Teri Saccone
Dave Grohl
Publisher Title Transcript
Modern Drummer Vol.18 #3 Nirvana's Dave Grohl, Unrefined Yes

Success hasn't spoiled Dave Grohl one bit. Devoid of pretentions and shunning the clichéd rock 'n' roll excesses, Grohl is just a "regular guy," utterly amazed by what has befallen him and Nirvana over the past two years.
And what a short, strange trip it's been. Nevermind, the band's second album, exploded into rock consciousness in 1991, introducing the world to "grunge" and putting Seattle on the musical map. If the late '80s were rock's complacent, bloated years, then Nevermind introduced the '90s with unbridled invigoration.
In Utero (which entered the charts at Number 1 upon its release in early fall of '93) raises the standard set by its predecessor. Yet it retains the same guitar rage (via Kurt Cobain) and rancorous rhythm section (Grohl, along with bassist Krist Novoselic). Dave is an admitted minimalist when it comes to drums, and he's certainly no technical savant. The beauty in his playing is the way he lays it down for the sake of the songs: the slow building of tempos and volume into hallucinatory fury, the seismic bass drum sound, the manner in which his tracks breathe amid the thrash and din.
It's been said before, but it's worth repeating: Simplicity in drumming often has more impact than complexity. Grohl's playing - whether in the form of garage rock, punk rave-ups, metal excursions, or jazz-inflected intros-always supports that essential concept, making Nirvana one of the most explosive live and recording bands of their generation.

TS: The reaction to Nevermind on not only a commercial level but also on a cultural one probably exceeded your wildest fantasies. Do people expect you to have changed due to all the success?

DG: When we were touring for Nevermind, things were snowballing every day, but we didn't know it yet because we were still playing 500-capacity clubs, feeling comfortable, and having a really great time.
Journalists would say things like, "You're changing the face of rock 'n' roll." We were like, "Yeah, right." People now speak of the "pre-Nirvana era" and the "post-Nirvana era,' and it doesn't make sense to us. I just can't believe it would make that much of an impact.
For us, it was something we were doing for a long time, and since I was always playing in punk bands, it's not too far from what I was doing before. People have glorified what we do, but I don't understand what the big deal is. It comes down to it being just a record with twelve songs on it. Sure, it sparked a lot of emotion in a lot of people, and that's great because the ultimate form of flattery is when someone is moved by your music. Someone came up to me during the Scream reunion tour [Scream was Dave's previous band], and he gave me a CD of his band and said, "I'm an old Scream fan, and your drumming with them influenced this." That was the first time anyone had ever said that, and I felt like I wanted to cry. That was so much more flattering than if someone says, "You just made 15 million dollars-here's a platinum record for your wall." Trophies are great, but having touched someone musically is a whole lot better.

TS: Do you think the press is responsible for a lot of the hype about Nirvana?

DG: In general I stay away from the press, and I don't read a lot of what's written about us, because what's the point? I'm aware of what we're capable of and I know that In Utero is the best thing we've ever done. So to sort of wallow in all the exposure and glorification-that can really ruin you.
I feel lucky because things are still calm and sane despite how insane things can get in the press. Things don't really hit home because I know what I'm all about, my family knows what I'm all about, and people who know me scoff at what's written about the band. It's a wonderful attribute to be able to play in a band that a lot of people love, but to let it affect your life is just bullshit.
I don't see this as something I'll do for the rest of my life. I think we; all feel it can last another couple of years, and then we'll go off and do whatever else. I want to go back to college. I dropped out of high school to join Scream. I was touring in a band with four other guys, going to places l had never gone before, and living off of playing the music. Just to be able to eat every day from playing your music - it's the most basic trade. I did that for four years and it was so much fun.
I'm almost twenty-five years old, and I want to do a lot with my life. I'm getting married soon, and I want to have kids. I'm not complaining about what I have now, it's just that I feel that there's so much more out there than just the rock 'n' roll thing of who's on the charts.
I'm very fortunate to be able to make a living playing drums, especially since I don't feel I know that much about them. I've taken two lessons in my life, and that was four years after I taught myself how to play. I had been going to this jazz club in downtown D.C. - every Sunday they'd have a workshop where people could sit in with the band. So I went in there one night and there was a drummer on stage named Lenny Robinson, who was phenomenal. I knew how to really beat the shit out of the drums, but I thought, "I'd love to really learn how to play." So I asked him if he would give me lessons, and the first thing he did was ask me to show him how I held the sticks, which was wrong. I lasted two lessons and then I quit.

TS: Do you still hold your sticks the way you did then?

DG: I still hold them backwards to get more "thud" out of them. I lay my whole stick out on the head - I don't just hit it with the top of the stick. I just play wrong.

TS: Playing "the right way" versus "the wrong way" seems pretty irrelevant given your success, don't you think?

DG: When you take lessons, it seems that what's taught are the traditional basics. I think a lot of people who learn to play drums usually learn to read music or they learn someone else's concepts. It depends upon the individual, but to really get your own thing happening, you have to do it from your own ear. I learned to play drums from listening to punk rock records.

TS: So you were a punk rocker who hung out at jazz clubs?

DG: With punk rock drumming there was more energy and it was just all-out bashing on the drums. The bands that could play the fastest were, at one point, the most respected. It was always up to the drummer - a band could play as fast as they wanted to, but if the drummer couldn't keep up it would sound like shit.
The early drummer with Bad Brains was a guy by the name of Earl Hudson. He was really amazing. He could play reggae beautifully, and then switch quickly to hardcore. What he could do on a drumset was unlike what I had ever heard before.
When I was really young and listening to Rush, I used to think how clever Neil Peart was at playing fusion-rock. He had fifteen toms and was all over them. I went from that to hearing the Bad Brains and all these obscure hardcore bands where the drummers were really outstanding, with each of them doing different things. Although they were along the same lines, each of them had their own sound, which I thought was really cool. I didn't hear much in rock drumming. There were extreme differences in rock drumming in some cases, but most of it was pretty much the same.
With the hardcore stuff that was going on, everyone had their own ideas. Not many of those drummers took lessons, and they all seemed to be playing pretty much by ear, which is what was important to me. I was just lucky enough to have a good ear and the ability to catch on to things.

TS: It seems that there's a connection between jazz and punk in that they both have a very purist yet no-holds-barred drumming approach.

DG: In a way, yes. Plus there's a lot more freedom of expression in both jazz and punk drumming, because you don't feel restricted by any rock clichés. So it's easier to get away with a lot more - or a lot less.
With our band, it's basically pop songs, but weirder. It's like having Black Flag play Beatles songs. Our music is really just pop songs played by people who are used to a more chaotic approach. Even though there's that underlying structure, there's a lot of chaos over the top of it. It's natural for us to take a pretty song and turn it around.

TS: You mentioned Neil Peart - the epitome of technical expertise. In contrast to that style, there's still a lot of ignorance among drummers who can't appreciate the simplicity of playing for the song, which is what you're about.

DG: For me there are two ends of the scale. With a band like Rush, the songwriting is dependent on the drumming. When I'd listen to them, I'd listen to the drums more than anything else. With bands like Led Zeppelin, the Jesus Lizard, and the Pixies, the drummers were really outstanding - and those drummers were really an influence as well. It was almost as if those guys were fooling people, because non-drummers wouldn't pay attention so much to the drums as they would to the whole insanity of what was going on in the song. Whereas when anyone hears Rush, they immediately say, "Wow! This is the best drummer in the world!" For a band like Nirvana, I think it's important that the drumming complements everything else: Kurt writes basic 4/4 pop songs, and the drums have to propel everything. That's an important element. Whether the drums stand out to people or not isn't what's really important. That it sounds like a big bomb going off is. I suppose that's what we're going for.

TS: You've got a small, basic kit that yields a tremendous amount of volume. How relevant are the size and type of your drums to the power you get from them?

DG: I believe that once you get to the point of hitting the drums really hard, it doesn't matter how they're tuned or how big they are. Of course, the bigger the drum, the deeper the "boom." But I'd never want too many drums. Having just the two toms is perfect. I don't really care how the set looks, so long as I'm comfortable with what I have.
A lot of people in rock drumming don't really utilize the toms. They'll do rolls on them, but I don't do too many single-stroke rolls. Most of it is both hands down at the same time. If you hit two things at the same time, it's twice as loud as hitting one thing. I do the same with my cymbal hits: At times I'll hit both of my crashes at the same time.

TS: You've also got that booming single bass attack.

DG: Playing drums as a minimalist makes it important to keep things simple, because you can play a lot harder when you do less. And when you have more space you have a lot more time to get your arms higher in the air. That gives you a lot more power. So sometimes I might play a fast snare or tom roll, but for the most part, 'I just want to play fewer notes so they'll have a bigger impact.

TS: Is there any technique you use to keep your bass drum so prominent in the sound?

DG: I don't put my heel down when I play my kick drum - I kind of pounce on it with the ball of my foot. That way I can hit harder and put more weight into it. Also, by sitting very low - I sit as low as possible - I can put a lot more weight into it because I'm pushing forward. Every time I hit the kick it inches forward just a little bit. That's probably why people nail them down.
I think one of the reasons my kick drum cuts through a lot of the time is because I'm trying to accent the riff or go along with what Krist is playing. If the bass and drums are pretty much along the same wavelength, it makes things a lot more powerful. I try to listen to things and get in the groove.

TS: After you've recorded a song and played it live for a few months, do you still listen as intently to what's being played, or do you switch into auto-pilot?

DG: For me, it almost immediately goes into auto-pilot once I find something that works. When something works, you can just feel it. That's why it's weird for me to talk about drumming, because it's a lot more about feeling than about conscious effort. I don't like to analyze it, and it's not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. It's like a bodily function for me.

TS: Since the skeletons of the songs are written primarily on acoustic guitar, how do you go about plotting drum parts?

DG: Usually what happens is that Kurt will come up with a basic riff or a line to a song, and then we'll jam on it to see what happens. A lot of times in the studio, I don't think about what I'm playing until it comes time to record, and then I realize that I have to think of something that I'll repeat when we play live. So a lot of that stuff just comes up in my head as we're recording. It's basically about jamming until we find a comfortable structure to the song. It's all kept really simple, plus I think that all three of us have really good ears for melody, and we always work on dynamics.
When I first joined the band, we practiced almost every day, breaking things down and building them up. I think from working with dynamics we've all grown an ear for structure. We never have discussions about songs. When it comes to recording we might say, "Maybe we should do this part four times instead of eight," things like that. But it's really about going in and just doing it and not thinking about it too much. If we think about it too much, things have a way of getting ruined. We like the spontaneity of things.

TS: The band sounds tight and has an innate chemistry, yet you've been playing together for only about three years.

DG: We clicked together pretty well when we first started playing. None of us art really accomplished musicians, although Krist and Kurt can play their instrument fine. There are no wailing leads or bass a drum solos. We just get together to make some noise.

TS: You worked with producer Butch Vig for Nevermind, then switched to Steve Albini for In Utero. Why did you mess around with a proven-winning producer?

DG: Steve was actually one of our choices when we first signed with the record label, due to the work he did with the Jesus Lizard and the Pixies. He had a drum sound that we all fell in love with. It's just a very natural, dry kind of room sound with no outboard effects at all. It was just straight from the mics to the board. Steve really has that knack, and I don't know his secret except for setting up mics in a room. It all depends on mic placement.
When we did Nevermind it was down to a choice of either Steve or Butch, and we went with Butch, who had previously done some demos with Nirvana. Butch is a drummer himself, and he's a lot more of a perfectionist as well. It took a month to record Nevermind, and it took us about eight or nine days to get the basic tracks down bass and drums - which is a long time for me. I like to record something and then get out.
With Steve Albini, the whole album took two weeks, and most everything on the record was a first take. I think there were three songs that were second takes. The energy and excitement you get out of playing a song in the studio for the first time is something you can't necessarily capture on the second or third take.

TS: The record company probably threw vast sums of money at you when it came to recording In Utero, yet it sounds even more "garage-y" and rawer than Nevermind.

DG: With Nevermind, everyone was happy with their performance because there weren't too many flaws to pick at. The new record is a better representation of what the band sounds like. If we were to play in your living room, In Utero is what we would sound like. The last album was way more of a studio project, where we spent more time mixing and getting things right. This one was more about just getting the songs down on tape and getting it out to the people. It wasn't rushed; it's just that we had the songs in the studio, and as long as it took us to play a song in the studio was as long as it took to record it. They're two totally different projects, although they sound like the same band.
Some people think it's incredible that it only takes us twelve days to do an album, but to us, it's really just the way we work.

TS: What's crucial seems to be having great songs when you enter the studio.

DG: Yeah, because there are people who go into studios thinking that effects will make the song. When you strip everything down to just the instruments and the vocals, you've either got a really good song or you don't. We're lucky because Kurt's a great songwriter and he's got a great voice. Krist comes up with some pretty cool bass runs, which also adds a lot.

TS: Does playing in a trio differ greatly from playing in a four-piece?

DG: Actually, we've just added a second guitarist for live shows - Pat Smear. He was in the early L.A. punk band the Germs, and he's really a great guy. He plays along the same lines Kurt does: They're both very noisy and into funky old effects pedals from the '70s. Adding another guitarist is something that we're doing to try to add a new dimension. If we were ever to stop experimenting, I think it would definitely get boring. Experimentation keeps us going, and we're happy about expanding or switching things around.
When I first found out about doing this interview, I thought I would try to say something about drumming in general terms - not necessarily just about my own drumming. I'm sure everybody out there must know this by now, but it can't be said enough: It's not how much you do, it's how you do it. There are so many drummers coming up since this whole "alternative" thing has come about, and many of them are doing some really great stuff playing that is very clever and that is almost songwriting in itself. The drummer in the Jesus Lizard - Mac McNeilly - is amazing, but nobody knows who he is. I think it's important for people to listen to drummers who are coming up, because with them it's more about expression than performance. It's important for people to hear the drummer in the Melvins, Dale Crover. I still say to this day that he's the best drummer in the world. There is no one who does what he does, and there's no one who could. I get goose bumps when I hear his playing. He's turned drumming on its side, and if I'd never heard the Melvins, I probably would not be playing drums, because he made me realize that there's a lot more to drumming than most people hear.
I think it's important for young drummers not to necessarily look up to the big, famous "rock star" drummers. It's important for young drummers to find something that speaks to them. I've heard a lot of drummer jokes, and to be fair, there are bass player jokes, and singer jokes, and soon. But what people still don't seem to realize is how much a band depends on the drummer. Nirvana had about seven drummers before me, so for the longest time I felt totally expendable. But when you get on stage, it's up to the drummer to keep things going to maintain an energy level.

TS: Speaking of bands, Nirvana was the first band to be dubbed "grunge." Do you think there is such a thing as grunge drumming?

DG: I think that grunge drumming just might be described as fairly minimal drumming played hard on big drums. The drummer with Mudhoney is an entirely different kind of drummer - a '60s garage-rock drummer. I don't really think there is such a thing as "grunge," but if there is, then Mudhoney would be it. They're a weird, freaked-out, distortion garage-rock band. I think they're the only true grunge band.

TS: Your tempos seem to be very solid on the record. Do you use a click track when recording?

DG: To me, click tracks are sort of constricting and fascist. When we were recording the song "Lithium," we did a take and listened to the playback, and Butch thought that the choruses sped up. So he suggested that I play along to a click track. I had never used one, but I tried it anyway and listened back to the track. The choruses felt as if they slowed down. We talked about it and we all realized it came down to whether the feeling or the tempo of the song was more important. To us, what should be more important in drumming is the feeling, not the flawless tempo or the perfect time. If a song speeds up in the chorus, it's the emotion of what's going on behind the player, and that's a lot more important than a click track.
When we went in this time with Steve, he told me he hated click tracks, but he had this idea of using a strobe light as a metronome where you wouldn't feel so restricted, but you would have this unconscious rhythm going off in front of your face. We decided to try it for a song, and it drove me crazy so I didn't use it again. Overall, I think using click tracks is a bad thing.

TS: You've continued your association with Scream, recently doing a short tour with them.

DG: Discord [Scream's label] decided to release the last album we had recorded before we broke up. The guys in Scream were like my brothers, and we loved getting on stage and playing. We decided to do it again when the album came out, so we did a short tour of the States. I really hate it when bands say, "We're getting back to our roots," but to get back with these guys and play CBGB's made me feel good. No one gave a shit who I was. Maybe it's because I feel uncomfortable with all the fuss that comes with people considering Nirvana this "worldwide major rock outfit." That makes me feel weird. I feel more comfortable not having to sneak into the back of a place to play. It's a lot more fun and a lot less hassle when you get to set up your drums and make noise for a while. It's a lot more fun sleeping on people's floors when you tour rather than playing in a sterile arena environment and getting rushed out of there into a nice hotel where you don't get to hang out and meet people or see much. Playing dives across the country and travelling in a little van is a lot more romantic and a lot more memorable. I'd love to tour with them at least every year. It just restores my faith in rock. [laughs]

TS: What are you like before a Nirvana gig?

DG: I get really nervous and I start to yawn. I start feeling tired and I guess that's how I react to being nervous.

TS: So you suffer from stage-fright?

DG: Tons, even if we're playing in front of two people. I'm incredibly bad. The last time we appeared on live TV I almost fainted. The problem is that you know that millions of people are watching, so I think to myself, "Okay, just get through the verse." When I get through the verse I think, "Now just get through the chorus and you're halfway there."

TS: Some very big bands will tour for two years to support an album, but not Nirvana.

DG: We want to go out on stage and have it feel new and fresh. I think that's one of the good things about getting nervous before you go out on stage. When you get too comfortable with performing, it's not good. When you look freaked out before you go on, then you'll look freaked out on stage, which is good for us, I guess. We're not exactly a fun, comical band on stage.

TS: At the risk of sounding clichéd, what do you see yourself doing in ten years?

DG: I'll be in the basement with my little boy behind a drumkit and my daughter playing bass - I don't know. I'll probably still be in college. It's hard to say what I'll be doing, but I hope that no one comes up to me and says, "Hey, weren't you the drummer in Nirvana?"

© Teri Saccone, 1994