“This is my first day off in weeks,” Dave Grohl says, barefoot in his kitchen in jeans and a biker T-shirt, big goofy Dave Grohl grin on his face. The 48-year-old Foo Fighters frontman doesn’t get much downtime these days, between making records, touring, directing documentaries and gigging with pretty much anyone who asks. (Grohl: “I just like to jam!”) But today, he finds himself uncharacteristically unoccupied. “What should we do?”
Grohl already dropped his two older daughters off at special-effects camp. His youngest, three-year-old Ophelia, is at pre-school, so now he has the day to himself. Next week, the Foos will hit the road in support of their ninth album, Concrete and Gold, flying first to Chicago, then Southeast Asia, Australia and Europe, then back home to throw their own festival, Cal Jam, on October 7th. So Grohl would be forgiven for taking just one day to chill. But “drummers are like sharks,” as Foos guitarist Pat Smear says. “They have to move all the time or they die.” So instead, we’re going to cross a few errands off his to-do list.
But wait – “Do you have anything you need to do?” Grohl asks. I do not. OK, then. Let’s go!
Casa Grohl is a two-acre spread on a resplendent Encino, California, hilltop, with sweeping views of the San Fernando Valley. “It used to be all orange groves around here,” Grohl says. “And 80 or 90 years ago, it’s where a lot of Hollywood actors had weekend homes.” This very neighborhood used to belong to Clark Gable. “Now it’s maybe the most unhip place to live in Los Angeles.”
We hop into Grohl’s Tesla, a $140,000 spaceship with Sonic Youth on the stereo, and he heads down the hill, drumming on the steering wheel the entire way. Grohl drums constantly – clapping his hands, tapping his feet, smacking the meaty part of his thigh. It’s both unconscious and compulsive, like he’ll explode if he doesn’t get the rhythm out. “He’s always high-energy,” says his friend Paul McCartney. “I mean, I’m an enthusiastic person, and I think he’s possibly doubled.”
Grohl merges onto the 101 and steers us toward Amoeba Records, the legendary Hollywood record store. His middle daughter, Harper, 8, just started learning to play the drums, so he wants to buy her some records to play along to. (He already taught her Queen’s “We Will Rock You”; there’s a YouTube video of her playing it at a Foos show, one of the more adorable instances of nepotism you’ll see.) Harper has requested an Imagine Dragons LP – the girls have been into vinyl since Grohl got them a Beatles box set to “make sure they had some sort of musical foundation before they went straight to fucking Iggy Azalea” – but he’s also going to “counter that with a little AC/DC,” he says. Even for an eight-year-old, “you can’t go wrong with ‘Highway to Hell.’ ”
We pull up to the curb, and Grohl puts some money in the meter and lights a cigarette. (He usually makes it through half a cigarette on the walk from the car to wherever he’s going.) At the front door, a manager-type woman says hi and asks if he’s here for the show. “No,” Grohl says, “I just want to buy a record.”
The woman frowns apologetically. “We actually have a Lana Del Rey in-store right now,” she says. “I don’t know if you can get to the records.”
Sure enough, the aisles inside are packed with Lana Del Rey fans. The only section we can reach is the A’s. Grohl grabs Highway to Hell, then tries to worm his way to the I’s for Imagine Dragons. “Excuse me, sorry,” he mutters as he squeezes by, “I’m really sorry …”
It’s by now well-established that Grohl is an avuncular Everydude, someone who “can make a whole stadium feel like he had a beer with every single one of them, and it’s not bullshit,” drummer Taylor Hawkins says. Grohl is to rock what Tom Hanks is to Hollywood: the head cheerleader, the de facto mayor, and the guy everyone wants to hang with. The Grammys need someone to shred while Deadmau5 fiddles with his laptop? Get Grohl on the phone. The Oscars want a rock star to play acoustic guitar during their “In Memoriam” segment? Just tell Grohl where to put his stool. Your cousin Ronnie’s Sabbath cover band has a gig tonight and their drummer had to bail? Text Grohl the address, he’ll be there in 20.
But to a store full of teenage Lana Del Rey fans, Grohl is just a long-haired middle-age guy who’s in their way. As he works through the crowd, one young woman looks particularly vexed. “Is the store still open?” she asks him pointedly. “They told us it was going to be shut for the next hour.”
Grohl looks contrite. “I’m just getting my daughter an Imagine Dragons record,” he says.
The girl narrows her eyes. “You should buy her a Lana record,” she says.
Grohl smiles and holds up his LP. “I got her AC/DC?”
Even the Foo Fighters know there’s nothing especially groundbreaking about the Foo Fighters in 2017. They’re arguably the biggest American rock band of the past 20 years, selling out stadiums even as the deck is stacked increasingly against them. “There’s no rock music – fucking none,” Hawkins says. “Alternative-rock radio just sounds like Men at Work or Kajagoogoo.” Hawkins says he recently asked his son, Shane, 10, if any of his friends like rock. Shane said no, only Drake and Lil Yachty. “I get it,” Hawkins, at 45 the youngest Foo, says. “Would I have liked a band of 45- and 50-year-olds when I was 17? I’m gonna say no.”
Grohl gets it too. “I remember being 26 and saying I’m not gonna do this past 33,” he says. “Now I’ll be 50 in a year and a half.” The baby from the Nevermind cover is now four years older than Grohl was when Nevermind came out. “I never thought I’d end up at a rock festival with fuckin’ gray hair in my beard, but it happened,” he says. “And I’m cool with it.”
When it comes to rock, Grohl is a lifer, a standard-bearer and an evangelist. “I still enjoy going to see new bands,” he says. “I think there’s a whole new generation just waiting to come out.” (“We must seem like Gandalf to them,” he adds.) He also still cares about making records – and what’s more, making them good. “I’ve always been afraid of becoming a heritage act,” he says. “I feel like we have to prove ourselves over and over to be a band worth following.”
When it comes to the music, “our formula is pretty simple,” Grohl admits. “When you put us in a room, it sounds like the band. So the challenge is to figure out how that evolves.”
At the same time, Hawkins says, their reliability is “one of the reasons we’re still here and doing it at the level that we’re doing it.” They’re a known quantity – like Coca-Cola or IBM. “Without sounding too business-y,” Hawkins says, “I think we deliver something people can count on: big choruses, guitars and a little bit of screaming.”
Outside the record store, Grohl stubs out another half-cigarette. “Actually,” he says, “the studio where we made the new record is right down the street. We can stop by if you want.”
We head over to EastWest, a studio compound originally built for Frank Sinatra. “We mixed Nirvana Unplugged in here, ages ago,” Grohl says as we walk inside. He opens the door to the glorified closet that is Studio 3 and drops his voice to a reverent whisper. “The Pet Sounds room,” he says. “Isn’t that nuts?”
To oversee Concrete and Gold, the band enlisted producer Greg Kurstin, a pop wizard who’s worked with Sia and produced and co-wrote Adele’s “Hello.” Grohl is a big fan of Kurstin’s band the Bird and the Bee, and he hoped Kurstin might bring his flair for harmonies and arrangements. “There’s a lot of stuff on this record that’s been bouncing around in Dave’s head for a long time – the superlayered vocals and countermelodies and all that,” says guitarist Chris Shiflett. “It was cool to see Dave let go and have somebody actually produce the record,” adds bassist Nate Mendel. “Usually it’s tough for him to let go of the reins.”
As Hawkins says, “I think it’s our most psychedelic record, and our weirdest.”
The bandmates hadn’t recorded a full album in a big commercial studio since 2002’s One by One, so they’d forgotten about the fun of random studio encounters. “You’d walk down the hall, and Lady Gaga would be in the kitchen,” Grohl marvels. Lately he’s become a big barbecue enthusiast, so he parked his smoker out on the patio and appointed himself pitmaster for the building. “I was cooking for, like, 40 people a night,” he says proudly. “I’d be in the middle of a vocal take and be like, ‘Fuck, I gotta go check the meat.’ ” But the socializing paid off, as the Foos pulled all sorts of random guests into their sessions – like Boyz II Men singer Shawn Stockman, whom Grohl bumped into in the parking lot one day. (How did he even recognize Stockman? Grohl shrugs. “Nineties, baby!”)
Then there was the day Justin Timberlake dropped by. He listened to what the Foos were doing and liked what he heard, and pretty soon he and Grohl were hanging out regularly. “We’d drink whiskey in the parking lot,” Grohl says. “He was really, really cool. Then the night before his last day, he says, ‘Can I sing on your record? I don’t want to push it, but – I just want to be able to tell my friends.’ ” So the band had him add some “la la la’s” to one track. “He nailed it,” Grohl says. “I’m telling you – the guy’s going somewhere.”
But even that wasn’t the Foos’ most exciting guest. That honor belongs to Sir Paul McCartney. He and Grohl are buddies – they socialize with their families and have jammed together a few times. So when McCartney had to borrow Kurstin in the middle of the Foos’ recording, Grohl decided to call in a favor. He texted McCartney: “Do you want to play drums on one of our new songs?” McCartney’s response? “You’re crazy, man!”
But to the band’s delight, he agreed. “Even if it had been banjo, I think I probably would have showed up,” McCartney says. The last time he got a call like that from Grohl was to collaborate on the soundtrack to Grohl’s 2013 documentary, Sound City. “I was jamming with these two guys I’d never met,” McCartney says. “And then I heard them talking in the studio, and it was like, ‘Oh, shit! You guys are fucking Nirvana!’ ”
“It’s inspiring,” Grohl says, “because he’s still playing for the same reasons we all started playing when we were young. He just wants to jam.”
Unsurprisingly, Paul McCartney is a pretty good drummer. “You don’t generally think of him as a drummer,” Hawkins says. “But he laid that track so fucking effortlessly. He never even heard the song – Dave kind of explained it to him with an acoustic guitar. And he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. I think I know what you’re doing.’ ”
McCartney played two takes; they used the first. “He was so fucking good,” Grohl says. “We played for an hour, then took a break and had bagels and tea. I thought we were done – I didn’t want to rag him out – so I was out having a cig, and someone goes, ‘Hey, Paul wants to jam some more.’ He rounded everybody up, and we jammed for hours: ‘Let’s write some songs, man!’ ”
“Well, you know,” says McCartney. “Once you get the meter running …”
Last summer, Grohl did as he usually does and went off by himself to put lyrics to the songs. “I Airbnb’d this house on this olive-tree farm in Ojai,” a small artist enclave in the foothills outside L.A. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m gonna go for five days, bring all these instrumentals and a case of wine, and see if I can come up with something.’ ”
A week before Grohl left, Donald Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination. “I’m not an outwardly political person,” says Grohl. “But it’s pretty easy to figure out where I fall on the map.”
Soon Grohl found himself in his underwear, wine-drunk, screaming nonsense phonetics into a microphone. Subconsciously, a lot of his political anxieties came out. One song, “La Dee Da,” channeled the feelings of a teenage Grohl, a lonely punk-rock kid in suburban Virginia. “It’s a portrait of me as a teenager, feeling completely alienated and repressed by the conservative environment of the early to mid-Eighties,” he says. The album’s opening track, “T-Shirt,” came after Trump’s inauguration, but it shared some of the same concerns. “I watched the infamous press conference in the East Room – the one that turned into a screaming match. The fucking WWE one. All that gross ambition for power and control freaked me out. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is what we’ve become.’ ”
That said, if you didn’t know the backstory, there’s nothing explicitly political about the album. “When the Foo Fighters go out and tour, we play to everyone,” he says. “I like to think that music is something that can bring two opposite sides of the spectrum into the same arena for three hours of relief. There’s a part of me that thinks I’m better at giving people hope. So that’s where I’d rather be.”
Back outside, Grohl eases the Tesla onto a quiet side street. “I haven’t shown you how fast this car is yet, have I?” He presses a few buttons on the touch screen and puts the car into something called ludicrous mode. “It doesn’t have a combustion engine – it’s just magnets or whatever,” he says. “So it goes zero-to-60 in 2.4 seconds. It’s fucking insane. It feels like this.”
Suddenly he punches the accelerator, and the car launches forward like an F-16 from a catapult. Grohl laughs. He floors it again, and we scream. “It’s impractical!” he says. “It really is the stupidest thing.”
Anyway: On to the next stop. Grohl’s mom has been renovating her kitchen, and he’s been meaning to go see it. He takes out his phone and calls her: “Whassup, Mom!” She says there’s been a setback – someone measured the sink wrong. “Oh, crap,” says Grohl. “Well, we’re just running dumb errands. We’ll swing by.”
However cool you think Grohl is, Virginia Hanlon Grohl is approximately 37 times cooler. A former English teacher, she raised Grohl and his sister mostly on her own after divorcing Grohl’s dad (a Republican speechwriter and campaign manager) when Dave was six. She made ends meet with off-hours jobs at a department store and a carpet-cleaning service; now retired, she recently published her first book at the age of 79 – a collection of interviews with the mothers of other famous musicians (Pharrell Williams, Adam Levine, Dr. Dre) called From Cradle to Stage. “My mother is now fully entrenched in the music industry,” Grohl says, laughing. “She’ll be like, ‘I can’t talk – I have a conference call with Live Nation!’ ”
We pull up to her house, a bungalow not far from Grohl’s place, and he taps out “Shave and a Haircut” on her front door. “What’s up, Mama!” he says when she answers.
She ushers us into the living room. “Would you guys like a Diet Coke?” she asks. She returns with two cans and takes a seat next to Grohl on the sofa.
“Did you have a nice dinner last night?” she asks him. “I feel so bad.”
Apparently Grohl called and asked her to babysit, but she already had plans. “Don’t feel bad!” he says. “I called you on, like, an hour’s notice. It was totally fine.”
“But you just sent me to Italy for my birthday,” she says. “And I had the best time of my whole life. …”
Grohl turns to me. “My mom’s 80th birthday is next month, so we got a place in Tuscany for a week.”
“It was a castle!” Mrs. Grohl says. “All for us.” She says it was an incredible trip, although they did get stopped by Foo Fighters fans a lot. “But you were wonderful to everybody,” she says. “Because we were drinking wine.”
She asks what we’ve been up to today, and Grohl tells her about the record store and EastWest. “What’s that?” she asks.
“The studio we recorded at?” says Grohl. He looks a little hurt. “Supportive mother!”
“Well, heck, it took me three months to get in,” she says. “It was a closed session!”
“Mom!” says Grohl. “What are you talking about? Don’t tell people that!”
Grohl’s mom used to be a singer herself, in a high school vocal group called the Three Belles. When her only son wanted to drop out of high school at 17 – the same high school where Mrs. Grohl taught, no less – to tour Europe with his punk band Scream, she was nothing but supportive. “Musicians are the most fun people,” she says. “And they work harder than anyone in the world.”
“Hmm,” says a skeptical Grohl. “You think?”
“They’re all complete workaholics,” she insists. “You. Dre. Pharrell.” A pause. “Maybe not Adam Levine.” Grohl cracks up.
Then Mrs. Grohl tells a story. “When David was born, they took me into the delivery room when it was time, and there were all these guys standing around,” she says. “All new … whatever you call them when they’re in the last stage of becoming doctors.” Apparently these new residents had yet to see a baby delivered. “So when he was born,” she says, “they all burst into applause. I didn’t think about that until years later, when I had this epiphany: ‘Oh, my God. That’s the first sound he ever heard.’ ”
Grohl smiles. “Let’s keep moving.”
Grohl grabs an espresso at the coffee shop on the corner, then decides to swing by Studio 606, the band’s studio-slash-headquarters since 2005. We walk through the massive warehouse garage, filled with dozens of guitars, as well as the giant shield that Grohl got for his birthday at Medieval Times. (“They knighted me!” he says.) We go inside, where the walls are lined with 25 years of memories, posters and platinum plaques from Foo Fighters and Nirvana.
In hindsight, it’s easy to forget how unlikely it is that Foo Fighters became a thing. After Nirvana ended, it seemed like Grohl, the happy-go-lucky drummer, might never get out of their shadow. But to hear the band tell it, Grohl’s time in Nirvana made him the successful frontman he is today. “He learned so much that he was able to use to escape a lot of mistakes,” says Smear, his bandmate in Nirvana as well as the Foos. “I watched it happen with Foo Fighters – like, ‘Oh, I know why you’re doing this: Because Nirvana did it and it was good!’ or ‘I know why you’re not doing this: Because Nirvana did it and it was bad!’ ”
Grohl calls the three years from 1991 to 1994 “a crash course in the danger of a band becoming so popular so quickly.” “When the Foo Fighters started,” he says, “we made some pretty clear decisions about what to do and what not to do.” On the to-do list? “Go out and play some shows. Start from the ground up.” And the not-to-do list? Grohl laughs ruefully. “I mean … heroin?”
Nearly a quarter-century into their career, the Foos are not just a stadium-filling rock band; they’re a fixture in the firmament. So what’s the secret? According to the Foos, a few things.
For one, they’ve been consistent. They’ve never broken up, never dramatically changed their sound – just cranked out good albums every two or three years. “A lot of people don’t know this, but we’ve never had a big, successful record,” Mendel says. Their bestselling album, from back when people still bought albums, was 1997’s The Colour and the Shape, which sold around 2 million copies. (Comparative data point: Creed’s My Own Prison, released the same year, sold 6 million.) “The success the band’s had, we’ve been able to grow with it over time,” Mendel says. “It never overwhelmed us.”
In their first few years together, there were divorces, lineup changes, near-breakups and Hawkins’ 2001 heroin overdose, which put him in a coma for two weeks. “We went through a lot of crazy periods with our band early on,” Hawkins admits. But since then, it’s been pretty smooth sailing. “I’m not saying that I can’t piss Dave off, or Dave can’t bum me out – Dave can hurt my feelings more than anyone else in the world,” says Hawkins, who’s now sober. “But there’s not an evil, out-to-get-you vibe. It’s more sibling-like.”
Grohl has also been good about making sure the Foos never felt like a backing band. To wit: The group shares all publishing revenue equally. (Contrast this with Kurt Cobain, who renegotiated Nirvana’s contracts to retroactively give himself a bigger share.) “I think Dave learned that this is the way to keep a band happy and feeling like a band,” Smear says. “He’s naturally a generous person – but he also gets that there’s an upside.”
(As Hawkins puts it, “He was a fucking drummer, man! I think because he was in that back seat, he knows how we’d feel if we were treated badly.”)
And finally – if perhaps contradictorily – there’s no doubting whose band it is. “This band works because it’s not a democracy,” says Shiflett. “People can read into that what they want – but it’s a big reason why the band hasn’t broken up.”
“It’s a benign dictatorship,” says Hawkins. “I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut until Dave’s really looking for input.”
Grohl prefers to think of the band more as a family. “I mean, I know at the end of the day it’s my name at the bottom of the check,” he says. “But we all hold different responsibilities that keep the thing fucking going.”
Next door, the band is in the middle of building Studio 607, a multimedia complex with editing suites and a screening room where Grohl can do post-production work on his growing body of TV and film projects (which include Sound City and the 2014 HBO series Sonic Highways). He has a lot of plans: He wants to make a documentary about tour vans and Eighties indie-rock culture, and he’s been working with a Hollywood producer to develop a feature film, which he would direct. “But I don’t have a lot of time to branch off and do those projects that I love when I’m doing Foo Fighters stuff,” he says. “So I have to kind of choose my battles.”
Which raises an important point. All the Foos have side projects to scratch whatever creative itch the band doesn’t fulfill. But of all the side gigs, Grohl’s are invariably the coolest. When he’s playing at the Oscars or jamming with former members of Led Zeppelin, doesn’t the rest of the band get bummed?
“Every once in a while, you do get a little hissy,” Hawkins says. “Like, ‘Why wasn’t I involved in this?’ But [former Police drummer] Stewart Copeland, who’s one of my heroes, said something really great to me once. I was upset about something – I won’t tell you what exactly – so I called Stewart. And he goes, ‘Taylor, Taylor, Taylor. You live in a nice house, don’t you? You get to do shit that you like? Make your solo records? Right. You haven’t texted anyone yet, have you? You haven’t called anyone? Good. Don’t. Dave’s a good guy. You’ve got a good thing going. Just go for a mountain bike ride, and it’ll all seem like nothing.’ ”
Hawkins smiles. “Wise, sage advice.”
It’s getting late, so we start making our way back to Grohl’s house. When we get there, Ophelia is napping, so we tiptoe upstairs, through the girls’ playroom (wagons, bunk beds, toy guitars) and into Grohl’s office, where three high shelves crammed with Grammys and VMAs are the only trace of rock star in the house. We sit out on the balcony (where Grohl says he once saw a UFO), and he lights another cigarette, then notices something on the ground. “Whoa,” he says. “There’s a fucking dead bird, man!”
He crouches down and, with a dad’s nonchalance, tosses it into the bushes. “Ugh,” he says. “Dead birrrrd. I’m glad my kids didn’t find that.”
In October, the band is plotting Cal Jam, an homage to an identically named 1974 festival that featured Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Earth, Wind and Fire. The original, held at an auto track east of L.A., drew more than a quarter-million fans. “That speedway aesthetic just seemed so cool,” Grohl says. “This skeleton stage in the midday heat, and a bunch of shirtless dudes with Michelob bottles and sunburns and jean shorts.” The closest they could come was an amphitheater in San Bernardino, where they’ll headline a lineup including Queens of the Stone Age, Liam Gallagher and Cage the Elephant. “A lot of them are drinking buddies. And some I’ve never met,” Grohl says. “I can’t wait. It’s gonna be fucking fun.”
I ask if there was anyone they tried to book and couldn’t. Grohl falls uncommonly silent. “You know,” he says after several seconds. “We wanted to have Soundgarden. They had agreed to do it. And, um …” His voice catches. “It didn’t happen.”
Chris Cornell had been a friend of Grohl’s since their Seattle grunge days. “I loved him,” Grohl says, voice breaking. “He was a really sweet guy. Full of life. And he had so much to offer. That one hurt,” he says through tears. “Over the years you sort of count your blessings that you survived, and when you see another one go down …”
The nature of Cornell’s death dredged up particularly painful memories for Grohl, who knows what it means to lose a bandmate to suicide. “I felt for his family,” he says. “And I felt for his …” He chokes up again. “And I felt for his band, you know? Because that’s a long road, man.”
Grohl is quiet a long time. “Every time it happens, the same feeling comes up,” he says. “It’s shocking and confusing and I just don’t get it. You get into this with a love of music, and sharing it with people, and you hope everybody feels the same way. I know it’s more complicated than that … but, fuck. It just sucks.”
Just then, a car pulls up in the driveway below us. It’s Grohl’s wife, Jordyn, and Harper, home from camp. He stands up, sniffling. “But, yeah,” he says. “I’ve always felt like the most important thing is just to get home safe. You just gotta keep on keeping on.” He starts down the stairs, wiping away tears as he goes.
Downstairs, Ophelia is awake from her nap and watching The Boss Baby on the couch. Harper is in the kitchen, waiting for Grohl. (His oldest daughter, Violet, 11, went to a friend’s house.) He steps off the stairs and gives her a high-five. “I said what’s up!” he says.
“I said what’s up!” Harper answers.
Grohl hugs and kisses Jordyn, then turns back to Harper. “How was camp?” he asks. “Was it the old-people makeup today?”
“No, that was yesterday,” she says. “Today I did the Mad Hatter and a dog.”
“Really?” he says, excited. “Was it cool?”
“Yeah!” she says.
Today their Labradoodle, Penny, has a birthday, so they got her a doggie cupcake with a “2” on it and some birthday hats. Ophelia runs around trying to put a hat on Penny, giggling, while Harper puts one on her forehead and pretends to be a unicorn. Finally the dog is wrangled, and everyone gathers around her to sing “Happy Birthday.” Afterward, Ophelia blows out the candle in her face, and Penny runs off with the cupcake. Grohl smiles, happy to have a full house.