This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl

Enjoy this excerpt from Paul Brannigan’s This Is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl, courtesy of Da Capo Press.

This Is a Call The Life and Times of Dave Grohl
Paul Brannigan
Da Capo
September 2011

Excerpted from Chapter 1: Learn to Fly from This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl by Paul Brannigan. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Da Capo Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Learn to Fly

A big rock ’n’ roll moment for me was going to see AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock movie. That was the first time I heard music that made me want to break shit. That was maybe the first moment where I really felt like a fucking punk, like I just wanted to tear that movie theatre to shreds watching this rock ’n’ roll band.

— Dave Grohl

In 1980, in a song named after their Los Angeles hometown, the punk band X sang of a female acquaintance who had lost her way, lost her innocence and lost her patience with the City of Angels, a friend desperate to flee the squalid, druggy Hollywood scene and unforgiving streets where ‘days change at night, change in an instant’. But even as Farrah Fawcett Minor was dying to get out, get out, one young punk on the East Coast was dreaming of heading in the opposite direction.

As a child, Dave Grohl had a recurring dream, one that stole into his head in the hours of darkness ‘a thousand fucking times’. In this dream, he was riding a tiny bike from his home in Springfield, Virginia to Los Angeles, cruising slowly along the side of the highway as cars whizzed past with horns blaring and tail pipes smoking. Generations of bored, restless suburban kids have harboured similar fantasies of escaping suffocating small-town life for the glister of Hollywood. Deep in the national psyche LA remains synonymous with freedom, opportunity and boundless glamour, and the city’s entertainment industries, both legal and less legal, have grown fat feasting upon the wide-eyed ingénues who spill daily from incoming Greyhound coaches and Amtrak trains, but young Grohl’s imagination was fired less by the shimmering promises of the Golden State than by the excitement of whatever swerves and undulations might have to be negotiated on his westward odyssey.

In September 2009 I had lunch with Foo Fighters’ frontman at West Hollywood’s chic Sunset Marquis hotel. As he picked at a Caesar salad, Grohl, modern rock’s most convincing renaissance man, described the early days of his life’s journey as being informed by a ‘sense of adventure’, of ‘not knowing what lay ahead’.

‘In that dream I had so far to go,’ he said, ‘and I was going so slow, but I was moving.’

Los Angeles is a city which holds memories both good and bad for Grohl. A decade ago he would tell anyone who’d listen that he hated this town, hated the Hollywood lifestyle, and hated pretty much everyone he met here:

‘It’s kinda funny for a while,’ he conceded, ‘then annoying, then depressing, finally it gets terrifying because you start wondering if these people are rubbing off on you. It’s like one giant frenzy of aspiration and lies.’

But now Los Angeles, or more specifically Encino, 15 miles northwest of Sunset Boulevard’s celebrity haunts, and a neighbourhood Grohl once defined as a place where ‘porn stars become grocery clerks and rock stars come to die’, is his home. Here, overlooking the San Fernando Valley, Dave Grohl literally has Los Angeles at his feet.

Grohl bought his house, a tasteful four-bedroom 1950s villa set on almost 4,000 square feet of prime Californian real estate, for $2.2 million in April 2003; four months later, surrounded by friends and family, he married MTV producer Jordyn Blum on the tennis court at the rear of the property. And it was here that Grohl elected to record Foo Fighters’ seventh studio album Wasting Light in autumn 2010, eschewing digital studio technology in favour of tracking to analogue tape, a process largely viewed as antiquated within the modern recording industry.

From the outset, it seemed like a curious move, verging on the perverse: Grohl has his very own state-of-the-art recording complex, Studio 606, in Northridge, California, not ten minutes’ drive from his home, and though his house in Encino also contains a compact home studio built around a 24-track mixing desk, the set-up is very much that of a family home, not some rock star bolthole. In contrast to houses in Los Angeles’ more fashionable zip codes, there are no high fences surrounding the Grohl residence, no signs warning of armed security guards patrolling the perimeters: a plaque on the left-hand side of the driveway simply reads The Grohls. When you step inside the front door there are no gold or platinum discs on the hallway walls, no framed magazine covers, no posed portraits with celebrity friends, nothing to signpost the road Dave Grohl has travelled to get here: instead there are family snapshots and brightly coloured crayon-drawn abstract artwork tacked to the walls, the work of artists-in-residence Violet Maye Grohl and Harper Willow Grohl, Dave and Jordyn’s young daughters.

In November 2010 I was invited to the Grohl family home to interview Foo Fighters about their work-in-progress. I arrived to find the man of the house in his garage, holding up scuffed album sleeves and fingerprint-smudged CD cases from his personal record collection to a webcam delivering images for a 24/7 live stream on Foo Fighters’ website. Among them were Bad Brains’ Rock for Light, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, AC/DC’s Back in Black, Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever, Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, each album a strand of Grohl’s musical DNA, each one a part of the soundtrack of his life. Behind him, producer Butch Vig stood splicing two-inch analogue tape on a 24-track Studer A800 reel-to-reel tape machine. In the room next door, eighteen of Grohl’s guitars stood erect in flight cases, tuned and ready for use. In the adjoining garage, usually reserved for Grohl’s Harley Davidson motorcycles, Taylor Hawkins’s drum kit sat encircled by mic stands.

‘It gets fucking loud in there,’ said Grohl, closing the door with a smile.

Upstairs in the studio control room, band members Pat Smear, Chris Shiftlet, Nate Mendel and Hawkins sat sharing cartons of takeaway food. Around them Grohl strode animated, enthusing about his belief that Wasting Light would be Foo Fighters’ definitive work. And as he spoke, his decision to record here began to make sense, indeed began to look inspired.

‘It only seemed like a good idea to do it here,’ Grohl insisted. ‘I wasn’t nervous about it at all. What we’re doing here is in some ways making sense of everything we’ve done for the last fifteen years.

‘It all came together as one big idea. Let’s work with Butch, but let’s not use computers, let’s only use tape. Let’s not do it at 606, let’s do it in my garage. And let’s make a movie that tells the history of the band as we’re making the new album, so that somehow it all makes sense together in the grand scheme of things. I feel like you can actually hear the whole process in the album.’

For Grohl, the notion of time, its passing, its deathless march and the value and importance of seizing precious moments, is central to Wasting Light. But later that night, as I played back the cassette recording of the day’s conversations, it struck me that the process unfolding in Encino was perhaps more personal than Dave Grohl would care to acknowledge explicitly: as he spoke of garage demos and life-changing albums, of collaborations with heroes and friends, of teenage desires and adult responsibilities, it seemed that in making Foo Fighters’ seventh album Dave Grohl was seeking not merely to define his band’s career, but also to make sense of his own life to date. And who could blame him? For his has been a journey more dramatic than that adolescent dreamer back in Virginia could ever have imagined.

Photo (partial) by Hiroko Kato

Paul Brannigan, former editor of Kerrang! magazine, is a respected authority on the punk scene in Washington, D.C., where Dave Grohl cut his teeth. He has written about Grohl for Mojo magazine, and lives in London.


© Paul Brannigan