How the Foo Fighters Recorded Their First Grammy-Winning Album in a Basement In Alexandria, Virginia
Today, Foo Fighters is an international sensation and multiple Grammy Award-winning band. But what most people don’t know is the band had a modest and tenuous beginning. After the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl started Foo Fighters as a one-man project without any other official band members. Grohl wrote and recorded most of the material and played most of the instruments on the first record, Foo Fighters, which was recorded in Seattle in late 1994 and released in 1995. The record included the songs “This Is a Call,” “I’ll Stick Around,” “Big Me,” and “Alone+Easy Target.”
Before the follow-up album, Grohl recruited guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer William Goldsmith to round out the band. This time, the band recorded in both Los Angeles and Seattle during 1996, and released their second album, The Colour and the Shape, in 1997. The Colour and the Shape contained the staples “Monkey Wrench,” “My Hero,” and “Everlong.” The album was nominated for a Grammy award.
Eventually, Grohl tired of the Los Angeles scene, and in 1999, he bought a house in Alexandria, Virginia, near where he had grown up and run around in the area that runs from the Arlandria neighborhood on Alexandria’s north border with Arlington down to Springfield along the 495 beltway. He explained the move from LA back to his hometown by saying, “I had been living in Los Angeles for about a year and a half, just being a drunk, getting fucked up every night and doing horrible shit, and I’d finally gotten sick of that. I had to get back to Virginia. So I bought this great house in Virginia and told everyone I was building a studio in the basement. It was literally a basement with sleeping bags on the walls!”
In addition, after the successful release of The Colour and the Shape, Pat Smear left the band and was replaced by new guitarist Franz Stahl. But after touring with the band to promote the album, friction developed between Stahl and the other Foo Fighters over creative differences. As a result, Stahl left the band during the ramp-up to the recording sessions for the Foo Fighters’ third album. So in early 1999, Grohl, drummer Taylor Hawkins, and bassist Nate Mendel, now working as a trio, took up residence in Grohl’s new house in the North Ridge area of Alexandria and started working on some new material for their next album. To produce and engineer, they brought in Adam Kasper, who had previously worked with Soundgarden and who would later work with Pearl Jam. From March to June, 1999, they recorded what became There is Nothing Left to Lose.
How does one record an album in a house? Grohl simply sought to bring the well-developed use of multi-track recording out of the studio and into his home. In a nutshell, multi-track recording allows different parts of a song — the instrumental parts, vocals, backups and overdubs — to be recorded separately if desired, and then combined together on the final track of the song. Over a period of weeks, Grohl laboriously built a 24-track recording studio in the basement, and the group recorded virtually their entire third album, There is Nothing Left to Lose, which featured the songs “Breakout,” “Learn to Fly,” “Gimme Stitches,” “Generator,” “Next Year,” and “Ain’t It the Life.” Although the band would later bring in Chris Shiflett to play lead guitar for the subsequent tour, and Shiflett would become the band’s fourth permanent member, it should be noted that Dave Grohl played all the guitar parts on the recording of There is Nothing Left to Lose.
The songs that emanated from the basement of the house just off the edge of Del Ray in Alexandria fully launched the Foo Fighters’ meteoric rise to prominence, and started a string of albums that would win them 11 Grammy awards to date. There is Nothing Left to Lose won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Rock Album.
The record opens with a driving guitar-heavy anthem dedicated to what Grohl called “the fakeness of the Hollywood celebrity lifestyle.” It’s about everything “that is plastic and glamorous and unreal, so if that pertains to anyone that comes to mind then there you go.” “It’s about having nothing better to do than trying to be other people, it really grossed me out. Actors, just in general make me sick.” “Stacked Actors” sets the tone for everything that follows.
The second song on the album “Breakout,” has become a regular part of the band’s concert set. According to Grohl, “When we were recording ‘Breakout’ the band had to tell me to tone down, because the neighbours were giving dirty looks and threatening to complain that someone was getting murdered. So I nailed it one more time.”
Many of the songs were also the basis for some memorable music videos that established the band as outstanding musical artists who also possessed a keen knack for making fun of themselves and not taking life too seriously. For example, the video for “Learn to Fly” shows Grohl playing several different roles on a commercial airline flight, including pilot, flight attendant, and several passengers, male and female.
“Gimme Stitches” was a song about “a relationship that’s dysfunctional, and two people who can’t get enough of hurting each other and making each other crazy.”
Grohl even managed to work a talk box into the song “Generator,” using it for the song’s opening guitar riff which also forms the melody for the song’s verse sections. He used it live, most notably in an appearance on live television in Australia to promote the album.
“Live-In Skin” was almost an afterthought. Grohl describes the late addition this way, “Live-In Skin was actually recorded while we were mixing because I came up with it in between the time we had finished recording and mixing. I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of a cool tune,’ and I started writing about the place that the band is in now.”
How could somebody record songs like this in a house studio? What was the atmosphere like when they were recording? I finally resolved to find the house. I don’t know why I wanted to, other than to see if being there and seeing it would arouse any new insights or emotions. Maybe it’s the same reason people go to Graceland. But regardless, there’s an entire internet industry of fans who know where the house is in Alexandria, and I used their online intel to pinpoint its location. After a few wrong turns, I finally located it.
If you’re a Foo Fighters fan, it’s sort of like going back to a kind of holy or historical place, because it’s literally where the Foos launched their run of Grammy awards. If you’re simply a fan of popular music, though, it’s a surreal experience to just sit there and look at a an average house and wrap your mind around the fact that a Grammy-winning record was recorded in its basement. Listen to “Breakout,” “Learn to Fly,” “Gimme Stitches,” “Generator” or “Live-In Skin,” and consider that what you are hearing was laid down in somebody’s basement. It just seems sort of mind-bending. And I admit I am biased; There Is Nothing Left to Lose is my favorite Foo Fighters record.
Years later, Grohl summed up the period the band lived and recorded their first Grammy-winner in the Alexandria house by saying, “It was all about just settling into the next phase of your life, that place where you can sit back and relax because there had been so much crazy shit in the past three years. At that point it was me, Taylor and Nate and we were best friends. It was one of the most relaxing times of my whole life. All we did was eat chilli, drink beer and whiskey and record whenever we felt like it. When I listen to that record it totally brings me back to that basement. I remember how it smelled and how it was in the Spring; the windows were open and we’d do vocals until you could hear the birds through the microphone. And more than any other record I’ve ever done, that album does that to me.” “When we won for best rock album, which we made in that basement, I was so proud — because we made it in my basement in a crappy makeshift studio that we put together ourselves. I stood there looking out at everybody in tuxedos and diamonds and fur coats, and I thought we were probably the only band that won a Grammy for an album made for free in a basement that year.”
- Dave Grohl, Interview with Kerrang! magazine, 2006.