How a demo tape passed along to friends led to a successful second act for Dave Grohl after Nirvana
In the early 90s, Dave Grohl had a secret.
He was the powerhouse drummer for Nirvana, the last piece of the band’s puzzle to fall into place before the band took off into the stratosphere. But throughout the course of that wild ride, he’d also been developing his skills as a songwriter, writing and recording tracks whenever there was a break in the band’s hectic schedule. But he was too shy about suggesting that Nirvana record any of them. Only one song, “Marigold,” was released under the band’s name, recorded by Grohl and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic during the In Utero sessions and issued as the B-side of “Heart-Shaped Box.”
With Kurt Cobain as Nirvana’s dominant creative force, Grohl didn’t feel his songs were needed. But in the wake of Cobain’s suicide and Nirvana’s sudden implosion, he turned to the one thing that had always provided him with solace: making music. In June 1994, he recorded five new songs at Seattle’s Laundry Room Studio, owned by his longtime friend Barrett Jones. Jones passed along a tape of the songs to DJ Damon Stewart, who, as an A&R rep for Sony Music, passed on a copy to his boss. The word quickly spread: Nirvana’s drummer was making new music. Grohl found himself fielding numerous offers from labels who wanted in on the action.
Except Grohl hadn’t quite decided what he wanted to do yet. Most of the songs he’d been recording had only been heard by a handful of close friends. Maybe now it was time to get serious. He chose the best 15 songs from his stockpile, asked Jones to produce, and, in October 1994, returned to Robert Lang Studios in then-unincorporated Seattle (now the city of Shoreline), where Nirvana had held their last session the previous January.
Twelve of those songs became Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album. Foo Fighters was the band name, but the actual album was a one-man show, with Grohl playing every instrument. Jones was an obvious choice to work with him on the project. The two had met back in 1984, when both were living in Arlington, Virginia, and the Laundry Room Studio was in the actual laundry room of Jones’ parents’ house. Jones had recorded Grohl as a member of Freak Baby, Mission Impossible, and Dain Bramage, and when Grohl relocated to the West Coast after joining Nirvana, he invited Jones to make the move himself.
The songs that would eventually appear on Foo Fighters were recorded as early as 1992. “I always knew that Dave would put something out on his own,” Jones told me in 1996 of the wealth of material Grohl had built up over the years. “His songs are too good.” And he was happy to contribute whatever was helpful for this new venture. “I was just there to make Dave sound good, help him out. He made all the decisions about what was going on. I know he’s sort of made it sound like he wasn’t planning on putting [these songs] out, but I always expected that [they] would get put out.”
Being a generally upbeat, positive person, Grohl’s music didn’t have the melancholy angst of grunge. Foo Fighters’ opening track, “This is a Call,” is a case in point, an energetic romp that extends a friendly, welcoming hand as it sits astride the power pop/indie rock divide. Tracks like the “Good Grief,” “Floaty,” and “Oh, George” are in a similar vein; energetic, propulsive numbers with tuneful hooks, whose sole purpose is getting you to jump around and have a good time.
Songs like the tuneful “Big Me” reveal his ability to craft a strong melody. The song also spawned a memorable video, spoofing Mentos candies as “Footos”; video was format the Foos were going to have a lot of fun with. There never was another Foo Fighters album as poppy as this one, but there were hints of the hard rock to come. “Wattershed” has Grohl in full rock screamer mode from the start, while in the frantic “Weenie Beenie” he sounds like he’s trying to blow his voice out (and, by the end, has succeeded).
VIDEO: Foo Fighters “Big Me”
At the time of its release, the album’s lyrics were scanned for clues to Grohl’s state of mind. But at this stage, his lyrical skills were somewhat — loose. Future Foos drummer Taylor Hawkins told SPIN he never could understand the words to “This Is A Call,” and Grohl told the same magazine that his lyrics on the album were “nonsense…It was for fear of writing something that might reveal too much, or actually reveal something at all.” Hence, a number of the lyrics seem like place fillers, simply there to buoy the melody along, or are just plain goofy, as in “For All the Cows” (which also draws on the alt-rock musical template of quiet verses, loud choruses). But since the melodies on the album are uniformly strong, the lyrical deficiency wasn’t much noticed.
“Alone + Easy Target” might seem to refer to a newfound sense of vulnerability in the wake of Nirvana’s demise, but it was actually first recorded in January 1992. “I’ll Stick Around” was a different story. After years of coy denials, Grohl finally fessed up to its being about Courtney Love (Sample lyric: “How could it be/I’m the only one who sees/Your rehearsed insanity”).
VIDEO: Foo Fighters “I’ll Stick Around”
“It’s really a song about Courtney Love, but he certainly didn’t want to tell anybody that,” Gerald Casale, the Devo guitarist who directed the song’s video, told me in 2007, revealing there was another hidden meaning in the video as well. “At the time there was lots of literature and mainstream magazines talking about HIV all the time. They would show all these full color, full page blow ups of what the HIV virus looked like. It was really frightening looking, basically this spear with this almost Medusa-like tentacles coming off of it. I said, ‘Let’s pay this 3-D animator I know to actually create a three=dimensional HIV looking ball, like this menacing, hideous, alien thing that can fly around and change directions on a dime and threaten you guys while you play.’ So this Foo-Ball, as we called it, started flying around and threating the band as they tried to play. Swirling around his head and causing him to do weird things like swallow a chess set and stuff like that. Nobody knew it was the HIV virus, we all agreed that I would never tell MTV that’s what it was. All I had was something like $60,000. We edited it in a basement in Chicago with some students on our free time, and got this animator who hadn’t made a big name for himself yet to make a Foo-Ball for about 20% of what he should have been paid. I like it.”
The album ends with the slow burn of “Exhausted.” The sessions were done with dispatch, running from October 17 to 22. “We’ve always worked really fast together,” says Jones. “There weren’t any different [alternate] takes of things. He’d just get the songs down. I personally don’t like to work with lots of choices; it’s either right or it’s wrong. And he pretty much does things correctly the first time. Most everything’s the first take on there. No outtakes.” Indeed, comparing the final mixed versions with the early demos, it’s evident Grohl had his songs pretty well worked out in advance. He had Greg Dulli add a guitar part to the brooding “X-Static,” and the album was done.
VIDEO: Foo Fighters perform “X-Static” live on 8/8/95 at The Phoenix in Toronto
Before a deal was finalized with Capitol Records, copies of the tape circulated among the Seattle music community, stoking anticipation for the album’s release in July 1995. Reviewers at the time expressed surprise; who knew that Grohl had been a capable songwriter all along? The clues had been there if you knew where to look, but Grohl hadn’t been quite ready to step fully into the spotlight yet. “I always knew Foo Fighters would be huge and great!” says Jones. “I mean, I’ve known Dave for so long, and I’ve always known how talented he is. I’ve always been awed by his talent. He never had as much confidence in himself as I did!”
Dave Grohl finally stepped up to the plate, and, with Foo Fighters, found that his own music could take him farther than he’d ever dreamed.