“Music gives people hope. And we desperately need that now”: Foo Fighters take us inside Medicine At Midnight
On the day that the United States of America swore in its 46th Commander in Chief, the face of David Eric Grohl appeared on CNN almost as often as that of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. The Foo Fighters, the channel told its viewers, would later be performing the song Times Like These at a socially-distanced, pre-recorded inauguration event featuring other top-ticket celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, Jon Bon Jovi, and the new president himself. If you’re in the market for a sign that you and your group are truly, properly famous, this will do nicely.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Dave tells Kerrang!. It’s lunchtime at his home on the Pacific Coast. The bespectacled 52-year-old band leader is on a Zoom call to London. “We recorded that performance maybe a week ago and I wish that we could be there [the song was filmed in Southern California] but unfortunately we can’t… [During] my childhood, growing up in suburban Virginia, I would watch these inaugurations from my living room six or seven miles away. In a way I feel personally connected, but logistically disconnected. It’s a bit strange [because] I still see the Foo Fighters as a group of friends who have a garage band… It’s a bit surreal, to be honest.”
It’s been quite the journey. Today the leader of the planet’s most popular garage group is here to discuss Medicine At Midnight, their imminent new album. Spacious and assured, in a pandemic-free parallel universe the group would have unveiled their 10thLP last spring with a live campaign that marked the 25th anniversary of their first-ever tour. Back then, in April and May of 1995 the Foo Fighters were on the road supporting Mike Watt, the former bassist with The Minutemen and one of the original architects of America’s deeply embedded do-it-yourself punk rock culture. Also on the bill were Hovercraft, featuring Eddie Vedder. Despite being signed to a major label (albeit briefly), Mike Watt personally booked every one of the tour’s 25 dates. After playing their opening sets, each night the two supports would form the core of the headliner’s backing band.
“To this day, no matter how exhausted, no matter how jet-lagged, no matter how sick, no matter how much you’ve blown out your voice, nothing will compare to that first American tour,” Dave recalls. Despite having sold many millions of albums with Nirvana, from North Carolina to Washington state that spring the drummer-turned-frontman toured the country in a Dodge Ram 15-seater van. Having sold even more records with Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder also traveled by similarly modest means. As his new group upgraded to a tour bus, “a couple of years” on Dave sold the ride to his friend Bryan Lee Brown, from the band Bluebird, only to buy it back almost two decades later. Compared to the deathtraps to which he’d grown used to with Scream, his first touring band, with its air-conditioned interior and power windows, the dependable Dodge seemed “like a fucking limousine”. These days eclipsed by the luxuries afforded by enormous worldwide success, the compact vehicle stands, and rolls, as a testament both to the band the Foo Fighters once were, and somehow still are.
“To me it represented more than a bucket of bolts,” Dave says. “It represented a kind of home to me because I’d spent so much time, and some of the most important times, in this van. So, yeah, as much as [last summer’s planned tour] seemed like some kind of token celebration, beyond that it does seem perfectly natural to me to just throw shit in the back of a van and pull your amp up onstage and just play. That doesn’t seem foreign to me at all. I knew that we could do it, but then I thought, ‘What better way to celebrate our 25th anniversary than to share this with everyone so that they could have some sort of perspective of where we come from?’
“That van represents the [group] just as much as a fucking fireworks display at Glastonbury,” he adds. “More so, probably. When I think of our band, I think of that [vehicle]. I don’t necessarily think of the inauguration or playing in a stadium. I think of that van.”
In place of a 25th anniversary tour of venues that are themselves a hazard to public health, instead we got this. With aerosols of terror moving west from Wuhan, the Foo Fighters decided against driving their Dodge Ram to the loading bays of such salubrious nightspots as Bogart’s in Cincinnati, or Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence. Instead, like the most of the world and its husband, they put themselves up on bricks. As weeks turned into many months, and with the American government – and the British government too, while we’re about it – treating the pandemic with all the careful consideration of a monkey at a salad bar, the release of Medicine At Midnight was toe-punted into the long grass. Release date: TBC. Decision: pending.
“Not knowing when the right time to release [the album], we waited and waited and waited until I finally came to the realisation that music is made to be heard,” says Dave. “That its purpose is to give someone a sense of relief or escape, or hope, or connection, or some understanding that you’re not alone. And all of those things were desperately needed now. Regardless of sort of logistical complications… we can’t go on the road [or] we can’t travel to do this radio show. We can’t function the way we always had.”
Bet your DNA they can’t. Just north of breakfast, in Los Angeles drummer Taylor Hawkins is taking his “35th or 40th” test for COVID-19. At their last proper concert, on October 1, 2019, the Foo Fighters played for more than 36,000 people at the Estadio El Campin, in Bogota, Colombia. Fifteen months later, in order to simply play music together in the same room, the group’s six members are required to submit to invasive medical procedures. So it goes. On the phone to Kerrang!, the 48-year-old breaks off from answering questions in order to attend to the demands of an unheard administrator stuffing a swab up his nose. To the muffled sound of theatrical complaints, we hear the words, “Two brain-ticklers. Oh my God. Oh my God!” The drummer then provides his date of birth, “February 17, 1972.” Job done, he completes the rest of the interview from the driver’s seat of his “really shitty truck”, a Subaru Baja. “The reception will be better in there,” he says. Spoiler alert: not by much.
If Dave Grohl is the Foo Fighters’ punk rock conscience, Taylor Hawkins’ is the band’s born rock star. With life at a crawl, despite not owning a boat – “The best two days in a yacht owner’s life are the day you buy it and the day you sell it,” he says – the California-blonde Texan has been spending his time listening to such classic yacht rock turns as Andy Gibb, Steely Dan and The Eagles. Whereas Dave speaks of playing the not-for-profit punk club 924 Gilman Street with Scream, Taylor talks about Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor. In case we haven’t correctly gauged the altitude at which he so effortlessly glides, he even throws in The Rolling Stones. Speaking to the two men affords a glimpse of the Foo Fighters’ impressive wingspan – the everyday accessibility of an uncommonly relatable frontman coupled with the rarified ambition to bid hello to audiences in such caverns as the London Stadium and Boston’s Fenway Park. Nice work if you can get it.
“For the most part, Dave’s been able to consistently write enough songs so that when someone comes to one of our shows, they know that they’ll hear a bunch of stuff that they know,” says the drummer in response to a question regarding his group’s enduring appeal. “For the most part; I don’t know how you feel about the last couple of records. But I guess we’re one of the few really old school rock bands. There’s not really much difference between the way we play our instruments and the way the Stones do. Obviously we play heavier and all that, but the basic premise of the way that they do a show is the way that we do it. It’s really an organic thing, and I think that’s a rarity now. Sort of.”
It was of course this organic – you might even say ‘traditionalist’ – mindset that has seen the release of Medicine At Midnight delayed by so many months. Creatures of habit, the Foo Fighters have long adhered to the time-established practice of regarding a new record as the cue on which to head out on tour. The first part of the job was completed before the world went dark. The band hint that the “fucked-up old house” at which they recorded their nine new songs may have been haunted – guitars detuning themselves, mixing desk settings changing overnight, that kind of thing – but, certainly, when the time came to introduce the record to the outside world the ghost had flooded the machine. Paralysed by a pandemic, the Foos didn’t see each other for months on end. Certainly it was bad news for a drummer who believes that the new collection, with its “swing and groove and space and all of that stuff… might just be my favourite album to play live”. The great leveller, from Hollywood to Hartlepool, out on the street friends and strangers were experiencing the same feelings of dislocation and inertia as any musician on Millionaire’s Row. Given this, it isn’t surprising that Medicine At Midnight needed an audience, and that an audience needed it.
“To me the important thing was giving the music to the people so that maybe for three or four minutes in their day they can find some of these things: escape, release, hope, love, emotional connection,” Dave says. “Whatever it was, I think that songs are written to be heard… that was the most important thing. So it felt strange to wait because every album we’ve ever made, the energy of completing and album, mixing it and mastering it, having these new songs under your belt, it just rolls right over into hitting the road and taking the new music to the stage. This time it’s gone. That process is just broken. It’s severed right there.”
It took them a while to face reality. In the face of towering evidence to the contrary, at first the hope was that even in, ahem, times like these this whole nasty business might blow over in time for the group to hit the road before their new album became old news to the people that had created it. But as the band planned, God laughed. In a year marbled with terrible events, one of the few moments of uncut and unadulterated joy from 2020 was the sight and sound of Dave Grohl’s drum duel with a 10-year-old girl from Ipswich. In the context of the times, this was escapism dialled up to the level of public service. As well as much else, at least for now the young Nandi Bushell made Dave re-evaluate what his job entailed, in what we must all hope is the nadir of the 21st century.
“I guess over time I just realised that [touring] is not the only reason that we do this,” he explains. “We make these songs to be heard…. The thing that inspired me the most to release this album was that drum battle I had with Nandi. More than just some back and forth between two musicians, this battle of technical proficiency, it was spreading joy and happiness. People would turn on their computer or phone and for three and a half minutes they would smile because a 10-year-old girl was kicking my fucking ass in a drum battle. To me, that’s what the world needed.
“You open your laptop or look in your fucking phone and it’s just this dark cloud of doom, you know,” Dave continues. “Every day you pick up your telephone and you think, ‘Oh, God, what is it now? What’s next?’ You’re just waiting for this bad news. But this exchange that she and I were having did nothing but bring happiness and joy to people. I thought, ‘That’s done entirely remotely, so why can’t our music do the same? Why can’t we put the record out and hopefully it’ll give people that same feeling. Why can’t we do that now?’ And so we did.”
Happy happy joy joy – who doesn’t need a bit of that? Back in the middle years of the ’90s, certainly it was needed by Dave Grohl. Washed ashore by the wild and bloody waves of Nirvana, the then 25-year-old was suddenly the survivor of “an extraordinary experience that almost kept me from playing music for the rest of my life”. Soon enough it didn’t, and good for him. But for his next spin of the wheel, the machine would be built to his own specifications. To as large a degree as could be managed, no longer would his happiness and security be put at risk by the wild vagaries of an overwhelming and unpredictable industry. Did it work? Put it this way, after less than four years in Nirvana, Dave Grohl has been at the helm of their successor for almost half of his life.
“I think that some of life’s best lessons are the ones that show you what not to do,” the musician ponders. “Right? So when we started the Foo Fighters, I had a long list of those.” He emits a short laugh that contains a good deal of weight. “I knew that in order to navigate what we were going through, I had to refer to a lot of those lessons. Nobody in Nirvana expected [the success] to happen. Nobody expected that we would go from a club of 125 people to a gold record in 30 fucking days, you know. That’s really difficult to process. It happened so quickly that I’ve always kept that in mind with the Foo Fighters.
“We only do things that we feel comfortable with,” he continues. “Most of our decisions are made by gut feeling, and if it doesn’t feel like a good idea at the time then we just don’t do it. I honestly feel that if that becomes your divining rod, if that becomes your wheel, then you’re only going to turn it to your heart’s desire. You’re only going to turn it to a place where you feel comfortable. And we do that as a group. We communicate rather well as a band. That’s another lesson I learned early on. It’s entirely necessary that people can communicate. So, yeah, going through an experience like that and then having to start again, you definitely know which things to avoid and which things to embrace.”
There is more to it, even, than this. Sidestepping the mood swings of a fickle record industry, the Foo Fighters merely license their music to the label on which it is released. Its ownership is their own. Out in the San Fernando Valley, the group owns 606 West, a spacious rehearsal and recording complex at which they have made a home. Most unusually of all, despite being their leading songwriter, to avoid squalid squabbles by millionaires about dollars and cents, Dave Grohl decided that his colleagues should enjoy an equitable share of the financial rewards. As guitarist Chris Shiflett told Kerrang! in 2019, “It’s more than fair.”
Not that they haven’t had their moments. At a recording studio on Melrose Avenue, in Los Angeles, in 2002 this reporter almost landed the musical scoop of the year when in a separate room Dave Grohl threatened to break up the group. A year earlier, in London, not even the then quartet’s carefully curated working environment was enough to prevent their drummer from suffering a near fatal episode with prescription pills. But in the context of the wider world of rock’n’roll, it is the rarity of these moments that make them so exceptional. With expert design and purposeful construction, without much drama the Foo Fighters have been able to keep on trucking. Finally re-merging into the light, with Medicine At Midnight not even a planetary pandemic can stop them.
“We have a bond,” says Taylor Hawkins. “We’ve always been lucky enough to be more of a band like Queen than to be a band like Jane’s Addiction where there’s just so much internal strife. That’s just not our band. It’s not always perfect, necessarily… but we’re not one of those bands that doesn’t love each other. We really do love each other, and we care about each other’s lives. It’s a fucking family. It sounds really trite, I know, but it is a family.”
Of this family, its patriarch says this.
“I look back at the 25 years I think of the funny haircuts and I think of the songs we maybe shouldn’t have put on a record. I think of the ups and I think of the downs. But the one thing I’m most proud of is that we’ve survived. I’ve seen a lot of people not make it. When I see our friends from back in the day onstage still performing music, I get emotional because I’m thankful that they’ve survived. I remember watching Pearl Jam at a festival and feeling so thankful that they survived. Because all I’ve ever wanted to do is play music and live.
“And so I’m very thankful that we’ve made it this far.”
Medicine At Midnight is released on February 5 via Roswell Records/Columbia Records.
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Posted on February 3rd 2021, 3:50p.m.