David Remnick: Welcome to The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm David Remnick.
Kelefa Sanneh: Hi. I'm Kelefa Sanneh. I'm a staff writer at The New Yorker Magazine. On behalf of The New Yorker magazine and The New Yorker Festival, thanks for coming out. Whether you're with us here [crosstalk]
David: Last week a month a crowd gathered in Brooklyn to hear from a special guest.
Kelefa: The guy I'm sitting next to has been destroying stages ever since the 1980s when he was a rambunctious punk kid playing with hardcore bands in the DC area. He [crosstalk]
David: Rock musician, Dave Grohl.
Kelefa: It's true. He changed the world with Nirvana and then kept changing with Foo Fighters, who are now 10 albums into one of the most epic rock and roll runs of all time.
David: Dave Grohl's epic run began as the drummer for Nirvana.
Then after the death of Kurt Cobain, Grohl became a front man with his own band called The Foo Fighters.
On this Thanksgiving weekend, we wanted to take a little break from the news of the world. We're going to bring you two conversations with two musicians from last months New Yorker Festival. Later in the hour, we'll hear performance from Aimee Mann, but first up, here's Dave Grohl. Grohl's new memoir is called The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music. He joined staff writer, Kelefa Sanneh on stage at the Skyline Drive-In in Brooklyn. Now, it's out on the Brooklyn waterfront, and as they talk, you might hear something creaking in the breeze off the East River.
Kelefa: Please freak out for Dave Grohl.
Kelefa: Dave, we're here at The New Yorker Festival. We're here to talk about your literary career, which began at age 14, I think around there, with a letter you wrote to your dad.
Dave: [laughs] Both of my parents were writers. My mother was a public school teacher for 35 years. Yes, let's hear it for the teachers. We love the teachers.
She taught creative writing and she was a forensics coach, and a debate coach. My father was a speechwriter and a journalist on Capitol Hill. We grew up outside of Washington, DC. Not only the written word, but also spoken word in our house was valued. I don't know if I told you, but we would do these articulation drills at dinner.
Dave: Yes. My mother would give us a topic to speak about, and we'd have to speak for maybe three minutes without interrupted speech. It could be anything, it could be brownies, and you'd have to talk about brownies for three minutes without saying um or like, or you know. Also, they were great storytellers. Anyways, what you're referring to was my runaway note when I was 14 years old, where I finally ran away from my dad's apartment. It was a defining moment in my life because at the time, I was playing music but I wasn't allowed to, because I was such a horrible student. I was playing in punk rock bands. In these punk rock bands, you basically did everything yourselves. You made your own records, you made your own t-shirts, you booked your own shows. I had tried my hand at becoming a promoter.
Kelefa: How'd that go?
Dave: I made $100. It worked out okay.
Kelefa: Did the bands get paid?
Dave Grohl: Everyone got paid. I made $100. It was great. Anyway, what you're referring to is probably that. It was at that point where I was discovering independence. I talk about this sometimes, that there's a golden window of opportunity in every child's life where independence and identity intersect. You're no longer just like arm candy, holding your parents' hand when you cross the street. You're allowed to become who you're going to become. At that point, I knew that I was going to be a musician and that I was going to have to do it all myself. That was the beginning of that.
Kelefa: You set this down. You set it down in an actual letter, it was like a manifesto. It was like, "Here's what my life's going to be like."
Dave: Yes, I was basically just saying if you only knew what I did last night and everything that I put into it, and I did this all myself, and I am proud of me. I think this is what I'm capable of. If you don't have faith in me, then I'm just going to go do it on my own, so I did.
Kids, stay in school. Don't do drugs.
Kelefa: It seems like your story with music, there is this origin story involving the song You're So Vain.
Dave: Both of my parents were also musicians. When my mother and I would drive around in our car, we would sing along to '70s AM radio. There was one day we were driving around, and Carly Simon's You're So Vain came on. We were both singing like, "You're so vain," together. Then it gets to the chorus part. I was singing the Mick Jagger part. My mom was singing the-- We break off in harmony. It was in that moment that I realized and understood that two different notes form a cord. I'm like, "Wait a second. Hold on a second. Then the kick drum does that, and then the snare drum does that."
I started listening to music, not just as a sound. I was listening to music and the patterns. Some people experienced this condition called synesthesia, where you can actually see sound. It started happening to me. I would imagine music in these Lego shapes in my head. Still to this day, if I hear a drum track, I can hear it and see it in these shapes. It's great because I don't read music. That's how I memorize things in my head.
If you play me a drum track or an arrangement of a song, as I'm listening I'm visualizing it, and then I can play it back for you like that. Yes, that was a huge moment. That's when I fell in love with music. That's when I went home and it was playing with the Beatles records on the floor, playing drums with my teeth. Hold on second. Let me see if I can do it. I don't know if the mic's-- I got it. All right. Let's see if I can do it. Ready? Hold on. Check, check. Ready? You're going to have to crank the mic for one second, Mr Sound Guy. Here it comes. Ready? [drums]
Okay, it's not so good. Anyway.
It was so bad I went to the [beep] dentist one time and he's like, "Do you chew a lot of ice?" I was like, "No. Why?" He's like, "Well, because you have an unusual amount of deterioration." I was like, "Dude, I can play drums with my teeth."
Kelefa: As a writer, I don't always get to pick my own headlines or titles, but I did get to pick the title for this event, which was Maximum Rock and Roll, a phrase that describes your life and career, but was also the title of a magazine that was important to you as a kid.
Kelefa: A magazine that was like the punk bible that help kids find each other that were into punk rock, but that also had a reputation for being self-righteous and obnoxious. What does that phrase "maximum rock and roll" mean to you?
Dave: For people that don't know about the underground music scene that we grew up in listening to music. I discovered this punk rock thing in 1983 through a cousin of mine that lived in Chicago. I'd started playing music. I loved bands like Devo and the B-52s, and things like that, The Beatles and Kiss, and Zeplin. I didn't realize that there was an underground network of bands and labels, and magazines that was this community. Before anything online, it was this really grassroots community of people that were doing it all themselves. Yes, it was also filled with this ethically suffocating punk rock manifesto. To be perfectly honest, I was more attracted to the independence and the musicality of what was going on, or lack of musicality. It was just the energy of the whole thing I thought was very cool.
Kelefa: In your book, you talk about those years, and how you go from playing with Scream in DC to suddenly you're in a big band, and your relationship with this punk rock world is changing.
Dave: It's difficult to join the two. When you're raised in that ethically suffocating punk rock scene, you're conditioned to reject any conformity, any sort of popularity, whatever it is. Nirvana came from that same scene, but there was a problem is that Kurt's songs were so good. It's like we never expected that we would become as big as we did, but it was almost inevitable with his songs and his lyrics, and his voice. Then once we became successful and popular we felt conflicted in this way that we had betrayed the scene that we were raised in the underground, when we really hadn't done anything differently than we had done before. It was just that now the songs were being heard.
Kelefa: Did it feel slow at the time? Did it feel like this steady thing of like, "My band's getting bigger"?
Dave: No, it happened really quickly. The big moment was the first time we played on Saturday Night Live. That's where I grew up watching that show in the '70s, not only for the comedy and the brilliant cast that they had, but for the music, because that's where I saw live performance. I'd never seen a concert, but I saw The B-52s. I saw Peter Tosh and I saw Devo, and I saw Fear, and Bowie, and things like that. When we went to go do that first SNL, just knowing that my drum set was in the same place that all of these legends had been, I was just like, "It's crazy."
Kelefa: Was there any trepidation? Was there any sense of, "I don't know if we want to be an SNL kind of band," or were you guys just like, "This is amazing, let's do it"?
Dave: There was once when we were meeting with all the record companies in New York, long before anybody really knew who Nirvana was. We were in the office of this guy named Donny Ienner, who was the head of, I think, Columbia Records or something. It was in this big, high-rise office, and he's behind this big oak desk. He's a music executive guy. He goes, "What do you guys want?" Kurt goes, "We want to be the biggest band in the world." I thought he was kidding.
It's weird. I think that there was some sort of ambition there, but I don't think anybody had any understanding or any real expectation.
Kelefa: Would you guys talk about it? Would you talk strategy? Like [beep]
Dave: No, we barely talked.
No. We wouldn't even talk about writing the songs. We would begin every rehearsal with this improvisational noise jam, and just do this free form freak-out thing. If it was a quiet part, I would sit there and I would watch Kurt's Converse sneaker get closer and closer, and closer to the distortion pedal. I was like, "Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes." Then right before he stepped on it, I go, [unintelligible 00:12:32] That's how we wrote songs. I looked at his foot the entire time. We weren't discussing, "I think the bridge of this song should be in a minor key and go seven times." Instead it was just I watched his sneaker the whole time.
Kelefa: One of the amazing things about your book, I went through it to make sure that I didn't miss something. I did a global search through the text for the word "utero". It didn't return anything. I said, this--
Dave: I didn't mention In Utero?
Kelefa: I was like, "This guy made a record that sold 15 million copies around the world, and you've done so many things in your life that this is just another record you made."
Dave: Absolutely not. The biggest challenge in writing this book was deciding what to write and what not to write. The way I wrote it, I wrote it in this short story format. It all began last year when the pandemic hit and I had nothing to do. I started this Instagram page, Dave's True Stories. I started writing these little short stories for this Instagram thing. Then once I realized that this was going to be more than just a few weeks, I'm like, "It's time to write the book." I had made a list of 30 or 40 stories for the Instagram page. I signed a book deal, and I gave my editor the list of the 30 or 40, and I said, "Just tell me what you want me to write."
She would short-order cook me. She was like, "Write about joining Nirvana, write about this and that." I could write a [beep] book about every chapter of this book. It was like I could write an entire book about Nirvana, or Scream, or the Foo Fighters. I was 300 pages in, and I hadn't even mentioned the Foo Fighters yet.
I was just like, "Oh my God, my guys are going to [beep] kill me if I don't at least say, "Then I started another band." It was really difficult. At one point, my editor was like, "Stop writing. You got to stop writing." I was like, "Really? Okay," so I did. In utero, that was a difficult time. After going through the success of Nevermind, and being conflicted, and at this ethical crossroads, we decided to continue, and we make an album where the opening lines are, "Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I'm bored and old." It's actually hard for me to listen to that record because it was a difficult time, but also because it's [beep] so real, that record. That record's real.
Kelefa: Did you ever second-guess yourself and wonder whether this was what you actually wanted to do?
Kelefa: Even when things were at their darkest and weirdest with Nirvana?
Dave: After Kurt died, I was like, "I'm not playing music anymore, it's too painful." Then I eventually realized that if music saved my entire life, this is what's going to save my life again. That's probably the only time I ever stopped playing music. I've never not needed it.
Kelefa: How long did you stop for?
Dave: It was maybe six or seven months, or something like that. I couldn't even turn on the radio, it was hard. Then I realized, I have to write my way out of it, pick up an instrument and play it again, play the drums, and get my way out of this that way.
David: Dave Grohl, the musician and author of a new memoir called The Storyteller. He's been talking with Kelefa Sanneh. Our conversation continues in a moment. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour.
David: This is The New Yorker Radio Hour, I'm David Remnick. We've been hearing from Dave Grohl, who first achieved global fame in the band, Nirvana. In 1994, after Kurt Cobain's death, Grohl went on to form the Foo Fighters, and he moved from the drums to front man, singing and playing guitar. They took the name "Foo Fighters" from an old slang term, pilots slang from World War Two that described UFOs. Let's pick up with Dave Grohl at this year's New Yorker Festival. He's speaking with the staff writer, Kelefa Sanneh.
Kelefa: As you probably know, people have ideas about drummers. When people, when people hear, "The drummer's got a new thing," they're like, "It's going to be this intense, drum-driven thing," but you turned out to be making these amazing demos as a singer-songwriter-
Dave: Thank you.
Kelefa: -which is not what anyone was expecting.
Dave: Nor was I. When I was young, I figured out how to multi-track with these two cassette decks. I'd record something on this cassette, put that cassette in the player, hit "play" on that, put another cassette in there, hit "record", and play drums along to it. Now I have something with drums and guitar on it. I was always into the idea of that multi-tracking, that combination of elements. The thing that I heard that first day in the car with my mom, it was like a puzzle, it was like a game. I would write and record these songs by myself, but I'm like, "This sucks." I was just banking all of these songs. While I was in Nirvana, I wasn't going to disturb the radical creative process we already had by going in and-- It's the famous joke. What's the last thing the drummer said before he got kicked out of the band? "Hey, guys, I got a song I think we should play." When you're in a band like Nirvana, and Kurt's writing songs, you're like, "This works the way it works."
Kelefa: When did you start thinking, "Maybe I should share these songs that I've been making"?
Dave: I did some funny punk rock compilations in the early '90s, I think, right around the time I first joined Nirvana. I don't even think I put my name on it. Anyway, after Kurt died and the band was over, I did a bunch of soul-searching. I decided "I'm going to disappear, I'm going to go to the most remote place on Earth. I'm just going to get away from everything and figure it out." I went to the Ring of Kerry in Ireland, where I'd been before. It's so beautiful there. You really feel like you're just at the end of the earth, and there's nothing serene. It's so beautiful.
I was driving around in my rental car on a country road. I saw this hitchhiker kid, and I thought, "Maybe I'll pick him up." As I got closer to him, I saw that he had a Kurt Cobain t-shirt on. it was Curt's face looking back at me in the middle of nowhere. I realized like, "I can't outrun this. I need to go home and get back to work," and so I did. I went back and I started recording these songs by myself. Really, just with the intention of just continuing life. That's what I needed to do to survive. It helped a lot.
Kelefa: When did you realize, these songs that I was maybe nervous to share, people really like them?
Dave: I recorded the first record by myself in six days. I made a hundred cassettes. I was so [beep] stoked that I could go to this cassette duplication place, and like, "I designed the insert. I picked the font."
Kelefa: Did you give yourself credit in the liner notes?
Dave: Unfortunately, my name is nowhere in that thing at all. I called it Foo Fighters because I didn't want people to know it was me, because of the baggage that came with that. Also because it was plural. I imagined that if a band name is pluralized, they're like, "It sounds like a gang, whatever." It's a stupid as [beep] band name in the world. I was literally giving this cassette to people at gas stations. Then someone from a record company called and said, "Hey, we want to put out your record." I'm like, "The cassette thing? Okay. All right."
Then this is the good part, this is the best part, to me personally, is that then I call my manager, John, my lawyer, Jill. I don't think anybody expected much was going to happen, but my lawyer said, "Listen, don't just give it to someone, that's yours. Start your own label and do everything yourself like you did when you were a kid." I went right back to where I was when I was a teenager, starting my own label, recording my own songs, and we still to this day. I'm the president of our record company, Roswell Records. [laughs]
Kelefa: When this foo fighters thing that started as a demo tape is becoming real, and you're putting together a band, and the songs are getting played on the radio, and I'm sure people at the record company are all excited, and kids are showing up to the shows, was there any trepidation of, "I'm back in this rock and roll star machine again"?
Dave: No. Well, it was different. I knew that I had offers to go play drums with other bands, but I knew if I just sat down at a drum stool that it would like forever remind me of losing Nirvana.
Kelefa: It's also more spotlight. You can imagine a different version of your life story where you're a working musician, as opposed to the guy in the center of the stage with the spotlight on you and a guitar singing the songs. The whole stadium is singing along.
Dave: I was born with a drummer mentality, which is just keep the beat, and keep the people moving. It's a comfortable place to be. If I go to to go record with someone, I don't walk in there like, "I'm Dave Grohl, I'm going to play like this." I walk in and I'm like, "What do you need? Tell me what you want me to do." Then I do it. "Is that cool?" I like that. I like facilitating someone else's boogie. It's fun. It's cool. As a front man, dude, it took me forever to get comfortable with doing that. A decade, at least. Actually I had another revelation, a big moment for me. There was once where, I was asked to go play at the White House. Paul McCartney was getting a Gershwin prize, a Gershwin award, which is a huge honor.
There was a performance in the East Room of the White House. There were all these people invited to play, Jack White, Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder, performing in this tiny room, and the East Room was very small, and with Paul's band I got invited and I'm like, "Cool, I'm going to play with Paul at this thing." They're like, "No, you're going to sing this to Paul and president Obama, who'll be sitting three feet in front of you staring at you doing this thing." I was just like, "Bleurgh." I was so incredibly nervous. I remember being about to walk on stage thinking this might be the coolest thing I've ever done in my entire life.
Considering growing up in DC, being on the other side of the fence at the Rock Against Reagan Concerts, now I'm in front of president Obama and Paul McCartney. I was so terrified. I'm like, "I'm going to puke. I'm going to faint. T his is going to be the worst thing ever." Then I stopped and I'm like, "Hold on a second. This is the most extraordinary thing that's ever happened to me. I'm going to waste it on being scared? [beep] that." I was like, "This is only going to last for five minutes."
It really did. It changed me. I was terrified to come up here with you.
Kelefa: Yes. It's on the same level I'm sure. Well, I'm going to take this moment to thank you, Dave Grohl.
Dave: All right.
Kelefa: Thank you.
Dave: Let's see next time. Thank you.
David: Staff writer, Kelefa Sanneh, talking with rock musician and now author, Dave Grohl. His new book is called The Storyteller. Our conversation was recorded last month at the New Yorker festival.
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