Dave Grohl retraces his life-affirming path from Nirvana to Foo Fighters

Dave Grohl retraces his life-affirming path from Nirvana to Foo Fighters

4:32pm Nov 24, 2021
Dave Grohl performs onstage during the taping of the 2021 "Vax Live" fundraising concert at the in Inglewood, Calif.
Dave Grohl performs onstage during the taping of the 2021 "Vax Live" fundraising concert at the in Inglewood, Calif.
Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images
  • Dave Grohl performs onstage during the taping of the 2021 "Vax Live" fundraising concert at the in Inglewood, Calif.

    Dave Grohl performs onstage during the taping of the 2021 "Vax Live" fundraising concert at the in Inglewood, Calif.

    Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images

  • The Storyteller, by Dave Grohl

    Simon & Schuster

  • The members of Nirvana (Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic) pose in Germany in 1991.

    The members of Nirvana (Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic) pose in Germany in 1991.

    Paul Bergen / Redferns

Dave Grohl still remembers the first punk show he ever saw: Naked Raygun, in Chicago around 1982, at a little corner bar across from Wrigley Field called The Cubby Bear.

"They knew four chords and the singer was, like, on top of my head, and I was against the stage, and it was life-affirming, because I thought ... 'Oh my God! This is what I want to do,' " the Foo Fighters frontman says.

There was an undercurrent of anger to the punk scene back then, but Grohl says he wasn't fueled by rage. Rather, he describes himself as a hyperactive kid who loved life and wanted to play the drums — he started out by pounding pillows on his bedroom floor.

"This was that hyperactive energy that I had my entire life, but I was kind of channeling all of that into the way that I played drums," he says. "It felt so good."

Grohl eventually dropped out of high school in Virginia to join the band Scream, spending a few years on the road with the group. But then he got a call from Kurt Cobain, asking he wanted to play drums for an upstart band in Seattle called Nirvana.

"I moved up [to Seattle] and we went into a small rehearsal space and started playing, and within 45 seconds it sounded like Nirvana," he says.

Nirvana catapulted to superstardom with the release of its 1991 hit "Smells like Teen Spirit." But just three years later, in 1994, Cobain killed himself, and Grohl considered giving up on music entirely.

"I was heartbroken," he says. "I didn't really know if I ever wanted to play music again, until I realized that music was the one thing that had healed me my entire life."

Six months after Cobain's death, Grohl recorded the Foo Fighters' first album as a one-man project, only assembling the band after the record was complete. The band gelled; in 2021 they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

A few years ago, the Foo Fighters played to a sold-out crowd at Wrigley Field in Chicago — just across the street from the dingy corner bar where Grohl had seen his first concert.

"It took me 36 years to cross that crosswalk and make it to that stadium across the street," he says. "But I did it with my friends and the people that I love, and most of us survived. And that night after the show, we all sort of gathered together and celebrated just that, and I'm very proud of it."

Grohl's new memoir is The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music


Interview highlights

On his percussive guitar playing

I can't read music. I'm self-taught, so I don't really have any formal sense of theory or scaling or anything like that. But I do look at the strings on a guitar like it's a drum set. So if you imagine the lower strings are kicks and snares. And then the cymbals, when the song opens up, you let the other strings ring out. So it makes the sound sort of, like, blossom into this crescendo. ... I'm not a soloist. I'm not a virtuoso. But I'm a really good rhythm guitarist, because I look at it like it's a drum set.

On sleeping in a van with five other guys while touring with Scream

There were five guys in the band and my best friend Jimmy was the roadie. And so basically, back then, underground bands, most bands toured in vans that were kind of converted into a tour bus, meaning you would have to put all of the people and all of the equipment in a van and go from town to town. You would build a platform out of plywood and make a little shell for a loft so that you could sleep in your sleeping bag on top of the gear. You put the gear under the shelf and then everyone would sleep like sardines in a can in their sleeping bags.

And that was just kind of the way it worked, because when your per diem is $7 a day, there's no hotel rooms. If you're lucky, you might find someone that'll let you crash on their floor. If not, it was perfectly fine to sleep in the van. And to be honest, to this day, if I'm having a hard time going to sleep — it doesn't matter if I'm at home or if I'm at the Ritz-Carlton — if I'm having a hard time going to sleep, I actually try to transport myself back to that time when I was in a sleeping bag like a sardine in the van, rolling down the highway. It's almost like being swaddled to sleep. It's almost like having ... a white noise or something. There's some sort of comfort in that. But that's what we would do.

On living in a squalid apartment in Seattle with Nirvana

I had moved up there without having met the guys from Nirvana before, so they were strangers, and it was really the music that kept me there. Living in that tiny apartment that was pretty squalid and pretty gross was OK, as long as there was music at the end of the day. And the music that we were making was great.

I got homesick sometimes, and maybe I would call my mother and wish for Virginia, that's where I'm from. But then I'd get behind the drum set with Kurt and Krist [Novoselic] and think, "No, I belong right here. This is good."

On the simplicity of Nirvana's music

I think that's one of the reasons why it's proved to be so effective. The guitar playing is very simple. The drumming is very simple. ... We would record a song in one or two takes. It was very pure and honest and real. And I think when Kurt wrote songs, he really tried to capture that simplicity because he realized that that's kind of a direct route to someone's heart or soul or mind.

On Cobain fluctuating between being fun and reclusive

When I moved up and started living in that small apartment with them, I mean, this was someone that I had never met before. I didn't know at first — I thought, maybe he's quiet, maybe he's shy, maybe he has social anxieties, whatever it is. There were times, too, where he was outrageously funny and really fun to be around. The two of us would get $7 and go to the grocery store and spend half an hour in the freezer section looking for the perfect TV dinner. And those moments were so much fun. So it wasn't always doom and gloom. ...

A lot of the times when we'd go to the apartment after rehearsal, I slept on the couch, so I would kind of get on my couch and he would go in his room, close the door. Little did I know that most of that time he was writing in his journals, and more often than not, the next day at rehearsal, he would have a new song. So I think he had moments of being introverted and sort of reclusive, but that was also balanced with someone that was pretty fun to be around and pretty great to be in a band with, because when we counted into a song, it exploded, and it was real, man, it was real.

On the explosion in popularity after the "Smells like Teen Spirit" video release

When that record Nevermind was released, we embarked on a tour that was very much the same as any tour I had done with Scream or Nirvana had done before. We were playing places that held maybe 90 people, some 150 people, maybe 200-300 people, and it was comfortable. Now we had a trailer where we could put our equipment in a trailer, so that was an upgrade. But for the most part, it was just as it always had been — until the "Smells like Teen Spirit" video came out, and the song started getting played on the radio.

We would show up to one of those clubs and not only were there 250 people inside, but there were 250 people outside as well trying to get in, and you could see it growing, you could feel it growing. So we were kind of blissfully unaware until we pulled up to a club, put our equipment on stage and realized, "Oh God, this could become a riot." I would sit down at my drum set and look for the exit, first thing. ...

There was this excitement, there was this electricity, and it seemed in a way that there was some kind of revolution happening, which can be pretty great to participate in unless you're in the eye of the storm. There were times when it did get a bit dangerous and it did get a little scary. And I think by the end of that tour, we decided to kind of retreat and go home and let it all die down.

On smashing their instruments

Smashing the guitar doesn't necessarily kill a guitar. You can actually smash the guitar and have it repaired and use it the next night. I remember Kurt had a few guitars that were just Frankensteined together because in a fit of celebration or rage, he would smash the thing and go, "Oh crap, I just smashed my guitar!" And then he'd have to kind of put it back together.

Drums, on the other hand, drums bounce, which I learned while I was in Nirvana. ... I had this yellow drum set — the same drums that I used in the "Smells like Teen Spirit Video," I think — this yellow drum set that had holes in it from Kurt chopping at it during shows. And I was begging my tour manager, I was like, "Can I please get a new drum set? These drums have holes. It's like Swiss cheese! They have holes in them!" And he goes, "Next week we could do it. One more show, one more song." And so finally, I looked at Kurt before his show and I said, "OK, tonight I need a new drum set. The only way I'm going to get a new drum set is if we just smash this one to bits. It has holes in it." And we told the audience at the Metro in Chicago, "OK, you guys can go home, but we're going to smash this drum set for like, about half an hour." And we did. And the next morning, I think it was a Sunday, and all the music stores were closed.

On Cobain writing in his suicide note, that he didn't enjoy making music and performing anymore

There are moments where you get that feeling, I think, as a musician or a performer or as an artist. I think that there are times where you hit that wall and you realize that you're maybe not inspired, maybe you're not into it, maybe you're just going through the motions. One of the things with my life now or the Foo Fighters now is that I learned a lot of lessons over the years, from Scream to Nirvana to the Foo Fighters, of what to do and what not to do. I think one of the reasons why our band has survived 26 years as the Foo Fighters is because of those lessons we learned before. And one of the biggest lessons is to know when to say "No" and not ever feel like you have to buckle to the pressure of someone else forcing you to make music or to perform or to do something that your heart isn't there for. And that's the way we've worked.

I have to imagine one of the reasons why we've survived this long is because if you get that tinge, that feeling in the back of your mind where you're just punching in and going through the motions, that's when it's time to pump the brakes and stop. And that's what we've always done. And more often than not, you settle and that feeling dissipates and then you call up your guys and you're like, "Hey, I wrote a bunch of new songs. Let's make another record."

On reinventing himself after Nirvana and forming Foo Fighters

I really had no blueprint or no real plan. You know, when I was young, I would record songs by myself where I would play drums with pots and pans and record it on a cassette and then put another cassette in the other player and play guitar along to that cassette. Then I'd have a cassette with guitar and pots and pans, and I'd put that on and sing along to it. So I knew how to sort of multi-track and record by myself. Once I started recording in studios, I would record songs of my own — I never let anyone hear them, because I was mortified. I thought, "Oh God, these lyrics are terrible. Oh my God, my voice is terrible." I would never let anyone hear, but I had banked maybe like 25 or 30 of these songs. I was recording this stuff while I was in Nirvana, but nobody knew. And then when the band was over, when Nirvana was finished, I thought, "OK, I'm going to pick my favorite 14 or 15 songs, go into a studio." I booked six days and I thought, "Well, that's an eternity. I could make The White Album for six days!" And so I just went in and recorded everything by myself as fast as I could, really with no idea what to do with it or where to go with it.

Like a divining rod or whatever you call it. I just kind of like, I found some guys that their band had broken up and we jammed together ... and things just sort of started coming together. But I didn't really see it as any kind of reinvention. I just saw it as a continuation.

On why he didn't want to play drums in another band after Nirvana

After Nirvana ended, I was asked to join a few other bands as the drummer, and I didn't really want to just sit back down on the drum stool, because I thought it would remind me too much of losing Kurt and losing Nirvana. So it's almost like if you stare at the sun, you wind up blinding this little sunspot in your vision. I almost thought of it, like, that perspective from the drum set. I will always have that sunspot right there in front of me, just to the right. That will be there forever. Also having never done it before, I looked at it as a challenge. People don't bungee jump because they know they're going to make it to the ground safely. I didn't start to be the lead singer of the Foo Fighters because I thought I was Freddie Mercury from Queen. I'm like, "Oh God, I've never done this before. Let's see what happens." I'm that guy. I'm like, "Screw it. Let's try it! Who cares?"

On music being about love and connection

When I went to that first punk rock show, that sense of community and that tribe of those people, those like-minded kids that maybe all felt the same, that was one of the things that I loved so much was the people coming together. I thought it was so cool, like, this is where everyone could come. These were the misfits. These were the weirdos. These were the freaks. But this is where they found their tribe and their community. And ... when we get together, there's some comfort or there's some reassurance in that, like, "Oh, this is where we belong."

As much as I was anti-establishment in a lot of ways, I think that when I was young, there was more this feeling of connection to music and people connecting to music that I loved so much. I know how I felt when I listened to a Beatles song. Something about connecting to the music that made me feel great. And when I started writing songs that people connected to as well, God, it was such a beautiful feeling for me. And if that multiplied, oh my God, it felt even better. ... Now that we play stadiums, it's like in some ways it really does feel strange to me. At the same time, I feel really comfortable doing it. I mean, it's weird. It's like, "Wait, I feel comfortable standing in front of 80,000 people and like conducting them to sing, 'Best of You' with me. Like, is that normal?" I don't know. ... I wouldn't wish it away, because I think that there's a lot of love in music, and the more that that spreads, the farther it goes, the better it does.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We have a very entertaining show as we head into the holiday. My guest is Dave Grohl, who has his guitar to play and sing a few songs for us. He founded the band Foo Fighters, which was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last month. HBO just showed the ceremony last weekend.

The first time Grohl was inducted was as the drummer for the band Nirvana. Foo Fighters was inducted by Paul McCartney, who made several comparisons between his life and Grohl's. He said that they each joined a group. For McCartney, it was the Beatles; for Grohl, Nirvana. Both groups faced tragedy. Both groups broke up. And McCartney and Grohl were faced with the question, what do you do now? Each of them answered by making an album in which they played all the instruments themselves. For Grohl, that was the first Foo Fighters album, which was an album he recorded by himself. He didn't put together the band until after recording the album.

McCartney went on to describe Foo Fighters as one of the greatest rock and roll bands in the world. Dave Grohl has a new memoir that describes his life from the first time he picked up drumsticks instead of using his teeth as percussion instruments to his years as the drummer with the punk rock band Scream, living with the band in a van, then joining Nirvana, living part of that time in a squalid home with Kurt Cobain, how his life changed when Nirvana broke through to international success, how he couldn't even listen to music after Cobain died by suicide, the incredible success Grohl's had with his own band, where he's the guitarist, singer and main songwriter, and how his life has changed now that he's the father of three. The memoir is called "The Storyteller." We recorded this interview at a live streaming event last week. He was in his studio.

Dave Grohl, thank you again for coming. Welcome, welcome. So I asked you if you could play a few song excerpts for us, and happily you agreed. And so I'm going to ask you to start one, and this might be your most popular song. You end shows with it. David Letterman had you and the band do it when he got out of the hospital after his heart attack because it was so helpful during his recovery. But this is also a song that's obviously very meaningful to you, as well as to your fans. So by way of introduction, tell us what this song means to you in your life.

DAVE GROHL: Well, I wrote this song, I think, in 1997. And it was at a time in my life where I was coming out of a relationship but still feeling love and falling in love. And the feeling of the deep connection between two people where it seems so good that you hope that it never ends, even when you ask for it to stop, that you hope it continues. So I wrote this simple riff and put the song together, probably in a day and went and demoed it by myself, brought it back to everybody. And I said, hey, I think this is a song that we should record. And we did. It's a very simple riff that sounds like this.

(Playing guitar, singing) Hello. I've waited here for you, everlong. Tonight I throw myself into and out of the red, out of her head, she sang. And I wonder when I sing along with you if everything good ever feel this real forever, if anything could ever be this good again. The only thing I'll ever ask of you - got to promise not to stop when I say when, she sang.

That was the basic idea of the whole song.

GROSS: That sounded great. Thank you so much for doing that. You know, you started as a drummer, and, you know, you can hear a very percussive, rhythmic style in your guitar playing. I guess that's what comes naturally to you.

GROHL: Absolutely. You know, it's funny. I've tried to explain this before. I almost look at the strings on a guitar like the different drums in a drum set. So I can't read music. I'm self-taught. So I don't really have any formal sense of theory or scaling or anything like that. But I do look at the strings on a guitar like it's a drum set. So if you imagine the lower strings are kicks and snares, that's where you get a pattern like this. On a drum set, it would be doo-doo da-doo da-da doo-da doo-doo da-doo da-da-da (ph). But with a guitar, it sounds like (playing guitar). And then the cymbals, when this song opens up, you let the other strings ring out, like (playing guitar). So it makes the sound sort of, like, blossom into this crescendo. And I've always been a very - I'm not a soloist. I'm not a virtuoso. But I'm a really good rhythm guitarist because I look at it like it's a drum set, you know?

GROSS: So being self-taught, if I asked you what chords you just played, would you say, I don't know?

GROHL: I do know that it's in D (laughter). That's about it.

GROSS: OK (laughter).

GROHL: So - but this particular chord? No clue what that is, no idea.

GROSS: So I have a drumstick question for you. You know, in your memoir, you write that you had one drum lesson. And the teacher, who was a jazz musician, said, hey, you're holding the sticks backwards. It's, like, the rounded end that you're supposed to be hitting the drums with and not, like, the thick end. Did you keep playing them that way, especially, like, in punk bands, where you really wanted to cut through?

GROHL: I did, actually, yeah. The drummer that I took my one lesson from, the first thing he told me was that I was holding my sticks backwards. For jazz drumming, backwards sticks don't work. For loud, brash, dissonant, distorted punk rock, it absolutely works. And so, you know, I just wanted to produce the most sound out of any drum. So I thought, OK, if I hold it like a hammer, that might work. And I continued to do that. I still do it to this day.

GROSS: When you were, I think, in your mid-teens, you were taken to your first punk rock club. And it's like you finally felt like you found your people. And you wrote, I saw slam dancing, stage diving, the crowd chanting the words to each song with fists in the air. I was stepped on, shoved and punched. And I loved it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROHL: I mean, you know, to me, the greatest thing about it was, first of all, this is in Chicago in, I think, 1982. There's this little bar across the street from Wrigley Field called The Cubby Bear. And I think on Sundays, they would have these hardcore punk rock matinee shows with three or four bands. But there was this community of kids that was something I had never seen before. It was my first concert.

Like, I'd never seen a band. I had posters on my walls of, like, LED Zeppelin and, you know, Kiss and lasers and dragons and explosions. I thought that was rock and roll. But when I walked into this little corner bar and realized it was just a small room with brick walls and a few stage lights and a microphone, to me, that was so pure and honest and real. And the band - they were called Naked Raygun, and they knew four chords. And the singer was, like, on top of my head. And I was against the stage, and it was life-affirming because I thought, oh, I can do this.

GROSS: Now, you also say it released this pent-up energy. And what was that energy? Was it anger? Was it rebellion? Was it just, like, youthful exuberance and love of music? What was it?

GROHL: It's funny because my generation was labeled Generation X, I think. And at that point, the term, it sort of implied that you were a slacker or you had a dysfunctional childhood, and you were angry or - I don't think I was any of those things. I was a hyperactive kid that was really motivated to do the things that I loved to do. I was raised by a single mother who is the most brilliant, wonderful, lovely woman, still to this day. She was a public school teacher for 35 years. She took me to jazz clubs. Like, who wouldn't want that mom, you know?

And I don't think that I was very angry. I just loved life and music and was - you know, I was just kind of a hyperactive kid. So when it came to anything but school - I was the worst student in the world. I mean, this is the irony or the embarrassment of my life, that I was the worst student in the school that my mother was a teacher at. So unfortunately, she had to live with her son just completely failing in school until I decided I wanted to make music. And she recognized that that was my thing.

GROSS: My guest is Dave Grohl, founder of the band Foo Fighters. He was the drummer in Nirvana. His new memoir is called "The Storyteller." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VELCRO HOMER'S "ROCKO'S MODERN LIFE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dave Grohl, founder and frontman of the band Foo Fighters, which was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He was previously inducted as a member of Nirvana. He was Nirvana's drummer. His new memoir is called "The Storyteller."

When you were 17, you auditioned as the drummer for the punk band Scream. You lied about your age (laughter).

GROHL: A gig is a gig. You know what I mean? (Laughter).

GROSS: No, absolutely. Absolutely. And you knew all their records. You knew all their songs. You knew, like, the drum parts. And they were impressed, and so at age 17, you became their drummer. And just can you give us a little taste of what Scream songs were like?

GROHL: (Playing acoustic guitar). First of all, Scream songs were very fast, OK? So they were considered hardcore punk rock. So it wasn't like the (rhythmically hitting guitar with guitar pick) 120 beats per minute, and it wasn't even like kind of a gallop thing like that - (rhythmically hitting guitar with guitar pick). The beats were like - they were like this - (rhythmically hitting guitar with guitar pick). And so the riffs were usually like - (playing acoustic guitar). So that would be played like this, like - (vocalizing, rhythmically hitting guitar with guitar pick). And so here I am with my sticks held backwards...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROHL: ...Just, like, mercilessly pummeling these drum sets. Now, you also have to know that I didn't learn to play the drums on a drum set. I learned to play on pillows on my bedroom floor. So I had a pair of marching drumsticks that were oversized - they were really heavy and thick - playing on pillows that I would set up in the configuration of a drum set and listening to these really fast punk rock records. So it's almost like running in the sand. So after, like, you know, learning on pillows and then I would get on a drum set, I would just destroy the thing. Like, I would - my friends never let me touch their drum sets...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROHL: ...'Cause they knew - oh, God, if he touches it, there's going to be a broken cymbal; there's going to be a broken drum head. So this was that sort of hyperactive energy that I had my entire life, but I was kind of channeling all of that into the way that I played drums. And it felt so good. It felt great. I could close my eyes and think, I'm at Wembley Stadium right now. And then I'd open it, and I'd see that there's, like, six people in the audience.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROHL: But in my mind, I was - you know, this is rock 'n' roll Valhalla, you know?

GROSS: So you toured with the band and during that time mostly lived in a van. Altogether, there were - what? - five or six guys in there, including the roadie?

GROHL: Yeah, six dudes in a van - oof (ph).

GROSS: Yeah. And you recently did a documentary about van life, talking about your own life in a van and other rock bands for whom living in a van was a formative experience and traveling in the van. You have a kind of vivid description (laughter) in the book of what it's like. It doesn't sound very appealing. But you were on the road and playing, and that's what counted. So give us a sense of what it was like with five guys, six guys - how many were you?

GROHL: There were five guys in the band, and my best friend Jimmy (ph) was the roadie. And so basically, you know, back then, underground bands - most bands toured in vans that were kind of converted into a tour bus, meaning you would have to put all of the people and all of the equipment in a van and go from town to town. You would build a platform out of plywood and make kind of a little shelf or a loft so that you could sleep in your sleeping bag on top of the gear. You would put the gear under the shelf, and then everyone would sleep like sardines in a can in their sleeping bags. If I'm having a hard time going to sleep, I actually try to transport myself back to that time when I was in a sleeping bag like a sardine in the van rolling down the highway, and it kind of like - it's almost like being swaddled to sleep. It's almost like having this, like, a white noise or something. There's some sort of comfort in that.

But that's what we would do. You know, we'd pull up to the gig, and we'd grab the equipment, put it on stage, play for an hour and a half, throw it back in the van, then hit the next city. And I think that, you know, one of the reasons why those shows were so intense was because you basically spent all day in close quarters with your band trying to get to the next gig. So once those van doors opened and you hit the stage, it was like a nuclear reactor, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROHL: It was great. I have really fond memories of that time.

GROSS: So after playing with Scream for a few years, you found out that Nirvana was looking for a drummer because you had a friend who grew up with some of the guys from Nirvana so he knew what was going on. And you tried to audition. You ended up talking to Kurt Cobain about the band. I don't know if he actually had a music audition or not.

GROHL: Well, it really started with a phone call. The band Scream - the guitar player and the singer are brothers, and their sister lived in Los Angeles. Whenever we came to Los Angeles, we had a place to stay. We didn't have to sleep in the van. We would stay with their sister. She was a mud wrestler at the Hollywood Tropicana. That's a whole other story.

Anyway, so our bass player just kind of went home without really telling anyone. So we were stranded in Los Angeles, and I had sort of surrendered to the idea like, oh, great, I'm going to work in a furniture warehouse or tile floors for the rest of my life in Los Angeles until I called a friend and they said, well, have you heard of Nirvana? I said, of course, because they had one record out that was really popular in the underground community. And he said, well, they're looking for a drummer, and they saw you play a couple weeks ago in Olympia, Wash. And they basically said, oh, if we could get a guy like that, I think we'd be in good shape.

So I called them up and I talked to Krist Novoselic, the bass player, first. He told me that they had already found a drummer. I said, OK, well, if you ever come to LA, I guess I'm living here for the rest of my life, so call me up. And he called back that night and said, actually, you should call Kurt. And I got on the phone with Kurt, and we talked for a while. And he said, well, if you can make it up here, let's jam.

And then I was kind of - I was at this crossroads where, OK, what do I do? Do I leave my friends behind in Los Angeles and move on? Or do I stay in Laurel Canyon for the rest of my life? And I actually called my mother for advice. And I said, what do I do? She said, you know, there's some times in life where you have to do what's best for you. Now, this is coming from the most altruistic, generous, kind and loving woman I've ever met in my entire life. And so I moved up, and we went into a small rehearsal space and started playing. And within 45 seconds, it sounded like Nirvana. So it worked out.

GROSS: So before we get into your life with Nirvana and that period of your life, I want to contrast what you played with Nirvana and what you played with Scream to a song that influenced you when you were young. And so choose a song for us that would fit that description.

GROHL: Well, you know, I was a huge Beatles fan when I was young. The Beatles were my first teacher. My mother bought me this old guitar and a Beatles songbook and a Beatles record. And I would sit on my floor with this chord chart book and play along to the songs. And one of the songs that I loved the most was the song "Blackbird." And I eventually learned how to play it. And I performed it years later, but I'll play a little bit of it first.

GROSS: Yeah, you did it at the In Memoriam at the Oscars.

GROHL: I did. But, you know, the funny thing is, before I did it there, I did it with my daughter Violet at a school entertainment day. And she had - she - they announced the school entertainment day. I think she was in third grade and she's a beautiful singer and she had said, oh, my God - she's so excited. She goes, I want to do "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" with my friend Abby (ph) and Chloe (ph) and Libby (ph). And so we contacted all of her friends' parents and their parents asked their kids and the kids are like, sergeant who? Like, they didn't - they hadn't gotten to the Beatles yet. And when I told Violet this, she was absolutely devastated. She was crying real tears, not a tantrum. Like, she was heartbroken that she wouldn't be able to perform this.

So as her father watching my third - my, you know, 8-year-old daughter crying, I immediately said, what about this? What if we do "Blackbird?" I'll play guitar and you sing. And her tears started to dry. And she said, OK. And I picked up a guitar, and I started playing this song that I learned as a kid. And she came in right on time, right on tune. She knew all the words, and she did it perfectly. And I said, OK, we're going to practice this every day until the student entertainment day. That day at school, we got up, performed it, people were in tears. It was beautiful. She killed it.

A few months later, I get the call to play this song on the Academy Awards for the In Memoriam thing. And I was terrified because that's, like, 30 million people watching. I mean, I know - I was nervous for the student entertainment day, but, like, the Academy Awards, this is a whole different trip. And so I was really freaked out, and I told my manager, let me think about it for a day. Violet comes home and I say, guess what I just got asked to do? She said, what? I said, I got asked to play "Blackbird" on the Academy Awards. And she goes, well, you're going to do it, right? And I said, well, I'm kind of nervous. And she said, but you did it at the student entertainment day. She thought it was the same thing.

And that to me - when she said, that I realized I have to do the Academy Awards. It's because of my daughter. I thought I have to prove to my daughter that I have the same courage that she had when she jumped up on stage in front of her entire school that first time. And so when I got up on stage at the Academy Awards - this is such a delicate guitar part - I was terrified. I basically just sort of took a deep breath, thought of my daughter and just went (playing guitar, singing) blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn fly, all your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise.

GROSS: My guest is Dave Grohl, founder of the band Foo Fighters. His new memoir is called "The Storyteller." After a break, he'll talk about his time as the drummer with Nirvana, the emotional aftermath of Kurt Cobain's death and founding Foo Fighters. He'll play more music, too. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIRVANA SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Dave Grohl, founder of the band Foo Fighters. He plays guitar, is the lead singer and main songwriter. The band was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He was previously inducted as a member of Nirvana. He was Nirvana's drummer. He got his start with the punk band Scream. Grohl has written a new memoir called "The Storyteller."

Let's pick up where we left off, and that's - you joined Nirvana. Did you have to change your drumming when you started playing with Nirvana compared to Scream?

GROHL: Well, you know, the two bands are different for sure. There was a simplicity to Nirvana's music, and I think that's one of the reasons why it's proved to be so, so effective in that, like, the guitar playing is - it's very simple. The drumming is very simple. And the production of those records, it really, I mean, we would record a song in one or two takes. You know, there wasn't - it was very pure and honest and real. And when Kurt wrote songs, he really tried to capture that simplicity because he realized that that's kind of a direct route to someone's heart or soul or mind. Yeah. So basically, my drumming for that band, if my drumming in the punk rock band was 250 beats per minute, my drumming for Nirvana, I sometimes liken it to, like, disco drumming and funk drumming. You know, a lot of those drum riffs that I used in some of those songs come from some of my disco drumming heroes, you know.

GROSS: Can you beat out an example on your guitar?

GROHL: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, there's a song like "Come As You Are" or even "Smells Like Teen Spirit." There's a term called a flam, which is when you use two sticks to hit the same drum, and rather than hitting at the same time like this (playing drums) you stutter them so it's like (playing drums). You know, there's space between the two. So if you listen to a Nirvana record - hold on. Let me try to mute this guitar. If you listen to a Nirvana record, there's a lot of things going like (playing drums) right? That drum lick is, I mean, it's been around for ages, but it comes from like the Gap Band or Cameo or Power Station. And it's like danceable songs.

So I was basically making these rhythms that were kind of danceable to a vocalist that was screaming at the top of his lungs and guitars that were turned up to 14, you know. So it was very simple, and the drumming was very simplified. I think a sign of a great drummer is when their song comes on at a bar and people that don't play the drums air drum along to that song. That, to me, is the greatest compliment, and I saw that happen.

GROSS: Wow. That's great. That is really great. So Kurt Cobain did have, like, mood issues, depression. It's hard to be around somebody who's very depressed a lot of the time, and you want to - I mean, your impulse is to cheer them up. There's really nothing you can do to cheer them up. And people can become very irritable when they're depressed. So I'm interested in the impact of his depression on you and on the band.

GROHL: Well, you know, at first, when I moved up and started living in that small apartment with them, I mean, this was someone that I had never met before, I didn't know. At first, I thought, maybe he's quiet. Maybe he's shy. Maybe he has, you know, social anxieties, whatever it is. There were times, too, where he was outrageously funny and really fun to be around. You know, I mean, we would, like, the two of us would get $7 and go to the grocery store and spend half an hour in the freezer section looking for the perfect TV dinner.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROHL: And, like, those moments were so much fun, you know. So it wasn't always doom and gloom. But, of course, I think there were moments where Kurt would retreat into his own - into his shell. And write is what he did. I think a lot of the times when we'd go to the apartment after rehearsal, I slept on the couch, so I would kind of get on my couch, and he would go in his room, close the door. Little did I know that most of that time he was writing in his journals, and more often than not, the next day at rehearsal, he would have a new song.

So I think, you know, he had moments of being introverted and sort of reclusive, but that was also balanced with someone that was pretty fun to be around and pretty great to be in a band with. Because, you know, when we counted into a song, it exploded. And it was real, man. It was real.

GROSS: When you say it exploded, sometimes the club would explode too, you know. And sometimes Kurt Cobain would explode. I mean, he would destroy instruments. He would destroy your drums. He once destroyed the mixing board that wasn't his.

GROHL: Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, it was the engineer's soundboard. And it got really dangerous. And sometimes the crowd would rush the stage, and that got dangerous, too. I'm wondering what it was like for you to be in the middle of such chaos on stage and to not know when it was going to happen, because sometimes it sounded like it was part of, like, the fun and the ethic to, like, be wild on stage and destroy something. And sometimes it sounded like it was really rage. It was like genuine rage.

GROHL: Yeah. Well, first of all, when that record "Nevermind" was released, we embarked on a tour that was very much the same as any tour I had done with Scream or Nirvana had done before. We were playing places that held maybe 90 people, some 150 people, maybe 200 or 300 people, and it was comfortable. We were in a van. Actually, now we had a trailer where we could put our equipment in a trailer. So that was an upgrade.

But for the most part, it was just as it always had been until the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video came out and the song started getting played on the radio. And we would show up to one of those clubs. And not only were there 250 people inside, but there were 250 people outside as well trying to get in. You could see it growing. You could feel it growing. So we were kind of blissfully unaware until we pulled up to a club, put our equipment on stage and realized, oh, God, this could become a riot.

I would sit down at my drum set and look for the exit. First thing, I'd say, OK, in the event that something happens, where do I run? I think there was this excitement, there was this electricity, and it seemed in a way that there was some kind of revolution happening, which can be, you know, pretty great to participate in unless you're in the eye of the storm, you know. And so there were times when it did get a bit dangerous and it did get a little scary. And I think by the end of that tour, we decided to kind of retreat and go home and let it all die down.

GROSS: My guest is Dave Grohl. He was the drummer with Nirvana? After the death of Kurt Cobain. Grohl founded the band Foo Fighters. Grohl has written a new memoir called "The Storyteller." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dave Grohl, founder and frontman of the band Foo Fighters. He started his career with the punk band Scream and then joined Nirvana as the band's drummer. He was devastated when Kurt Cobain died by suicide.

I asked you before the interview if you would play the first song that you ever wrote. And coincidentally, it's a song about Kurt Cobain, and it's called "Friend Of A Friend." Would you play a little bit of that for us?

GROHL: Yeah, sure. You know, when I was living in that tiny apartment and sleeping on the couch, we would come home from rehearsal, Kurt would go into his room and close his door. And I never knew if he was sleeping, so I couldn't make much noise. Now, also, Kurt was a left-handed guitarist, so the only guitar in the apartment was a left-handed acoustic guitar. So I had to learn how to play a left-handed guitar if I wanted to kind of entertain myself. And so I very quietly, so as to not wake him, started writing this song, which I never played to him or Krist until much longer, later. But it basically sounded like this. I haven't played this in 15 years, probably.

(Playing guitar, singing) He needs a quiet room with a lock to keep him in. It's just a quiet room. And he's there. He plays an old guitar with a coin found by the phone. It was his friend's guitar that he played. (Vocalizing). He's never been in love, but he knows just what love is. He says never mind, and no one speaks, no one speaks, no one speaks.

Oh, my God, I haven't played that - I swear it's almost 20 years (laughter). It's been a long time.

GROSS: Do you feel something emotional when you play it now 'cause it's been so long?

GROHL: I do. I mean, I actually had to have someone get me the lyrics. But, you know, the lyrics of the song, it's almost like each verse is about each person. So the first verse says he needs a quiet room with a lock to keep him in. It's just a quiet room, and he's there. He plays an old guitar with a coin found by the phone. It was his friend's guitar that he played. That's referring to me. The next one is referring to Kurt. He's never been in love, but he knows just what love is. He says, never mind, and no one speaks. And then the last verse is about Krist. He thinks he drinks too much because when he tells his two best friends, I think I drink too much, no one speaks. So I think I was maybe 21 years old when I wrote this. But I listen to it now, and I look at it, and I think, that's one of the best songs I think I've ever written in my entire life. Yeah, it is emotional. I mean, it brings me back to being on that couch with the corn dogs and the turtles and the cigarette butts everywhere, you know?

GROSS: Yeah, so thank you. Thank you for playing that.

GROHL: You're welcome.

GROSS: So when he died by suicide, he left a suicide note, and I just want to quote something he says in the note. Well, I'll just paraphrase it. He talked about no longer enjoying performing or playing music anymore and not wanting to have to fake it. Now, obviously, it was more than that 'cause he says in that note to his daughter, you'll be better off without me. But I'm wondering if that scared you - not only his death, which of course, was horrifying, and it was, you know, a tragedy for him and for everybody who knew him. But did that scare you that maybe someday you'll end up feeling that way and that you won't be able to function after that?

GROHL: Yeah, it did. And, you know, there are moments where you get that feeling, I think, as a musician or a performer or as an artist. I think that there are times where you hit that wall, and you realize that you're maybe not inspired. Maybe you're not into it. Maybe you're just going through the motions. Now, one of the things with my life now or the Foo Fighters now is that, you know, I learned a lot of lessons over the years, from Scream to Nirvana to the Foo Fighters, of what to do and what not to do. I think one of the reasons why our band has survived 26 years as the Foo Fighters is because of those lessons we learned before.

And one of the biggest lessons is to know when to say no and not ever feel like you have to buckle to the pressure of someone else forcing you to make music or to perform or to, you know, do something that you're just - that your heart isn't there for. And that's the way we've worked. And I have to imagine one of the reasons why we've survived this long is because if you get that tinge, that feeling in the back of your mind where you're just punching in and going through the motions, that's when it's time to, like, pump the brakes and stop. And that's what we've always done. And more often than not, you settle, and that feeling dissipates. And then you call up your guys, and you're like, hey, I wrote a bunch of new songs; let's make another record. That's kind of how it works now.

GROSS: Since part of, like, your whole way of being was that the band was a family, whether it was Scream or Nirvana. And suddenly, like, you not only had Kurt Cobain, you didn't have that music family anymore.

GROHL: Yeah, I think that - well, in a way, it brought a lot of us closer together. You know, as musicians, we would strap on our instruments and make a bunch of noise and then kind of go our separate ways when we had some time off. But after Kurt died, I think we all really sort of gathered and rallied around each other just to make sure everyone was OK. So I think a lot of us became much closer after Kurt died.

But yeah, I mean, you know, my entire life was about music up until that point. And then, you know, I was heartbroken. And after Nirvana ended, I didn't really know if I ever wanted to play music again until I realized that music was the one thing that had healed me my entire life through periods of pain or heartbreak or sadness. And so it saved my life.

GROSS: Why did you switch from drums to guitar once it was your band?

GROHL: Well, I mean, honestly, after Nirvana ended, I was asked to join a few other bands as the drummer. And I didn't really want to just sit back down on the drum stool because I thought it would remind me too much of losing Kurt and losing Nirvana. So it's almost like, you know, if you stare at the sun, you wind up blinding this little sunspot in your vision. I almost thought of it like that perspective from the drum set. I will always have that sunspot right there in front of me, just to the right. Like, that will be there forever.

So - also, having never done it before, I looked at it as a challenge. You know, people don't bungee jump because they know they're going to make it to the ground safely - you know? - just as I didn't start to be the lead singer of the Foo Fighters because I thought I was Freddie Mercury from Queen. I'm like, oh, God. I've never done this before. Let's see what happens.

(LAUGHTER)

GROHL: I'm that guy. I'm like, screw it. Let's try it. Who cares?

GROSS: Did you have to start really practicing guitar?

GROHL: And a lot - yeah. For a lot of the stuff that I had to play live, yes.

GROSS: What did you have to learn that you didn't know?

GROHL: I mean, honestly, standing up and playing guitar. Like...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROHL: ...My entire life, I'd been sitting on a couch playing Beatles songs. And all of a sudden I'm like, wait; this is - horizontal? What? How does that - so, yeah. I mean, there's a lot to learn.

And of course, there were really terrifying moments of being so self-conscious where, you know, it's almost like being at a school. Remember your first school dance when you hit the dance floor? Like, tell me that you weren't the most self-conscious you'd ever been in your entire life at that point. People are watching me move. People see that I don't have rhythm. People are - you know, it's a very like exposing, vulnerable place to be. That's what it's like being a lead singer if you're thinking about it. Nobody likes to watch someone dance if they're thinking about it. So I stopped thinking about it.

GROSS: My guest is Dave Grohl, the founder and frontman of the band Foo Fighters. Before that, he was Nirvana's drummer. Grohl's written a new memoir called "The Storyteller." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIRVANA'S "FRANCES FARMER WILL HAVE HER REVENGE ON SEATTLE [DEMO/INSTRUMENTAL]")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dave Grohl, founder and frontman of the band Foo Fighters. Before that, he was Nirvana's drummer. He got his start with the punk band Scream. His new memoir is called "The Storyteller."

I think for anybody who starts out with, like, an ethic or a philosophy - like with punk, like, the ethic is DIY and, like, high energy on stage and, you know, damn the outside world. And - you know, it's like - it's a subculture that's really tight. But you're many years older now, and you're the father of three. You're the frontman for your own band, internationally known. And did you have a turning point in your life where you had to decide, were you going to just kind of stick to the ethic that you started with 'cause that's the authentic you? Or were you going to allow yourself to, like, evolve and change and just, you know, let certain things go and still feel like, yeah, you're still being authentic; you're just naturally changing and growing?

GROHL: Yeah, I think that that has a lot to do with it. I mean, like I said earlier, when I went to that first punk rock show, that sense of community and that tribe of those people, those like-minded kids that maybe all felt the same or - that was one of the things that I loved so much was the people coming together. I thought it was so cool. Like, this is where everyone could come. These were the misfits. These were the weirdos. These were the freaks. But this is where they found their tribe and their community. And I felt like them, and I was like, OK, that's cool, man. When we get together, there's some comfort, or there's some, you know, reassurance in that. Like, oh, this is where we belong.

You know, as much as I was anti-establishment in a lot of ways, I think that - when I was young - there was more this feeling of connection to music and people connecting to music that I loved so much. I know how I felt when I listened to a Beatles song - something about the connecting to the music that made me feel great. And when I started writing songs that people connected to as well, God, that was - it was such a beautiful feeling for me. And if that multiplied - oh, my God - it felt even better. So, you know, I think there are some things that feel foreign.

Now that we play stadiums, it's like, in some ways, it really does feel strange to me. At the same time, I feel really comfortable doing it. I mean, it's weird. It's like, wait. I feel comfortable standing in front of 80,000 people and, like, conducting them to sing "Best Of You" with me? Like, that's - is that normal? I don't know. Should I see my therapist? Like, this is weird. But, you know, I wouldn't wish it away because I think that there's a lot of love in music, and the more that that spreads, the farther it goes, the better it does.

You know, as far as some of the more like kind of business ethics, you know, back in the punk rock days, nobody was on a major label because, like, no major labels would sign the noisy punk rock bands. So you just kind of did it yourself, started your own record company, pressed your own records, sold them on consignment down at the punk rock record store, made your own T-shirts, stuff like that. It might sound strange, but the Foo Fighters work in a very similar way. You know, we're on our own label called Roswell Records. And we have our own studio where we make our our songs. And nobody tells - I'm the president of our record company. Isn't that weird?

And so we're basically doing it ourselves with the help of a lot of other people that we really appreciate. But ultimately, it's kind of the same thing. If we didn't feel comfortable with the way we did things, I don't think we'd do them, but we do now. And, you know, there's a part in the book where I talk about the first time that the Foo Fighters played at Wrigley Field in Chicago. And we had sold out the stadium. And I realized we were just a crosswalk away from that dingy little corner bar where I saw my first concert. And so it was 36 years later, it took me 36 years to cross that crosswalk and make it to that stadium across the street. But I did it with my friends and the people that I love. And, you know, most of us survived. And that night after the show, we all sort of gathered together and celebrated just that, and I'm very proud of it.

GROSS: Can I ask you to leave us with a short excerpt of one of your songs?

GROHL: Sure. (Playing guitar, singing) I'm one-way motorway. I'm the road that drives away, follows you back home. I'm a street light shining. I'm a wild light blinding bright, burning off and on. It's times like these you learn to live again. It's times like these you give and give again. It's times like these you learn to love again. It's times like these time and time again.

GROSS: That seems like the perfect note to end on. It has been so wonderful talking with you and hearing you play and sing. You've been so generous with us, and I so appreciate it.

GROHL: Thank you, Terry. That was really fun. Thank you so much.

GROSS: My interview with Dave Grohl was recorded last week at a live streaming event to benefit WHYY, where FRESH AIR is produced. The live event was produced by WHYY's Emily Kinslow. Our thanks to our engineer and technical director, Audrey Bentham. And for technical support on Dave Grohl's end, our thanks to Alister Christy (ph), Oliver Roman (ph) and Evan Maiakofsky (ph). Grohl's new memoir is called "The Storyteller." His band, Foo Fighters, was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Paul McCartney inducted him.

Tomorrow, we'll celebrate Thanksgiving with the interview I recorded with Paul McCartney a few weeks ago. He has a new book collecting his lyrics and the stories behind them. Over the holiday weekend, a new documentary about the making of the Beatles album "Let It Be" will be streaming on Disney+. He'll tell us how that film rewrote the narrative in his own mind about the final days of the Beatles.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a very happy Thanksgiving. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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