Gary James' Interview With The Author Of
The Life And Times Of Dave Grohl
Paul Brannigan is the author of the new book on Dave Grohl titled This Is A Call; The Life And Times Of Dave Grohl (DeCapo Press). Dave Grohl of course was one in the band Nirvana. After Kurt Cobain's death, he went on to form Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl and The Foo Fighters one five Grammy Awards this year (2012), including Rock Song, Rock Album and Rock Performance.
We talked to Paul Brannigan about his book on the day that Kurt Cobain would have celebrated his 45th birthday.
Q - Paul, why write a book on Dave Grohl as opposed to Kurt Cobain? Were you a fan of Dave?
A - I was a fan of Dave Grohl. I never actually met Kurt Cobain. As interesting as he is, I kind of felt that there's plenty of other people who knew him better and had written better books about him than I would be capable of doing. I have been a fan of Dave's for years. The book really stems from an interview I did for Mo Jo magazine in the U.K. where I basically did a five hour interview with Dave in Los Angeles right around the time "The Foo Fighters' Greatest Hits" album was coming out, in November, 2009. It was basically a cover feature magazine, but I ended up with a 45,000 word transcript in Dave's own words, sort of going over his whole career. The article was like 5,000 words long. It was sort of saddening, me there with all this extra stuff that there was absolutely no place for it. So, at that point really I went to see a literary agent. I told him I've got this stuff and said "Do you think there'd be interest?" As it turned out, there were quite a few publishers interested. I guess the timing was quite good. It was coming up on the 20th anniversary of "Nevermind" and I knew The Foo Fighters would be returning with a new album, which subsequently became their first album to top the Billboard charts. So, the timing worked in my favor. Obviously the Grammys this year as well. It's been a really good year for Foo Fighters.
Q - The Foo Fighters walked way with how many Grammys?
A - I think they won five in total. I think one of them was for the documentary. It was like four music Grammys and one for the documentary Back And Forth.
Q - Have you heard from Dave Grohl recently?
A - No, I haven't. They've been pretty busy touring. But I wouldn't routinely expect that he'd be doing magazine business, really. I imagine he'll be back over during the summer (of 2012) in the U.K. and play one of the big festivals they do every year. Chances are I'll get to see him there. I'm not sure he'll ever read the book because I think it would be a little odd to have someone else's perspective on the life you've lived when you know the perfect reality of it yourself. But I guess I'll find it out over the summer.
Q - He's probably looking forward at this point. I don't think, especially after his Grammy Awards, that he necessarily wants to talk about the past.
A - Yeah, quite possibly. When they did the Back And Forth documentary, it was a really good chance for them to look back over the last fifteen years of The Foo Fighters' career. And then of course with the 20th anniversary of "Nevermind", he had to do a little promotion about that and talk about those years again. So I think he is ready to look ahead. That said, at the minute he's working on his own feature film documentary about the Sound City Studios. I think he bought the desk from Sound City for himself. They were closing down the studios and he wanted to sort of pay tribute to some of the artists who recorded there over the years from Dio to Evil Knievel to Fleetwood Mac to Nirvana and CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival). There's a lot of history in that place. I know that's the project he's working on. It's an interesting thing and something different again.
Q - It took you how long, ten years to put this book together on Dave Grohl?
A - I know it says ten years in the promotional activity, but that's sort of down to the more, I guess, the span of time I've been interviewing Dave for various magazines. That interview was approximately November, 2009. I handed the book in, in July, 2011. So the period in-between was how long I was properly working on it. But I guess there are interviews over the years that have kind of fed into it from fifteen years ago right up to the stuff that I did last year.
Q - Did Dave have an say in what could put in the book?
A - No. I've never done an interview where I told people before hand what we were going to talk about. It was just a conversation and he knew it was going to be about the entire span of his career. So, we just sort of spoke about everything. I think at that point there were three different parts of his history that were going on; there was a "Nirvana Live" DVD, there was a "Foo Fighters Greatest Hits" album and he was just about to release a debut album for Them Crooked Vultures, his side project with John Paul Jones and Josh Holm. So, it kind of had to encompass everything. So, the interview went from near zero to up until 2009. But I think Dave is going to be one of these guys like McCartney that sort of makes music for his entire life. Dave might go another twenty years. I'm not sure I'm going to be around in twenty years.
Q - Let's say Dave Grohl decides to write his memoirs twenty years down the line. Will anyone care then?
A - That's the danger. Obviously it's fine if you're Keith Richards or Bowie or Paul McCartney and you've got this outstanding legacy of work behind you. It's a different matter with some of the big Rock bands of today. In fairness, people have stuck with him quite well over the past twenty years. In another twenty years the landscape will have changed again. There will be no such thing as books in twenty years time.
Q - You're probably right, but I for one will miss books.
A - It will be depressing. It's a concern. We were saying the same thing about vinyl at a point and the same thing about CDs at a point. Sadly it's hard sometimes to hold back the tide of so called progress.
Q - Did you ever contact Courtney Love?
A - I didn't, for the simple reason that anyone who deals with Courtney knows it's kind of a world of trouble. I have friends who were magazine editors and they sort of conducted short feature pieces with Ms. Love over the years and things that you might normally expect to get done in an afternoon have taken nine months of work, and threats of legal proceedings. Courtney is a fascinating character. She's got her own book deal now. Her book is coming out the end of this year (2012) or early next year (2013). My concern was the whole thing would get tied up in crazy, legal tape which has happened to various people I know. Courtney's not a fan of Dave's, as people well know, and Dave's not a huge fan of Courtney's. There's a lot of stuff on record already about the issues between the two of them. Some of that gets mentioned in the book and some of it got stripped away by lawyers. But at the outset, I made a decision that to have Courtney involved might be more trouble that it's worth.
Q - How important of a role did Dave play in the success of Nirvana? I believe the public thinks Kurt Cobain was Nirvana.
A - Yeah. It would be hard to blog vehemently against that opinion. A good six or seven songs from "Nevermind" had already been demo'd with Butch Vig before Dave Grohl ever joined the band. And a lot of the drum parts that Chad Channing played on that demo tape were pretty much re-created beat by beat when they went to Sound City to make "Nevermind". But at the same time, I think Dave probably brought a real professionalism and tightness to that band. They were kind of a sloppy Punk band before he joined. Because of his feeling in Punk / Rock and Rock 'n' Roll, he was able to sort of get everything tight and everything focused. Some people feel the band lost its character at that point because Dave was essentially a Hard Rock drummer sitting behind a Punk band, but I think that contribution really made the songs accessible to radio in the states and the U.K. and wherever else. Songwriting wise, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for one, wouldn't have sounded the same without Dave's contribution. I think Dave would himself acknowledge that certain songs were collaborative efforts and worked up from jam sessions that were the roots of most of those songs and were already in crates before Dave was anywhere near Seattle.
Q - Did Dave Grohl want to be a Rock star in the beginning of his career? And maybe Kurt didn't? I know Dave wants to be a Rock star today!
A - I think that Kurt was very conflicted. Kurt did want to be a Rock star in some ways, but he just didn't like what he saw of the Rock stars at the time. From reading his diaries, the choice of people he wanted working on "Nevermind" were all really commercial, Hard Rock producers through his decision to play the MTV Awards, to his decision to play festivals in Europe as opposed to playing gig offers in his hometown. So many decisions along the way were where Kurt absolutely 100% made a decision to go for the money, to go for the Rock star option. He might not have liked it when he got there and it disgusted him that people would associate him with Axl Rose or Vince Neil from Motley Crüe or some of his peers at the time when he felt more kinship with Michael Stipe and people like that. Kurt definitely made decisions that were insuring his band were going to be a big commercial Rock band. I think Dave just wanted to play music. But the bottom line, all three wanted to play music. I think Dave enjoys being a Rock star, if a Rock star is what he is. Dave has absolute freedom to go and do what he wants. He owns his own record company. He manages the band. He decides on where they go, when they go, what they do and who they do it with. So, whether you see that as Rock star or someone who has the complete freedom to indulge every musical whim they have. I believe he's in a pretty fortunate position.
Q - He's wearing a lot of different hats now, isn't he?
A - Yeah. He was with Nirvana. Then he played with Tom Petty. Then he got the Foo Fighters off the ground. He toured with Bob Dylan. He played with McCartney. He's played with the guys from Outkast. So many different things. He's done a lot of stuff over the years. Re-mixed Puff Daddy. He's been playing with everyone from The Prodigy to Nine Inch Nails to Garbage to Queens Of Stone Age. He's recognized as one of the best drummers in that sort of Rock genre. I think he's got a lot of freedom. That fact that he's making this film and is getting to collaborate with his heroes is a bit of a homage to the music he grew up on and is still listening to. He's in a pretty fortunate position. I don't know too many musicians who have that degree of sort of movement in their life. He's talking about maybe producing the next album for Paul McCartney.
Q - And now he's playing guitar!
A - Yeah, well, I think he started out playing guitar actually before he was ever a drummer. I think in his head he still thinks he's a drummer. I asked him at one point if he sees himself as a drummer or a guitarist? And he said "I'm absolutely still a drummer. It's drumming that got me there." Certain people who started out on drums hear guitar riffs in a slightly different way from pure guitarists and it's all about the rhythm and it's all about the beats, where the beats are accentuated. A lot of that is what The Foo Fighters do. It's giving them an approach to song writing which is a very immediate and kind of punchy kind of sound. He still hears those drum tracks in his head when he writes every riff. So, the two are kind of married together. Obviously the guitar allows him freedom. If you saw him behind the kit in Crooked Vultures for two hours, you can tell he absolutely loves that part when he reverts to being 14 again.
Q - I know Grunge started in Seattle.
A - Yeah.
Q - But did Nirvana start it or were there other bands before them?
A - There were definitely bands before them. There's a really good book that came out last year called Everybody Loves Our Town by a guy called Mark Yam. It does a rather brilliant job of sort of chronicling the rise of Grunge. Before Nirvana there were bands like Green River, who went on to, half of them went on to Mud Honey. And just sort of local bands playing to local kids really. Going around the country playing to thirty to forty people a night, but essentially it's very much a localized thing. But there was that scene sort of before Nirvana. Nirvana's ambition was sort of like to be like Mud Honey, one of those bands they saw playing week in, week out, in the local taverns. Sound Garden were the first from that era to sign to a major, and Alice In Chains were the first from Seattle in that era to get a Gold record. But it was certainly Nirvana that tended to spotlight the industry on Seattle. At that time, every grungy band within a fifty mile radius was getting signed up. (laughs)
Q - And once Kurt died, it seemed like Grunge died as well. There was no one else to carry on.
A - Obviously people retreated a bit. Soundgarden had their biggest album, I think in '96, and Pearl Jam certainly continued to have success. But they sort of backed away from that. And there was a movement that sort of came through in the wake of that. The British band Bush came through sounding like a neutered version of Nirvana. And then you had Creed coming through, sounding like a very neutered version of Pearl Jam. This became safer; more pliable Rock stars.
Q - On page 228, Dave talks about Kurt's death: "It's hard for me to even talk about it. I can't talk much because a lot went down that nobody knows about. And Krist and I have always kept quiet about a lot of what happened because it's a personal issue. People know there was an intervention. People know that he was sent to Los Angeles. People know that he split rehab and that he disappeared. But there's since other things that happened long before any of that stuff, that made it clear that maybe we weren't going to be a band forever." What is Dave talking about anyway? It sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo. You go on to say "The circumstances of Kurt Cobain's last days are still somewhat confused." Why should that be? I have this feeling that Dave knows more about what went on during those last days than he's willing to reveal.
A - I think on some levels what he was talking about was business decisions that were being made. For instance, Nirvana was tapped to headline Lollapalooza. There was a huge offer of ten to fifteen million dollars to play that summer. They had just decided to pull it. There were obviously business interests involved. It was in certain people's interest to keep Nirvana going no matter how sick Kurt was or no matter how fractious the relationship between the band members had been at any given point. Dave himself wasn't at the intervention he speaks of. Other people in the inner circle were probably more privy to the details that were going on than he was. He definitely knows stuff that's never been in the public realm. Dave's thing is also that he doesn't feel necessarily qualified to talk about some of this because he basically only knew Kurt for three years, whereas someone like Krist had gone to high school with him and had known him ten years before Nirvana. So, I think Dave feels it's really not his place to speak out about things. Dave's a genuinely respectful guy. He doesn't do any interviews what-so-ever, pretty much the first year after Kurt's death. Dave can be a master of saying things without saying anything at all. Even when Dave's own book comes out in his own words, I don't think he'll be prepared to tell the full story of what he knows because I just think he thinks it's not his place to divulge those facts.
Q - Who would've wanted Nirvana to headline Lollapalooza regardless of how Kurt's health was or how the band members were getting along? Courtney?
A - There's a possibility it would have been Courtney. Bands at that stage are sort of million pound companies, multi-million pound companies. There's a lot of people depending on it. There's a lot of people on retainers, whether it's road crew or promoters or the whole sort of machinery of Rock 'n' Roll.
Q - I know your book is about Dave Grohl, but do you find anything suspicious about Kurt's death?
A - It wasn't the first time that Kurt had attempted suicide. There were two or three incidents in the run-off to that. So, it wouldn't be very inconsistent with his frame of mind around that time. Whether there's more to it that has been officially portrayed, I'm not really in a position to say and it would be unfair of me to speculate. It's a sad day and maybe the whole machinery of Rock 'n' Roll just proved too much, or maybe it was the simple fact that here was a guy who was really struggling to cope with his dreams coming true essentially. When people commit suicide, there's a hundred and one reasons why they might do it and why they should do it. It's just a shame that maybe he hadn't been afforded the opportunity to step back and take stock of what was important to him and the things in his life, regardless of personal relationships and business relationships. Maybe he might have come back to live another day, but it's all speculation at this point.