Grief is a process that everyone goes through, but one that people cope with differently. Artists can often find a way to express their sorrow through their work, to channel pain into something constructive. But after the death of his Nirvana bandmate, Kurt Cobain, in April 1994, drummer Dave Grohl sunk into a deep depression and was unsure if he could play music again. He and his bandmate, bassist Krist Novoselic, even scrapped plans to assemble a two-disc set of live material called Verse Chorus Verse because they were too emotionally exhausted to work on it. It was too soon. There was no clear-cut path ahead.
But Grohl eventually did start making music again. By himself. Over the course of a week that October, he recorded songs at Robert Lang Studios in Seattle with producer Barrett Jones to express himself, perhaps vent his grief, and explore some new ideas. There were no commercial considerations. He sang and played every instrument on the album himself — with the exception of the guitar solo from Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli on “X-Static” — and mostly without doing multiple takes. Grohl multi-tracked some of his vocals because, other than having sung harmony on a few Nirvana tunes and lead on the B-side “Marigold” (a song he originally recorded as Late!), he did not feel comfortable as a lead singer.
He then circulated his music via cassette to a few close friends but had no set plans to do anything with it. Some people had other ideas. Eddie Vedder showed interest and debuted “Exhausted” on his pirate radio broadcast Self-Pollution, giving Grohl some exposure. The music made its way to major label ears, and the drummer was persuaded to release the album, signing with Capitol Records (all Foo Fighters work is also signed with Grohl’s own label, Roswell Records). He adopted the “band” name Foo Fighters, a term first used by Allied pilots during World War II to describe UFOs they sighted in the skies.
“I felt like I had nothing to lose and I didn’t necessarily wanna be the drummer of Nirvana for the rest of my life without Nirvana,” Grohl told Kerrang! in June 2006 when discussing “This Is A Call,” the opening track. “I thought I should try something I’d never done before and I’d never stood up in front of a band and been the lead singer, which was f**king horrifying and still is!”
While there were inevitable comparisons off Foo Fighters to Nirvana — and some die-hard fans of that band were not happy with Grohl moving forward — Foo Fighters was not a retread of what he had done before. Sure, the grunge elements that he helped fashion were identifiable on tunes like “Alone + Easy Target” and the punk-inflected “Weanie Beanie,” but his hard rock influences were coming out as well in “I’ll Stick Around” and “Good Grief,” which prefaced the arena anthems to come such as “All My Life” and “The Pretender.” There were more melodic moments on the singles “This Is A Call” and the poppy breakthrough song, “Big Me.” Grohl varied his vocal styles accordingly from song to song. He was cryptic about many of the lyrical themes but noted that any new ones were not about Cobain.
With the Foos debut album release scheduled for July and airplay imminent, Grohl faced a quandary. He needed to form an actual band to promote his music and go out on the road. While he would play multiple roles years later in the “Learn To Fly” video, he could not clone himself to go on tour. With Sunny Day Real Estate having just broken up (for the first time), he enlisted their bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, along with recent Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear, to join him on his new odyssey. Grohl himself would sing and play guitar, stepping out into the rock frontline, a prospect that was daunting for him. But he took the plunge.
After a show for friends and family at the West Marine Store in Seattle on February 19, 1995, the Foos played select dates on the West Coast in March. Looking at early live footage, one can sense that, while Grohl was comfortable as a musician, he was hesitant to stand out front.
“It’s a funny thing when your new band decides to play in front of people,” Grohl told Kory Grow from Rolling Stone in 2015. “At first, it’s terrifying, and we thought the most comfortable way of easing into being the Foo Fighters would be to have a keg party and wait until everyone was wicked f**king drunk and then start playing these songs that no one’s ever heard.”
But they soldiered on. Their first tour with Mike Watt in April in a support role prefaced bigger things to come. Their star was rising. Over the course of the next year as their music gained greater traction with the masses, they graduated from smaller venues to festival stages in various capacities as they toured the U.S. and Europe repeatedly, played Japan and Australia for the first time. They also appeared on television, most notably on Letterman in August and Saturday Night Live in December. The tour wrapped up in July 1996.
The group’s video for the fourth single, “Big Me,” which won the VMA for Best Group Video in 1996, truly distinguished that the Foo Fighters were different than Nirvana. The music aside, “Big Me” was a cheeky clip that spoofed the goofy Mentos commercials that were popular at the time. The group called their candy Footos and showed different people popping it for courage while solving simple dilemmas in their life. Did a limo cut you off from your friends in a crosswalk? Pop a Footos then crawl through the back seat right past the lady on her phone! It became evident that, beyond musical differences, Grohl was not as intense or tortured as his late bandmate. Sure, he had serious things on his mind, but he also liked to lampoon his rock star status in videos and even in interviews.
(However, the band did have to stop playing “Big Me” for a while. Fans would toss the candy at them onstage. It might have seemed fun for the audience, but guess what? Being pelted with small candy hurts. Go figure.)
Foo Fighters made its mark. Many fans knew it was Grohl himself who made the album, but with the inclusion of the band photo within the CD booklet, many others assumed they all played on it. Younger fans today who listen to their music via streaming might make that assumption as well. The album peaked at #23 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart and sold over a million copies. “This Is A Call,” “I’ll Stick Around,” and “Big Me” were successful rock radio tracks, and, interestingly enough, those first two were among only three written after Cobain’s death. The others were selected from songs that Grohl had written over the previous few years.
While the Foos prospered with their first big tour cycle, the lineup did not quite sustain itself. For the follow-up album, The Colour and The Shape, which had a tighter, more cohesive sound, Smear and Mendel recorded guitar and bass while Grohl handled mostly everything else. Goldsmith (who returned to Sunny Day Real Estate) and the band’s next touring drummer, Taylor Hawkins (who had been touring with Alanis Morrisette) contributed some drum parts. Mendel and Hawkins have remained with the band ever since. The group’s core line-up of Grohl, Mendel, Hawkins, and guitarist Chris Shiflett has held since 2000. Smear would depart later in 1997, come back as a session and touring member in 2005, then permanently rejoin in 2010. Long-time touring keyboardist Rami Jaffee became an official member in 2017.
On a side note, the grunge movement — and Nirvana in particular — have previously been scapegoated by some metalheads as the main reason why their music got pushed off the charts and out of arenas throughout the alternative- and EDM-driven ’90s. Ironically, Grohl is a metal fan, and in 2004 he released the Probot side project, which included appearances by metal luminaries like Lemmy from Motorhead and King Diamond. One could say he unintentionally redeemed himself to some people.
While the debut Foo Fighters album is far from the group’s best work — let’s face it, it is a Dave Grohl solo project — the release served as a prelude to what would turn into the other band that has defined Grohl’s musical career. The group is currently finishing up their tenth studio album, and they have become known for their sense of humor, their ability to jam live with famed musicians ranging from Joe Perry to Rick Astley, and keeping an old-school spirit alive at a time when mainstream rock has become heavily digitized. Grohl has also kept his drum chops up over the years by recording with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, the Zac Brown Band, Garbage, and many more.
The band members are still bonded. “Still to this day, if I look over at Pat or look over at Nate, I still feel like the Foo Fighters that started in William’s basement 20 years ago,” Grohl told Rolling Stone in that same interview. “I really do. It might be a stadium now and we might have a f**king HBO series or whatever, but we’re still us.”
The Foo Fighters started humbly as a one-man project and blossomed into a lifelong career. Grohl recently stated, following arm surgery, that the band will never break up. And why should they? The thought never crossed our minds.
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