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Dave Grohl: ‘I smashed cymbals like they were teacups’

Don't be fooled by all that noise, rock legend Dave Grohl really is a very nice man.
Dave Grohl is a very nice man. Credit: Danny Clinch

Dave Grohl is often dubbed the “nicest guy in rock” and it’s not hard to see why.

Fresh from playing at President Biden’s inauguration, the Foo Fighters frontman sat down with the Big Issue’s Jane Graham to pen his Letter to My Younger Self, where he opened up about how he learned music, his childhood memories, playing with Paul McCartney and Kurt Cobain, and just how much he loves his mum.

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At 16 I was already fully immersed in music, and learning to write and record and perform. I was a music junkie. So I was amassing this crazy record collection, most of it underground independent punk rock bands. But I wasn’t only listening to the albums for personal enjoyment. I was learning to play my instruments from them.

I never took drum lessons, I just learned from listening to Led Zeppelin and Bad Brains and The Police and Sex Pistols records. I didn’t have a teacher to show me how to write songs, I just had a Beatles songbook. I would sit and play along to Beatles songs, and I started understanding composition and arrangement and harmony and melody and dissonance. And riff and core and rhythm. So, I was pretty locked into my bedroom at that age. If I wasn’t on the bus to and from school I was in my bedroom, just studying these albums.

I was a terrible student in school, which unfortunately made for an uncomfortable adolescence because my mother was a high school English teacher at the fucking school I knew I was failing in. I really had little interest in what most people thought was the conventional route to take in life. I just thought, when I’m free I’m just going to play music and find a way to pay the rent, because there’s no way I could become a professional musician. I’m just going to work at The Furniture Warehouse, or at the local gardening nursery, or at best an independent record label, but as long as I have a bed, a lamp and an apartment, I’ll make the rest work. I was a romantic, idealistic 16-year-old, I really was. I just thought, OK, the world is mine. I don’t think I knew right from wrong, I thought I’d figure out life just as I figured out these songs.

It’s funny that Nirvana became so famous for this Gen-X ‘darker side of life’ thing, because I truly had a very happy childhood. My parents divorced when I was six or seven years old, so my mother raised me. I think because she was a public school teacher she understood people, especially kids. She really gave me freedoms that a lot of other kids didn’t have.

As an English teacher, a brilliant writer and a teacher of public speaking, she understood the importance of having some sort of creative outlet in your life. I would sit in my room and write poetry, which was fucking awful but who cares; I was trying to express myself. I look back on my childhood as a very inspired time. And I still wake up almost every day feeling like an excited kid.

1992 MTV Video Music Awards Dave Grohl,Kurt Cobain and Kirst Novoselic of Nirvana (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

My mother and I were, and still are, so close. We’ve always been friends. The mother-child dynamic was definitely there but there was also a real friendship. She would take me to jazz clubs, we would go see movies together. I think I was the only one of my friends who actually enjoyed hanging out with a parent.

Our bond was so close that over time I think she developed this faith that I was going to be OK. Being a school teacher, she realised I sucked at school. She understood that, rather than sit in a fluorescent-lit school room and have someone try to teach me Italian, I’d be better off just going to Italy. Living in a squat and having to ask someone ‘Where’s the nearest pharmacy?’

As a parent now myself, it’s hard for me to fathom my mother accepting my just disappearing into Europe when I was so young. I didn’t have a calling card, or money. I would fly standby to Amsterdam and say, OK, I’ll see you in two months, and then send a postcard every three weeks. I’d lose my fucking mind if my child did that. That’s a leap of faith, to let your child wander out into the world on their own. But she was right. I was OK. And to this day, my mother and I speak with each other almost every day.

I probably would tell my former self ‘You’re gonna make it.’ I had this incredible nihilistic fear of war. In the Eighties, there was this threat of mutually assured destruction you lived under. And it’s such a terrible way to live. I feel like I should have appreciated the world more, rather than living in fear that it would disappear.

I still vividly remember the nightmares I had when I was young, of seeing missiles flying over my backyard, and mushroom clouds. It just robs you of any hope. I lived with that fear for a long time. I could never imagine myself as an 85-year-old man, watching the sunset. I always imagined, in this dark pessimistic way, that things weren’t going to turn out well. That may have exposed some of my darker tendencies.

If you met the teenage me, first of all you’d think this person has more energy than any human being I’ve ever seen. I was an outrageously hyperactive kid. And from the time I was eight years old I was a performer. I wanted people to laugh, I wanted people to be happy. I wanted people to dance, to feel good. I would put on shows for my family and friends, for no reason. I’d do anything for a laugh. Man, I just had this restless energy, I was like a fucking gnat, I just couldn’t stop.

But I was also given a good sense of Southern manners by both of my parents. They were both raised in the Midwest in Ohio, but I grew up in Virginia so my childhood had a tinge of Southern culture to it. So at an early age I knew there were three things that you don’t talk about at the dinner table; politics, religion or money. And I was a good kid, I wasn’t gonna steal the stereo out of your car. I was gonna try my best not to offend you in any way. I mean, I’m kind of the antithesis of all of the bands that I loved, punk rock bands and fucking satanic death metal. I’d mow your lawn on Sunday for five hours. That’s kind of the way it worked.

Paul McCartney Performs In Concert At Safeco Field SEATTLE, WA - JULY 19: Paul McCartney and Dave Grohl (R) perform live at Safeco Field on July 19, 2013 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Suzi Pratt/Getty Images)

When I was being raised by a public school teacher, there was never any money. I mean, we just got by. We lived in a little 1,300 sq ft house with one bathroom and a small kitchen, just my mother, my sister and I. And we found joy in the simplest things. I never felt like I needed more, a bigger house or a better bike or any of that.

For our family trip in the summer the three of us would pile into our tiny Ford Fiesta and drive to Ohio or Chicago, which is a good 12-hour drive, going through mountain passes and cornfields. And I also learned about rhythm in a funny way on those trips. My mother and I would sit up front in the car and she taught me how to sing harmonies, or we would do these little games – name that tune. Or snap our fingers to the song on the radio as we drove through the mountain passes to see if, when we came out of the tunnel, I was still on the beat. Honestly, it taught me about rhythm and metre and still to this day it’s one of my favourite games to play. Those were the days, man.

Both of my parents were musicians. My father was a classically trained flautist and my mother was a singer, though neither of them went professional. I do believe that DNA has something to do with a person’s musical capability. It gives you a head start. I think that having been first raised by these two musical people, and having that hyperactive nature, the drums were a pretty obvious choice for me.

I mean, I didn’t even have a fucking drum set when I was learning how to play drums. I had two drumsticks that were actually marching sticks so they were gigantically fat, and I would set up pillows in the formation of a drum set, and play along to Ramones records, or Minor Threat records, with really fast, 200 beats per minute, aggressive drumming. So when I was 16 and someone gave me an actual normal pair of drumsticks on a normal drum set, I just shattered everything. I was breaking cymbals like they were teacups.

That’s the reason I’ve always been such a basher. I’ve tried to learn the subtleties of dynamic drumming but it’s no use. So when the rock’n’roll bug hit I really decided ‘this is who I am’. All the sport went out the window. I was like, this is my passion. This is my love.

'Bring Change to Mind' annual gala, San Francisco, USA - 17 Oct 2019 Dave Grohl, Violet Maye Grohl 17 Oct 2019 Image ID: 10449156eg Featured in: 'Bring Change to Mind' annual gala, San Francisco, USA - 17 Oct 2019 Photo Credit: Drew Altizer Photography/Shutterstock Keywords: daughter of dave, in concert

Through my life there have been a lot of moments when I couldn’t believe they were happening. I have to say that the biggest would probably be getting to meet Paul McCartney, and recording a song with him in my own studio in Northridge, California, with Krist [Novoselic] and Pat [Smear] from Nirvana, writing and arranging a song from scratch in one day. Just the four of us.

So Paul starts playing a riff. And we all start playing along. And then the stars align and we become connected and the vibe is there and the groove is there. And everyone starts smiling, and it becomes that tide that goes back and forth between musicians when they play.

So we record a take, and then it’s time for the vocals, and I sit and watch Paul McCartney singing lead vocal on something me and my friends just recorded. And then he asks me to go in and sing backup. And I say, “OK, what should I do, should I do a harmony?” And he says “No, no, just double exactly what I just did. That’s what me and John Lennon used to do.” If I could go back and tell my 16-year-old self that someday that would happen he would say, you’re fucked up. No way on earth could this possibly ever happen.

When I first met Kurt [Cobain] and Krist… musically, it was a match made in heaven. But personally, it was a bit off to be honest. Of course we loved each other. We were friends. But, you know, there was a dysfunction in Nirvana that a band like Foo Fighters doesn’t have. You also have to realise, from the time I joined Nirvana to the time it was over was only about four years. It wasn’t a long period of time. Was I close to Kurt, as I am to Taylor Hawkins? No. I did live with Krist and his wife when I first joined the band. I think it lasted a month and then they kicked me out, but we always had this sort of loving connection, and it was made even more so after Kurt died.

When I see Krist now, I hug him like family. But back then we were young, and the world was just so strange. But that emotional dysfunction in Nirvana was relieved when we put on instruments. If the music hadn’t worked, we wouldn’t have been there together. I truly believe that there’s some people you can only communicate with musically. And sometimes that’s an even greater, deeper communication. There are people that I might feel a little awkward talking to but once we strap on instruments, it’s like they’re the love of my life.

Dave Grohl and his mumCredit: Michael Elins
Dave Grohl and his mum Credit: Michael Elins

There was a particular trauma after the end of Nirvana that lasted for a while, but, you know, I think that love of music I had when I was a child eclipsed everything and I realised that music was going to be the thing that would write me out of that depression.

For a while there I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to play music again. But it came back. And thankfully, just as I had hoped, it healed me. To me music has always been about life. It was the thing I most loved about life, more than anything else. After Nirvana I needed it to keep me alive. and it’s the reason why I never stopped.

If I could go back to any time in my life, I remember standing on stage with… no, I have another memory. I think of when my 14-year-old daughter Violet played her first show. She’s a singer, she’s got an incredible voice. Her band was playing at this little club with a lot of bands who were all 10, 12 years old. And my mother came. And I sat there watching my daughter on stage, nervous for her, because I wanted her to do great.

And the next day my mother called and she said, “now you know what it feels like to be a parent watching your child up on stage with that funny haircut, crossing your fingers, hoping they’ll make it out of there alive. And with all that pride and happiness and love and joy. Well, that’s how I’ve felt for the last 30 years.”

Foo Fighters’ new album Medicine at Midnight is out now on Columbia