“Washington D.C. is my hometown,” says Dave Grohl. “I grew up right outside there, so just seeing the trees and the National Mall, I could almost smell the air and what it feels like; that January chill. Seeing that happen just brought me back home. And what a fucking relief!”
The Foo Fighters frontman and all-round rock icon is speaking to NME hours after Joe Biden was inaugurated as US President, bringing an end to four of the most tumultuous years in American history under the leadership of Donald Trump. Shortly after we speak, the band, some 26 years since they formed, will deliver one of the most significant performances of their career: a stirring rendition of 2002 banger ‘Times Like These’ as part of Biden’s virtual inauguration celebrations.
“It just hasn’t quite set in,” Grohl says of the honour. “We had to record it virtually, and I’d much rather have been there. Look, my father was a Republican speech writer in Washington D.C. and he took my sister to Reagan’s second term inauguration. If my father was alive and he saw my band was performing at any kind of inauguration ceremony, he’d probably wouldn’t have believed it either!”
The honour, which affirms that the band now sit firmly at America’s top table, comes mid-way through one of their strangest periods after the small matter of a global pandemic put their plans for 2020 on ice. It was set to be the year that would provide a defining victory lap of their entire career, celebrating the Foo Fighters’ 25th anniversary with 10th album ‘Medicine At Midnight’, a record that Grohl has described as the band’s “party album”, before gearing up to take it to stadiums across the globe.
Instead, the band found themselves with unexpected time on their hands and headed back to their families after almost three decades on the road. Along with Hawkins and Grohl, guitarists Pat Smear (at one time a touring member of Nirvana) and Chris Shiflett, keyboardist Rami Jaffee and bassist Nate Mendel have left barely any corner of the globe un-rocked.
“Foo Fighters shows are like being in a fist fight for three fucking hours,” drummer Taylor Hawkins tells NME in a separate phone call from our chat with Grohl. “It’s like getting in the ring every night. To take that time off – I can’t complain.”
After a year away, then, Foos have finally released ‘Medicine At Midnight’ – which, for this writer at least, is their strongest collection of songs since 2011’s ‘Wasting Light’. Grohl previously described the record as “fucking weird”, but long-term fans can rest easy in knowing that the band’s recognisable spirit is present and correct – although it’s been successfully injected with drum loops, funky rhythms and the input of pop super-producer Greg Kurstin.
Hawkins tells NME that the album will define “this era in our band’s history”, comparing it to the benchmark moments of 1997’s ‘The Colour & The Shape’, while Grohl adds: “As a band, we’ve talked about this record not being able to come before it did. Imagine if this record were the first record, where would we be now? If this record came around any earlier in our career, it wouldn’t have felt right. All of these sounds are rooted in things we’ve done before, but we’ve never taken it this far.”
Grooves and partying aside, the record also sees the Foos delivering some of their darkest lyrical moments to date. The searing ‘Waiting On A War’ is inspired by Grohl’s childhood fears that he would die in a nuclear holocaust, as political tensions heated up between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1980s (“Every day waiting for the sky to fall…”). These fears came full circle when the Trump administration and North Korean despot Kim Jong-Un began to ramp up tensions with a brief bout of chest-thumping, prompting Grohl’s daughter to ask him if a war was on the horizon.
“Foo Fighters shows are like being in a fist fight for three fucking hours” – Taylor Hawkins
Asked if he’s hopeful for change under Biden, Hawkins enthusiastically replies, “Fuck yeah! Without any doubt in my mind. It’s going to be restful, although life is still going to be hard. It’s still a shit-show right now and it’s going to be difficult, there’s no question. But people need calming down and it’s that simple. I don’t know shit about politics, and I don’t pretend to, but I do know a tool bag when I see a tool bag. I know an asshole when I see a fucking asshole!
“Biden might have been called a career politician, but there’s just something in his eyes and his soul, and Obama had that too.”
In fact, four years of Trump has even made dyed-in-the-wool liberal Hawkins nostalgic for the bad old days of George W Bush: “I know this sounds odd, but I think of him fondly after this. Isn’t that fucked? But I think he thought that he was doing it for the country, for the most part. And, of course, they’re all in it for themselves, but I think he really wanted to do a good job. Did he do a good job? No, maybe not. But just after this exhibition of total clown-ism and fucking horse shit? Well…”
Hawkins also knows what it’s like to successfully mediate across the political divide, explaining that his father-in-law is a devoted Trump supporter. “We have long screaming matches at dinner and then we’ll hug it out on the way home. It’s because he’s one of my best friends. You’ve gotta have people around with opposing views, or else you’re really in trouble. It’s healthy.”
Grohl was in the recording studio when the dying days of the Trump administration were marked by the President’s supporters mounting a violent insurrection on the US Capitol, whipped up into a frenzy by their idol’s consistent refusal to concede defeat to Biden. “One by one, people were sending me not links to the news, but pictures of the people who’d broken into the Capitol,” he explains. “At first, it just seemed like this rogue group of cartoon characters – there was the guy with the Buffalo hat and the dude carrying the lectern.
“I didn’t quite realise the severity of it, and then it all sunk in.” For Grohl, the incident recalled Rock Against Reagan concerts he attended “in front of the Lincoln Memorial” in Washington in the 1980s every 4th of July: “The Mall [would be] already filled with people waiting to see the national fireworks display, but over in the corner was this punk rock show with the Dead Kennedys, Scream and all these different bands – these were crazy fucking slam-dancing punk rockers.”
“When Nirvana became popular, I was 21 and Kurt was 23 or 24. We were young… It’s a heavy trip” – Dave Grohl
Yet, he points out, “they had nothing on the people who stormed the Capitol!”, adding: “We considered ourselves to be peaceful protestors, we were lashing out at Reagan’s conservative administration – but what happened [at the US Capitol] was the craziest fucking shit I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
Elsewhere, ‘Medicine At Midnight’ sees Grohl paying tribute to fallen friends – he has previously said that the Motörhead-style guitars of ‘No Son Of Mine’ are a tribute to the late, great Lemmy Kilmister. Paul McCartney recently revealed that, when writing songs, he imagines what the late John Lennon would make of them. Does Grohl ever find himself wondering what the late Kurt Cobain would think of his work?
“No, I don’t – and I’ll tell you why!” he replies. “For 25 fucking years, that’s been something I’ve been judged by and from the get-go, you have to realise that it’s a dangerous place to be. You can’t create or judge anything by someone else’s standards.”
Indeed, Grohl recalls the fear he experienced while heading into a recording studio in October 1994 to lay down the first Foo Fighters record entirely by himself: “It’s funny because I kept this little project a secret for so long before it became a band, and one of the reasons was for fear that people would judge it. That’s all of the weird little demo tapes I’d done, I just didn’t feel comfortable sharing because they were mine.
“There was some safety and security in just keeping them to myself, so one of the reasons I started this band was to move on from the past. The band truly represents this continuation of life because I didn’t want to remain in that place forever and I just couldn’t. I would have suffocated.”
In fact, he insists, he only worries about the opinions of his bandmates and producer Greg Kurstin: “That’s it. That’s fucking it. Y’know, if someone comes out and says, ‘This is fucking shit’, whether it’s a little YouTube guy or even Noel Gallagher, that really doesn’t ruffle my feathers because I’m not doing it for [them].”
Grohl’s no-fucks-given approach has, shall we say, worked out quite well. Despite the frontman’s early reservations, Foo Fighters went to become one of the biggest and most successful bands in the world, selling over 30million records to date. Their longevity, you suspect, is also largely helped by the close-knit relationships within their group – the bromance between Grohl and Hawkins is palpable at any Foo Fighters show. Hawkins joined the band in 1997 after a period behind the drums for Alanis Morrissette.
“I’d met Dave at this [US radio station] K-Rock Christmas show because Foo Fighters were on their way up and Alanis Morrissette was through the fucking stratosphere at that point,” he explains. “Me and Dave just looked like long lost brothers in a weird way. We had a similar vibe and I don’t know why. I remember my friend playing with the Foo Fighters before I met Dave and watching them goof around backstage. He said to me, ‘That guy could be like your brother’.
“And sure enough, when we met, we just thought, ‘We’re brothers from another mother!’ It was instantaneous – so much so that Alanis Morrisette just said ‘What are you going to do when Dave asks you to be the drummer in the Foo Fighters?’”
Offering a humble estimation of his immense talents, he adds: “I wasn’t picked because I’m the best drummer in the world, that’s for sure. I was picked because my drumming somehow fitted in with Dave’s edge. It’s like when you watch The Strokes – the drummer is turned around weird, but when he’s playing everything is rad as fuck and all the guitar players are rad in their own weird way. I like to think that we’re one of those bands where those fucked-up limitations make sense.”
Grohl, meanwhile, insists that “there’s no such thing as a musical audition to join the Foo Fighters”, explaining: “It’s a much more emotional, personal thing. You could be the best drummer in the world, but you’d never be in this band if you didn’t fit. Everyone in this band fits for a reason. When I met Taylor, it took two-and-half minutes before we became best friends. It just happened. It’s that way in life, whether it’s a best friend, a lover or someone you know you’ll carry for the rest of your life.
“When he joined the band, his drumming was the least important factor – I just thought I want to travel the world with this guy, I want to jump on stage and drink beers with this person. That was my biggest concern.”
The bromance continues across the rest of the band, of course. “This is the longest fucking relationship I’ve been in in my life and it’s been with six fucking men!” Grohl says. “We’ll never walk on stage until we’re ready to go as one band. It’s important to me that the connection is beyond music. I don’t think I could walk on stage with a stranger – I’ve been in a few bands and I know what it feels like to be lonely on stage. But with the Foo Fighters you never feel that way.”
The rockers are stadium main-stays these days, of course, and it’s a far cry from Grohl’s formative musical years on the Washington D.C. punk scene. He cut his teeth with the aforementioned Scream, playing the city’s vast array of “corner bars and basement venues and punk rock venues” before wider fame beckoned when he joined Nirvana in 1990.
These are, largely speaking, the same venues that the Foos have helped to support through the coronavirus pandemic with the #SaveOurStages act, after independent venues became the first businesses to shut down because of the pandemic. As he puts it: “I started touring 34 years ago and a lot of those venues that were in jeopardy are places I’ve played – I’ve played that circuit of corner bars and basement venues and punk rock venues.” Does Grohl fear that their potential closure could rob similar musicians of the opportunities afforded to him?
“Those places are much more important than most people would imagine,” he says, “A lot of people will just look at them as watering holes, but those places are training grounds for the next generation of musicians that need somewhere to cut their teeth before they hit the next stage. All of us have made our way through that network…. I see [those venues] as being instrumental in developing the musicians that you’ll wind up seeing headlining a festival or an arena. Those are the artists that will inspire you.”
Grohl’s 14-year-old daughter Violet, who provides stunning backing vocals on album track ‘Making On A Fire’ and often performs live with the band, also harbours dreams of performing at Los Angeles’ legendary Troubadour – which reportedly faced the threat of closure last year. “When everything was shut down six months ago, I’d take her around on motorcycle rides and we’d drive around Los Angeles and we passed by The Troubadour,” he says.
“Foo Fighters is the longest fucking relationship I’ve been in in my life!” – Dave Grohl
“She said, ‘I heard the Troubadour might be closing’ and I said, ‘Well, we’re gonna try to keep that from happening’. She replied: ‘God, I hope it doesn’t, because my dream is to play there one day’. I just realised how important it is, because she’s 14 and not involved in any sort of music industry but she was looking forward to it as a place where she could realise her dream.”
Violet, it seems, has also inherited her father’s ear for good music, turning him onto Billie Eilish long before the singer became the most famous teenager in the world. “My daughter discovered her on SoundCloud and said, ‘Hey, I’d like you to learn this song because I want to sing it with you’ and it was [2017’s] ‘Idontwannabeyouanymore’. I listened to this song and just thought ‘God, this is beautiful! This is heavy!’”
When Violet explained that Eilish was then 15, Grohl thought, “Wow – this person is far beyond her years in mining her soul for something that meaningful and heavy.” He eventually met Eilish and her family at Tyler, The Creator’s Flog Gnaw Festival in 2018, and it was at her subsequent show at small venue Los Angeles venue The Wiltern that Grohl noticed some unexpected comparisons with his own rise to fame: “That’s what really turned the switch for me because it was entirely her audience.”
He’s said in previous interviews that the gig reminded him of Nirvana shows as mega-fame beckoned, but today adds: “I’ve talked about this before and people got confused, but it wasn’t a musical connection. It was emotional and this aesthetic that seemed like a dam that was about to burst.
“These were the kids that felt alienated – they felt different from others and maybe unaccepted, these were the weirdos and the freaks. It was just like a theatre full of Nirvana fans right before we became popular. And it was beautiful; the connection that she had with the audience was beyond music. It was something else and I just knew what was going to happen after that. And it fucking did! I was so fucking excited.”
But with early fame, as Grohl warns, comes the inevitable fear of the sinister pitfalls that are intrinsically linked with it.
“When you see someone going through that experience of fast-rising rise, there is some concern, especially at a young age. When Nirvana became popular, I was 21 and Kurt was 23 or 24. We were young. It’s a difficult period to navigate, but fortunately it seems like she has her family very close to her and she’s cool. But I did have some concern, it’s a heavy trip and you’ve got to fucking hold on tight.”
Eilish, however, isn’t the only young star whose ascent Grohl has observed with awe. During the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020, 10-year-old Ipswich drummer Nandi Bushell became an Instagram star with her note-perfect drum covers of classic hits by the likes of Metallica and Coldplay. “She’s just inspiring,” he says, “because she has this insatiable love for music, and whether it’s playing guitar, bass or drums, her energy is contagious,” adding: “The feeling she has right now when she sits down in front of her drums, is the same feeling that every musician should retain for most of their lives.”
Buoyed by hundreds of thousands of views – not least when she covered Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ – Bushell’s biggest moment came when she challenged Grohl himself to a drum battle, and they eventually duked it out over 1997 Foos classic ‘Everlong’.
“When someone forwarded me the link to Nandi calling me out I just smiled and thought, ‘That’s funny’. It wasn’t long before all my friends said, ‘No, Dave – you have to respond. The gauntlet has been thrown down’. [‘Everlong’ is] a song I played on for one day in 1997! I’ve never played that fucking song live. I sat down to play it and realised it was a little harder to play than I thought.”
“You’ve gotta have people around with opposing views, or you’re really in trouble” – Taylor Hawkins
His eventual admission of defeat, he insists, was entirely deserved: “I didn’t just concede because she’s a 10-year-old girl. I conceded because she kicked my fucking ass! I wasn’t being a nice guy – fuck no! She beat me fair and square.”
The heartwarming exchange was, in many ways, testament to Grohl’s evolution and staying power in rock music across the last three decades. He may have started as the high-school dropout who found fame for his powerhouse drumming, but his world-beating success has allowed him to slowly develop into the Mr Miyagi of rock, if you like, providing constant inspiration for the next generation of guitar heroes.
And, Grohl assures us, Foo Fighters will be back stronger than ever when the pandemic eventually subsides.
“Until we can get in front of a live audience, we’ll have to think of something, and of course there are things on the schedule that we’re going to do,” he says. “We usually go out and play for two-and-a-half, maybe three hours every night. Since we’ve been away for so long, we’ll just go out and play six hours shows every fucking night. How about that?”
Foo Fighters’ ‘Medicine At Midnight’ is out now