Dave Grohl has another term for a band hiatus – he calls it an “I hate us”. There was reason to believe that his band Foo Fighters were on shaky ground at the start of last year.
During their last world tour, the frontman’s badly broken leg meant the cancellation of seven massive shows – including two Wembley Stadiums and Glastonbury 2015 – and him performing subsequent gigs seated on a giant, spotlight-adorned throne. Then the final four concerts of the tour in November 2015 were dropped too, as the band were due to play in Paris just three days after the terror attack on the Bataclan concert by their friends, Eagles of Death Metal.
“My oldest daughter called me. She’s 11 and she never calls, I always call her,” he says. “She said, ‘I don’t want you to go there. I think you need to come home.’ That was the thing that really hit me.”
After he got home, he received another call which he couldn’t refuse: an invitation to perform The Beatles’ Blackbird, alone and acoustic, at the Oscars in February 2016. Cue mass speculation about a solo career. That was crushed when the band put out a spoof video featuring Grohl as an R&B crooner in glued-on sunglasses, and the rest of the group mulling a list of potential new singers that included Drake, Justin Bieber and Phil Collins. It concluded with the message, all in caps: “For the millionth time. we’re not breaking up. And nobody’s going fucking solo!”
“Everybody needed a break. We had gone pretty hard for three or four years, with projects running into each other,” Grohl says today. “By the time we were finished, we were pooped. I said to everyone: ‘I don’t want to touch an instrument for a year. I don’t want to talk about the band. Let’s just go home.’ This was end of 2015.”
However, complete domesticity, dividing time between homes in LA and Hawaii, hanging out with his wife and three young daughters, didn’t suit a 48-year-old who has been playing in rock bands professionally since he joined Washington DC punk band Scream at 17. “After about six months I had kind of fallen into a depression that I’d never felt before – maybe the first one of my entire life. It was the quintessential Brian Wilson beard and pyjamas. Didn’t leave the house for weeks and weeks. You think that it’s the music that’s beating you up, but when you take it away, you realise it’s the music that’s keeping you going.”
It’s hard to imagine this gregarious man, who has befriended and performed with everyone from Paul McCartney to Nine Inch Nails to the Muppets, enduring dark days. He’s in fine form when we meet in the band’s hotel ahead of a music festival in Madrid, in his daily uniform of checked shirt and black jeans, wearing surprisingly professorial spectacles when he’s not on stage, lying on a sofa smoking cigarettes in rock and roll defiance of the sprinkler above his head. It’s late afternoon and torrential rain, thunder and lightning is threatening to cause the cancellation of another headline show. The band head to the site anyway and before too long, the lightning sparking off in the distance now, he’s on stage barking at 45,000 Spaniards: “We’re gonna have a contest: who’s gonna lose their voice first? Well it ain’t me, motherfuckers!”
Foo Fighters’ summer of festivals began with their postponed appearance at Glastonbury, surprisingly their first slot at the landmark event since 1998. In contrast they have played at Reading Festival, with its history as the site of two shows by Grohl’s former band, Nirvana, six times. “We didn’t really understand all the emphasis on Glastonbury, because we’d been doing festivals for so long,” he says. “It wasn’t until two years ago, when we had to cancel, that we understood what a big deal it was.”
The band played a new song, Run, at Glastonbury, and have aired a handful more around Europe since. By the time they reach the O2 Arena next month – their first London arena show since 2011 – they’ll have a whole album to show off. Concrete and Gold, their ninth, is out on September 15.
Putting that hiatus on hiatus, Grohl first had to rein in his ambitions, then ramp them up in a different way. “I had this idea that I wanted to write and rehearse an album, then build a recording studio on stage at the Hollywood Bowl and invite 20,000 people to watch us record,” he says. But he realised that PJ Harvey had done something similar on a smaller scale, at Somerset House in early 2015. Plus it felt like a bit much when the band’s 2011 album, Wasting Light, had been accompanied by a feature-length documentary, and the follow-up, Sonic Highways in 2014, was also an HBO TV series exploring the musical history of eight US cities and required Grohl to interview everyone from Dolly Parton to Barack Obama.
“I think we were getting too creative with our ideas of how to make an album,” he admits. “What if we were to focus just on the music rather than some hyper-conceptual nightmare?”
But that’s not to say they were going to get back in the old routine. As producer, Grohl enlisted Greg Kurstin, the LA musician best known for co-writing pop smashes for singers including Kelly Clarkson, Ellie Goulding and Adele. Kurstin had never made a hard rock record before, but he and Grohl had been bumping into each other in Hawaii for a few years, throwing each other’s kids around the pool. Who has the bigger holiday home, I ask – the rock god who wrote hits including Times Like These and The Pretender, not to mention drumming on Nirvana’s Nevermind, or the man behind Adele’s Hello? “It’s neck and neck!”
Grohl initially collared Kurstin in a restaurant to rave about his band The Bird And The Bee, unaware that he was also one of the most in-demand songwriters in the world. “I’m such a lover of Seventies AM Gold soft rock – 10cc, Gerry Rafferty, ELO – those melodies and arrangments and harmonies. That’s what I heard in The Bird And The Bee,” he tells me. “I was writing these fucking heavy riffs at home. Now if you could stack those together with that harmony and melody, it would be my ultimate dream. I knew that was what Greg was capable of doing.”
He has billed Concrete and Gold as “Motorhead’s version of Sgt. Pepper”. While it could never be quite as mind-blowing as that description, it’s outrageously good fun, mixing swooning backing vocals with rampant, pummelling guitars on Run, piling up Queen-style layers of voices on T-Shirt and even finding room for a McCartney-style acoustic ditty on Happy Ever After (Zero Hour).
Perhaps teaming up with Kurstin wasn’t such a strange idea. Coincidentally the new album by Queens of the Stone Age (another band for whom Grohl has drummed), out today, was made with another pop producer, Mark Ronson. Rock and pop are enemies no longer.
It all makes Nirvana seem a very long time ago – which it was. Grohl joined the band on drums in 1990 and it was all over when troubled frontman Kurt Cobain shot himself in 1994. He tells me that he was only mostly asked about that period in Foo Fighters interviews “for the first 20 years”. Today, surely most people see that this tireless showman, fond of comedy disguises in his videos, is a better fit in the band he has led since 1995. On the 2011 song Walk, a Foo Fighters setlist staple, he can be heard screaming “I never wanna die!” over and over.
“Those revolutions don’t last very long so they shine pretty bright. It would be enough to fill your pride for the rest of your life, but having it taken away in the way that it was, it makes you feel incomplete,” he says. “One of the reasons why the Foo Fighters became a band was because, at the ripe old age of 25, I wasn’t finished playing music.”
And he still isn’t. Split rumours, thunderstorms and broken bones can’t slow down one of the all-time greats.
Concrete and Gold is released on Sept 15 on Columbia. Foo Fighters play Sept 19, O2 Arena, SE10 (0844 824 4824, the02.co.uk)