Remember When: Dave Grohl Was Asked to Be the Drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

When 17-year-old Dave Grohl began touring with Washington, D.C., hardcore band Scream, he couldn’t have imagined his future.

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Soon, his band broke up, and Grohl called Melvins’ frontman, Buzz Osborne, for advice. Osborne said a band called Nirvana needed a new drummer and connected Grohl with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic.

Nirvana worked with producer Butch Vig on demos for what became Nevermind. The band’s meteoric rise changed rock music’s look, sound, and attitude. But their triumph was costly. Cobain committed suicide in 1994.

Cobain’s death shook the music world, and though the press focused on the professional lives of the group’s surviving members, Grohl and Novoselic were left mourning a friend.

Grohl’s life was in limbo, and he didn’t know, again, what his future held. Then a legend called, looking for a drummer.

Tom Petty Called

In 1994, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were scheduled to perform on Saturday Night Live. However, their drummer, Stan Lynch, had recently quit the group after nearly two decades as a Heartbreaker. Lynch said he had grown apart from the group.

Petty contacted Grohl’s manager to see if the drummer wanted to sit in for the SNL performance. Grohl responded, “What the f— is he calling me for? Couldn’t he find a good drummer?”

Yet he accepted the offer to perform with Petty and said it was the first time he felt excited about playing drums since Nirvana ended.

So, on November 19, 1994, the Heartbreakers—with Grohl on drums—played “Honey Bee” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” on SNL. Petty was thrilled and hoped it wouldn’t be the last time they played with Grohl.

But this was a pivotal moment in Grohl’s life. After Nirvana, the obvious and safest move would have been to join a prominent band, though he remained undecided.

Petty called him again to discuss something more long-term. Grohl revisited the conversation and told Howard Stern that Petty explained the gig. “If you want, here’s how we do it. You get your own bus, and we don’t tour too hard,” Petty said. “If you’re into it, come out, and let’s do it for a little while.”

Grohl quietly made other plans.

Reflecting on his decision not to join the Heartbreakers, Grohl said going “right back to the drums would have reminded me of being in Nirvana. It would have been sad.” He explained to Stern how hard it would be to look beyond his drum kit and not see Kurt Cobain.


Following Cobain’s death, Grohl retreated and found it challenging to listen to music.

Eventually, he completed a weeklong recording session with producer Barrett Jones at Robert Lang Studios in Shoreline, Washington, near Seattle, a month before the SNL performance with Petty.

Jones and Grohl previously collaborated on a collection of demos called Pocketwatch. In 1992, Grohl released the demos on cassette using the pseudonym Late!, though distribution stopped when the master tapes deteriorated.

Like the Pocketwatch cassette, Grohl performed all instrumentation but wanted to remain anonymous. He also wanted to present the album as a band and chose the name Foo Fighters, taken from a book he read about investigating UFOs.

The sessions at Robert Lang became Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album. Capitol Records signed Grohl, reconnecting him with music executive Gary Gersh, who had signed Nirvana to Geffen Records’ imprint DGC.  

After Nirvana and Before the Heartbreakers

The SNL performance with Petty happened during uncertainty and profound sadness for Grohl. Nirvana had shifted popular culture, and Cobain’s death by suicide brought a violent and tragic end to the group.

Cobain famously loved The Beatles, and his band sometimes drew comparisons to them. Thus, it’s fitting that one of Grohl’s first public performances after Nirvana was Beatles-adjacent.

Before the Petty performance on SNL, Iain Softley’s biopic of The Beatles’ early years, Backbeat, premiered. In 1993, producer Don Was formed an all-star band to perform the cover songs that The Beatles played during their pre-fame years. Grohl joined Don Fleming, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, and the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli to record music for the film.

The Backbeat Band appeared for a one-off performance at the 1994 MTV Movie Awards. Bassist Mike Watt was backstage and invited Grohl to record with him.

Watt’s session (for Ball-Hog or Tugboat?) was Grohl’s first recording appearance following Cobain’s death.

Foo Fighters and Grief

Though Foo Fighters have enjoyed enormous success, Grohl, once again, faced overwhelming heartbreak on tour in Bogotá, Colombia, when his close friend and bandmate Taylor Hawkins was found dead in his hotel room.

Still, Dave Grohl persists. Foo Fighters’ first album following Hawkins’ death is aptly titled, But Here We Are.

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Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images

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