Foo Fighters: In Utero

Dave Grohl launched his band with the purest of intentions, but could he outrun Nirvana’s daunting shadow?

By Martin James

In the chaos that followed Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, Dave Grohl contributed to a recording session that was to inadvertently shape his next move. It was May 29, a week before Grohl’s MTV performance with the Backbeat Band, and both he and Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear had agreed to contribute to an album by long-time friend Mike Watt. For the album, Ball Hog or Tugboat, which was released in February 1995, Grohl played drums on “Big Train” and “Against The 70s” while Smear supplied vocals to “Forever” and “One Reporter’s Opinion.”

During the session, however, Grohl gave Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder a copy of the two-track demo he had made at Robert Lang’s Studio at the same time as Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right” was recorded. This didn’t necessarily mark the beginning of Grohl’s solo career. Even at this stage he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to make music anymore. Drumming for other people in one-off projects was one thing, but pouring the emotional energy required for making music with a band was another thing entirely. Indeed, he even contemplated joining Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers band as a full-time member.

“I was this close to joining,” he says. “It was so much fun. I was really scared. I was most afraid that they had watched Unplugged and decided to get me from seeing that. But when we rehearsed, they treated me like I was in the band. It was such an honor. But I figured that I was twenty-six years old and didn’t want to become a drummer for hire at that age.”

The final boost his spirit needed came from an unlikely source. Seattle band 7 Year Bitch had also lost a member of their band. In a postcard to Grohl, they urged him not to give up. “After Kurt’s death, I was about as confused as I’ve ever been. To continue almost seemed in vain. I was always going to be ‘that guy from Kurt Cobain’s band’ and I knew that. I wasn’t even sure if I had the desire to make music anymore.

“That fucking letter [from 7 Year Bitch] saved my life, because as much as I missed Kurt, and as much as I felt so lost, I knew that there was only one thing that I was truly cut out to do and that was music. I know that sounds so incredibly corny, but I honestly felt that. I decided to do what I had always wanted to do since the first time I’d recorded a song all by myself. I was going to book a week in a twenty four track studio, choose the best stuff I’d ever written out of the thirty-to-forty songs that had piled up, and really concentrate on them in a real studio.”

So Grohl and producer Barrett Jones started to trawl through the tapes he’d demo-ed over the last few years and came up with a final list of fifteen. The next step was to book time in Robert Lang’s Studio.

The sessions took place between October 17 and 23, 1994. By this stage Grohl was so used to the recording process whereby he played everything, that he was able to work extremely quickly, recording them in the same order that they would eventually appear on the finished album. The first track “This Is A Call” took a mere forty-five minutes to record.

Foo Fighters’ demo tape [photo: Dave Grohl’s Twitter]

“It became this little game,” he said at the time. “I was running from room to room, still sweating and shaking from playing drums and I’d pick up the guitar and put down a track, do the bass, maybe do another guitar part, have a sip of coffee and then go in and do the next song. We were done with the music in the first two days.”

“He’d do a whole song in about forty minutes,” said Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli. “I was completely fascinated by it. He could do it because he has perfect time. He’d lay down a perfect drumbeat and work off that. He’d play drums, run out and play bass, and then put two guitar layers over the top and sing it. I was just watching him record, and he asked me if I wanted to play. I didn’t even get out of my chair. He just handed me a guitar.”

“The first four hours was spent getting sounds,” wrote Grohl in 1995. “This was a cinch for Barrett, whom I’d asked to produce since he was the one person in the world I felt comfortable singing in front of. By five o’clock we were ready to record… Over the past six years, Barrett and I had perfected our own method of recording. Start with drums, listen to playback while humming tune in head to make sure arrangement is correct, put down two or three guitar tracks — mind you, all amplifiers and everything are ready to go before recording begins — do bass track and move on to next songs, saving vocals for last.”

Interestingly, of the songs recorded, three had actually been written in period since Cobain’s death. These were “This Is A Call,” “Oh George” and “I’ll Stick Around.” “This Is A Call” was written on a mini-electric guitar while Grohl was on his honeymoon in Dublin. He’d married long time girlfriend, photographer Jennifer Youngblood, in 1993.

With the recording and a rough mix done, Grohl duped up one hundred copies of the completed demo and started circulating them among friends and industry people. The demo went under the name Foo Fighters. This was the only information apart from song titles.

“I just wanted to release this tape that I had done on my label, with no names on it, and then get an independent distributor and send it out to the world, maybe 10,000 or 20,000 copies so people would think, ‘God, who is this band Foo Fighters? I’ve never heard of them before.’ I just wanted it to be this real anonymous release.”

Grohl’s ambitions for this collection of songs may have been minimal but the demos quickly became the industry’s worst kept secret. Bootlegs started to appear on the market and major labels started sniffing around to sign the drummer up. Says Grohl: “My first mistake: my trip to the duplication lab downtown for one hundred copies. My next mistake was my blind generosity. That fucking tape spread like the Ebola virus, leaving me with an answering machine tape full of record company jive.”

However, Grohl was still not happy to launch himself onto the world with a full-blown solo career. He decided to put a band together for the project. He had also made a decision that would help him to put the past in its place. He vacated the drummer’s seat for the first time since those Freak Baby days. Grohl was to be singer and guitarist in the new band.

Thanks to bassist Krist Novoselic’s involvement in the initial Nirvana-era Bob Lang recordings, rumors started to circulate that the two would be reunited on this project. Both had remained close since their Nirvana days—their friendship had been cemented on that last Nirvana tour when Grohl and Novoselic had opted to travel on one tour bus while Cobain and Love travelled in a separate tour bus with Pat Smear.

To add to the rumor of Novoselic and Grohl working together, the duo had actually recorded some material at The Laundry Room. “He (Novoselic) was like, ‘Man, d’you wanna jam?’ It seemed to really spark something in me. So we got together in Barrett’s studio and wrote maybe four of five of these jams, no vocals, just bass and drums. It was really cool, we wanted to get in the van and go on tour, doing this bass and drums thing. But Krist was really busy with things like Bosnian Relief Organization, and he has a farm now out in the middle of nowhere in Washington. So he’s actually really busy.”

The first person Grohl approached to join the band was Seattle local Nate Mendel, whose band Sunny Day Real Estate had recently split following one album on Sub Pop. Grohl had first met Mendel at a Thanksgiving Party held at the former’s house. Mendel’s girlfriend was a good friend of Grohl’s wife and the two hit it off immediately.

The next piece in the Foo Fighters band jigsaw slotted into place with the arrival of Pat Smear. Such was Grohl’s admiration for Smear — and insecurity at his own recordings — that it had taken him ages to give Smear a copy of the demo. Indeed, Grohl had been such a fan of Smear’s guitar playing that he had memorized almost every word spoken by the guitarist in the early 1980s LA punk documentary, The Decline Of The Western Civilization — and this was long before he’d become the fourth member of Nirvana.

“I called Pat up a couple weeks after I gave him the tape,” Grohl said in 1996. “Way before we had a tour booked, probably before we had even played with each other. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was working on his guitars.”

The conversation, according to Grohl had gone: “Working on guitars.” “For what?” “For a tour.” “Whose?” “Ours.” Smear was on board.

“After you’ve been in the coolest band ever,” Smear explained, “what do you do? I sat on the couch with the remote control in my hand for a year. I didn’t know if I ever wanted to be in a band again. I was just working on solo stuff. Dave and I had kept in touch and I had heard about his tape, but I didn’t know what to expect. When I heard the tape, I flipped. Dave gave it to me at a club and I went home. After I listened to it, I went back to the club. But I didn’t want to ask to join the band. I waited for him to ask me.”

Now all Grohl needed was someone to take the unenviable position of sitting in the drummer’s seat. Enter William Goldsmith, Mendel’s band mate from Sunny Real Estate. Grohl subsequently got his wife to pass two copies of Foo Fighters’ tape onto Goldsmith and Mendel. It wasn’t made clear what Grohl was intending. There was some mention of recording, or simply working together, but no suggestion of becoming members of a band.

“We listened to the tape and we liked it a lot, but we didn’t know what would happen next,” Goldsmith explained. “Then I was in DC that week after our last tour and he called. It was a great phone call. He was like, ‘Oh, so your band’s in the shitter.’ I told him ‘yes’. He said, ‘All right. Let’s play.’”

Grohl had seen the bassist and drummer in action twice with Sunny Day Real Estate and had been impressed by their energy as much as their ability. This energy was important to Grohl’s game plan, as he explained in 1996: “My main concern wasn’t finding someone who could do everything exactly as it was on the tape, but someone who had really good energy. There’s not very many of them. When I saw Will play, I was really amazed. So I called Nate and Will and… we started playing. After the second or third time in William [Goldsmith]’s basement, we had the songs down.”

With the final addition of the Sunny Real Estate rhythm section, Grohl felt he had the right band to publicly launch Foo Fighters. The band decided to perform for the first time at a private keg party in a friend’s house. The band even provided the kegs of beer.

Foo Fighters, 1995 (Nate Mendel, Dave Grohl, William Goldsmith, Pat Smear)

Despite the band’s activities, rumors still circulated that Novoselic would be joining as well. Eventually Grohl put paid to these rumors: “For Krist and I, it would have felt really natural and really great, but for everyone else, it would have been weird and it would have left me in a really bad position. Then it really would have been under the microscope.”

On January 8, 1995, Foo Fighters received their first public airing, although they were announced under Grohl’s name. It was on Eddie Vedder’s Self-Pollution Radio show. Vedder introduced the songs as being by his friend Dave Grohl. The tracks he actually played were the demos Grohl had handed to Vedder during the Mike Watt sessions. “Gas Chamber (No Action)” led the broadcast, with “Exhausted” following. The track which followed Grohl’s segment was Babes In Toyland’s “Pain in My Heart.”

A month later the entire band flew to The Shop Studio in L.A. to do a final mix on the demo tracks. The session was booked in for the beginning of March, however the band called ahead and blagged a support slot at the Jambalaya Club in Arcata, CA on February 23. It was to be the first time the public would get to see Foo Fighters live—a show that Grohl has fond memories of.

“We cut out stencils and sprayed them on top of shirts we bought at a thrift store,” recalled Grohl. “There’d be, like, Hooters T-shirts with our stencil over it, and we sold them for three bucks. We opened for a band called The Unseen. We thought they’d be some wicked punk rock band, but they turned out to be a cover band made up of seventeen-year-old kids who dressed like The Jam and could play any song you asked for. We just drank, and danced. It was such fun, and there were no rules and no expectations.”

Foo Fighters and friends at their inaugural performance at the Jambalaya in Arcata, CA; Feb. 23 1995 [photo: Foo Fighters’ Facebook]

Of course, this show wasn’t exactly the most widely-advertised performance imaginable, and as far as the wider world was concerned, Grohl was still contemplating his future. The demo tape had become common knowledge, along with Grohl’s constant claims that he wasn’t intending to do much with them.

Even at this stage, the public opinion of the drummer was that he would probably join another high profile band. Adding fuel to this idea was Grohl’s appearance in the drum seat for Pearl Jam on three of their Australian dates in March 1995. On March 16 he played along to “Sonic Reducer,” March 17 “Keep On Rocking In The Free World” and on March 22, “Sonic Reducer” again and “Against the 70s,” one of the songs he’d recorded with Mike Watt.

“That was kind of a fluke. We had Foo Fighters just about ready to go on our first tour opening for Mike Watt and we were to be gone for a little over a month,” explained Grohl of how the Pearl Jam shows came about. “I had all these frequent flier miles so I thought I might as well have a little vacation before the tour. Pearl Jam was on tour down there and we have a good friend doing the tour accounting for them and another friend of ours is their tour masseuse or witchdoctor or whatever. So we thought we would just fly down, book ourselves into the same hotel and surprise them. I thought it was so great because we got to go and see some of the Pearl Jam shows and I was so excited just to be a spectator and have all the fun of someone who doesn’t have to go up onstage and play. Because I get so incredibly nervous before I play. Whether it’s drums or guitar, I get really, really nervous. And so I was looking forward to going down and hanging out and seeing friends and having something to drink and watching the show. The first night I got there, we went to the show and they asked me if I would play a song with them… and then it was like — vacation was over.”

Joining forces with another band full-time was no longer an option, however, as by this stage Foo Fighters had not only put together their first tour, but also inked a deal with Capitol Records. So much for only putting out a few thousand records on his own label!

Foo Fighters press shot for Capitol Records, 1995

The deal was a production and distribution (P&D) deal for Grohl’s label Roswell Records Inc., through which all Foo Fighter records would be released. As a result, Grohl retained his intention of being on an independent label; however by signing this label to a large major, he was also showing signs that he had greater confidence in the material than he’d previously stated. Grohl wanted his new venture to be successful on a commercial level, just as his previous band had been.

Grohl was, of course, perfectly in tune with the changing face of the music industry. By this time it was becoming increasingly difficult for small independents to finance videos, tours and other means of promotion. It was obvious that Grohl wanted his venture to succeed on a large scale, so signing a P&D deal was the obvious way forward. Through the deal he gained the funding required to push the band forward, without losing control.

So, Foo Fighters started their career in the strange position of being on an independent label, but through a major. They wanted to be small enough to gain credibility despite featuring two members of the biggest rock band of the 1990s. And last but not least, they had a frontman who used to be a drummer, but still claimed to want the anonymity of the drum seat. Finally he wanted the band to be seen as just that — a band — despite the fact that it was common knowledge that Grohl had written and recorded all of the songs on the demo, and that these tracks were now remixed and ready to be released as a Foo Fighter album.

In the few days preceding the album mix down, Foo Fighters played two low profile shows at Satyricon in Portland, (March 3) and Seattle’s Velvet Elvis (March 4). This latter date found five hundred people queuing around the block to gain entry to the one hundred and fifty capacity venue. On completion of the album mix, they played another two equally low key dates at Pan at Silverlake on March 10 and then on the last day of the month, at Albuquerque’s Dingo’s Bar.

These opening Foo Fighters shows were important in that they gave the band time to iron out any problems in lesser known venues. Furthermore, they provided the band with a good chance to enjoy life on the road away from the media glare. Following Nirvana’s last tour, in which the camaraderie that Grohl had loved so much all but disappeared, it was important for him to rediscover the same feeling with his new band.

These few dates were extremely successful on all counts. The crowds who witnessed the performances were very vocal in their support. The band gelled enormously as a unit, with Smear becoming something of an enigmatic figurehead for the rest of the band, while Grohl himself was able to counter some of the nerves he suffered playing live. He had become extremely susceptible to stage fright in the latter days of Nirvana.

May 2nd, 1995 flyer for Mike Watt + Foo Fighters + Hovercraft at the Toronto Opera House.

On April 12, Grohl was able to test his nerves further as the band headed out on a twenty-date tour of the North America in support of Mike Watt. Hovercraft supplied the second support. Opening in Phoenix on April 24 and coming to a close on May 20 in San Diego, the tour would wind round the U.S., taking in Denver, St. Louis, Nashville and Atlanta before eventually hitting the higher profile locations of New York, Philadelphia, and on April 25, Grohl’s own club, the Black Car in Washington DC. Perhaps the most noteworthy gig on the tour came on the Chicago date at Cabaret Metro on May 6, at which Foo Fighters joined forces with Eddie Vedder and Mike Watt to perform songs from the latter’s album.

Reaction to the band was positive throughout the tour, although some members of the audience insisted on calling out for Nirvana songs, much to Grohl’s annoyance. “When we first started playing, people would come to shows and shout for us to play ‘Heart Shaped Box’ and I thought they were joking. But they were serious. I was afraid I was never gonna be able to shake it off,” Grohl explained a few months later.

With anticipation growing for the release of the debut Foo Fighters single and album, rumors started to circulate that Grohl had agreed to join Nailbomb as well. Nailbomb was the side project for Sepultura’s Max Cavalera. It later transpired however that nothing had been agreed.

“What really happened,” says Cavalera, “is, I met Dave a couple of times, he’s into Sepultura, so I gave him a Nailbomb CD and he liked it. I called him and asked him if he wanted to play at the Dynamo. He was really into it, but he was on tour with Foo Fighters. Otherwise, he said he’d have definitely done it.”

On June 3, Foo Fighters played their debut U.K. gig as unannounced support for Teenage Fan Club at London’s King’s College. Interestingly, despite the band’s stated desire to remain out of the spotlight, the contract that the photographers were requested to sign allowed only three songs during which to shoot the band, which certainly showed that Grohl had his sights set firmly on global success.

Despite the fantastic audience response to the debut London gig, press reactions were less than ecstatic. Nirvana champion Everett True was particularly negative in his review for the Melody Maker. Discussing this later with Grohl, True admitted that a part of his problem with the band was that too much sympathy was being extended towards the new band.

“That’s true,” Grohl agreed. “Well, it’s hard. It’s hard for me… [clicks teeth] I don’t know. I don’t take a lot of the sympathy because… I read somewhere recently that you should never ask a man if he’s OK. It’s true. It’s so belittling. It makes you feel like nothing, peed on. But it’s hard, because a lot of the times when people write about the band, there’s always some personal interjection, and people do feel really sorry for Krist and I. And I don’t feel sorry for myself,” he continued. “I’m sorry that a lot of things happened that did, but I’ll never ask for anyone’s sympathy. I know it’s there though…”

True’s initial reaction to Foo Fighters was fairly typical of a media who viewed Grohl’s latest venture through cynical eyes. He would variously be accused of succeeding through default, launching a sound-alike band off the back of a legend and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, abusing Cobain’s legacy. Grohl was in a no-win situation from the start.

Nine days after the London show, a promo 12-inch of “Exhausted” hit the streets featuring the new version of the track he’d recorded at Bob Lang’s studio sessions, coupled with a new version of “Winnebego” from Pocketwatch. The debut single “This Is A Call” arrived a week later on June 19, backed by “Winnebago” and “Podunk.”

Vinyl singles for “This is a Call” and “Exhausted” b/w “Winnebago”

“Winnebego” had barely changed from its earlier incarnation, while “Podunk” gave little insight into the nature of the album that would follow. Both tracks were to be omitted from the final album tracklisting. While the former was a match for any of the tracks on the album, “Podunk” was a dull and rambling grunge-by-numbers rocker, complete with screamed verse and melodic chorus.

“This Is A Call” on the other hand was a joyous celebration of distorted guitars, machine gun drum fills and melodies straight from the Beach Boys songbook. The perfect introduction to the self-titled debut album. “This Is A Call” reached #5 in the U.K. chart.

Foo Fighters self-titled debut album fittingly appeared on Independence Day, July 4, 1995. Opening track “This Is A Call” clearly laid out the Foo Fighters’ manifesto. Solid, up front drums, grinding distorted guitars playing counterpoint to occasional simple jangly guitar refrains, strong sing-a-long vocal melodies and an arrangement that was as simple as it was effective.

Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut, released July 4, 1995

Perhaps tellingly, the vocals on “This Is A Call,” as with the rest of album, remained low in the mix, Grohl’s thin voice occasionally being beefed up with double tracking. “I just have an amazing insecurity about my voice… I think Michael Stipe once said that his sinuses were a God-given gift and that’s why his voice is so nasally and bizarre as it is. To me, it’s more of a curse. I’d rather have them repaired so I can sing like Luciano Pavarotti.”

Not surprisingly, drums were to the fore throughout, guitars were occasionally so distorted as to sound distant, although the bass frequently lacked any real punch. Despite such potential failings, the overall effect was of a garage band. For a major label debut (albeit through an independent label) Foo Fighters was surprisingly raw and underproduced. Indeed, it had more of a demo quality than any album Grohl had previously been involved with.

The band’s sound was clearly centred around the grunge axis; however to suggest that the Seattle sound was the only influence at play undermined the huge part that Grohl’s DC roots played on the songwriting. Throughout, flashes of Bad Brains, Minutemen and even Scream pulled songs in an altogether more energized punk rock direction than the slow-paced rockers that had marked out Tad, Nirvana, Mudhoney et al. Furthermore, Foo Fighters displayed an obvious debt to 1977-era punk bands from the U.S. and the U.K. and British artists like Led Zeppelin and early David Bowie.

Perhaps the most obviously Nirvana-esque songs came with the second track, “I’ll Stick Around,” which combined furious guitar riffs with mellow, lilting vocals before erupting into a screamed chorus, evoking the vocal interplay between Cobain and Grohl. This may have been a trick that had become associated with Nirvana’s biggest hits, but they certainly weren’t the first band to do this.

“Big Me” found Grohl in more contemplative mood with country-esque twang delivering a love song to his wife, Jennifer, before “Alone + Easy Target” reintroduced the distorted guitars for another anthemic rocker. Again, vocal melody was understated, while guitars and drums delivered a masterclass on power punk. A trick reproduced on the melodic hardcore groove of “Good Grief.”

The media’s reaction to the album was, in the main, positive. Inevitably perhaps, common reservations were expressed, among them the opinion that Grohl’s new venture was far too overshadowed by the legacy of his previous band.

Metal Hammer’s Pippa Lang gave the album the maximum five stars, noting that “Grohl has transferred from drum stool to mike and guitar with astounding ease… Leaping to the fore with relish, his vocals have the same winsome quality as Cobain, but, and here’s the crux, Grohl’s achieve a far wider range, never grating, always stretching deliciously to those higher pitches.”

She also declared Foo Fighters to be “an album of great personal triumph, dripping with easily likeable melodies, and a sort of ‘clean grunge’ vibe. Tidier and, dare I say, better played than anything any of the four have done before. Like a collaboration waiting to happen, the chemistry between Grohl, Smear, Goldsmith and Mendel positively crackles.”

Less ecstatic but nonetheless positive was the U.K.’s Sunday Telegraph whose James Delingpole said, “This month’s biggest surprise is the remarkable debut by Seattle’s Foo Fighters. Knowing their pedigree, I had feared the worst… somehow, the band have passed through both minefields unscathed. It helps that their leader, Dave Grohl, is just as good on vocals as guitar as he was with his ticks.”

One of the more cynical responses came in John Aizlewood’s Q magazine review. “Grohl has taken the wise man’s approach: he’s stopped drumming and recruited men who know their way around the block, but won’t eclipse the leader. Foo Fighters sound wise too, sufficiently like Nirvana to serve as a reminder where they came from, but not so blatant that they’ll be pinned down as copyists. Foo Fighters are grunge-quite-lite… Grohl was never regarded as a songwriter or vocalist so these expectations may prove to be his undoing, but just as likely right now, they may yet be his making. He’s done what he can.”

That Foo Fighters was endlessly compared to Nirvana was perhaps a little unfair on Grohl. One of the reasons he had wanted to launch his latest venture with near-anonymity was so that people would listen to the songs without prejudice. However, to criticize him for making music that was reminiscent of Nirvana was ridiculous. Both he and his previous band had come from the same punk tradition. They had been into the same bands, enjoyed the same influences, talked the same language. This was exactly why Grohl fitted in to Nirvana so quickly. And yet the media could not resist making the link. To some, Nirvana, or rather Cobain, had somehow been attributed with owning the copyright of the sound.

Style magazine i-D typified this angle: “Dave Grohl has managed to bring some of that Nirvana spirit to his new band: fierce bass, pounding drums, soulful vocals, and always, always, a guitar melody underpinning the whole shebang. HE would have approved.”

The undercurrent to such references was that for Grohl to even consider playing this kind of music could be seen as a form of intellectual and emotional theft. A strange position for the man who told U2’s Bono that his main music was punk rock — and it had been this way since he was a teenager.

“They don’t understand that when I was fifteen and had Zen Arcade [Husker Du], that’s when I decided that I loved this music,” he argued. “For me to do anything else for the sole reason of doing something different would be so contrived. For me to put out a free-form jazz record to be as far away as possible from Nirvana would just be ridiculous. I knew that when I was recording the album, people would say ‘OK, that song has some distorted guitars and heavy drumming and a strong melody to it, it must be like Nirvana.’ The instant I realized that, I thought ‘Fuck it, I don’t give a shit!’ What else am I going to do? It’s just what I love to do.”

Given the circumstances surrounding Nirvana’s demise, it was inevitable that people would pore over Grohl’s lyrics looking for clues to his feelings about his previous band, and more importantly, Cobain. These tunnel-visioned critics seemed to ignore — or be ignorant of the fact — that many of the songs actually pre-dated the singer’s death.

Grohl was adamant that his lyrics had no real meaning, they were just a jumble of words that fitted with the melody. This claim led to one journalist accusing him of being skilled at “psychic hoovering,” namely to be able to remove himself and his subconscious from his own past. Grohl would admit that even he could see real life situations that had subconsciously influenced his own lyrics, albeit, he explained, only after the event.

“Often, I’ll sit around and try to deny all the personal influences, like ‘Oh yeah, these songs, a lot of the lyrics are just nonsense.’ When I write them, it’s usually just before stepping into the vocal booth and Barrett [sound engineer] will be going, ‘C’mon, we’ve got five minutes, you’ve got to write something.’

So I write some stupid words and the syllables fit and it rhymes, so I go in and sing them. Then, three years later, I’ll look at them and think, ‘Oh my God, I think I actually meant something.’ It’s frightening. And it’s not like the album is some bleeding heart for twelve quid, either. But it’s helped. It really has helped.”

One song in particular was focussed upon, ‘I’ll Stick Around’, which seemed to allude to Cobain’s departure through the repeated lines “I don’t owe you anything” and “I’ll stick around.”

“When people first started asking me these questions I was like, ‘piss off, you fucking sod.’ I would totally deny if, but I wasn’t lying when I denied it. I just didn’t realize it… [‘I’ll Stick Around’] is just a very negative song about feeling you were violated or deprived.”

Talking to the NME he argued, “… even the last interview I did for another English publication leaves people under the impression that ‘I’ll Stick Around’ is about Kurt. And I’m so fucking sensitive to that, but there’s nothing I can do. There’s absolutely nothing I can do. I can sit down and I can say totally with all my heart, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles, whatever, that that song is not about Kurt. And I hate sounding so defensive but Jesus Christ, it kills me to think that people would think that I have no respect for the guy, that I have no respect for Nirvana, that I have no respect for the past five years of my life… that’s fucking ridiculous. I just don’t want people to think that I would be so disrespectful as to trivialize this shit in my songs, just belittle it by writing a song.”

Not content with just analyzing the lyrics, critics also pored over the cover artwork. The sleeve featured a picture of a gun (the photograph was by Grohl’s wife Jennifer). Many people wrongly claimed the image was a sick reference to Kurt Cobain’s death. Closer inspection revealed that the weapon was in fact a ray gun called a XZ38 Disintegrator Pistol — a toy from the 1950s which was in perfect keeping with the band’s kitsch UFO imagery. Grohl told Rolling Stone magazine: “To me, it’s a toy. It has nothing to do with anything. I love kitschy 1940s and 1950s space toys. I thought it would be a nice, plain cover — nothing fancy. Then I thought I’d catch so much flak, but everybody said it would be okay if I made sure everyone knew it was just a toy. People have read so much into it. Give me a fucking break.”

Grohl’s UFO obsession had already manifested itself in his choice of band and label names. Foo Fighters was the name given by the U.S. Air Force pilots who had witnessed strange sights in the sky towards the end of the Second World War. These sightings had taken place over Japan and France and the crews of the B-29 bombers reported “balls of fire” which followed them, occasionally came up and almost sat on their tails, changed color from orange to red to white and back again, and yet never closed in.

Many crews believed these “Foo Fighters” (“Foo” was slang for the French for fire ‘feu’) were a new German weapon, which they referred to as “Kraut Balls.” However the pilot’s reports were met with scepticism and the subject of “Foo Fighters” quashed once and for all. It was probably for the best that Grohl chose not to name his new band Kraut Balls.

Dave Grohl’s label name, Roswell, had a similar extraterrestrial inspiration. On July 4, 1947, a UFO was reported to have crashed near the small town of Roswell, a farming and ranching community in south-eastern New Mexico. According to some reports, the bodies of four aliens were found near the ship. In other reports, one or more of the aliens survived for a period of time.

On July 20, Foo Fighters headed off on a U.S. tour with Shudder to Think and Wool (featuring the Stahl Brothers from Scream). In the middle of the tour they made their television debut, appearing on The David Letterman Show, to play “This Is A Call.”

The U.S. tour subsequently made way for a European festival tour taking in Lowlands Festival in Holland on August 22, Pukkelpop Festival in Belgium on August 29, and in between two dates at Reading Festival in the U.K. where Nirvana had made that historic appearance only three years earlier.

The Reading Festival show proved to be a huge success. Foo Fighters headlined the Melody Maker stage to a euphoric response from fans, many of whom tried on numerous occasions to reach the stage. The band were subsequently forced to interrupt their set a number of times to stop those at the front from being crushed.

Some even scaled the huge poles inside the tent to get away from the crowds and to obtain a better view. After four numbers, they were asked to stop playing.

“OK, we’re being kicked off the stage now,” said Grohl to the annoyance of the crowd. “Er, I mean, we’re taking a break,” he added to calm things down a bit. Fortunately, there were no injuries, but a number of fans were treated for heat exhaustion.

“Why aren’t this band playing the main stage?” asked the Melody Maker in their review. It transpired that the band had been asked many times to upgrade to the main stage as the promoters were predicting an overwhelming demand for them.

Foo Fighters insisted on headlining the second stage instead. Again, admirable modesty from Grohl. However, even a down-to-earth-rock-legend-in-the-making could not deny the frenzied response and so Foo Fighters subsequently accepted an invitation to headline the main stage the following year.

1995 drew to an end with the band riding on the crest of a wave. Their debut album had been well received, while the live shows were being met with ecstatic responses. Large sections of the media all over the world seemed to love the band, not only because they were immediately radio friendly but also because they were prepared to do interviews and anything they deemed worthwhile to promote the records.

In an era when so many rock stars shunned the press and/or treated journalists with disdain, Foo Fighters’ amenable stance was welcomed across the media almost universally. Grohl was quickly becoming known for his approachable manner and workmanlike dedication to putting in the hours. Not only had he earned himself the tag of “nicest man in rock,” he was also now being called “the hardest working musician on the planet.”

Despite all this blossoming goodwill, the press still seemed unable to mention Grohl without referencing his previous band. Seemingly regardless of their own successes, Foo Fighters would regularly be likened to Nirvana, often in the most unfair ways. In their end of year roundup Melody Maker rather uncharitably argued: “There remained the uneasy feeling about Foo Fighters that they were essentially Nirvana minus the angst, minus Kurt’s creative distortion, cranked up but not fucked up, bouncy, meaty beaty grunge for crowd surfers and moshers who never really cared for the vertiginous trauma of Nirvana at their troubling best.”

Regardless of such mean-spirited coverage, with the debut album Foo Fighters, Grohl had successfully managed to lay to rest many of the ghosts of his previous band. Only certain elements of the media still clung to the past. To many, it appeared as if he might have achieved the impossible and successfully thrown off what could have proved to be a terminally suffocating history. However, the journey still ahead of Grohl was to be littered with troubles.

Excerpted from Martin James’ Dave Grohl: Times Like His. Published by Music Press Books / John Blake Publishing in paperback and available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers. Pieces of this excerpt have been omitted for length and edited for clarity.

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Index of Articles Referenced: 1 Unknown; 2 It’s a band, damn it. (And don’t mention the “N” word), author unknown (Rolling Stone) Oct 1995; 3 Foo Fighters Press Biog 1995; 4 Foo Fighters Feature, author unknown (NME) 23/30 December, 1995; 5. It’s a band, damn it. (And don’t mention the “N” word) author unknown (Rolling Stone) Oct 1995; 6 Nirvana Legacy — Foo Fighters Carry the Alt Standard Forward by Alan Sculley ( 1996; 7 Foo Fighters Feature, author unknown (NME) 23/30 December, 1995; 8. My House is Haunted, no bi-line (Kerrang!) June, 1996; 9 Feels Like The First Time, author unknown, (Alternative Press) 1996; 10, 11 & 12, ibid; 13 The Chosen Foo by Everett True (Melody Maker) Nov 1995; 14 It’s a band, damn it. (And don’t mention the “N” word), author unknown (Rolling Stone) Oct 1995; 15 Triple J Interview (Triple JJJ) December 28, 1995; 16 Foo Fighters feature, author unknown, (Raw Magazine) Dec 6–19 1995; 17 News item — no bi-line (Kerrang!) 1995; 18 The Chosen Foo by Everett True (Melody Maker) Nov 1995; 19, 20, 21 & 22, ibid; 23 Foo Fighters Feature, author unknown (NME) 23/30 December, 1995; 24 news item — no bi-line (Kerrang!) 1995.