Never interrupt the nicest man in rock mid-conversation. Dave Grohl, the Ohio-born backbone of both Nirvana and the Foo Fighters has some history with British GQ. In 2008 Grohl flew to London for 24 hours to present Led Zeppelin with the "Outstanding Achievement" award at our Men Of The Year ceremony. Mid-way through his heartfelt tribute (sample quote: "They were my escape, my teachers, my dreams and they were my church"), the "Whole Lotta Love" riff started playing slightly early. "Wait, I'm not done motherf***ers!" cried Grohl. "This is a big deal to me! I don't know how many Led Zeppelin tattoos you have but if they outnumber mine, then we need to talk!"
Reminded of that night four years later in a phone call recently, Grohl clearly has forgiven us for messing up our cue. "Oh my God, that night was amazing," he says down the line from Los Angeles. "It's not often in life you get asked to present Led Zeppelin with an award. The funny thing is that night I cornered John Paul Jones and begged him to do a side project [Them Crooked Vultures] with me." However for once we're not talking to Grohl about his remarkable musical career: instead we're discussing his directorial debut, Sound City, a documentary focusing on a threadbare LA studio in which everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Nine Inch Nails recorded. To mark the release we chatted to Grohl about small talk with Rick Rubin, the worst rock doc clichés and reuniting with his Nirvana bandmates with a Beatle on vocals…
GQ: Sound City has a hell of a cast - including Frank Black, Josh Homme and Trent Reznor. But how on earth did you get Barry Manilow onboard?
Dave Grohl: Barry Manilow is the coolest motherf***er in the world. Years ago we have a family friend named Dave Koz who is a jazz alto saxophonist. He's pretty famous - he's won Grammys, has a radio show and has sold millions of records. He was getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame so he invited us to the ceremony at the Capitol Records building. In the green room before the event started it was like the Mount Rushmore of smooth jazz, including Kenny G and Barry Manilow. The only time I'd seen Barry before was at a Clive Davis party where he performed a medley of his hits that went on for half an hour that left everyone - from Puff Daddy to Pearl Jam - in tears. So on the day we were walking out to see Dave get his star, I heard Barry's assistant whisper, "That's Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters." Barry said, "Dave Grohl - I love the Foo Fighters!" He had me right there! Barry had recorded at Sound City - one of the coolest things about the movie and the list of cast members is the diversity: there's a lot of rock in there but everyone recorded at Sound City at least once, from Barry Manilow to Trent Reznor. That [original] soundboard that I bought [at auction] should be in the rock'n'roll hall of fame. It has so much magic inside of it from all of those different artists.
Lars Ulrich also appears in Sound City. Do you think he gets a particularly hard time thanks to the Some Kind Of Monster documentary?
First of all I love Lars Ulrich. He's always been a huge influence. I bought the first Metallica record the month it came out, I am a die-hard fan and you will have to pry their CDs from my cold dead hands. Lars is without a doubt a very strong personality. I think he's the engine that drives that band - he might not be the [sole] creative mastermind (although he's 50 per cent of it) but he is as passionate about what he does as any other great musician. You also don't meet too many people who just don't give a f***. Lars does not give care what you think! I have a lot of respect for that. I have wrestled with that guy drunk on the floor of a hotel room, I've cried to that guy - he knows he's my hero. But he won't change. Some Kind Of Monster is such a nightmare for any musician to watch because you're watching a band be honest to each other. Not a good idea man! You know why Foo Fighters have been a band for 20 years? Because I've never really told anybody what I think of them. The last thing you ever want to do is go is go to therapy with your band. I feel like that's what happened to the Kinks - that's when people start punching each other in the face. We keep the peace by not having the therapist in a sweater that charges $2000 a week.
Who was the hardest person to track down to appear in Sound City?
Neil Young. He was the first person to agree to do it and the last person to do his interview - there was a year in between. I eventually just had to fly to Hawaii. Someone said, "I'm so sorry he really wants to do it but he's got the next five days off and you're going to have to go". I flew everyone down with all their gear, talked to him for an hour and a half and the rest of the time I just drank beer in the ocean. So cool - there's nothing better than having a bottle of beer in your hand in the waves.
Is there such a thing as small talk with Rick Rubin?
Rick has the air of being a "guru production genius" but in reality he's just a fan of music. He's a very particular type of producer. He doesn't play every instrument. He doesn't have a deep classic musical knowledge. He's more of a good set of ears - which is huge! Sometimes that's a lot more useful than someone who graduated from Juilliard and can play circles around every musician in the room. If you're trying to connect to people with music - it's more of an outward process and a lot of times musicians can be very inward. The good thing about Rick is that he has, for lack of better term, a very populist ear. That's something that is hard to find in producers. That's why he's so successful - honestly. He's got a very strange way of making albums that a lot of people don't necessarily gel with or agree with but there's no denying that he has made countless hit records. I have a lot of respect for Rick Rubin, I really do. I wish I could hear my songs like he hears my songs. What he'll do is take a band and give them writing assignments. He'll say "OK I want you to write a song for The Supremes." So you step outside of yourself, write the song and then he'll say "OK so you wrote that song but you stepped out of yourself to write it. So you got away from your place that stopped you writing songs." Not a lot of people do that…
Apart from you - you've talked before about writing almost in character for people like Norah Jones…
What happens a lot of the time is I'll write a song, listen to it and I won't release it because I feel like it sounds like someone else - it's exactly what Rick tries to get you away from doing. There are songs on the Sound City record that I wrote but never used because I didn't necessarily feel that they fit into the aesthetic of the Foo Fighters catalogue. The song that Stevie Nicks sings - "You Can't Fix This" - I wrote it eight years ago and didn't use it because I thought it sounded like a Fleetwood Mac song! It sounds better than if I had done it - I think she's just brilliant.
How excited are you for the Fleetwood Mac reformation?
The Fleetwood Mac story is a huge part of the Sound City story. They were the first band to make an album on this mixing console that got enormously huge. They were the first band to bring real attention to Sound City. The dynamic in that band is so much more complicated than most other bands - it's not just a bunch of dudes who went to high school together and started in their garage. It's a really complicated story so whenever they get together to play, the stars have aligned to make that happen. They don't just go down to the pub to have a beer and practice. It's a lot more complicated than that - just knowing that backstory makes everything they do a little bit deeper, richer, more heartbreaking and more beautiful. The emotional quality and content of Fleetwood Mac is so much deeper than 99 per cent of the bands you hear every day. It's heavy, it's a soap opera, it's insane
What did working on Foo Fighters tour doc Back And Forth teach you about making documentaries?
To forget there's a camera in your face 24 hours a day! The director was a brilliant Academy Award winning director named James Moll. Just being around him and watching the process - the way he constructed and edited the film was influential and inspiring. At one point before we started filming I came to him and said "This is what I think the movie is about." He basically said "Isn't it a documentary? They tend to write themselves…"
Most rock bands live these formulaic biography existences...There's always a divorce. There's always an OD. There's always a bad business manager.
As a musician, what annoys you about music documentaries?
I don't want to say that most rock bands live these formulaic biography existences - but they kinda do. There's always a divorce. There's always an OD. There's always a bad business manager. That story has been told a thousand times. When I meet young musicians and they fuck themselves up because they've read too many rock'n'roll biographies, it makes me a little sad. There's other ways of doing it - you don't have to get strung out on heroin to write a good song. There are times when I hear that story again and again - and I just think "You idiots. You don't have to follow that ridiculous routine time and time again." That I'm sick of! But there are music documentaries that are as important to me as any textbook that was ever shoved into my face at high school. The first The Decline Of Western Civilisation movie (a documentary on punk rock in Los Angeles in the early Eighties) is wicked. It's so real and good. Another one Dig!, about the Dandy Warhols - no one has captured the train wreck of being in a rock band like that movie. It's phenomenal - it might as well have UFOs and a Bigfoot in it because it's the only picture where you're ever going to get that kind of meltdown.
Which directors have used music you have written particularly well?
God I don't know! I don't really pay attention to a lot of that. Well I'll tell you this funny thing…we were asked to write and record a song for the Godzilla movie that came out in 1998. Outside of Waterworld it may have been the biggest flop in music history. They gave us an astronomical amount of money to write and record a song to put in the movie and we did. We recorded a song at Sound City ["A320"], we were very proud of it, we submitted it and they gave us a cheque. We were on tour when the movie came out, we sat in the theatre, we suffered the two and a half hours to sit in front of Godzilla. As the credits rolled I think they gave us about seven seconds at the tail end of the credits. I think I bought a new car with the money…
How was playing "Cut Me Some Slack" with Paul McCartney and your former Nirvana bandmates?
I love playing with Paul because he's the best kind of musician to jam with. Of course he's brilliant but he is confident, he likes to experiment and he doesn't need things to be absolutely spot on - he likes it when the feel is there. A lot of the guys who started this whole thing are entirely about that - a lot of my generation is about playing perfectly in time, playing perfectly in tune and that doesn't really make for exciting rock'n'roll. Playing with him is just great because you can just go nuts. I asked if he would record a song for the Sound City movie and when he said yes I immediately called Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear from Nirvana and said "You guys! We've got to record a song with Paul! Can you imagine?". The three of us having recorded together with me on drums, Krist on guitar and Pat on bass since Nirvana. I thought this will be such a perfect way to do something exciting. So Paul showed up, Krist and Pat had never met him so of course they were terrified. We started jamming and within an hour it had turned into a song. Within two hours we had an arrangement. Within three hours we had a track recorded with vocals. It was a quick afternoon in the studio - very informal, no assistants, managers, helicopters, fireworks. The fact we were doing with that with Paul kept Kris, Pat and I from looking at each other and realizing that, as former members of Nirvana, this hadn't happened in 20 years. We were halfway through the day and I looked over at Kris who was bouncing around like he usually does and looked at Pat and he was smiling and beating the s*** out of his guitar - wow, it looked like Nirvana. It was a life moment for me. I think maybe people see bands and musicians as some sort of superhero unrealistic sport that happens in another dimension where it's not real people and not real emotions. So, I grew up listening to Beatles records on my floor. That's how I learned how to play guitar. If it weren't for them I wouldn't be a musician. To be as the same room making a new song with him, with my friends, with Nirvana, recording it on the board that's responsible for Nevermind is without a doubt one of the most incredible experiences of my entire life. It was way beyond a download or a CD or a video. It was so huge for me that fortunately it's been documented.
What's the strangest gift you've got from a fan?
I once received a cape that was made from the little purple bags that Crown Royal Whisky comes in. I know! I used to wear it but I don't anymore.
For our 20th anniversary your message to GQ was simply "I hate fashion". What's the most expensive thing you're currently wearing?
I've got to be honest - I'm currently only wearing a pair of grey Calvin Klein underwear. You caught me right out of the shower! I think they're worth about eleven dollars. I'm keeping it real right now. Look - I'm not allergic to fashion. I'm just one of those people who when they put on a suit look like they're going to a funeral or to court. Once in a blue moon I'll make my wife happy by wearing something she's seen in a magazine. Years ago I got the Man Of The year award from GQ in America - maybe 2003. I was very honoured, it was a big deal, but we had to go to New York for the ceremony and my wife says to me "What are you wearing?" I told her jeans and a t-shirt and she said 'You can't wear that! It's a fashion magazine!" I said "So what! I'm a f***ing rock musican. I'm not going to wear some fancy suit. She goes: "Everyone else there will be in suits". That year Justin Timberlake was also getting an award. I said "I bet you Justin Timberlake is not going to be wearing a suit?" She bet me he would and whoever lost the bet had to walk up to him and say "Hi Justin, I'm your biggest fan!" We get there and he's in a f***ing suit man! He actually came up to say hello to me before I had to embarrass myself like that…