Foo Fighters at 25: ‘For us to break up would be like your grandparents divorcing’

Foo Fighters: Taylor Hawkins, Pat Smear, Dave Grohl, Chris Shiflett, Nate Mendel and Rami Jaffee
This time last year the pandemic pulled the plug on foo fighters' new album and tour, but the enforced hiatus has given them time to regroup

When Dave Grohl woke up on the morning of January 1st, 2020, he – like the majority of the world’s population –  envisaged a very different year ahead of him.

“I thought that this was going to be the best year we’ve ever had,” he laughs from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s about to cook for his mother (beef short ribs in Korean sauce, in case you were wondering).

“We knew that this year was our 25th anniversary, this is our 10th record; we had big, big plans. We had a world tour booked that spanned 18 months, we had some really amazing production ideas. We had the album finished and mixed and mastered and ready to go, we had the video... and then everything stopped.

“And it was good – partially because we haven’t taken a break in decades. Everybody retreated into their corners and took care of their family and friends and made sure everyone was healthy and safe. And then it was just a matter of reimagining what we do, and how to adapt to this new situation.”

It was quickly decided that the album should be pushed back, but the six-piece initially struggled with the idea of keeping their new batch of songs to themselves, Grohl explains.

“One constant throughout this whole year was this desire to let people hear the music,” he says. “We can’t jump up on stage right now and play a show in front of 60,000 people, but that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t hear the music.

“We have a meeting about once a month, and we say, ‘Is it time? No, it’s not time. Is it time? No, it’s not time.’ Then finally, I thought ‘Okay, its time.’ Because whether it’s someone dancing around in a stadium with 50,000 friends, or by themselves in their kitchen with a bottle of schnapps, we make the music for it to be heard. So we thought ‘All right, let’s do it. Let’s put it out there.’”

Grohl has cultivated a reputation – well-deserved, by all accounts and by his friendly, relaxed, no-BS demeanour on the phone – as the Nicest Man in Rock over the course of his career. Over the past year, his regular appearances on TV segments and on social media attested to his eternal optimism and positivity, but he admits that there were times that he found it tough.

“Oh yeah,” he agrees. “That’s the challenge: waking up every day and finding hope. I think it’s necessary – it’s imperative – that you try to live your life in a hopeful manner. And it’s hard. There’s some days where you can just break down, you don’t have the strength or you feel beaten down, and you can’t see the big picture. But I really try, every single day.”

One thing that he says “taught him a big lesson”  was the entertaining drum battle he became embroiled in with Nandi Bushell, a 10-year-old drummer from London. Their interactions on social media were both heartwarming and impressive, bringing levity to people’s feeds amid the increasingly grimnews. 

‘No trophy’

“There was no trophy at the end of the day – it was basically just for someone watching it and smiling,” he says. “And I thought, ‘If that’s what I can help do, then that becomes my responsibility, giving somebody a brief moment of relief or happiness or joy. So that really changed me. Most people, you open up your computer or look at your phone, and it’s, ‘Oh god, what’s it gonna be today?’ So if you give them three minutes and 30 seconds of happiness, then your job is done.

“And it was really humbling, by the way,” he adds. “She’s incredible!”

Medicine at Midnight is a different beast from Foo Fighters’ recent albums, some of which maybe haven’t landed with the same impactful thud as their earlier material. The band have tapped into a sense of groove and dynamism like never before, as heard on songs such as Cloudspotter and Making a Fire.

Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters performing during the Celebrating America primetime special to mark the inauguration of US president Joe Biden on Wednesday January 20th. Handout photograph: Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images
Dave Grohl performing during the Celebrating America primetime special to mark the inauguration of US president Joe Biden on Wednesday January 20th. Screen grab: Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images
 Growing up outside Washington DC in the early ’80s, there was all of this international tension and conflict. I would have dreams about missiles flying over my house

“We had this idea that instead of riding off into the sunset with some beautiful acoustic orchestrated album, that we would go in the opposite direction and start the party,” Grohl says. “So we talked as a band, and talked about all of our favourite groove influences – whether it was Sly and the Family Stone, or David Bowie, or The Rolling Stones; we thought, ‘Okay, this is all music that we’ve grown up loving and listening to, but we’ve never really moved in that direction.’

“Then, lyrically, it sometimes depended on the tone of the instrumental. If you get some breezy ABBA-esque disco song like Love Dies Young, then why not write a song about how dumb love is? Instead of turning it into some f***in’ bubblegum puppy-dog romantic song, why not say ‘Love’s so dumb, what’s the fascination?’”

There is also room for contemplation amid the buoyancy, as heard on the likes of Waiting for a War – a track inspired by a conversation Grohl had while driving his young daughter to school one day.

“She turned to me and said, ‘Dad, is there gonna be a war?’ At the time, I think there was some sort of conflict going on between the United States and North Korea and China and Russia... and her ear had caught a bit of the news. And I realised that she was living in the same fear of war that I had when I was young. 

“Growing up outside of Washington DC in the early ’80s with the Reagan administration, there was all of this international tension and conflict. I would have these dreams about missiles flying over my house and soldiers in my backyard. So when I heard my daughter say that, it broke my f***ing heart because I thought as a child you’re supposed to live this imaginative, idealistic life where anything is possible. But then you’re underneath this blanket of fear, and it’s so terrible. So I wrote that song kind of coming from different directions.” 

Resistance

After a quarter of a century together, Grohl says it was important for Foo Fighters to evolve as a band, though he admits that there may be some resistance to their change in direction.

“I mean, you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t,” he says, chuckling. “So there’s hardcore Foo Fighters fans who just want to hear My Hero, Best of You, Everlong and Learn to Fly for the rest of their lives. But that’s not necessarily our purpose as a band. You have to feel comfortable and confident enough to push out on the edges a little bit every time you do it – otherwise it’s just not fun. It’s just not exciting. And this band has always represented some sort of survival to me.

“After Nirvana was over, I was 25 years old; I was a young musician that wasn’t ready to give up. And I knew that every day is a gift and I have to take advantage of that – so I put down the drumsticks and picked up a guitar, started this band and since then, it’s given me something to look forward to every day. And the same thing can be said for the creative process: if you have the courage or the means to explore something you’ve never done, or push out in a direction you’ve never been. That’s what keeps the blood pumping.

Dave Grohl on stage with Foo Fighters at the RDS, Dublin on August 21st, 2019. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Dave Grohl on stage with Foo Fighters at the RDS, Dublin on August 21st, 2019. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
When the Foo Fighters first started playing and touring, it was almost like this rock ’n’ roll Band Aid; we all came from bands that ended prematurely and we just wanted to laugh

“And I love my band. I just f***ing do, I love them as people, I love them as players, I love playing with them, I love sitting with them in a shitty backstage room and talking for three hours with nothing else to do. I love being in this band, so one of the best parts is that every single person is different. Everyone has a different influence, everyone has a different sound. And if you’re lucky enough to be in a band like that, you should take advantage of it.

“Like, Pat Smear loves Mariah Carey more than any other f***ing artist, ever. Pat Smear! The f***ing king of punk rock! He’s a punk rock legend, and Butterfly by Mariah Carey is his favourite album of all time,” he laughs. “You have to take advantage of that, and be able to celebrate the diversity that your band allows.”

At 37 minutes, Medicine at Midnight is also the band’s shortest album to date – which was deliberate, Grohl says.

‘War and Peace’

“We’re guilty of making a double record,” he laughs, referring to 2005’s In Your Honor. “And I know what that feels like. So it was intentional. Just as we wanted to explore a new sound, a new groove and a new vibe, we wanted to go against what we’d done before by making 13-, 14-song records or a double album. We recorded maybe 14 songs, and if the song didn’t feel like it fit in that sequence, then we just wouldn’t put it on it.

“So we picked the nine songs that we really enjoyed, and thought, ‘Great.’ Okay, it’s 37 minutes, but listen: these days, trying to get anybody to listen to anything for 37 seconds is a f***in’ challenge,” he laughs. “To my daughter, 37 minutes would be like Gandhi or War and Peace.”

After 25 years fronting the band that was originally intended as a solo project, Grohl sounds satisfied with his lot. Is he where he thought he’d be, more than two decades on?

“Well, I’m somewhere I never imagined I would be. When the Foo Fighters first started playing and touring, it was almost like this rock ’n’ roll Band Aid; we all came from bands that ended prematurely and we just wanted to laugh, and feel good, and smile, and play, and survive. So after that first album and first tour, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Okay... should we do this again?’ And then we did it again.

“For the first decade of being in this band, we thought every album would be our last. And then over time, it becomes more than just a band with songs; it becomes this family of people that’s so interconnected. For us to break up, I always said, it would be like your grandparents getting a divorce. Like, ‘What the f***? Why? At this point, it just makes no sense.’

“There was a bit more importance to this album because of its relevance in our timeline: 25 years, 10th album in. But we didn’t walk into it thinking, ‘Hey, we’re the biggest f***ing band in the world! We’re gonna make a f***in’ hit!’ We approached it like we were celebrating the last 25 years. So y’know, we just do it. It’s such a part of our lives, it’s more than just musical – we just do it, the same way that you wake up every day and make breakfast for your family.

“That’s what the Foo Fighters do. We make breakfast for you.”

Medicine at Midnight is released on February 5th