Modern producers would not want for the recording to sound imperfect. Grohl and his team, however, wanted to embrace what made the album real.
“Ultimately, when you’re listening to something that is pristine, perfect, looped, it kind of makes you tired in a weird way,” said the performer. “It makes my ears tired.” Perhaps the imperfections are what makes the music feel more alive and sounds more like a live concert. This is partially what makes classic music “classic.”
Organic songs make you feel something or hear something new every time. This way, you preserve more of the human elements in a song.
Find Collaborators You Completely Trust
When the singer-songwriter has an idea for a song, he takes it to Taylor Hawkins. There, the duo discusses the ins and outs of the idea. Then, they start to write the rhythm, determine the pace of the song, and decide where to take the idea. Then, they go to the other guys and everyone pulls it in their direction to stretch the collaboration.
This is also how he determined who would help him with the documentary and almost every other decision in his life. In fact, he only came over to do the Off Camera interview because he had direct contact to the photographer and interview, Sam Jones. They actually set it up over email with no middleman.
Know When Something Better Is Available
In the interview, Grohl told a famous joke about a drummer’s last words being, “Hey guys, I wrote a song.” But despite his level of skill as a drummer, songwriter, and singer, he decided to step back and let Nirvana be Nirvana. This meant letting Kurt Cobain define the sound and not interfering with that process.
In some ways, this led to the Foo Fighters. Grohl took a backseat to Nirvana and even the band Scream beforehand. While playing with other friends, he would borrow a tape and play each part to make the song himself. The Foo Fighters started because he didn’t feel like he needed his songs on a Nirvana record.
All Of Your Heroes Are Vulnerable
While filming Sound City, Dave Grohl got to spend time with giants like Paul McCartney and Stevie Nicks. But to his surprise, these artists were just as vulnerable and humble as anyone else. Despite their musical history, they asked for suggestions and were not sure of themselves.
“Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that this person you idolize is human and has all of the vulnerabilities that you do,” he said. In the movie, it was clear that those people that gravitated towards Soundcity were willing to chase mistakes. They were willing to be vulnerable and make an imperfect recording.
Be Grateful Just To Wake Up And Try
“When Kurt [Cobain] died, I woke up the next day and thought, ‘I am lucky to be alive.’ To this day, I feel that every morning when I wake up. It’s so strange to think that person was just here and now they’re just gone. But I’m still here,” he said.
“I felt like the most important thing was just appreciating being alive. Good day or bad day didn’t matter to me. I’m going to try this. What do I have to lose?” Grohl still makes decisions with this thought in mind. Ironically, it allows him to be both grateful and risky at the same time.
The Reward Is In The Music
Before the music industry essentially became the showbiz industry, it was all about the music. “The reward was the music,” said Dave Grohl. As he kid, the point for the musician was just to play the music and enjoy time with other performers. Everything that came later was just a bonus.
When Nirvana first signed, they just wanted to be as big as Sonic Youth. In reality, they just wanted to have money for food. At the age of 19-21, they would often sleep in the floor and perform for gas money. Like any “starving artist,” the point was just to keep pushing forward. “Together we sounded good,” he said about the band.
”Music Is A Big F*cking Deal…”
“Music is a big f*cking deal. I want everyone to feel the way that I feel about music. It’s such a luxury in life that everyone has available to them.” As a kid, punk rock meant joining other kids to play music. There was no thought of record contracts, endorsements, or anything else. At the time he was growing up, it was really just about the music. For Grohl, it still very much is just about the music.
“If you’re passionate, driven, and focused at what you do—if you’re really f*cking good at it—people will take notice,” said the musician. “That’s basically it. I don’t understand the industry. I don’t understand where music is headed. But, I know that when you walk into a club that blows you away, you are going to follow that band. That’s what it takes.”
What do you think of these killer life lessons from artist Dave Grohl?