Dave Grohl: After Nirvana
Four years can seem like a moment in time or an entire lifetime. For Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, it surely felt like a blink. He rose from virtual obscurity to playing sold-out shows worldwide with the most popular band on the planet to being without a band.
Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album changed the direction of music in the 1990s and has sold more than thirty million albums worldwide. Their record company, DGC, hoped they could sell two hundred and fifty thousand copies. Released on September 24th, 1991, they were selling four hundred thousand copies a day by the Christmas season. It found a level of success that no one could have predicted, and as fast as it happened, it ended. Lead Singer and vocalist Kurt Cobain’s death on April 5th, 1994, ended it all and left drummer Dave Grohl without a home.
Being a talented musician, Dave recorded a small catalog of songs over the years and struggled to decide how to move forward. Since he played all the instruments on his recordings, he had no band, but he didn’t want to be seen as a solo artist. He wasn’t going to settle for simply being “a drummer in another band,” so he released some of his recordings under the name Foo Fighters, a reference to UFOs during World War II, and to suggest there was a full band behind the music. He said he tried to change his voice enough so he wouldn’t be immediately recognizable.
“Had I actually considered this to be a career, I probably would have called it something else because it's the stupidest fucking band name in the world,” he admitted.
He recorded the demos within the first six months of the end of Nirvana. He handed out cassette recordings of the songs to friends to get feedback on his work. Feedback came quickly, as the tape eventually made its way onto the desk of record label executives. He asked former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic if he would like to join the group to support the album, but they decided it wouldn’t be the right move for either of them. Grohl hired bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, from the disbanded Seattle group Sunny Day Real Estate, along with guitarist Pat Smear.
They played their first live show on February 23rd, 1995, at the Jambalaya Club in Arcata, California. Grohl refused to do interviews or ride in large tour buses to promote the album. After ‘This is a Call’ was released as a single in June, the album was released in July.
Dealing With Loss
Dave spoke to Apple Music about dealing with losing Kurt:
“After Kurt passed away, there was a period of everyone just hiding from the world, and our whole world was turned upside down..So there was grief, there was mourning. We all rallied together. I remember hanging out with Krist Novoselic and the two of us making sure that we were okay. And then I did a little bit of traveling. I remember going… I took a trip to the UK. I don’t know; I just did a lot of driving around and thinking. And eventually, I started getting calls from people to ask if I wanted to play drums with them or join another band, and I just didn’t see that happening at the time…And I’d always come home from tours and recorded songs by myself, but that feeling was gone. I didn’t really want to write or even listen to music, much less join a band and play in one. So it was strange when your life is just pulled out from under you like that. I don’t think anyone really thought much about what came next…You were stuck in that moment. So eventually, I just pulled myself off the couch and thought, ‘Okay, I’ve always loved playing music, and I’ve always loved writing and recording songs for myself. So I feel like I need to do that just for myself.”
Though most of the songs were recorded before his friend’s death, many of the lyrics were added after. The music allowed him to grieve properly, release his emotions and find himself again.
“‘This Is A Call’ is probably the one song that..it had a different feel. It was a bit more uplifting than the other stuff that I’d written before. And especially coming after Kurt’s death, ‘This Is A Call,’ it was like a renewal or a reawakening where I actually found joy in playing and writing. So it’s strange because when you’re in that moment, and you’re in a period of loss or grief or mourning, it’s like you pick up an instrument, and that just spills out..And it serves this like an exorcism where it feels good because you’re purging a lot of these feelings, but then it’s also a bummer. Every time I pick up a pen or a guitar and I’d start writing something; it was just depressing. And after a while, I’m like, “Oh God. Is that all I got?” And then ‘This Is A Call,’ something like that really…it just felt okay. Even a song like ‘Good Grief.’ I think that one might’ve come later. That one was maybe after Kurt had passed away. I’m sure it was, at least, the lyrics were. But that was meant to represent the joy of sadness in a way, just feeling good about feeling bad.”
Playing drums at an early age, Grohl was inspired by Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. He became so obsessed with the legendary drummer that he used a sewing needle to etch a triple-circle emblem tattoo to mimic him. He told Rolling Stone in 2009: “I tried to get different colored ink to make it seem pro, but now it looks like someone put a cigarette out on my fucking arm.”
He discussed his obsession further in a 2021 Guardian interview: “We discovered Led Zeppelin just as I started progressing as a drummer, and I became obsessed with John Bonham: what he played and why. It’s hard to explain, but his feel and sound is unmistakable and undefinable. Anyone can take the chart of what he played, but it would never be the same because it was as unique to that human as a fingerprint...I became so obsessed that I gave myself a three-interlocked-circles John Bonham tattoo on my arm with a fucking sewing needle and some ink. I was branded for life.”
He credits the band Bad Brains for showing him what a live show should look like: “ I was living in DC in the early ‘80s and got into the hardcore scene but nobody else blew me away as much as Bad Brains. I have never ever, ever, ever, ever seen a band do anything even close to what Bad Brains used to do live.”
It makes sense. If you’ve had the privilege of experiencing a live Bad Brains concert, you can see their influence on Nirvana shows. The Bad Brains show at CBGB in 1982 is regarded as one of the greatest live hard rock performances ever. You can watch it HERE.
It seems as if every decision Dave Grohl has made in his music career has been the right one, and finding the right way to deal with grief has certainly played a huge role in that. He’s sold tens of millions of albums with the Foo Fighters, another seventy-five million with Nirvana, and has played with virtually every icon in the music industry, including: