Dave Grohl’s been part of the two biggest bands of the 1990s and 2000s — drummer for Nirvana and creator/lead singer of the Foo Fighters. He’s performed thousands of shows, from tiny punk clubs to massive stadiums.
But one stands out in particular — when he tripped over a cable during a Foo Fighters show in Sweden a few years ago, tumbled off the stage, and snapped his fibula like one of his drumsticks. In true rock-and-roll fashion, Grohl went back on stage and finished the show.
That event and other tales from his 35 years in the music industry are part of a new memoir called “The Storyteller.”
Embarrassment took hold during his tumble off the stage in Sweden, Grohl tells KCRW. “I was just so mortified that I just ate it in front of 60,000 people.”
At that point in the show, the band was just two songs into their set, and the Foo Fighters typically perform for nearly three hours, so he knew he had to continue.
“I just felt [that] all of these people had come a long way to see our band play, and spend all their hard-earned money to come here [for] one and a half songs, and then turn around and go home — I just didn't really feel okay with that. So I thought, ‘Well, at least I can sit on a chair and finish the show.’”
That industriousness has been ingrained into Grohl since his childhood, growing up in Virginia. He draws inspiration from his mom, a school teacher who worked two other jobs during nights and weekends.
“My mother was a public school teacher for 35 years. And we lived paycheck to paycheck. And so I remember how hard she worked all day long at our local high school, and then three nights a week, worked at Bloomingdale's, and then on the weekends worked at Servpro, the carpet cleaning company, just so that we had enough money to eat. And so I have to imagine that that sort of work ethic is deeply ingrained.”
The excitement and adventure of leaving the East Coast for LA
Despite his immense success over the last three decades, Grohl says his decision to become a musician wasn’t popular with his father, who was a classically trained flautist. His mom was a singer, and while she supported his choice, Grohl says his father wanted him to pursue a traditional career.
“He was a conservative Republican speechwriter [and] campaign manager, and he worked on Capitol Hill. He wanted something a bit more conventional for me. I don't really think he took the music that I was playing very seriously. But I have his DNA.”
He adds, “Now, as a father myself, I understand his concern because I was basically saying, ‘Yeah, I'm going to leave school and jump in a van with six guys and go tour squats in Europe for three months, and I'll send you a postcard. At 18 years old. … My mother, she was a lot more supportive because she saw this drive or this determination in me. I think she imagined some days something would come of it. So she let me free.”
Grohl believes dropping out of high school was a good decision to make.
“There was no roadmap really, and you never knew what was around the next corner. The adventure, the excitement — that's what made you feel alive. And even in the most difficult times, you had the music to help you get by.”
He remembers driving into Hollywood with his band for the first time, and feeling in awe at how different it was from Virginia and Washington, D.C.
“All six of us stepped in the van in our sleeping bags, with our faces pressed against the window, driving through like Beverly Hills, things that I'd only seen in movies, and then driving past the old Tower Record on Sunset, and then I we actually slept in a parking lot that night, across from the Troubadour,” he explains. “Los Angeles just seemed like a circus. You could just sit in your van in a parking lot and watch the show go by, and you're like wow.”
Meeting Iggy Pop and getting a taste of rock stardom
When preparing for a night show in Toronto, Grohl says he suddenly saw Iggy Pop posters around the venue. It turned out that Pop was having a record release party that evening, and Grohl and his bandmates were kicked out of the venue until it was time for them to play.
Then came a knock on their band’s van window later that afternoon. “Someone comes out and knocks on the window and says, ‘Hey, who's the drummer?’ And I was terrified because nothing good ever comes from that question. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ And he said, ‘Do you want to play drums with Iggy Pop?’”
As a result, Grohl and another band member joined Pop onstage to perform during the record release party. It was his first brush with what felt like celebrity. Throughout the night, people from the label treated them like Pop’s band, bringing them whatever they wanted, such as cigarettes and beer.
“For one night, I think I was 19 or 20, I was like ‘This is what it's like to be a rockstar. Oh my god. You can ask someone for something. And they just go and get it.’ And then an hour and a half later, we're back in the van back to normal life. And I sort of felt like ‘Okay, well, if that's the only taste I'll ever get of this, that will have been enough.’”
Balancing stardom with humility
Although being a rockstar has its perks for Grohl — such as an occasional free bucket of KFC chicken — he says he pushes for maintaining a normal life. He still goes to the mall to buy his own Vans shoes, and he credits his family, including three kids, with bringing him back down to Earth if he’s acting up.
He recalls that when Nirvana first became popular during the 1990s, he went back to his childhood home in Virginia and hung out with his old friends and family. Today, he still does the same.
“Music is why I'm here. And all of the other craziness, when it becomes too overwhelming, I just kind of retreat back into those sort of safe places. But I mean, we're doing this interview and I'm sitting in my office, and we'll get off the phone and I'm going to go make some drum beats for a friend, and then I'm probably going to cook some ribs for dinner. These two things can coexist, like a regular life and the music thing, they can coexist.”
Joining Nirvana and staying alive through music
After Grohl’s first band Scream broke up, he got a call from a friend who told him about a small band that was making waves in the underground music scene. He eventually moved in with Kurt Cobain into the back apartment of an old craftsman house in Olympia, Washington. The apartment was small, and Grohl slept on a small five foot long couch (Grohl is six feet tall). Today, he still has dreams about the apartment.
“There was a window that went out of the back that was broken. And then Kurt's bedroom was just a mattress on the floor. I mean, yeah, it was the type of place we would live,” he says. “The thing was, at that same time, we were rehearsing in this sort of a barn-like rehearsal space outside in Tacoma, Washington. We practiced about five nights a week. And in that time, we were writing music that would become ‘Nevermind.’ So as bad as it could be, it was the music at the end of the day that kept you alive. And that helped you survive the darker moments.”
A few years ago, Grohl says he visited that apartment and says it was like seeing a ghost.
“I don't think that we would have had the drive and determination to succeed because I mean, I think part of us spending so much time working on that music and writing and rehearsing those songs was to get out of that place, which we did. And I remember turning around and taking one last look before we took the drive down to Sound City [Studios] to make ‘Nevermind.’”
Four months after “Nevermind’s” release, the band performed on “Saturday Night Live.” Grohl says it was their breakthrough moment.
“I don't think I'd realized what was happening to Nirvana just yet. … At that time, it was the greatest moment of my entire life. But up to that point, we were touring the entire time. I mean, like really hard touring, like non-stop touring. So we didn't really get out of the van too much. It was like, you get out of the van, go to the stage, play a show, it's a near riot, you run back to the van as fast as you can, drive to the next city or go hide in a hotel room, and then do it again, and do it again, and do it again. It wasn't until around that time of ‘Saturday Night Live’ that we realized this is more than just to record it, it becomes something else.”
He credits the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video with propelling much of their stardom as well.
“The single was on the radio, and people were playing it. But you want to know how to sell a million records? Make a video where you're burning down your high school. Like, that's what set the whole thing in a whole new direction,” he says. “The clubs that we were playing held 300, 400. 500 people, and I would sit down at my drum set. And the first thing I [would do is] look for the exit because I’d think ‘Okay, it's gonna be a riot.’ And there were near riots [at] multiple shows. But it was really the video that set everything off in this new direction.”
Grohl says the overnight success weighed heavily on Cobain after “Nevermind’s” release.
“Everybody was just trying to get by, trying to get to the next town, trying to get to the next stage, trying to get to the next tour. And everybody copes with that differently. I can only speak for myself. I was the drummer. I was not the face of the band, I was not the one that had to carry the weight of all of this on his shoulders.”
He says he was spared much of that burden, and today he’s weary of moments when he sees young artists becoming popular. “My initial reaction is concerned because I don't know if anyone is qualified, or if anyone at that age has the tools or the skill set to deal with that life change. Because it can be really traumatic. It really can.”
Grohl says those three and a half years with Nirvana taught him to take care of himself.
“One of the things that I learned was to say no, and if you're in a situation where you're overwhelmed or being asked to do something you don't want to do, just for the sake of like self-preservation, you should be able to say, ‘No, I need to get away,’ which I've done many times.”
Mourning Kurt Cobain and others
Although his time with Nirvana might feel like a small blip in his career, Grohl says it felt like a rollercoaster ride, where he learned what it meant to lose someone. Besides Cobain, he also dealt with the death of his childhood friend Jimmy Swanson.
“The process of mourning and grief and recovery and what determines the amount of pain that you feel when you lose someone, is it the length of time that you spent with someone, or is it the depth and the relevance of the relationship?”
He adds, “You don't choose your family, but you choose your friends. And it almost makes it hurt more. I mean, it's all a mystery, and there's no textbook, there's no instruction manual on how to mourn. But when I think about that short period of time, it's not even days or weeks or years, it's just, that was a lifetime and then I had to start another one.”
Life after Nirvana
Although it’s unclear what direction Grohl’s career would have gone if Cobain didn’t die, Grohl says he had been working on his own music since he was a teenager.
After Cobain’s death, Grohl knew one thing: He couldn’t go back to being a drummer immediately. “I love playing the drums, and I love being someone's drummer, I love that position. It's like being the goaltender on a sports team. So when Nirvana ended, I had offers to go play drums with other people. But I didn't feel comfortable with that because I knew that it would always remind me of Nirvana. I knew that sitting on the drum stool, I would always imagine Kurt and Krist [Novoselic] in front of me, and that would be hard.”
Thus, he decided to try something out of his comfort zone. “I started [The Foo Fighters] because I didn't know if I could do it. I knew that I could go play drums with someone else. But I wanted to try something I wasn't sure I could do. I had never been the singer of a band. I'd never been the front person of a band. And I thought, why not? I've got nothing else to lose. I might as well just try this.”
Since then, Grohl says he’s taken his life one step and one album, at a time. “And it's been that way for 26 years. ‘Do you want to do one more? Yeah, let's do one more.’ And it's a great way to do it because you don't walk into the studio thinking, ‘We’re the Foo Fighters.’ You walk into the studio thinking ‘Okay, we've got to make something great because this might be the last one we make. So let's do it.’”
Read a book excerpt from “The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music”