There Go My Heroes: a chat with Bob Mould and Dave Grohl
Fandom, politics and punk rock: the full version of the interview originally published by Rolling Stone Italia in March 2013
Technology will fail you. I learned this the hard way three years ago, when I was sent by Rolling Stone Italia to do a joint interview with Bob Mould and Dave Grohl on the Italian date of the Foo Fighters’ world tour, of which Mould was a guest. As somebody who grew up with American indie rock, I was understandably nervous when I went in, particularly when I found out that nobody had ever interviewed the two together. We were talking world exclusive, the first time of all first times.
And that was the voice recorder on my phone— my so far extremely reliable phone — decided of its own accord not to record the whole interview. We all realized this the moment we took the above selfie together, but none of us said anything. I was dying inside but hoped no one else had noticed; both Grohl and Mould, however, had.
What followed was an agonizingly long vetting process that slowed down the publication of the interview, which eventually came out in an abridged version several months later.
Here it is, in full.
And I haven’t used my phone for interviews ever since.
Foo Fighters will be back in Italy for a short tour next week (they will play Cesena on November 3rd, Bologna on the 13th and Torino on the 15th). Bob Mould is currently doing a solo tour in the US, showcasing the songs that will be part of his new album. And no, contrary to what you might have heard Hüsker Dü are not reuniting. Not now, probably not ever.
There is an empty room, with barely two chairs and a small sofa in it, and Bob Mould and Dave Grohl.
Their presence alone is enough to fill all the remaining space.
These two men have been at the forefront of American music for the last three decades: the years of punk rock and DIY, the years of Hüsker Dü and Nirvana and Sugar that eventually gave birth to Foo Fighters. Their paths have crossed several times over the last twenty years, but they only really met recently, when Mould provided vocals and guitar for Dear Rosemary, a track on Foo Fighters’ blockbusting album Wasting Light.
They walk into the room chatting with each other. Grohl is in training attire, like he has just come off a jog: a pair of shorts, Nike running shoes, some varsity team t-shirt and his customary wristband. Bob Mould, on the other hand, is stage-ready, clad in long denim pants and a black fitted t-shirt. They both introduce themselves and resume their chit-chat. Suddenly, and completely out of the blue, Dave Grohl turns to me and says: “We’re talking about San Francisco, have you ever been there?” Bob follows up promptly: “Foo Fighters played there a few days ago, and I live there, so…” A little awkwardly, I reply that no, I have never been to San Francisco. In fact, I have never been to the U.S. at all.
They both frown a little, like I’d just told them I have spent the last twelve years in the thrall of a Martian albino gorilla, and as I start to shrivel in embarrassment Grohl quips: “Man, you work for fucking Rolling Stone magazine! You gotta get them to send you over.”
Grohl and Mould play off each other like a well-oiled duo. They look like they’ve known each other forever, when in fact they have only been close for a few years. “I went to a lot of Bob’s shows when I was younger, around 1985 or 1986, and I was immediately blown away. I’ve always looked up to him as a role model. I was very involved with the D.C. punk scene at the time, I was always trying to keep up, buying all the 7'’s. I went to shows and I was really into a lot of the bands, but Bob got me immediately hooked for a reason: he had the songs. Other acts relied more on impact, drive and energy, but very few were interested in songwriting. At the end of the day, you know, Kurt and I and our whole generation all grew up listening to pop music: The Beatles, The Byrds, The Zombies, that kind of band. I have always loved songs.”
“I grew up on The Beatles, too,” Bob Mould interjects “and in fact, at the time not a lot of musicians on our scene were paying much attention to melodies. It was basically just us and Meat Puppets. Anyway, the first time I really spoke to Dave was at the thirtieth anniversary party for the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C., which was held at the new venue — not the one where Dave used to eat pizza backstage, which I had played a bunch of times — and that’s when we started hanging out, although we had met several times in the past. Right before Nevermind was released, Nirvana opened for me on my European tour, and they were at the top of their game: it became increasingly harder for me to go onstage alone, with just my acoustic guitar, after they had worked up the crowd into a frenzy.”
Bob pauses, and I use this moment to sneak in a question that’s been on my mind for some time. “If I remember correctly, you were shortlisted to produce Nevermind, right? Have you two ever discussed this?”
“Oh no, we’re not going to have that conversation!” Mould guffaws. “It just never happened, that’s all.”
“Yeah, we had a list of producers we’d have liked to work with, and Bob was on it, too; but things didn’t go that way and we went into the studio with Butch Vig.”
After that, the conversation heads back to their punk rock days. I tell both about a little fact that stood out to me when I was reading Bob Mould’s autobiography, See a Little Light, written with Michael Azerrad (who is also the author of a great book on Nirvana, Come As You Are). In the book, Mould references a journal that all the bands on that scene — we’re talking Bad Brains, Black Flag and Minor Threat — contributed to update, which was passed around in order to circulate information on good venues and places to avoid. Something very difficult to replicate, even in the time of social networking.
Explains Mould: “As I said in See a Little Light, the journal was useful to report a stabbing in one of the venues we played, but it was also a great way to feel close, like we were part of the same world. Looking back, I have very romantic memories of that time. With Hüsker Dü we broke new ground, we were the first to go all the way: we started out underground and ended up signing for a major label, paving the way for everybody who came after us, like Nirvana, for instance. Sure, it was hard to have to drive all those miles, unload the van and load it again after each show, but it was a good time in our lives. And knowing that at this time, somewhere in the world, that is still going on makes me hopeful for the future.”
“I remember my first tour with Scream” recalls Grohl. “We were playing mostly squats, and it was great. Music has given me the opportunity to tour the world, like Italy, for example, and find out about incredible places like Forte Prenestino in Rome… you know about it, don’t you? As for social networking, I have a love and hate relationship with it. It’s like when you’re making music: you can use technology to make beautiful sounds or complete crap. The one thing I don’t believe will ever change is the pleasure of discovery, the hunger for new information, and that is where the Internet is really vital.”
I chip in with a little anecdote. A few days ago I posted Bob’s new single, The Descent, on my Facebook page, and some guy commented that it sounded like “a Foo Fighters song”. Grohl bursts out laughing: “Did he really say that? Man, that’s great! I’ve spent all my life trying to rip off his songs, and now they say it’s the other way around!”
“Actually,” Bob smirks “while I was writing The Descent I thought ‘I’ll write a song the way Dave would’, but in the end what I got was one of my usual songs. For this album I worked a lot like I used to: the Copper Blue (the Sugar record Mould was playing live in full at the time of the interview— author’s note) tour has definitely influenced my songwriting. I wanted to make a solid, powerful record, with no slower songs or anything that might lessen the tension.”
I ask what they think of how their past is perceived in relation to their present careers, and if the long shadow of their former bands ever gets in the way. “No, the past is never a problem” says Bob, with confidence. “Maybe that’s because I don’t dwell on it too much. I had to do some soul-searching and look back on my past experiences in order to write the book first and tour the Sugar record again later, but I’m constantly looking forward to the next thing. I am very proud of everything I’ve done in my career and there’s nothing I would do differently. Maybe the production on some of my older records, something like that, but nothing major.”
Grohl, similarly, has no regrets. “Whenever I go into the studio to record a new album I usually have everything clear in my head, but of course that doesn’t always translate into practice and in retrospect there are things I would change, but I think that’s normal, it happens to all musicians. As for the past, as far as Nirvana is concerned, I think we will forever be left with that question: what would have happened if Kurt was still alive? I’m not surprised that it’s still being talked about to this day. Foo Fighters has been around for sixteen years: this band is the longest and most stable relationship I’ve ever been in, and it makes me a little anxious. For a long time I was convinced that each new record would be the last we’d do together, because the first came almost literally out of nowhere, and a couple a years later I found myself wondering if we should do another one. That’s when we made the second. From the third one onwards, the feeling was like ‘We’ll do this one and then stop’, but we couldn’t stop. I’ve come to realize that being in this band is like being in another family, because it is my family. When we’re on a break from touring or recording I always catch myself thinking what the others might be doing, where they are, and before you know it we’re all back together.”
“What about you, Bob? Do you ever miss being in a band?” I ask.
“With Hüsker Dü I had six great years and one year and a half of hell. Obviously, being part of a band, of a family, as Dave says, is great, but going solo has its perks. At any rate, in the last few years of touring with Jason Narducy and Jon Wuster I did feel like I was part of a band. A band that bears my name, but that’s not very different from what Sugar used to be.”
Both Bob Mould and Dave Grohl come from a musical background in which political activism played a crucial role. A while ago, Foo Fighters staged a spectacular protest against the Westboro Baptist Church, a Christian fundamentalist church that spends a lot of its time and energy blaming natural disasters on gay people. Hurricanes? It’s the gays’ fault. The earthquake in Haiti? It’s the gays’ fault. Mining disaster? All fingers point to the gays, the sinners and sodomites attracting the wrath of the Lord on the innocents. In this climate of sheer insanity and verbal violence, the Foos put their well-known sense of humor to good use: the dressed up as gay rednecks and played on the top of a truck in front of one of the church’s picket lines. An action that clashes with the traditional image of the stadium rocker, which is normally all macho posturing and power slides.
“I think it makes sense to use some of the attention we receive to send a positive message. When I first heard of the Westboro Baptist Church I thought, these guys are crazy! And I felt it would be great to mock them by playing on the redneck stereotype.”
“Dave’s gesture had great resonance within the gay community” comments Mould, who came out as gay in the early Nineties. “It was really appreciated. In the last few years, the American right wing has taken a sound beating, and extremists are really confused and aimless, although there’s been a spread of these absurd micro-movements that are really not representative of what is going on in the country. Religious organizations will always try to use their chosen target as scapegoat, but they shouldn’t be taken too seriously. In Italy you have the Catholic Church and they can be really aggressive, but I wouldn’t refuse to play Italy because of that. Luckily, people are increasingly aware of what the issues are, although there is a lot of work to be done.”
We’re running out of time, and both musicians need to be left to their pre-concert preparations. “We want to play a very long show.” says Grohl “Two and a half hours, maybe three, and we’ll be doing a lot of songs we haven’t done in a very long time, stuff from our first three records. Our audience is weird about it: they’re always asking us to play the older songs, but when we do they all stand around waiting for the radio singles. We don’t care much, anyway, we do what we want to do and this is what they’ll get tonight.”
Before we part ways I have the time to ask them if they’ll be playing together tonight, and what this means for them, particularly for Dave, who has never been shy about his admiration for Bob and other musicians he’s had the chance to share a stage with; people like Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. Dave’s reply comes back in a flash: “Yeah, of course we’ll do a few songs together. Being onstage with Bob has a special value, but it’s not a teenage fandom thing, it’s not ‘Omigod, I’m playing on a stage with my hero! How cool!’. How I feel about this is different, I’m honored to be his friend, to have met him, to be able to talk to him, like I did with McCartney and the others you mentioned, and to play side by side with them. It’s even better and more exciting. To me, Bob will always be The Voice. I only have to hear him sing for two seconds and I immediately flash back to the time I would go mental listening to Hüsker Dü. He has this powerful voice, so recognizable, that all he has to do is step up to the microphone to turn any show into his own show. I get excited just from hearing him in the monitors!” A few hours later, after the’ve played Dear Rosemary and a Tom Petty cover during which each musician — Bob Mould, Dave Grohl and the rest of Foo Fighters — has his solo moment, Dave salutes the exit of his special guest with the words “I love you, Bob. My hero!” And when he says it, you know he means every word.
Special thanks to Giulia Blasi for helping me translate and edit this story.