Foo Fighters: the road to Glastonbury – the exclusive story

Two years ago, an onstage injury forced Foo Fighters to cancel their long-awaited Glastonbury headline show. Over three days, Barry Nicolson joins them in London and at Worthy Farm as they return to settle the score – and party with Johnny Depp

Dave Grohl has an apology to make. “Sorry I’m two years late,” he grins, before he gets Foo Fighters’ long-delayed Glastonbury return underway, “but traffic was a b***h.” First a gag, then a song _ ‘Times Like These’, the track Florence + The Machine dedicated to him on this stage in 2015 when a (very badly) broken leg left Grohl in recovery and propelled last-minute replacement Florence Welch to accidental-headliner status. Later on, he’ll tell me how he watched that performance on a laptop in his garage, confined to a motorised wheelchair, “and when Florence played ‘Times Like These’, man, I just broke down in tears. Everyone was singing along, she said nice things, it was so beautiful. I had to email her afterwards to say, ‘Thank you, and why weren’t you headlining in the first place?’”

So begins one of the biggest, most joyous rock’n’roll shows Worthy Farm has seen in years. Foo Fighters’ headline set is everything you hoped it would be: a beginning-to-end ass-kicking by a band at the peak of their powers. Their long, circuitous journey to this point has hardly been a “one-way motorway”, but tonight, at long last, all roads lead to Glasto. “This could be the biggest night of our entire lives,” Grohl says at one point.

The day before the Foos’ triumphant headline set, I sit down with Grohl and drummer Taylor Hawkins at The Savoy hotel. Spookily enough, it’s where I last interviewed the band about headlining Glastonbury – about a week before Grohl broke his leg onstage and was forced to cancel their set. Back in 2015, the band were excited about playing the festival but couldn’t quite understand why interviewers kept insisting it would be the pinnacle of their career. “I’m still trying to process how Glastonbury is a bigger deal than Wembley,” Hawkins told me that day. “They’re both just big, giant gigs for people in England.”

“When we spoke to you two years ago, we didn’t realise the immensity of headlining this festival,” explains Grohl today. “We just didn’t. And now I can’t wait to walk out on that stage because I can actually walk out on that stage, y’know?”

After breaking his leg – and soldiering on through that show before going to hospital – Grohl’s initial instinct was to come to Worthy Farm anyway and play the gig sitting down. “I thought, ‘OK, I just finished that show sitting down, so maybe we just keep going.’” His surgeon soon disabused him of that notion, however. “I thought maybe I’d just broken my ankle, or splintered a bone; I didn’t realise that I’d completely split a bone, pulled my ankle out and torn all the ligaments. We played 53 more shows on that tour and they were great f**king shows, but I was bummed about missing Glastonbury and Wembley. I was actually looking forward to doing them with a broken leg. After 20 years of being in a band, anything to switch it up a little bit…”

Forty-eight hours before they arrive onstage at Worthy Farm, the band are at London’s Metropolis studios to unveil their next LP, ‘Concrete And Gold’, which is due in September. Free booze and finger-food aside, it’s not the kind of thing most artists would bother turning up for, but Foo Fighters – who are, after all, in town on a little business – actually do. All six band members – including newly promoted keyboardist Rami Jaffee – are present, and Grohl even introduces the album with a characteristically jocular pep talk about its recording, teasing the identities of the guests who supposedly feature on it – including one he’ll only call “the biggest pop star in the world” – and joking that he’s going to hold them back to boost record sales. Finally, he instructs the engineer to play the album “a little louder than you think it should be”, an order that’s followed to the letter.

Grohl has likened ‘Concrete And Gold’ to “Motörhead’s version of [Beatles album] ‘Sgt. Pepper…’” and while it doesn’t sound like that at all (‘Abbey Road’ might be a better shout) you can at least hear what he’s driving at. Beatles-y multipart harmonies sit alongside some of the hardest songs the band have ever recorded (rest assured there’s plenty more where new single ‘Run’ came from), but it’s still recognisably Foo Fighters – just the biggest, loudest, most Wagnerian version of them you can imagine. “I thought of Pat Smear’s guitar on ‘Pet Sounds’,” Grohl tells us, “and I thought, ‘God, if that could actually happen, we’d be in heaven…’”

As it turns out, he didn’t need God; Greg Kurstin could handle this one for him. The Foos’ new producer first bleeped onto Grohl’s radar through his own band, The Bird And The Bee, after he became entranced by their 2007 single ‘Again & Again’. Only later did he discover that Kurstin was the same guy behind some of Adele’s, Sia’s and, more recently, Liam Gallagher’s biggest hits. “Every time I’d bump into him he’d have another gigantic f**king record out, and he’s the most unassuming, reserved guy you’ve ever met,” says Grohl. “You’d be like, ‘F**k, you wrote that Adele song? You played all the instruments on that? Get the f**k outta here!’”

It’s been speculated that Adele might be on ‘Concrete And Gold’ in some form, and at the playback, Grohl also jokes about hanging out with Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake. He won’t confirm or deny anything just yet, but he does say that on any given day at LA’s EastWest Studios, “You might have Shania Twain having a record-release party, or the guy from Deep Purple hanging out with Jason Bonham, or Justin Timberlake would be in for a couple of weeks, or Lady Gaga working with these other cats from Nashville. And every so often we’d be like, ‘Hey, wanna come sing some backing vocals?’ and they’d just f**king do it. It was loose and random: everyone was hanging out, drinking whiskey, having a good time. I never went to college, but it’s what I imagine a dormitory’s like.”

It’s a far cry from Grohl’s original plan, which he hinted at during our chat in 2015. “I kept this secret for a long time, but I’ll tell you,” he says, leaning in conspiratorially. “What I wanted to do was write the songs, do some pre-production on a soundstage, then build a recording studio onstage at the Hollywood Bowl, bring 20,000 people down there and stream it live so the whole world could watch us record. No pressure!”

He abandoned the plan when he saw that PJ Harvey had done something similar with last year’s ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’. But why all the secrecy and subterfuge surrounding ‘Concrete And Gold’? “Well, you know, you read headlines like ‘Foo Fighters Hate Each Other’, or ‘Taylor’s Going Solo’ or I’m going solo, and we love to f**k with people,” he grins. But there’s more to it than that: by the end of the ‘Sonic Highways’ tour – following Grohl’s broken leg, and the Bataclan terrorist attack that caused them to cancel the final European dates – Foo Fighters really were in need of a break and really did mean to take one. Grohl just found it harder to walk away from the band than he thought it would be.

“At this point,” he insists, “I cannot imagine life without this band. You can talk about taking breaks or stopping or getting away from it, but I just don’t know what else I’d do. These guys are my closest friends and this is, I think, the reason why I’m here. So I thought, maybe this is the perfect time to rebuild everything and do it in private, outside of everyone’s microscope. The minute you tell people you’re making a record, you’re giving yourself a deadline and we didn’t need or want that. We were eager to get back to work and make something we were proud of – but who knew how long that would take?”

Back on Worthy Farm, we watch side of stage as the crowd chant for “Ten more songs!” Grohl hardly needs more encouragement: he’s already been behind the drumkit to play Bowie to Hawkins’ Freddie Mercury on an endearingly rough-and-ready cover of ‘Under Pressure’, broken Adele’s record for most watershed-defying ‘f**ks’ in a headline set and overrun his allotted time by 15 minutes. It’s one of those nights where everything just falls into place. “I’ll tell you what,” he beams to the crowd at one point, “this is exactly what I f**king hoped would happen.”

Post-gig, NME is ushered into the band’s backstage compound. Johnny Depp has been chewing Grohl’s ear off. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich prowls the perimeter. Yet here comes Grohl, bounding into the room like there’s no one else onsite he’d rather hang out with. “I hug people,” he warns, before moving in for a big one. It probably wasn’t like this after Radiohead.

“You know my favourite moment of the whole night?” he says. “Five minutes before we go onstage, Liam f**kin’ Gallagher wanders in. He goes straight over to Taylor and says, ‘That f**kin’ song – ‘Range Rover B***h’!’ Then he starts singing a song from Taylor’s solo record. Then he turns round to me and goes, ‘And your s**t’s alright, too!’ Taylor had nerves about tonight because everyone made such a big deal about this show, but he walked onstage with the biggest f**king smile…”

And how does he feel, after the long and winding road he’s taken to get here? Does Dave Grohl finally ‘get’ Glastonbury?

“You know what I feel like? It feels like I’m at my mother’s Christmas party back in Virginia. When we first had it, we never sent invitations; our friends just came. So first there were 10 people, then 15, then 20, then eventually the police had to come and shut us down. That’s how I feel tonight. You know, we came here almost 20 years ago, then I came back with Queens Of The Stone Age and that was cool, but tonight just felt like it meant so much f**king more.”

Foo Fighters, he assures me, “never play just any other show.” No doubt their next one won’t be just any other show, nor the one after that. But none of them will ever beat Saturday night at Glastonbury. If Dave Grohl didn’t know it before, you can bet he does now.

The full Foos at Glastonbury setlist

‘Times Like These’
‘All My Life’
‘Learn To Fly’
‘Something From Nothing’
‘The Pretender’
‘Cat Scratch Fever’
‘Another One Bites The Dust’
‘Blitzkrieg Bop’
‘Cold Day In The Sun’
‘Congregation’
‘Walk’
‘These Days’
‘My Hero’
‘Wheels’
‘Run’
‘This Is A Call’
‘Arlandria’
‘Monkey Wrench’
‘Best Of You’
‘Skin And Bones’
‘Under Pressure’
‘Everlong’