Dave Grohl: Rock & Roll Storyteller

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Though the music industry has taken a brutal beating during the COVID-19 pandemic, a major sign that things are bouncing back came on June 20, 2021, when the Foo Fighters re-opened New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden with a sold-out show. The beloved rock band kicked things off with “Times Like These,” their 2003 hit single—and on this night, the hopeful lyrics seem particularly poignant, especially when frontman Dave Grohl sings, It’s times like these, you learn to live again. Throughout the three-hour show, there’s a palpable euphoria in the cavernous space, with many audience members crying tears of joy as they sing along. 

Two months later, during a call from his Los Angeles home, Grohl reflects on what that show was like for him and his bandmates. “I think that if anyone felt emotion in the audience, it was probably just a sliver of what we felt because it was fucking amazing,” he says. “We had been looking forward to that for a long, long time.” 

While Grohl is relieved that things are getting back on track, it’s not like he’s been idle during the past year and a half. “When the world shut down, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll start an Instagram page where I write [about] these outrageously cool experiences that I’ve had—this will give me something to do because I can’t just make lasagna every night for my kids,’” he says. “I made a list of thirty or forty stories, and it ranged from everything from blowing up my neighborhood with fireworks to meeting Little Richard to parenthood.” That list also included lots of stories about Foo Fighters, as well as Grohl’s days as the drummer for the seminal grunge band Nirvana.  

As Grohl began writing, it quickly became clear that this should be more than just a series of social media posts, so he ended up turning it into a book, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, which was published on October 5 (via Dey Street Books). “It was really fulfilling—I really got into it,” he says. “When I hit ‘send’ on the last story, I got really emotional because I didn’t want it to end. It’s the same feeling as completing a song.” 

In The Storyteller, Grohl describes how he worked his way up from being a music-obsessed high school dropout playing in punk bands to becoming one of the most celebrated and influential artists of the past thirty years. Even as he tells harrowing stories from his half-starved early days, when he could barely scrape up enough cash to live on convenience store corndogs, he makes it clear that his passion for music has never wavered. 

Grohl credits his mother with instilling this grit and work ethic in him. “Growing up in Springfield, Virginia in a little house, with my mother working three jobs trying to make a public school teacher salary work as a single mother raising two children, we never had much,” he says, “but we were always happy. There were times when the electricity got shut off, or the heat or the phone. Or my mother would say, ‘Guess what’s for dinner? Scrambled egg sandwiches!’ And [my sister and I] were like, ‘Yay!’ not realizing there was only six pieces of bread and four eggs in the fridge.” 

Dave Grohl with mom (Photo Courtesy Andreas Neumann)

The other driving force, Grohl says, was the music itself: “From an early age, I realized that that was my lifeline, or that was my best friend, and I would do anything to keep it.” He was so driven to play that he wasn’t even dissuaded by the fact that he couldn’t initially afford to buy a drum set. Instead, he drummed on pillows in his bedroom, trying to copy what he heard on his favorite albums. After he was able to get a guitar, he taught himself to play using a stack of Beatles songbooks. All of this was, he says, a crucial learning experience for him. 

“After doing that for hours and hours and hours every day, you start to notice the subtleties in the arrangements, or the shape of a composition, or the different types of harmonies, and then the lyrical qualities of each song,” Grohl says. “So just through total obsession, I started to form this idea of how music is made or should be.” 

Grohl started writing his own songs when he was eleven years old. This was when he first realized that his lack of formal musical training could actually be an asset. “One of the blessings of not knowing what I’m doing is that I surprise myself,” he says. “Like, I don’t know conventional scales. I don’t know the names of the chords that I’m making.” 

He was equally inventive when he started recording his songs, creating a makeshift multi-tracking process with cassette decks. He played all the instruments himself. “It became my little secret, where I would write songs about school or my dog or my dad or whatever,” he says. “Of course, the [sound] quality was total shit, but I did like the idea of doing it by myself because the reward was almost sweeter. I didn’t need anyone to help me, and therefore, I didn’t ever have to have anyone listen to it because I thought it was horrible.” 

Determined to improve, Grohl continued studying a wide variety of artists. “I grew up, like most people my age, falling in love with the Beatles, Kiss, Rush, and AC/DC,” he says. He also developed a fondness for 1970s AM radio stars such as Gerry Rafferty, Helen Reddy, and Andrew Gold. “Then I made this radical shift into underground American hardcore punk rock music, and to me, the allure of that was its unpolished, unproduced, independent qualities. I liked the fact that these people were doing it themselves; they didn’t need a record company. That was the most exciting thing because I realized, ‘I can do this, too—I’m allowed. I’ve been invited to this party now.’” 

Even so, Grohl says he didn’t seriously believe that music would become his actual career. “A lot of my early years were spent in a deep fantasy of wanting to be in the band I was listening to,” he says. “I never imagined, ‘I’m going to wind up on a poster on someone’s bedroom wall.’ Never. Not that I didn’t want it, but I was like, ‘That’s completely unattainable.’ I just imagined people like Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page and John Bonham were sent from heaven.” 

Becoming a professional musician didn’t seem more likely even after Grohl started joining groups. “When I was playing in my early bands, Dain Bramage and Scream, there was no real commercial aspiration because the type of music we played wasn’t commercially viable,” he says. “It was fast, hardcore punk rock. Or it was like heavy, dirgey sludge. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a career option.” 

Still, Grohl had enough faith in music that he dropped out of high school so he could tour the world as the drummer for Scream. When that band split, he moved to Seattle and joined Nirvana. His first album with them, Nevermind (1991), resulted in massive fame in a matter of weeks thanks to hit singles such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are.” The grunge music they played ushered in a revolutionary alternative rock movement that still reverberates through the music industry today. But that extraordinary success also brought immense pressure, and vocalist/guitarist Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. 

“When Nirvana ended, I was in a deep, deep rut emotionally,” Grohl says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to play music anymore, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be a drummer anymore. So I just turned to that old habit of recording things on my own and thought, ‘All right, maybe I’ll do this in an actual recording studio.’ I booked six days at a place down the street from my house in Seattle and recorded what became the first record [Foo Fighters, 1995], without having much expectation.” As he had done on his first recordings as a child, Grohl played all the parts himself, but “I called it ‘Foo Fighters’ because I wanted people to think it was a band.” 

Photo by Magdelena Wosinska

The gamble paid off, with the debut Foo Fighters single, “This Is a Call,” attaining chart success around the world. “That opened up this new door to me where life could continue. It really saved my life,” Grohl says. He quickly recruited bandmates. “I didn’t want it to feel like a solo project. I didn’t want it to feel like this is my backing band. I wanted that same feeling that I had in every band I’d been in, where it’s a collective, it’s a group, and we do this together.”  

Still, Grohl admits that it wasn’t easy to become a frontman. “When you spend a decade behind a drum set, completely comfortable being hidden behind a mop of hair and big, tubby drums, standing out in front of a skinny mic stand screaming to 800 people a night, it’s a big shift,” he says. “It took me a long, long time to get comfortable with it. I mean, years. I was about ten years in before I realized, ‘I’d better get used to this.’” 

Now, after 26 years together, Foo Fighters continue their world domination. Their accolades include winning eleven Grammy awards (and being nominated for 27 more). This year, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Grohl, who was inducted with Nirvana in 2014, seems intent on shifting the attention to his bandmates this time. “When I heard that we were going to be inducted, my thoughts first went to Pat [Smear, guitarist]—his contribution to music is as important as Nirvana. I mean, he inspired a generation of young punk rock musicians and he’s an innovator. He’s an originator. He’s someone from The Germs being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! It makes me incredibly happy and proud that he’s in my band. 

“Then I thought of Nate [Mendel, bassist], who I started the band with, and Taylor [Hawkins, drummer] and Chris [Shiflett, guitarist],” Grohl continues. “I tried to imagine how they felt when they heard. We talked about it a little bit. We didn’t get hung up on it, but it’s a trip.” He adds that they certainly won’t begin coasting on this success: “As a band, we’re addicted to achievement. So you plant a flag and once it’s raised, you move on to the next one. We just keep looking forward.” 

Though Grohl gives his bandmates a lot of credit, he remains the group’s leader and main songwriter. “There are times where a song will just begin with a lyric, and then I’ll head to a guitar,” he says, “but it usually starts with melody. I’ll do a demo by myself where I’ll play all of the instruments: put down drums and bass and guitars and keyboards. So then I have these instrumentals, and I’ll bank those—I’ll have 20, 30, 40 of them.” 

Those demos come into play when it’s time to make the next Foo Fighters record. “Depending on how the band feels at the time, if it’s time to make a huge rock record, that’s what we do. If it’s time to make an experimental, groovy record, that’s what we do,” Grohl says. “I’ll look through the bank of songs and think, ‘Okay, this collection of ten songs works together,’ and then I start writing around that.” 

Next, Grohl brings the songs to the rest of the band—though they don’t tend to tinker with them for too long. “We set up some microphones and go for it,” Grohl says. Because they don’t overthink it “there’s some simplicity and honesty to it that maybe people can connect to, and I do write from a personal place that can sometimes be emotional, and I think people relate to that. So if I write a lyric that people will sing along to, I imagine that each one of them is singing along for their own reason. Not mine, but theirs.” 

By now, many Foo Fighters songs are deeply embedded in the collective consciousness: “Everlong,” “My Hero,” “Times Like These,” and “Best of You,” to name just a few. Grohl uses “Learn to Fly” (from their third album, There Is Nothing Left to Lose in 1999) to illustrate why he’ll be fine with playing these songs forevermore. “To me, that song is more than just music,” he says. “It’s this immediate connection with thousands of people. So when we start playing a song that an audience recognizes or sings along to, I feel that connection more than my hands on the guitar. I look in people’s eyes and we sing it together every night, and that’s fucking amazing. It’s the greatest luxury of being in this band, that we extend our hand to the audience and invite them to be a part of something for three hours, and they do.” 

Photo by Magdalena Wosinska

As successful as he’s been, Grohl hasn’t stopped striving to expand his songwriting skills. “From day one, I’ve always tried to diversify the dynamic within each album because when you do that, you open up a door to return to it later on. Meaning, you’re just broadening the playing field. We’ve touched on all these different places, and in doing that, it makes it more comfortable and less contrived to return to later on,” he says. 

This adventurous attitude comes through on Medicine at Midnight, the band’s tenth studio album (released this past February via Roswell Records/RCA). This time, Grohl says, “It was like, ‘Okay, what haven’t we done? Well, we haven’t really done the dance thing yet. We’ve made albums with these big, heavy riffs—what about groove?’ All of us grew up listening to early funk and Bowie and bands that managed to play rock music that you could shake your ass to. I was like, ‘God, we’ve never really done that! Let’s go for it!’” 

Then the band doubled down on this danceable-rock idea with their new disco alter ego, Dee Gees. While spending much of the pandemic at their L.A. rehearsal studio, recording things for the BBC or Spotify, they’d also play cover songs for their own amusement. Inspired by the popular 2020 documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, they made a faithful version of the song “You Should Be Dancing.” That was such fun that they recorded several more Bee Gees songs (as well as “Shadow Dancing,” originally by Andy Gibb). Under the Dee Gees moniker, they released these tracks as an album, Hail Satin, in July. 

“I read some reviews of [Hail Satin] where people said, ‘This new career direction is just a total disaster for the Foo Fighters,’” Grohl says with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Well, it wasn’t really a career decision. It was just for fun.’ I think that most everything that we do begins with that idea.” 

For his part, Grohl says he never has trouble staying inspired. “First of all, I’m a total fucking spaz,” he says cheerfully. “After having incredibly vivid dreams of UFOs or earthquakes or tidal waves or hanging out with Little Richard, whatever. I wake up and I’m like, ‘All right, what am I going to do today?’ I’m motivated by the people that I’m surrounded by. I’m blessed with the availability of opportunities, and then I want to take advantage of that. And musically, I find something new every day that I become obsessed with for 48 hours, and it drives me. There’s just so much to do. There’s a list of a hundred things I haven’t done yet that I can’t wait to get to—I just have to get the other hundred things out of the way first.” 

One of those things, Grohl says, will be another Foo Fighters album, though he’s reluctant to divulge details about that yet. “We’ve been talking about making the next record for the past few months,” he says. “What’s it going to be? It’s just a matter of picking up the instruments and figuring that out.” 

Beyond that, Grohl says, “It’s hard to make any kind of prediction. I have a schedule and it goes into 2023, but you just have to cross your fingers and hope that these things will happen. So you wake up every day appreciating the day before, and hoping you have another to look forward to.” He does make one promise, though: “There will be a lot of music, I know that.” 


Photos by Magdalena Wosinska.

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