A group of record company executives, sitting down to sketch the perfect rock star, may well come up with someone a little like Dave Grohl. He has the look—long, thick black hair; he has the talent—he plays the drums, guitar and piano, he sings and he writes his own songs; and, above all, he has both pedigree and credibility.
In the early 1990s, as drummer with seminal grunge band Nirvana, Grohl helped change the face of popular music. Today, as lead singer with stadium-filling rock giants Foo Fighters, he is a multi-millionaire who has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide, won six Grammy awards and is president of his own record label. Alongside Foo Fighters he has a number of side projects (including supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones); a documentary about his band shot by Oscar-winning director James Moll was released last month and his seventh album, Wasting Light, is out on Monday. Now 42, Grohl—and his brand of rock ’n’ roll—has grown up, had kids and settled down.
How did a man who was just a drummer and who never intended to make money from music end up as one of the biggest and wealthiest rock stars of the decade, succeeding in the face of a record industry in crisis?
We meet at Studio 606, the 8,000 sq ft recording space he built in 2005 in the Northridge area of Los Angeles. Outside, the Californian spring sunshine throws stark shadows across a neighbourhood that estate agents would describe euphemistically as “mixed”; from inside this large utilitarian building, with its tinted windows, the blue sky looks almost overcast.
Grohl, who is tall, lean and has grown into his slightly goofy looks, sets down the keys to his decidedly un-rock ’n’ roll grey BMW estate, tucks his shoulder-length hair behind his ear and flips the lid on his laptop. “Sorry,” he beams. “I’ve just got to check my e-mail. I want to see if my daughter got into private school.” Grohl married Jordyn Blum in 2003, and they have two daughters, Violet Maye, aged four, and Harper Willow, one.
The upstairs lounge looks like a bachelor pad: there’s a fridge, jukebox and widescreen TV with an eclectic selection of boxsets: The Office, ACDC and Bon Jovi gigs, and a tape of the Make-up and Effects trade show 1997. Scattered across the purple sofa are cushions covered with old band T-shirts (Slayer, The Police, Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin) made by Grohl’s mother. “She called up and said ‘David, what do you want me to do with those T-shirts in the attic?’,” says Grohl in a falsetto.
Downstairs, a vast recording studio complete with Persian rugs and a grand piano in the corner leads on to a warehouse filled with carefully labelled guitar cases, drums and assorted equipment. Among the platinum records, framed posters and photographs hanging in the corridor outside the soundproofed control room where we adjourn to talk is the iconic cover of Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in September.
Nevermind (and Nirvana) is both a gift and a curse to Grohl now. “For 16 years I’ve had to balance these two things: my love and respect of Nirvana and my love and respect of the Foo Fighters.” He lifts first his right hand then his left and balances the two, the large feathers tattooed on both forearms gently rising and falling. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Nirvana, there’s no question. But I don’t know if I’d be alive if it wasn’t for the Foo Fighters. I try to keep them at a balance that is very respectful of each other.”
Despite Grohl’s desire to move on, the legacy of Nirvana’s groundbreaking album still haunts him, and for good reason. Nevermind changed popular culture. Until the release of that album in 1991, music was dominated by pop giants such as Madonna, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. The alternative music scene was just that: lo-fi, raw-sounding and based on a punk DIY ethos that came to be known as grunge.
“Grunge emerged from the Pacific north-west,” explains the writer Mark Yarm, whose book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge will be published in September to coincide with Nevermind’s anniversary. “It’s unclear who coined the term, but it came to mean guitar bands who had a certain unkempt style and usually came from Seattle. It was a movement that was always supposed to transcend the cash. Success was viewed very warily. People like Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain were resistant to success, yet very much sought it at the same time.”
Grohl, who never imagined himself becoming a doctor, lawyer or writer, recorded his first album at 15 in a studio near his parents’ house in Springfield, Virginia—a suburb of Washington, DC. “The intention wasn’t to become U2, it was to satisfy that need to accomplish something outside of the mainstream system,” he says.
That early anti-commercial intent symbolised the ethos of the alternative music scene. In 1990, Grohl became the drummer for Seattle-based band Nirvana, which had been formed by singer Kurt Cobain and bass player Krist Novoselic in 1987. Nirvana had already released a debut album, Bleach (1989), and the three-piece—Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl—toured small venues in a tiny van. It was a love of music that fuelled them, not the desire to become rich, famous rock stars.
All that changed when they teamed up with producer Butch Vig on their second album Nevermind. Where Bleach was a bona fide indie album released on the tiny Seattle-based Sub Pop label to which the band signed for an initial $600 advance, Nevermind was released by Geffen, a label owned by the Universal Music Group that was also home to the band’s idols Sonic Youth.
“Sonic Youth’s major label debut came out in 1990 and sold about 200,000 copies, which was considered a huge number in indie-rock circles back then,” explains Yarm. “It was just inconceivable that another ‘weird’, underground band like Nirvana, who really looked up to Sonic Youth, could sell millions and millions of albums.” Yet Nevermind, which was expected to sell around 200,000 copies, exploded.
“Many people point to the week in January 1992 when Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson—the King of Pop—off the top of the American charts as the moment alternative music truly went mainstream,” says Yarm. To date, Nevermind has sold more than 26 million copies worldwide.
The album marked a sea-change in popular culture: it was the birth of a sound, a fashion and a lifestyle that was as big as punk or the swinging 60s before it. In the same year as Nevermind was released, Douglas Coupland published his famous novel Generation X and the theme tune for this new generation was Nirvana’s breakthrough single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—a raw, angry rallying cry that touched a nerve around the world.
Yet, for Grohl—at least initially—little changed. “It was just as much a shock to us as it was to everybody else. I think we were the last ones to believe it. Our world wasn’t changing within all of that. We had a gold record and we were still touring in a van. And then it went platinum—we sold a million records—and we were still touring in a van; I was still sharing a room with Kurt when we had a platinum record. Even after we sold 10 million albums I was still living in a back room at my friend’s house with a futon and a lamp.” He does remember being sent his first credit card though. Never a big spender, he immediately rushed to his local Benihana, the chain of Japanese restaurants.
Thanks to Nirvana’s success, record companies descended on Seattle, snapping up any band they could find. “It was a feeding frenzy,” says Yarm. “One executive told me that all the flights from LA to Seattle were constantly booked. If one of those planes had gone down, it would have destroyed the music industry.”
After the stratospheric success of Nevermind, Nirvana released just one further studio album, 1993’s In Utero, and toured to breaking point. In 1994, lead singer Kurt Cobain, struggling with the pressure, was flown home to the US from Rome after taking an overdose during the European leg of the band’s tour. On April 8 1994, Cobain was found dead at the house in Seattle he shared with his wife Courtney Love and their daughter Frances Bean. He had taken a heroin overdose and shot himself. His suicide shook the music world to its core, made global headlines and, in the eyes of many devastated fans, established Cobain as a tragic-romantic figure in the mould of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix. He was 27 years old.
In the months after Cobain’s death, Grohl couldn’t bring himself to play music. “After Nirvana ended in April 1994, I didn’t really do much that year,” explains Grohl. It wasn’t until October 1994 that he felt ready to go back into the studio. “I didn’t have a plan or any major career aspiration,” he says. “I just felt like I needed to do something.”
Over the course of five days, he recorded 13-14 of his songs in a small studio near his house, playing all the instruments and singing every song. Grohl distributed 100 copies of the recording to friends and music industry insiders and, reticent to step into the limelight so soon after Nirvana, he called the project Foo Fighters, the second world war term for an unidentified flying object, as it “sounded more like a band”. Those recordings, which cost Grohl around $5,000, became Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album. Released in 1995, it established Grohl as one of the biggest rock musicians in the world.
It’s practically unheard of for a drummer to make it as a lead singer—perhaps the only other famous example is Phil Collins, who forged a solo career after his time in Genesis. Yet Collins is not playing stadium gigs 20 years on. When almost every other band of his generation has fallen by the wayside, what is it about Grohl and Foo Fighters that still resonates?
“Their music is no nonsense, blue-collar everyman music,” explains Butch Vig, who has produced the band’s new album Wasting Light. “I think that people feel like they know the band. They can relate to their songs, but they can also relate to them as individuals.” Today, after some personnel changes over the years, Foo Fighters consist of drummer Taylor Hawkins, guitarists Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear, bass player Nate Mendel and Grohl. They are a friendly, close-knit five-piece, who share jokes nonstop and banter about moments on tour. Over the course of 16 years and seven studio albums, the band has honed a particular brand of emotionally charged rock that has transcended their early grunge influences. Grohl writes melodies with the energy of punk rock that form an enviable greatest hits package guaranteed to fill any stadium in the world (in June 2008 the band played two consecutive shows at the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium).
The band’s new album is in some ways a return to the sound and approach of their early records. “There’s no question that history is a big part of this record,” admits Grohl. Despite his shiny, well-equipped studio, he decided to record Wasting Light in his garage at home, and in a nod to his lo-fi, DIY roots, recorded to tape rather than digitally on a computer. Like Nevermind, Wasting Light is something of an antidote to the overproduced mainstream pop that currently fills the charts. It’s not the only thing that sets the band apart.
The music industry has changed since Foo Fighters released their first album in 1995. “Historically record sales accounted for the majority of band revenues,” explains Chris Carey, senior economist at PRS for Music, a not-for-profit organisation which collects and distributes public performance royalties for composers, songwriters and music publishers. “As record sales have suffered in recent years the industry has looked to other areas for revenue. Synchronisations [music used in computer games and TV programmes] and merchandise sales have become increasingly important, and the boom in live music is well reported. It used to be that bands would tour at a loss to sell CDs. Nowadays music is often given away in order to generate buzz and promote live events.”
How does this seismic shift in the record industry affect a band such as the Foo Fighters? “They’ve got an established fan base and a good track record, they’re an act coming to the top of the market,” says Carey. “Their revenues won’t be representative of what a band coming into the market now would experience. That existing fan base, I’d imagine, will still buy physical albums and, I would expect, have a good amount of money to spend on concert tickets so what you can charge for a Foo Fighters gig is more than you could for a newer band. As a result their earning profile will be quite healthy: a good mix of live and recorded.”
Today, thanks to industry pressures, many popstars often have to take the money wherever they can get it, whether it’s corporate gigs, sponsorship deals or product placement in music videos. In the week I met Foo Fighters, the Libyan revolution was erupting and Beyoncé, Nelly Furtado and Usher had donated to charity their million-dollar fees earned playing for the Gaddafi family. “We’ve done corporate gigs to pay for touring,” says Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, “but we’ve never played for the Gaddafis! There’s nothing wrong with getting paid to play music as long as it’s in the realms of whatever moral standards you have … “
Despite the shift in the music industry, Foo Fighters, with a secure fan base and stable income have been able to pick and choose what they do. “I think at this point we’ve exceeded any of the expectations we had for this band—musically or financially,” explains Grohl. “The most important thing is that we do what we do with the same integrity we had when we started 16 years ago. We’re not a financially ambitious band—we’re doing just fine. It comes down to how much do you really need?”
Nate Mendel, the band’s bassist and longest-serving member after Grohl himself, agrees: “All these ways you can exploit your band commercially, we’ve done a lot of it, but compared to a band similar to us, we’ve held back. We wanted to be in a band that didn’t have to do that. It’s only our generation that’s ever had a problem with it. Prior to and after 80s punk rock and the alternative music of the 90s nobody cared. It’s only our generation that was cautious about exploiting their music.”
“Punk-rock guilt,” laughs Hawkins. “I’m flying in this private jet and eating lobster thermidor—but I’m not giving a song to Honda!”
As internet piracy has taken its toll on the record industry, revenue from live gigs and merchandise has become ever more important. “If you’re not making money from records you have to make it somewhere else,” says Carey. “Merchandise was up more than 20 per cent in 2009 growing at a good rate and in 2008 live music was up about 13-14 per cent which is boom growth.”
Piracy and the decline in record sales won’t have hit the Foo Fighters as hard as many other newer bands—which may explain why Grohl, who is president of his own label, Roswell Records, is unconcerned about file sharing. When he was growing up Grohl and his friends would swap tapes of their favourite bands despite campaigns warning that “home taping is killing the record industry”. Today, the internet has really put a dent in the music business, Grohl acknowledges, but for him file sharing is simply an extension of those home-made mix-tapes. “To me, the most important thing is that people come and sing along when we pull into town on tour,” he says. “Sharing music is not a crime. It shouldn’t be. There should be a deeper meaning to making music than just selling downloads.”
Grohl’s experience with Nirvana has coloured the way he now runs Foo Fighters. “I learnt a lot of lessons from being in Nirvana. A lot of beautiful things and a lot of …” he pauses, “lessons of what not to do. I’m not a businessman, but when it comes to making music I’ve kind of figured out a way of doing it without anyone getting hurt.” He drums his fingers, performing a short paradiddle against the arm of the leather sofa.
After his death, Cobain’s estate passed to his wife, the singer Courtney Love, who in 1997, with Cobain’s bandmates, formed Nirvana LLC, a limited liability company to oversee their interests. The three have at times fought over Nirvana’s legacy, almost going to court in 2002 (a settlement was reached the day before proceedings were due to begin) and in 2009 scrapping over the use of Cobain’s likeness in computer game Guitar Hero 5. In April 2006, Love sold 25 per cent of her share in Nirvana’s catalogue to Primary Wave Music for a reported $50m.
When he formed Foo Fighters, Grohl set up Roswell Records as a holding company for the band’s entire music catalogue, which is then licensed to a record company for a six- to seven-year period at a time. “Unfortunately, a lot of musicians sign away their freedoms when they enter into these big business contracts. It’s an age-old story. It’s still happening. I don’t think there’s a place for that kind of outside control when it comes to being creative.”
Are you a control freak? I ask. “Absolutely. No question. I am a controlling freak. I’m not a control freak, I’m a controlling freak. This is our baby. When it comes to making music, we have our own process, we have our own crooked democracy …”
Democracy? Or is it a benign dictatorship? “Well, yeah. Show me a band of five people where there’s no leader … I just don’t think it could happen. At the end of the day, it’s my name at the bottom of the cheque.”
Foo Fighters are now embarking on another stadium-filling world tour. As Grohl, the perfect rock star, headed off, I couldn’t help thinking of the two fortune cookies I’d spotted earlier pinned to his fridge. “An interesting musical opportunity is in your near future,” read one. The other said simply: “Study and prepare yourself and one day, your day will come.”
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.