Dave Grohl IS the nexus of musical history and current relevance. His punk influenced roots sprouted into status as a redwood of the grunge movement, and years afterwards he helps populate a forest of fantastic bands that include Foo Fighters, Them Crooked Vultures, or most recently, the Sound City Players. Without a doubt, he is one of rock’s most prolific and passion-instilling artists. Of course, in addition to his recent role as rock and roll documentarian, he’s also widely considered to be one of (if not the) nicest guys in the business. S0, who better to give a sort of “state of the musical union” than the living embodiment of rock and roll?
Yesterday, Dave Grohl gave the keynote address to a packed Austin Convention Center at the annual South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. After a revelatory address in 2012 by “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen, this has become a fairly important podium to fill. Grohl proved up to the challenge, moving through his own history and that of his bands (with an emphasis on Nirvana) into a masterly nuanced view of the music industry at this juncture in time. There were of course a few obligatory jabs at the industry and at some artists in particular, but the audience was also treated to a demonstration of how Grohl created his first demos by using old cassette decks to make rudimentary multi-track recordings.
It seems obligatory in these sorts of talks and interviews to speak of how and why one started in this business. Grohl’s was a bit of a surprise but not hard to imagine.
“I want to send a big thank you out to Edgar Winter for his riff of a classic rock song that changed my life. The song was the 1975 hit Frankenstein.”
(Grohl proceeds to rock out, singing a good 16 bars).
“It was that riff that my sister and I danced and jammed to all around the room and then I would play until there was sweat dripping down the Rush posters on the walls. All of this made me give it [a normal life] all up for music.”
Towards the end of his keynote, Grohl once again referenced the iconic 1975 riff speaking about what he wants out of life now…”I just wanna be somebody’s Edgar Winter.”
His early life and teenage years were (expectedly) angst-ridden — you’ve seen him punish the skins, right? — and he soon found his passion in punk rock — music from Black Flag, Bad Brains and The Stooges. This passion began to guide the course of his life and he found great solace in it. “Every time I discovered a new chord or found a new scale, this joy gave me the wherewithal to put up with the guy who I knew wanted to kick my ass. Record stores became my church and its songs my hymns.” As he began to tour he described some of his early experiences…”We would go into clubs and there would be shit, puke and piss on the floors and I absolutely loved it…we would sleep on the floors on stages and on the floors under stages — I was in heaven!”
But, of course, everyone knows his adventures with Nirvana did not continue in that vein. “There were five words on a phone call that changed my life forever, ‘Have you heard of Nirvana?'” He knew of the two guys in the band and he knew something about them, “They had songs and they had Kurt Cobain — what they didn’t have was a drummer.” He proceeded to tell the tale of one of our greatest rock bands and of the grunge/alt rock masterwork Nevermind. The success was fast and explosive; at one point this album was moving 300,000 units a week. Describing their feeling during recording, Grohl said, “Nevermind sounded like nothing any of us had ever heard…it sounded like three people fighting for their lives.” As we know now, it was a fight that would soon re-orient the direction of popular music.
No rule in life that states that success MUST come at a price…but it usually does, and with Nirvana it was the stuff of utter devastation. “When Kurt died….I was numb. The music that I loved had betrayed me…I turned off the radio and put away my drums.” He took a brief but poignant pause , drew a breath, and moved on, not lingering in the past or on the negative.
“It’s still all about a band name and Foo Fighters is a stupid fucking name for a band.” The early recordings were self-played, self-produced and all Grohl. He threw the demos out into the world and perhaps not surprisingly, they stuck. After their huge resurgence two years ago, the Foos seem alive and well and he left the audience believing that there was much more to come. It seems likely that Them Crooked Vultures was a one-time side project — but let’s hope not.
He wouldn’t be Dave Grohl if he didn’t throw a few drumsticks at the mainstream music industry. The family act Wilson Phillips ( of 90s “Hold On” fame) took it on the chin hardest as they had the number one hit in the year of Grohl’s post-Nirvana reemergence. Music competition shows were sufficiently maligned as well…”Who’s to say that a voice is a good voice? Who’s to say that it’s a bad voice?— The Voice???” …. Can you imagine if Bob Dylan was on that show and standing in front of Christina Aguilera…’ well the resonance was a little funny and it was a bit pitchy.'” Not that he abhors all pop music, “I can truthfully say that ‘Gangnam Style’ is my guilty pleasure.” A bit of a surprising revelation, for sure, but I believe him.
Grohl recently turned his passion behind the camera for the terrific documentary on Sound City Studios where Nevermind and MANY iconic albums were recorded. Grohl (and many others) believe that there is something to the sound of its timeless analog Neve mixing console that gives albums a particularly warm and human sound. Sound City closed, and his belief prompted him to buy the board and build his own studio around it. In an earlier NPR interview, Grohl laughed as he spoke about it…”We had to really clean it up…there was 30 years worth of fried chicken and cocaine all in that thing.” Rupert Neve and the rest of the industry’s gearheads can rest assured that the Neve is in good and loving hands.
There is obviously much more in his 47 minute speech that merits a listen, and if you are so inclined our friends at NPR Music have it streaming online. Just as important as the music he puts out is his understanding of where his passion originates. You will learn about music, you will learn about Grohl himself, and you will be inspired to (as Grohl said in last year’s Grammy Speech) pick up an instrument or stand in front of a microphone and practice and do it until you get it right. He just may be your Edgar Winter.