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Dave Grohl's teenage obsessions: 'I learned drums by arranging pillows on my floor'
14th Jan 2014
Before I was a teenager, I started playing music in my bedroom by
myself. I fell in love with the Beatles, then began to discover classic
rock. I went from Kiss to Rush to AC/DC, but in 1983 I discovered punk
rock music through a cousin in Chicago. My world turned upside down. My
favourite bands were Bad Brains and Naked Raygun; I listened to Dead
Kennedys and Black Flag. My introduction to live music came when my
brother took me to a punk show in a small bar in Chicago. I didn’t have
that festival/stadium/arena rock experience; I just saw four punk rock
dudes on the stage, playing this fast three-chord music, with about 75
people in the audience climbing all over each other. It changed my life.
One of the most prolific scenes in hardcore American punk rock was in
Washington DC, just across the bridge [from Grohl’s home town of
Springfield, Virginia]. So I started going to see bands like Minor
Threat and Fugazi. By the time I was 14, I was cutting and dyeing my hair
and wearing leather jackets. All I wanted to do was leave school, jump in
a van and tour shitty basement clubs with my punk band.
My mother was a teacher at the high school I went to. She spent her career
dealing with rebellious little assholes like me, but she was known as the
cool teacher. She understood that every child learned differently, and
having a difficult time at school doesn’t necessarily mean that a kid can’t
learn. I think I was her most difficult student, but she saw the passion
in my musical obsession. So when I hit that stage of rebellion, I just
glided through it. My mother was entirely supportive, and she was
encouraged by the independence and creativity of the underground punk
rock scene, because everybody did everything themselves. There were no
record companies helping anyone: you just started a band, wrote a song,
played a show, got $50, went to the studio, recorded something, pressed
your own vinyl and put out your own record. To see your kid that
passionate about anything at that age must have been very inspiring.
It’s always the things that you most want to do that you do well.
Really, all I did was listen to music.
At 13 or 14, I had a narrow-minded vision that everything could only be
punk rock all the time. I scoured the record shelves for anything
dissonant and subversive – death metal, industrial music – anything that
wasn’t on the radio or seemed rebellious. By the time I was 15 or 16, my
friends and I had already made records, played shows out of town. I had
learned to play drums by arranging pillows on my floor and my bed in the
formation of a drum set and playing along to Bad Brains. We discovered
Led Zeppelin just as I started progressing as a drummer and I became obsessed
with John Bonham: what he played and why. It’s hard to explain, but his feel
and sound is unmistakable and undefinable. Anyone can take the chart of
what he played, but it would never be the same because it was as unique to that
human as a fingerprint. I became like a monk, listening to these records
and memorising them. It was like poetry to me. I became so obsessed that
I gave myself a three-interlocked-circles John Bonham tattoo on my arm
with a fucking sewing needle and some ink. I was branded for life.
Travelling and touring
Like most musicians playing punk and underground music in the 80s, I
didn’t have aspirations to make a career of it. When. When I was in my
later teens, the reward was just some sort of appreciation from the
audience. At the most, I hoped that some day I wouldn’t still have to
work in the furniture warehouse that I was working in back then, and
would have my own apartment. Going on the road at that age [with the
Washington punk band Scream], it’s such a beautiful time in anyone’s
life. You’re discovering identity, finding some freedom and you’re
becoming who you are. So it was the perfect window of time to leave home
and start wandering around the planet. I started touring at 18: carrying
my stuff in a bag, sleeping on floors, and if I was lucky, I’d get seven
dollars a day to budget on cigarettes and Taco Bell. I was open to experience.
If we were playing a squat in Italy, I’d be learning about their sense
of community, their political ideas and language. Then Amsterdam and
ending up in a coffee shop every night. I saw America for the first time
through the window of an old Dodge van. It was John Steinbeck shit. I
had a five-year plan: to learn music and become a studio drummer, then
with the money I made go to college and become a graphic-design artist.
When Nirvana got popular, all that shit went out of the window. I still
can’t read music.
In later life, I’ve realised how fortunate I was to be surrounded by
really amazing creative individuals as a teenager. I wasn’t locked into
any high-school social scene. I was hanging out with people in the
Washington music and arts scene: photographers and writers or musicians
who had labels of their own. In reconnecting with them in more recent
years, I realised that they all went on to do such great things. One of
my oldest friends from the Washington DC punk scene became head of the
Sundance TV channel and worked with BBC America. Another one became a
chef in Brooklyn. Another became an editor of Bon Appétit. Everyone went
on to do great things, I think, because we were raised in the community of
free-thinking weirdos that decided we weren’t going to follow the straight path.
We were cool when we were young.
In my teens, I also realised that I could record music by myself. When I
was about 13, I figured out how to multitrack things with two cassette
decks. I would record songs with my guitar on my little handheld
cassette, then take that cassette and put it into the home stereo, then
hit play as I was recording another cassette on the cassette recorder.
So I would add a vocal. I could multitrack that way.
Eventually, I became close friends with another musician who had an
eight-track in his basement, so by 17 or 18 I started recording songs by
myself, playing the drums first, then adding guitars then the vocal.
Really only as an experiment. I never played the songs for other people,
but it was wild. I could do this and 15 minutes later I would have a
song that sounded like a band but was only one person. I learned to
write and record, and that turned into Foo Fighters
• Foo Fighters’ album Medicine at Midnight is released 5 February on