When Dave Grohl sat down to decide how the next Foo Fighters album should sound, he was drawn inexorably back into the past. With producer Butch Vig at the console, a commitment to analogue and Kris Novoselic guesting on a track that might be a requiem for Kurt Cobain it comes closer than anything the band have ever done before, to chanelling the spirit of Nevermind. Now with a tour on the way, they're looking forward to rocking Oxegen.
The past is not dead, as the man said. It's not even past. The Foo Fighters' seventh album Wasting Light is not just their most cohesive and coherent work since 1997's The Colour and the Shape. For Dave Crohl it also represents a coming to terms with old ghosts, an armistice with the past. For all the balls-out heavy monster sounds like 'White Limo', the strongest moments on what may well be a contender for album of the year temper powerhouse performances and metallic KOs with the kind of reflective glow one might expect from a man in his forty-second year.
What makes it special? For a start, the sessions were something of a reunion, harking back to the epoch-making noise Nirvana delivered with the album many consider Kurt Cobain's most powerful and enduring legacy, Nevermind. Grohl was behind the drum kit then; now he takes the spotlight. But it was his record too, there behind him in the shadows. Some time he would have to come to terms with it fully. Now may be the moment. Wasting Light was recorded in Dave Grohl's garage by Nevermind producer Butch Vig, who abandoned Pro Tools wizardry for straight analogue recording and razor blade editing. Nirvana auxiliary guitarist Pat Smear is back in the band. Krist Novoselic guests on 'I Should Have Known', a song that reeks not just of love's labours lost, but survivor's guilt. And Grohl's longtime hero Bob Mould does his thing on 'Dear Rosemary', perhaps the Foos' finest song since 'Everlong'.
"We came home from the last Foo Fighters tour three years ago, and we had maybe 14 or 15 songs that we had written at all the soundchecks," Grohl says, relaxing at his home in Encino, California, shortly before the release of the new album. "And I thought: 'Okay, we can do one of two things: we can not touch these songs until we're ready to make another record, or we can record them right now and forget about them.
"So we immediately went into the studio and recorded 14 songs and just put them away. And then I went and played with Them Crooked Vultures, which was amazing, I had so much fun playing with Josh and John Paul Jones. To be the drummer in that band was just... I mean, I felt like a king. It was so fucking good, you know, and every show was different. It's hard to explain how important that is."
And yet, Grohl prioritised the new Foo Fighters record over a second Vultures album.
"The Foo Fighters have always been my priority," he maintains. "You know, the bond that we have as people is even stronger than the bond we have as a band. Sometimes music isn't enough to keep a band together for 20 years, 16 years, whatever it is. It has to be more than just the excitement of playing, more than money and fame and all that shit. There has to be a real human connection between the people in the band. And we really have that.
"So when I'm out getting my rocks off with Them Crooked Vultures, it's amazing, it's fulfilling, and really good for me as a person. But I miss Foo Fighters, you know, I always did. It was like going off and fucking some beautiful chick for a while, but there's no way that I would feel the love that I have for my wife or my family with some hot fucking girl. You pursue those projects because... I don't know, you don't want to leave the Foo Fighters, you just want to get outside of it.
"And before we made this album I started thinking: 'Wow this is kind of a landmark moment for the band, because we've done so much in the last 16 years. Good things and bad things. We've managed to survive, we've managed to get better. And now were about to go back in time'. Rather than go to the nicest studio in town and use state-of-the-art equipment and some new producer that is making all the hot new records these days, we dusted off the tape machines and put them in my garage and made a fucking record with Butch Vig, you know? I felt like the only way we were going to survive another album was to go back."
Yet despite the retrospective mood, Wasting Light is the band's heaviest album in some time. For Grohl, it was a do-not-go-gentle-into-that-good-night feeling.
"Well, I think as we get older... I'm 42 now, I think that there was this urge to maybe mellow, because it just seemed appropriate, age appropriate. And I thought: Okay, well maybe that's maturing. Maybe if we start turning in that direction gradually it won't seem like a contrived change in direction, it'll just be like: 'Yeah, well they're maturing, they are getting a little more mellow, because they're getting older.' And I love mellow music. I can write sleepy, beautiful fucking ballads all day long. That's not the challenge for me. (Laughs) But then I thought: 'Fuck that!' I'm 42 now, I don't know if I'm going to be able to make this record when I'm 46 or 48 or 49. So I thought: 'Alright, well, it's my last chance. So I'm going to go for it'.
"It was an internal conflict or complex that I had that just made sense," Grohl continues. "Here we're working with Butch Vig, who can take something this big and make it this big (gestures). I don't even know how he does it. It doesn't seem like he's doing anything, he just hangs out, he's great. And Pat's back in the band, I have all these huge fucking rock riffs, I can still scream for three hours - let's go! What are you waiting for? Let's fucking do this! (Laughs) And I had also said in an interview somewhere: 'Yeah, we're going to make a heavy rock record'. And Butch read the interview and he said: 'Okay, you've already said you're going to make a heavy rock record, you gotta do it'. And he really held me to it. I'd bring him songs, and he'd say 'Nope, not heavy enough'.
So how did the semi-Nirvana reunion come about?
"Well, Krist Novoselic and I have always been very close. And Butch. too. We've all kept in touch and remained friends... You know, when we made Nevermind that record changed everybody's lives in the most profound way. It wasn't something anybody expected to happen. And when it did. it was just crazy, it just wasn't an option. We never thought that was going to happen, and when we see each other now, no matter what else we do, no matter where we are, and no matter how many years have passed, that's the bond between us.
"There were incredible things about that record. And there were tragedies that we've been through together, too. And so when we see each other we hug each other, we hug each other because we're excited that we're still friends. But we also sort of do it to console each other. Because when Kurt died it just... it just fucking destroyed our lives. So we've always remained close, but we've never been in the studio together since Nevermind. The three of us together sitting in front of speakers and a mixing desk, that hasn't happened in 20 years.
"But Krist has never really been too far from the Foos. He's played and sang backups on Foo Fighters B-sides before. We did a show once in Seattle years ago where Nate got sick and he played bass. But you know, when you get Krist and Butch and I together to record, there's something immediately special about it, because of our past. And I had this song that I thought would be really cool if Krist played accordion and bass and stuff on it. And so I called him and asked him to come down. I knew I wanted it to be a special experience for the three of us, I knew that it was more than just saying, 'Hey, come record a song, it'll be fun'."
The track Krist Novoselic plays bass on is 'I Should Have Known', which seems to double as bittersweet love song and survivor's lament.
"At first I started writing it about someone specific, not Kurt," Grohl admits. "But then as I elaborated on it... I mean, I look at it and I think there are definitely connections. And I definitely felt that way before, especially in Nirvana, with Kurt where, you know, I was afraid this was going to happen. You know, I've had that feeling with more than one person in my life. And so to have Krist come down and play on that song was kind of a risky move, just because I have to answer these questions every time we do an interview. And I'm used to it, it's okay. But I never want us to subject Krist to that, to suck him into that fucking problem. And I explained to him, I said: 'You know, it's one of those songs that I'm sure people are going to think it's about Kurt'. And he basically said: 'Oh, fuck it! That's okay, you know'. You just have to say: 'What are you going to do?' Because that's the type of thing that would keep you from writing the song.
"Like, there have been times in my life where I'd write a lyric and I'd think: 'Oh God, if I write that you know what people are going to think'. And it would keep me from doing it. And I finally stopped feeling that way. Like, 'Fuck that, man! I mean, these are my goddamn songs, I can write about whatever I want and I don't give a shit what anybody else thinks about it'. And a lot of the album does reference the past, you know, it has a lot to do with life and death. And it's usually not until the album's done that you have a moment to relax and you look at all of these songs together. And you think: 'Wow, there's a theme'. And definitely being with Butch here in this environment and recording totally analogue made me really think a lot about starting over, and rebirth and survival, and making your way through tragedy and coming out the other side. And realising: 'Cod, I never want to die'. There definitely seems to be a theme. And then there's some girls in the middle of it somewhere."
Such as 'Dear Rosemary', which might be the best Husker Du homage the band has ever written. And as Grohl is only too happy to acknowledge, there have been a couple.
"When Bob Mould came in to play on that song... I'd never met Bob. I'd seen Husker Du four or five times in the '8os. I never got to see Sugar play. I was a huge Husker Du fan, and obviously his music has influenced the way I write music and the way I play guitar. A lot of what I do comes from Bob. And you know, I've name checked Husker Du songs lyrically. Like in 'Times Like These' it says, I'm a new day rising', which is one of my favourite Husker Du records.
"And so we met last Summer, at the 9:30 Club in Washington DC, and he's the nicest fucking guy in the world. Sweet and humble and incredibly talented. And we swapped phone numbers. I had this song that I thought might sound cool if he sang with me, so I texted him and said: 'Hey, do you want to come down?' And he did. There was this great moment where he walked in with his guitar, everybody was sort of starstruck. And the minute he opened his mouth on the microphone, it sounded exactly like Husker Du. All he has to do is speak into a mic. And it's fucking incredible. And we all looked at each other, like: 'How does he do that? That's so crazy'.
"And as I watched him play guitar I realised that I owe more to Bob Mould than maybe any other musician, because there's specific things that he does that I learned from him, not from anyone else. You know, I grew up with The Beatles, I loved Led Zeppelin, I fucking loved the Bad Brains and punk rock. But when it comes to guitar playing and song structure, I think that Husker Du might be my biggest influence. So it was an honour to have him on the record. He's a fucking great guy."
One final question. What's this about Dave hoovering the studio space every morning before the sessions?
"(Laughs). You could imagine with eight smelly dudes in this room everyday... Basically my routine was: Harper wakes up at 5.50am in the morning. I make her a bottle, we sit down and watch Sesame Street. Violet would wake up, I make her some fucking pancakes and get her dressed for school. My wife would take Violet to school, the nanny would come at about 9am. I'd take a shower, I'd come up here, clean up all the fucking beer bottles and vacuum this room, mop the fucking floor. Go back downstairs, make myself something to eat and sit here and wait. And I'd work until 6pm, go down and have dinner with the family, read them stories and gives them baths and put them to bed. And come up back here, work till 10pm, and then go to sleep. That was it."
Where does all the energy come from?
"Well, you know, honestly, waking up, when I hear Harper crying at 5.50am in the morning, I go, 'Fuck! God! I want five more hours of sleep!' But then I turn on the light, and she goes: 'Dad!' And I'm like: Alright, let's go, whoa!' And it's great, and there's something about being tired that gives you energy, you know. But, you know, I like it. Honestly. I mean, I've had shitty jobs. I had jobs I didn't like. I like this job. I work hard at this shit, you know."
Words: Marcel Anders
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