The good-humored guys from the Foo Fighters are back in the spotlight after a few behind-the-scenes changes. Jemima Hunt tracks them down in London.
I follow the band to a room upstairs. The three arrange themselves around a white tableclothed table for an MTV interview. Today's lineup consists of singer/songwriter Dave Grohl (the brunette), drummer Taylor Hawkins (the blond), and guitarist of one month, Chris Shiflett. Bassist Nate Mendel is sick and recuperating at home. Hawkins orders a Coke. He's restless. "Anyone got any jokes?" he asks. He turns up the collar on his black nylon jacket and begins arranging the cubes of sugar in pyramid formations.
Grohl parks an unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth and smiles at the crew. He has a friendly face. Blinking to adjust to the brightness of the lights, he clears his throat and prepares to speak. "This week we've done press in London, Paris, Cologne, and Madrid, and we're flying to Australia tonight." he says by way of an introduction. "Oh yeah - and the name of the new album is 'There Is Nothing Left To Lose'." Why? "Because when we recorded it we had nothing to lose except our asses. We weren't signed to anyone at all."
It's been two years since the Foo Fighters released their second album, 'The Colour And The Shape'. The story since has been the stuff of MTV news bulletins: a record label change, a musician switch, and a trail of broken hearts. The band followed their manager Gary Gersh (the man who signed Nirvana to Geffen) when he left Capitol Records and have since signed with RCA. They made headline news (at least in People Magazine) by playing a Versace show where Hawkins met actress Minnie Driver, whom he dated briefly. More recently, in the wake of Pat Smear's departure, the band took on new guitarist Shiflett.
"He's into Dungeons and Dragons, which is the most important thing," cracks Hawkins.
"Chris came 'round and we got drunk..." begins Grohl.
"...then he vomited," adds Hawkins. "So we knew he was cool."
'There Is Nothing Left To Lose' was recorded in Grohl's house in Virginia, his native state. "I recorded the album sitting on the couch," says Grohl.
"Yeah, he was so relaxed he'd just fall asleep," interjects Hawkins.
"My sister Lisa came over and cooked for the band, but she got pretty disgusted with the way we lived," Grohl continues. "She would make breakfast, then we'd leave cigarette butts in the bagels. In the end she left us and I said, 'Just throw the pizza boxes out of the window...'"
"Yeah, we were just these nerds..." Says Hawkins.
"...rednecks..." cuts in Grohl.
"...holed up for, like, four months," finished Hawkins. "I think we left the house twice. The songs which didn't end up on the album were 'Who pissed on the toilet seat?' and 'Where are the fucking car keys?'" This triggers howls of laughter.
"This is the album of which I'm most proud," says Grohl. "It was turning 30 which did it. When you've been listening to punk and death metal since you were 13, you hit 30 and figure it might be nice not to blow out your throat. It might be nice to sing." It's a smoother sound, but the Foos haven't gone soft. If you caught their live acoustic version of "Everlong" on the radio last year, you know that a grungy power ballad can really rock and make you swoon.
Asked to describe their music, Hawkins comes up with "loud". Post-grunge, the Foo Fighters have held onto big abrasive choruses which sandwich Grohl's plaintive melodies. It's just that now the harmonies, like the Steely Dan moments in "Aurora", have replaced the angry, thrashing guitar numbers.
"I have the worst taste in music," boasts Hawkins. "The Eagles, Abba, 10cc..."
"...Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Queen," continues Grohl before both burst into an impromptu rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody" then dissolve into laughter. And yes - Grohl and Hawkins do finish each other's sentences. It's definitely love.
The Foo Fighters are a happy crew. They don't do the moody band thing. They're not hung up on image and ego. Only Hawkins, who hides behind sun-bleached locks and bug-eye glasses, looks like a rock star. Grohl and Shiflett look like college kids who get together to jam. They are wearing army green cargo pants and t-shirts. Grohl's has a photograph of Michael Caine in "The Italian Job" on the front. They're fresh-faced, flirtatious, and flippant. Hawkins peers over his sunglasses, like Lolita, at the girls in the room. I catch a wink. His arms are draped around the girls when, between takes, they chat about this and that. "Did you feel that you needed to start a band after Nirvana?" asks the MTV producer with a serious face. "Oh yes," comes Grohl's deadpan reply. "My therapist told me, 'You've got to get on stage and strut it!'"
For those of you who have somehow missed the last decade of rock history, Grohl was the man on the drums with Nirvana. He moved to Seattle to record Nirvana's landmark "Nevermind", and became known as "the cheerful one." A year after Kurt Cobain's suicide, he quietly released the first Foo Fighters album for which he wrote all the material, played all the instruments, and sang. You can't meet Grohl and not want to ask about Cobain. Grohl admits he hasn't gone away. "Kurt was definitely a big influence and inspiration," he says. "Through Kurt I saw the beauty of minimalism, the importance of music that's stripped down."
Grohl, 30, grew up in the DC suburb of Springfield and is based back in Virginia. His father is a journalist and his mother is a retired teacher. He was brought up in a household ruled by words. Grohl claims to hate writing lyrics. "I love trying to say something meaningful and real," he says. At the same time he doesn't want his songs to reveal too much about himself. "I don't want to let everyone in on my personal life. It's mine." He's divorced but won't say more than that. He has an immaculately trimmed beard, brown eyes, and three tattoos - a tiny heart on one finger, a webbed design on his wrist, and FF on the back of his neck. He's the leader of the band and the - sort of - serious one.
Hawkins, 27, is the cute one. He could pass for Brad Pitt's younger brother and has a cockroach tattooed between his shoulder blades which wriggles when he splays his arms. He joined the Foo Fighters from Alanis Morissette's band two years ago. A surfer dude from Laguna Beach, 50 miles south of L.A., he recently moved to Santa Monica. His favorite band is Supergrass, and his drumming idol is Stewart Copeland. How does he compete with Grohl's legendary drumming? "You've just got to beat the shit out of those drums," he explains. He's dating someone but he wouldn't go so far as to describe himself as settled. And he has big green eyes like a cat.
Then there's Shiflett. Shiflett, 28, is the quiet one. He hails from northern California, lives in San Francisco, and until three months ago was the bassist for the band No Use For A Name. His favorite writer is Nick Hornby, the British author of High Fidelity. His tattoo is the hardest to miss. It reads ACHE, as in heart, in black on red and is wrapped around his upper right arm. He looks a little dazed and his eyes are blue.
It's a lovely day and photographer Corinne Day has arrived so we proceed outside. We cross the street and enter a construction site. Day has talked the site's security guard Moses into letting her use his cabin for the shoot. "I love London," Grohl tells me as we wait for Moses to finish his lunch. "Some of the earliest recordings I did with Nirvana were Peel Sessions (with BBC deejay John Peel). Of all the European cities we play in, London feels most like home."
"There are so many English bands who've influenced us," butts in Hawkins with another of his lists. "Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis, The Clash, the Sex Pistols, The Police..."
"The Beatles," adds Grohl, getting in the last word again.
Inside the cabin, the band collapses onto a vinyl sofa and into silence. Shiflett has put up his hood like a mugger. Hawkins pouts, while Grohl replaces his headset over his ears. They've done this before.
Then the shoot wraps and out they troop. Camden is a record buyer's paradise and they want to shop. "Wow. Imagine if I found Queen's stage set from '78," says Hawkins, his eyes lighting up. The others look suitably impressed. So I say my goodbyes and watch them go.
Just three boys in search of music on a sunny afternoon.
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