After warming up with a surprise appearance at Club NME, Dave Grohl talks to Andrew Trendell about his long-lasting love affair with Reading & Leeds Festivals, and what to expect from Foos' seventh headline set...
It’s the long-awaited return of Club NME in London, and a packed out Moth Club is buzzing after the performance of Saint Leonard to see if the online rumours of tonight’s ‘special guest’ are true. As more fans pile in, while others clamber on top of the social club sofas to catch a glimpse of the stage, Dave Grohl casually strides through the crowd and the room goes totally apeshit.
“I’ve been a friend of the people at the NME for a long time,” says the Foo Fighters‘ frontman, explaining what the fuck he’s doing holding a guitar and standing in front of a microphone in a tiny club in Hackney. “When I walked in tonight, everyone said: ‘What are you gonna do?’ I said, ‘I have no fucking clue.’ So tonight we’ll play a couple of songs. I can’t believe how many people are here. We might have to do more than one fucking song!”
He delivers “a sweet little love song from Foo Fighters’ first record” with a stripped-back ‘Big Me’, before the tender opening notes of ‘Times Like These’ see a strangely familiar figure make his way behind the drum kit. “THE FUCK?” scream many a fan, as it’s none other than Rick Astley assisting with some surprisingly impressive rhythm. In honour of his friend, Grohl leads into a cover of Astley’s own ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ before he takes over on vocals. We have been well and truly #RickGrohled.
Astley heads back behind the kit for a fevered closing of Foos’ classics ‘Everlong’ and ‘Best Of You’. It’s nuts to think that the next time we hear these songs will be when Grohl is headlining Reading & Leeds with Foos a week later, but then none of this seems real. A mad fever dream it may seem to us, but this is all part and parcel of the life of the nicest guy in rock n’ roll.
“When we’re not in the public eye playing shows, you’d imagine that it would be downtime – it just never fucking is!” Grohl tells us in the run-up to his Club NME surprise appearance, just days after another shock appearance with The Bird And The Bee at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater in LA. Here’s a man who doesn’t like to sit still. “Then there’s a bunch of other projects I’m doing,” he says. “There’s documentary stuff I’m working on with my mom too, and the music, and it just never fucking slows down. I’m glad it never slows down. I don’t know what I would do if I had nothing to do.”
Does he ever allow himself to get bored?
“I don’t know what it is, man. I was never diagnosed with ADHD, but I certainly have some kind of music attention deficit disorder. Maybe it’s MADD. There’s just always something to do, something to write or something to direct.”
It’s that restlessness that’s brought the Foo Fighters back onto the road. Their last album, 2017’s ‘Concrete & Gold’, saw them headline Glastonbury that year before a victory lap of stadium shows. Most bands would have their feet up at this point as they plot their next move, but not the Foos. “Taking a break from it isn’t as pleasant as you’d imagine,” laughs Grohl. “I don’t prefer being on tour to being home, but I just fucking love playing.”
And there’s no stage Grohl would rather grace than those of Reading & Leeds Festivals. Whether making history with Nirvana, cutting his teeth with Foo Fighters, debuting Them Crooked Vultures or making his name as the mightiest of headliners, this is his home away from home. “Of all the festivals, that’s the one that’s closest to my heart,” he admits. “It was my first love of festivals. I think this will be my 10th time playing.”
“Of all the festivals, Reading is the one that’s closest to my heart. It was my first love of festivals. This will be my 10th time playing”
Grohl first became aware of Reading on the day that he first flew to Seattle to join Nirvana, and had a chat with drummer Dan Peters of fellow grunge icons Mudhoney about the biggest show they’d played to date. He told him of an alt-rock Valhalla where they played to 35,000 people.
“I said, ‘Where the fuck was that?’,” remembers Grohl. “He said ‘Reading Festival in England’. I said ‘What is that?’ and he told me, ‘This huge music festival where loads of bands get together and play’. I just couldn’t imagine 35,000 people getting together to see bands like Mudhoney or Nirvana. It just didn’t happen in America.
“Then when I saw that it was on our itinerary maybe a year later, I was fucking terrified. I would wake up every morning in this panic attack in a fit of anxiety, knowing that there was this festival that I was going to have to play in front of 35,000 people – which I had never done. When we got there that day, I realised how big it really was.”
Rather than be overwhelmed by the festival’s legacy, Nirvana delivered the first of two era-defining performances that would set the standard for all other Reading sets. It was the start of a long and loud love affair, so we had a word with our Dave about how R&L has signposted his past, present and future…
Why did Reading ‘91 mean so much compared to Nirvana’s other early festivals?
“I know it’s tripled in size now, but back then 35,000 people at a Nirvana show was just unimaginable. I think that night it was Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Iggy Pop, Babes In Toyland and it was a good fucking bill – but it blew me away that this many people got together to listen to our type of music. The closest thing we had in America was Lollapalooza, but there was something about this that just seemed like something was about to happen. It really did feel like you were at the start of a revolution. It was cool.”
Did you sense that you were making history when Nirvana headlined in ‘92?
“So much had happened in those 12 months. We went from being halfway up the bill on the main stage to headlining a year later. The band had obviously had its ups and downs. There was some speculation as to whether we were actually going to show up and play at all. Even I wondered. I was amazed that we pulled it off to be honest. I didn’t expect much. Kurt had been in and out of rehab, the band hadn’t really done much in the months leading up to it and everything just seemed sort of scattered and disconnected. We’d had one rehearsal a few days before and it just didn’t feel grounded.”
On Reading 1991: “It really did feel like you were at the start of a revolution”
But something took over when you stepped on stage?
“Things just magically came together and it was an amazing show. It had a lot to do with the audience, I think. I remember walking backstage and bumping into friends from other bands who would look at me and say, What are you doing here?’ I’d say ‘We’re fucking headlining!’ and they’d say, ‘You’re actually gonna play?’ They were just surprised we showed up. For it to turn out to be such a beautiful evening was just something else, and unfortunately the last time we played the UK.”
You next played in ’95 with the Foo Fighters. Was the success of that a signifier that the next chapter of your life was really going to mean something?
“That was really our first legitimate show in the UK. We played one small surprise gig at King’s College maybe a month before that, but we were a baby band. We’d only been playing for about a month. They put us on the side stage, which I was perfectly happy and comfortable with. We’d toured America playing with Mike Watt and had been playing in small clubs and small theatres, so it was the right place for us to be. To find out that we were headlining the side stage in the tent for us was big. We showed up and so many people were trying to cram into that tent that at one point the promoter came to me and asked if we would go on after Bjork on the main stage.”
On Reading 1995: “There were people climbing the rafters, scooting up those tent poles, there were thousands of people trying to get in from outside, and it was fucking chaos”
But that felt like too much?
“I said ‘No fucking way!’ It was really our first show there and I didn’t want us to arrive and headline the fucking main stage. It made no sense to me. I said, ‘No, we’ll play this tent and if things get out of control then I’ll try to control it, I’m sure it will be fine’. As we were setting up the gear I looked out into the tent and fuck, it was packed. There were people climbing the rafters, scooting up those tent poles, there were thousands of people trying to get in from outside, and it was fucking chaos. We started playing and it was so hot in there. I was watching the security guards passing out from the heat, so I’d look over to the promoter and he’d say, ‘We can’t do this. You’ve got to stop’. I’d tell the audience, ‘We can’t do this, we’ve got to stop’, then there was all this booing and it felt like there was going to be a riot, so then the promoter keeps going, ‘No! Fuck, keep playing! Keep playing!’”
Looking back, do you feel like the band were ready for something like that?
“It was another impressionable experience. If I close my eyes, I can still picture it. I just heard a recording of one of those songs yesterday for the first time in maybe 20 years. We were fucking raw, man. We were still learning the songs back then, man. It was fun.”
So you’d call it more of a baptism of fire?
“The fact that we walked out of there unscathed was nice, but I do feel like when I look back at all of the Reading performances that it’s really where we cut our teeth. I have so many ‘firsts’ at Reading that all of them were baptism by fire. The first performance with Nirvana was terrifying but we did it, then the second Nirvana performance was terrifying but we did it, then the first Foo Fighters performance was our biggest one ever and we did it.”
“I have so many ‘firsts’ at Reading that all of them were baptism by fire”
So each time has been a landmark moment in your life?
“Even just saying the name of the festival means so much more to me than just a rock show. In 1995 in the side tent at Reading, I did not expect that we’d be here fucking 25 years later talking about this shit. I thought it was a nice way to spend a summer – just running around playing noisy fucking rock n’ roll. I didn’t think that it would become a lifetime of touring. It just became one of those milestone moments in your life, where you just realise that you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that.”
Did you feel that way when Them Crooked Vultures played for the first time in 2009 too, even though you, Josh Homme and John Paul Jones are all seasoned veterans?
“I’m not sure. You’re going to have to ask John or Josh. That might have been the Vultures’ first UK appearance too. It was another beginning for me and another one of my bands. I wasn’t sure if anybody knew or understood what was about to happen. The one thing I remember most visibly is that my daughter Harper had never seen me play the drums before. I was really excited to play for her, so there were a lot of people there but for me it was really an audience of one. We started playing and I was just absolutely fucking destroying my drum set because I was so excited to be up here with Josh, John and Al [Johannes]. Then I turned and looked at Harper and she was asleep!”
“I can honestly say that Them Crooked Vultures are the best rock n’ roll band I’ve ever been in, in my life. We were just a force of fucking nature.”
How do you feel about Them Crooked Vultures alongside your other projects?
“Every show I played with Them Crooked Vultures was better than the last. We never had a bad show and they just kept getting better and better. I can honestly say that they are the best rock n’ roll band that I’ve ever been in, in my life. We were just a force of fucking nature.”
Have you guys had talks about coming back soon then?
“Maybe! We’ve talked. We’ve got together. I never say never. If you want me to be your drummer, we either have to be best fucking friends or you have to be better than Josh Homme and John Paul Jones. If those guys call and say that it’s time to go, then I’m gonna go because that’s the band. That’s the band that I want to be the drummer of forever. Josh and I talk about it all the time. I know that John would love to as well. It’s also like herding cats. So, we’ll see.”
There were rumblings that you were working on the new Queens Of The Stone Age album too…
“You know, I never fucking mentioned that I’m on the new Queens record. I’m not on the new Queens record. You know what Josh and I have been doing together? Riding motorcycles and eating waffles. That’s it. Let me tell you, it’s a fun morning. We’ve done it more than a few times and it’s pretty fucking great. I wish I was on the new Queens album. I fucking love playing with Josh. He’s one of my best friends, but at the moment it’s just motorcycles and waffles.”
So, back to Reading. This will be Foo Fighters’ seventh appearance. What are you going to do to make this one special?
“At this point in our lifespan, there’s so much that we could do. We could bust out the same set that we played in 1995. We could come out on stage with new songs. We could come out on stage and do a chronological history of the band, in reverse. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it. That’s usually something that we figure out on the afternoon of the show.”
“I just love walking out into that field and reliving all of the beautiful memories that we have from over the years. I know what it looks like standing on that stage and watching a train roll by to the left”
So have you guys got many new songs you could bring out of the bag at this stage?
“There’s always something. I’m constantly writing but not always seriously, then at some point they become a little more formed. When I feel like they’re ready, that’s when I bring them to the band. We’re not that far along in any kind of official process, but there’s always something. It’s happened before where we’ve written a song that afternoon and performed it. Never say never. There is one new song that would fucking destroy and I would love people to hear it. It’s written for a live performance, so we’ll see. I don’t know.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Foo Fighters forming. Will Reading & Leeds be more a celebration of your whole history?
“I just love walking out into that field and reliving all of the beautiful memories that we have from over the years. I remember playing there with Muse. I remember walking my mother out to the audience so she could dance to ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ while The Prodigy were playing. I remember watching the Abba tribute band Bjorn Again open for Nirvana and they started playing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and the place went fucking bananas. I know what it looks like standing on that stage and watching a train roll by to the left. I know what it looks like to stare at the treeline behind it. The drive up to the stage. Driving the bus through that little town where everyone always drinks afterwards.”
You’ve had a lot of fun drinking in Reading I guess?
“I remember after Nirvana played in 1992, everybody went to this hotel bar to go drinking afterwards. What was that band that had the song ‘Unbelievable’? Was it EMF? They were huge at the time. I remember being at a party afterwards and some journalist said to me, ‘Hey Dave would you take a picture with the guitar player of EMF?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, sure’. Then I saw the guy and he was like, ‘Oh, would you take a picture with the drummer of Nirvana?’ and he was like, ‘Eurgh, fuck! OK. Come on’.”
Is there anyone you want to party with at Reading & Leeds this year?
“Is Frank Carter playing on our day? We’ve been doing shows with him and The Rattlesnakes across Europe. They’re such sweet guys and a fucking great band. I’m trying to get Frank to really start drinking heavily again. We’ll see. Reading Festival is also one of those festivals where our bus pulls up, I grab a bottle of whiskey, and I just start knocking on doors. It’s how I’ve met most of my friends. What’s better than that?”
You’ve been very vocal about your support of Billie Eilish. Sadly she’s not playing the same day as you.
“My daughter introduced me to Billie Eilish’s music maybe a year ago before she’d really broken big. Violet, who’s 13, and I were going to perform at a fundraiser for Autism Speaks. We were going to perform an Adele song, and then she goes, ‘Dad, I think we should do this song too’. She sent me the Billie song ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’. I listened to it, learned it and said ‘Who is this?’ She said, ‘Her name is Billie Eilish and she’s amazing’. So my daughter explained the whole Soundcloud thing and started showing me her videos, that were so cool and moving. Then you’ve got her voice, plus lyrically she’s much deeper and on-point than not only most people her age but also people within her genre, which is hard to define.”
On Billie Eilish: “Once in a while, you need that shock just to jolt you into remembering that music is important and it’s food for the soul.”
She’s been bumped up from the Radio 1 tent to the main stage. After the phenomenal year she’s had, this could be a Nirvana at Reading in ‘91’ moment for her.
“I loved that my daughter was really connecting with her music and lyrics, so we started to go see her perform. Violet got to meet her. She and her family are lovely. Watching the world turn on to her music right now is really encouraging. Once in a while, you need that shock just to jolt you into remembering that music is important and it’s food for the soul. We’re all so excited for her because she’s such a wonderful person and a brilliant artist. It’s good that the world is taking notice. She deserves it. I’m not surprised that she’s been moved on to the main stage. Trust me, it’s better that she’s not in that tent!”
We trust you, Dave. Here’s a guy who knows a thing or two about crowds. If his surreal warm-up at Moth Club is anything to go by then this weekend is going to be another one for all time. Whether it’s your first Reading & Leeds Festival or your 10th, bring nothing better than your best.
Foo Fighters headline Leeds Festival on Friday August 23, and Reading Festival on Sunday August 25.