Some rock biographies stand tall above others, revealing much more than a straight chronology of recording and touring. This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl is one such book. Written by former editor of Kerrang! magazine Paul Brannigan, who has been a fan and friend of Grohl for 15 years, it draws on a decade of frank interviews with Dave Grohl and friends, and is peppered with fascinating nuggets about Grohl’s own thoughts on his ascent to megastardom.
From Grohl being the “goofy” hardcore drummer with Scream, through stardom behind the drumkit with the troubled Nirvana, to his blossoming as the guitar-toting frontman of Foo Fighters, This is a Call tells Grohl’s story with style and candor.
Gibson.com spoke to Paul Brannigan about writing one of the definitive rock books of 2011…
This is a Call is not an “authorized” biography, yet Dave Grohl obviously knew you were writing it: did that make it difficult for him to totally open up?
I don’t think so. Dave might write his own autobiography when he finishes in music, but that might be another 20 years. I’m not totally convinced I’ll be around to write a book in 20 years! I told him I had an offer to write a book, and he was okay about it.
But a few things did come up in the time of putting the book together. I had a few chances to interview Dave in recent years and I honestly thought his management might block me, but they didn’t. I got invited up to Dave’s house during the making of Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light and we talked a lot about what I’d written. Dave and the people around the band have been very good to me. It’s not even an “endorsed” biography. Let’s just call it a “tolerated” biography. But Dave himself never had a problem with anything I wanted to write.
Dave’s songwriting career is interesting: he only had one song to his name with Nirvana, “Marigold,” yet on his own with the Foo Fighters solo debut and, particularly, The Colour and the Shape, he suddenly blossomed…
He’d been writing songs forever. This is all theoretical, of course, but he could have released solo albums that co-existed with Nirvana… had things turned out differently. He still has 10 or 15 early songs that have never seen the light of day. A lot was just recorded with friends. But I think Nirvana was so all-consuming for Dave, he didn’t have time to think about it at all. He did put out the PocketWatch tapes [from 1992] but I don’t think he really got time to take stock of all the madness of Nirvana at the time.
I can imagine Kurt [Cobain] may have had an issue with that anyway: I’m not sure Kurt wanted collaboration records when there was so much focus on Nirvana.
Dave seems a perfectionist rather than a “punk”: once Foo Fighters took off, he even “let go” of drummer William Goldsmith, insisting he himself played drum on The Colour and the Shape.
It’s interesting. Punk is what Dave was reared on, but he has many tastes. He loves AC/DC, as well as a lot of more underground metal as showcased on the Probot album [Grohl’s celeb metal collaboration, from 2004].
I spoke to a lot of Dave’s previous band members who bowed out early on his career. They may have only jammed with Dave, but a lot said Dave was honest, yet hard – he’d say, you may be my mate, but you’re not good enough. So Dave let them go.
So is Dave Grohl a tough bandleader?
I don’t think Dave has ever settled for things as they are. He’s always put music before friendship, almost. If it wasn’t working musically, Dave would want to change things. But it’s strange: some of these guys assumed that Dave would be the drummer in the band… and it turned out Dave was a better guitar player than they were.
Dave has a punk rock conscience, but I don’t think he ever settles for that amateurism that some people equate with punk. He doesn’t think “anyone can play an instrument.” He loves Led Zeppelin, he loves Bad Brains. They’re totally different bands, but all were super-tight musicians.
Dave started on guitar. Then he turned to drums. Now he plays guitar and, less often these days, drums. Is he more passionate about one over the other?
He still says: I’m a drummer. Part of the reason I think, is how he talks about structuring guitar riffs. When he has a guitar riff in his head, he’ll tap out a beat on his feet while he’s writing it, so he knows where the accents go. This is before he’s ever near to a studio or a recorder. So he still sees himself as a drummer, first and foremost.
For example, he talks in the book about the red tribal tattoos he has on his arm. He got them done just after he played with Queens of the Stone Age. He said: “subconsciously, I got them done because I was drumming again – my arms have got me everything in life, it’s not because I’m a guitar player, it’s because I’m a drummer.”
I think he feels more confident being a drummer. Yet he’s as good a guitar player and songwriter as you’ll find.
There are not many drummers who have reinvented themselves as frontmen and/or guitarists…
Nikke Anderson from The Hellacopters and Entombed, maybe? But Dave’s is an unusual story. I was living in America when Nirvana broke, and it was all the “Kurt show.” Later, it was the “Kurt and Courtney show.” No one ever really knew about Dave, the “goofy” guy at the back. But I do remember hearing “This is a Call” and thinking: wow, where did that come from? And Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape was a huge bump in quality. There’s not many people who have come from where Dave has come from and taken that path.
Dave has “middle America tastes” in his makeup too: in This is a Call Dave reveals he contemplated joining Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers as drummer. Is he still hard-rocking at heart?
Oh, yeah. When I went to his house last, he got out some CDs and records that meant a lot to him. I’d brought him a gift of this CD by the Norwegian band Kvelertak, sorta death-metal rock ’n’ roll. I gave it to Dave as my favorite album of 2010, and he held it up to the camera.
Dave still has that death metal kid about him. When Them Crooked Vultures [Grohl, John Paul Jones and Josh Homme] played in London, we went out to a really nice Italian restaurant in London. And Dave insisted on a meal soundtrack of Metallica, Anthrax, D.R.I., Black Sabbath and Pantera.
Dave’s signature Gibson, the DG-335, is based on that of Latin star Trini Lopez: that might seem an odd choice.
True, but Dave truly loves his guitars. He has two big racks of guitars. And he has good taste, they are all beautiful to look at. Dave’s not a total geek about guitars, but he does respect instruments. The Trini Lopez design he loves – he knows it’s not the most obvious guitar for him to be playing, but he feels he can carry that off, plus it has his sound. He doesn’t settle for second best.
More Dave Grohl:
The Gibson DG-335
The sound of Foo Fighters
Watch Foo Fighters 2011 Garage Tour in Full