Dave Grohl: Honor Society
Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine, September 2005
After a two-year binge of side projects and guest performances, Dave Grohl returns to the Foo Fighters fold for the double album In Your Honor
It’s easy to get the impression that Dave Grohl lost interest in his group Foo Fighters shortly after the band released One By One in late 2002. Even before the album was completed, the former Nirvana drummer was on the road, pounding the skins for Queens of the Stone Age.
He returned in time to strap on his guitar and tour behind One by One, but soon Grohl’s name began to appear on album credits as frequently as Lindsay Lohan photos appear in the tabloids. He played on records by David Bowie, Killing Joke, Nine Inch Nails and Garbage, as well as on albums by several other bands. When Grohl released his 2004 Probot side project, which featured collaborations with several metal icons, it seemed as if he’d hammered the final nail in Foo Fighters’ coffin.
But in the middle of 2004, word leaked out that Grohl and his Foo Fighters bandmates—guitarist Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins—were building their own recording studio in Northridge, California, and working with producer Nick Raskulinecz on a new Foo Fighters album. By February 2005, the band had completed enough material for two full albums. The final product, In Your Honor(RCA), is a double album, but unlike most dual discs, it’s not an epic, sprawling and scattered effort, thanks in large part to its sonic design: one of the discs is an aggressive electric rock record, while the other is a gentle and reflective acoustic record.
“When I tell people that this is a double album, they immediately think that it’s some pretentious conceptual nightmare, like a Pink Floyd–inspired rock opera,” says Grohl. “But this isn’t that kind of album. One of the discs sounds like an overview of the band’s history, while the other gives you an idea of what we’re capable of doing in the future.”
From the anthem-like strains of the title track, “In Your Honor,” to the hard-hitting pop of “End Over End,” the electric record is a furious, no-holds-barred effort that shows just how hard Foo Fighters can rock as a band. But it’s the acoustic record, with its surprisingly diverse and nuanced songs, that expands the band’s horizons. The acoustic disc is also notable for featuring several guest collaborators, including Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, who played piano on “Miracle” and mandolin on “Another Round,” and Norah Jones, who plays piano and sings a bossa nova–style duet with Grohl on “Virginia Moon.” Wallflowers’ keyboardist Rami Jaffee plays on several tracks, and Grohl’sbuddy Josh Homme, from Queens of the Stone Age, adds a fuguelike second guitar part to the Celtic-sounding “Razor.”
Grohl never truly lost interest in Foo Fighters, which he formed in late 1994 after Kurt Cobain’s suicide put an end to Nirvana. But from the beginning, he has wondered constantly how long the group could last. In Your Honor, he says, puts those doubts to rest for good: “With this album I realized that we’ve blown some doors wide open and have made it possible to make music and continue changing for years to come.”
GUITAR WORLD Before you started making this album, you said that you didn’t know if you had another Foo Fighters record in you. How did you go from making that statement to making a double album?
DAVE GROHL I always imagine every album we make will be our last. The first record was such a happy accident: it was a demo tape that turned into an album that turned into a band. I didn’t have any long-term ambition to form a band, but that record’s success changed my perspective on everything. The second album was made to keep the first album from becoming a one-off side project. I thought I should try to make something out of it, and the second record seemed like the perfect way to send it off. I felt so fortunate to be involved in more than one band that has been successful and special, but I wasn’t sure it was going to last.
When we go in the studio to make an album, I try to have the attitude that we’re a brand-new band making its first album, which is also the last record we’ll ever make. A lot of that fatalistic “lastalbum” attitude came from the rigidity of what we’ve done for the last 10 years. We’ve moved in directions here and there that branch out and touch new dynamics, but traveling down the verse/chorus/verse aggressive power-rock road eventually seemed like it was going to reach a dead end. When we finished touring for the last album, I felt we needed to do something really special. We couldn’t just make another album with 12 or 13 songs, play some festivals, make some videos and relive that same cycle we’ve been in for the past 10 years.
GW Now it seems like you’re setting up your career for the next 10 years.
GROHL I think so, too. It’s like starting back at square one again. When I listen to the record, I feel like we’re a brand-new band, because we’ve freed ourselves from all these things that caged us before—like four-minute-and-10-second rock singles. I’m at the point where that’s just not enough any more.
GW How did this album end up with an electric half and an acoustic half?
CHRIS SHIFLETT That was actually the plan when we first discussed making this record, although Dave initially wrote a lot of the acoustic material with the intention of a film score, which shows on that half of the record. The songs are very cinematic.
GROHL I thought it would be cool to include both records in the same package to show the band’s dynamic range. If we were to release these records separately, that concept might get lost.
GW A lot of the material is very unexpected, especially the bossa nova song, “Virginia Moon.” At the same time, the electric side is much more aggressive. Did you write any songs
could have been performed either way?
GROHL The song “Hell” was written as a rock song. After writing the lyrics and melody, I thought it might be cool to treat it like an acoustic track that could have been on Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade. It had a driving rock feel but also sounded great played on 12-string acoustic. But I also loved the Sham 69/Who aspect of the rock version, so I decided to keep that.
“Resolve” also could have gone either way, but I liked the Neil Young & Crazy Horse vibe of the rock version. We haven’t had a song like that since “Exhausted,” which was on the first album. But generally everything was polarized; the whole album was born out of the specific concept of having separate rock and acoustic records. Some of the acoustic songs were written as an experiment, but once I realized that this could be the most beautiful thing we’ve ever done, I thought we should do it as a band. Then it started getting bigger and bigger.
SHIFLETT A good song should hold up no matter how you choose to perform it. Usually we write songs on acoustic guitars anyway. We don’t sit around and play through Marshalls.
GROHL Acoustic guitar is not a stranger to the band. We’ve just never gotten into it before as much as we did on this record.
GW You’ve discussed plans to do acoustic shows and electric shows. I think you would need to perform some songs at both shows to please the fans.
GROHL It’s interesting to think about set lists for an acoustic show. There are a lot of rock songs on our previous albums that would translate, like “Walking After You,” “Ain’t It the Life” or “Tired of You.” I really look forward to doing the acoustic shows because, as much as we’ve grown to love watching thousands of people beat the shit out of each other in front of the stage, I’d really love to play a show where people sit and listen. That seems like the ideal gig.
SHIFLETT It would be fun to feel nervous again. You know we’d be shitting ourselves.
GROHL There’s something about playing an acoustic guitar by yourself in front of a lot of people. When you break things down to a whisper, that silence can be as powerful as a stadium P.A. and stacks of amps. That pin-drop silence can move people more than a wall of Marshall amps.
GW The lyrics on the rock record are very aggressive, disturbed and dark, while those on the acoustic record are more introspective.
GROHL We usually start with an instrumental when we write music. The whole track is written and arranged before I write lyrics, and the instrumental influence dictates what the lyrics will be. Some songs on the acoustic album are really delicate, quiet, fragile and naked. There’s nothing to hide behind, so you need to write something that echoes that vulnerability. The rock record has big anthem-like songs, like “In Your Honor,” “Best of You” and “Deepest Blues Are Black.” When I wrote those songs, I wanted people to sing them with me for their own reasons, not for mine. Some of it gets kind of dark. I don’t know what it is. It’s not story telling; that’s not a prominent side of me.
GW You generally seem like a happy guy, but the rock record seems very angry. Could those songs be outlets for emotions you normally don’t express?
GROHL I’ve never told anyone this in an interview before, but when I was a teenager I had this little boom box, and I’d listen to music before going to bed. It was also a recorder. I would talk to the recorder about my problems as I was going to sleep. Just as I was about to fall asleep, I’d rewind the tape, play it and fall asleep listening to myself talking about my problems. Isn’t that weird? I think I take a similar approach with song writing. There are some things that you don’t want to say out loud, but for some reason when there are 10,000 people saying it with you, it makes it all right.
GW The guitar parts you write don’t always sound like normal rock riffs and chord progressions. What influences that?
GROHL A lot of times when I’m writing a song I’ll look at the guitar as if it’s a drum set: the low E string is the kick; the A and D are the snare; I ring the G like it’s a hi-hat and use the high strings like cymbals to accentuate a change. When I play drums, I may use the crash cymbals as a wash to bust through a chorus. I do the same thing with the high E and B strings, ringing out through a chorus to give it that sense of air.
GW How do Chris and Nate add to the guitar parts you write?
GROHL To me, building a song is about adding layers of melody and harmony, almost to the point where it’s like a swarm of overtones. Chris has a great sense of melody. He can find lines in a song that I wouldn’t hear. Every guitar player is different and hears music in a different way, and everyone has his own fingerprint. His playing complements the song and the band.
SHIFLETT Dave puts a lot of effort into arrangements. He’s really into subtle parts that the average listener wouldn’t catch, but if you’re a musician you notice it. He’s really into threes and fives. He might have me play a part three times, instructing me to make changes where I wouldn’t necessarily feel they naturally should go.
GROHL Nate is a wicked bass player. He’s the secret weapon in this band. He’s straightened out his playing a lot. He’s downstroking now and actually following the root note. But before, if you left Nate alone in a room to put a bass track down, when you came back his bass lines would sound like some avant-garde solo. SHIFLETT When Nick [Raskulinecz] records bass, he’ll have Nate lay down his own active version, and then he has him downstroke the whole thing on the root notes. Then Nick puts it all together with cutand- paste editing.
GROHL Nate will take a demo home and work on a bass part for days and days. He’s not about finding the root and going for it. Usually when he comes in to do his first take, it’s like the craziest Jaco Pastorius bass line you ever heard in your life. Then Nick will record 10 or 12 takes of Nate’s bass. By the time Nick has recorded the 12th take, you can see how things get progressively more minimalist. The first one is like Billy Sheehan, then it goes down to Geddy Lee, then it’s Geezer and finally it’s…
SHIFLETT…Gene Simmons, hangin’ on the root! Everybody in this band has their own natural inclinations about what they would do. Sometimes when you’re in the studio for a long time you start to lose sight of what you’re doing. It’s always best to play to the song and respect the song writer’s vision, but if I were left to my own devices, there would be a lot more busy shit on the records. Taylor would probably play drum parts that are way more out there. That’s where your bandmates and a producer like Nick come into play. It tempers everybody.
GW “Friend of a Friend” sounds closer to Nirvana than anything you’ve done with Foo Fighters.
GROHL That was the first song I ever wrote on acoustic guitar. I wrote it when I first moved to Olympia, Washington, to join Nirvana. I was living with Kurt in this little apartment, and it was winter, which in the Northwest is such a drag. It’s dark, cold, wet and awful, especially when you’re living in a rat hole with corn dog sticks all over the place and ashtrays spilling over with cigarette butts that are smoked down to the filter. The apartment was really quiet. There was just a TV and a few worn-out records, so I would sit up at night on this couch that I slept on and write music. We had a little four-track there, and I recorded “Friend of a Friend” and a song called “Marigold,” which eventually became a B-side of a Nirvana single. After I wrote “Friend of a Friend,” I went back to Virginia to my buddy Barrett Jones’ house and recorded it on his eight-track. That version appears with some other songs I recorded for a cassette-only release that was put out by an independent label called Simple Machines.
“Friend of a Friend” was written longbefore anything happened with Nirvana. I probably have to talk about that song the most because everybody tries to make some sort of correlation to Nirvana out of almost every song I write. I just tell them that there are lots of people in this world that I love and hate, not just two. But that song is about Kurt, Krist [Novoselic] and me, and it was written that way. They were strangers. I had just joined that band and didn’t know them at all. It made sense to put it on the acoustic record because there weren’t that many songs that were just a guitar and vocal. When I told everyone that we were making an acoustic record, they imagined everything would be just an acoustic guitar and a vocal, so this song seemed to fit in well with everyone’s preconceived notions.
GW How did you get John Paul Jones to appear on the acoustic record?
GROHL Originally I thought it would be a good idea to have guests on every song on the acoustic album. We never really got into the collaboration or cameo-appearance thing before. I took pride in the fact that the four of us made our records and that was that. But for the acoustic record I came up with a list of people I would like to have play on it. Eventually it strayed off into Make-A-Wish Foundation territory. It went from people that I know, like Josh Homme, to people that I would give my left arm to be in the same room with, like Mike Campbell from Tom Petty’s band, Ry Cooder and Warren Haynes.
We finished the acoustic album so quickly that we never had the chance to contact a lot of the guests I wanted. After two weeks of recording, I listened to it and felt that we were done. But I thought one song would sound great with a few 12-string acoustics and a Mellotron [a tape-based sampling keyboard from the Sixties]. Having listened to “The Rain Song” every day of my life for 20 years, I knew there was only one person who could play the Mellotron part, so I decided to give John a call. I got in touch with his management and a few days later, he called my house. We talked for about 45 minutes, got along great and made a date. Then I got a message and he said he was going to bring his mandolin as well. I thought, Wow! He’s going to California and bringing his mandolin!
When he showed up at the studio, we all tried to play it cool. I didn’t want to tackle the guy and kiss his face off, but it was hard to keep from asking him questions about John Bonham. It was like I had Tourette’s syndrome—the questions just came out. He sat down at the Mellotron, looked at it, said, “Hello, old friend,” and launched right into “The Rain Song.” Taylor, Chris and I just sat there with our jaws wide open. Then he busted into “Kashmir,” and Shiflett said, “That’s a pretty cool riff. We should use that.” It was a great day.
A week later he invited me to sit with him at his table when Led Zeppelin received their lifetime achievement award at the Grammys. I got to sit with the Bonham family and John Paul Jones. [Atlantic records cofounder] Ahmet Ertegun was sitting at the end of the table. I didn’t know who he was; I thought he was someone’s dad. Jimmy Page was right behind me. When I got the tap on my shoulder and looked up, and it was Jimmy saying, “All right, Dave. How are you, mate?” It was the greatest day of my life. It was really humbling.
GW Why did the band build its own studio?
GROHL When I left Seattle in 1997, I came to Los Angeles for about a year and a half, got trashed and fucked everyone for a year, then moved back to Virginia. I figured if I stayed in Los Angeles my dick was going to fall off. When I went back to Virginia, it was a strange time for the band because we had been released from our contract with Capitol Records after our second album, which was our most successful album yet. We were just a band without a deal—friends who made music forthe sake of having a good time again. It was a really great place to be. As sappy and clichéd as this sounds, it really did remind me why I did this in the first place. There was no obligation. It was truly out of love for making music.
I decided to build a studio in my basement. I wanted to find a nice old [mixing] board, put some sleeping bags up on the walls and record some stuff. Maybe it would turn into an album, who knows? I really think of that as the beginning of the band. The studio was just a dirty basement, but it had the perfect vibe that made for better songs. We won Grammys for our last two records. It was fun to go to the awards show and see all the diamonds, limos, money, stars and glamour and walk out of there with the Best Rock Album award for a record that was made in a dirty basement for free.
The problem was that we didn’t have our own jam space or anywhere to store our gear. We didn’t have a headquarters. We were all split up all over the country. Now that everybody lives in California, I thought we should move the basement studio here. I wanted to find a warehouse complex where we had storage, a studio, offices and a room we could rehearse in. I wanted the space to resemble the basement studio in Virginia and have that low-key, low-maintenance vibe, but it quickly turned into the nicest studio I’ve ever made an album in. Aesthetically, it’s like A&M Studios circa 1971. It looks like you’re going back 40 years in time, but everything is clean and new.
I never want the band to make an album in a studio that’s not our own. Our approach does make for better albums. We’re not the type of band that’s going to build a studio, get lost in a hole for two years making a double record like the Beatles’ White Album and eventually self destruct. We have a strong work ethic, and having our own studio works for us. To protect that shred of integrity we’ve managed to maintain, we have to build walls around the band, lock the door and say, “Everybody out! We’re going to make a record and you can have it when we’re finished. Let us do our thing!” I’d hate to have our music and creativity clouded by someone else’s hand and watching eye.
We made this warehouse into such an incredible studio that I realized that the album has to justify the studio. As proud as I am of the studio, I had to feel the same way about the album. We couldn’t put out a piece of crap. The studio and album faced off against each other. I had the studio versus the album and the rock record versus the acoustic record. Everything was challenging something else. Finally, I ended up with something that I’m really proud of.