As more and more superstar acts are born inside laptop-lit bedrooms, Dave Grohl remains the face of that old-fangled tradition of picking up an instrument, practicing it till your fingers bleed, then heading out on the open road in a beat-up van to share your songs with the world.
The former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman, 52, has captured that experience in What Drives Us, his new doc featuring Ringo Starr, St. Vincent, Slash, The Edge and many more. Ahead of the movie’s streaming debut April 30 as part of the Coda Collection on Amazon Prime Video, Grohl caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to reminisce about those rough, cold nights barreling through a snowstorm to get to Nirvana’s next gig.
So, tell me, what’s What Drives Us about?
I still have the van that the Foo Fighters did our first tour in. It’s a ’95 Dodge Ram van that we used for our first few tours. When I look out the window of our studio and see it in the parking lot, it represents something more than just like a bucket of rust to me. It really does serve as some kind of reference or foundation for me to appreciate where we are today.
I thought it would be interesting to go out and talk to these established and younger musicians about what it is that makes you throw your life away and jump in an old van with your buddies to share your music with the world, with no guarantee that it will ever pay off, other than just the experience of doing it. So that was really the beginning of the documentary.
You must have some amazing van touring stories. So why don’t we start with Nirvana?
Every day’s an adventure when you’re on tour in a van. Every experience is a crazy story. I remember driving over the Rockies in our van on an early Nirvana tour, in a snowstorm, and stopping in the middle of the highway because there was a fucking 10-foot moose in front of us, that we were afraid was going to attack our band. Everyone was like, “Don’t honk. Don’t honk. It’ll attack the van.” Just stupid shit like that.
When Nevermind came out and we started that tour in September of 1991, we were in a van. We were pulling a trailer, and it was all of us and our road crew in a van. And the album started blasting up the charts as we were playing venues that held 100, 200, maybe 300 people. And the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video was on MTV. We were pulling up to these venues in our van that were just overflowing with people in a, like, imminent riot situation. We’re supposed to go in there and set up and incite this riot. So you’re experiencing all of these things from a bench seat in a van. You’re just like, “What the fuck is going on right now?” So, yeah, I mean, every day there was something new. It was fucking insane.
Are you sleeping in the van or in motels?
Well, if you’re fortunate enough to have a hotel, you’re usually doubled up in some roach-infested room. But typically, on a van tour, you’ve built a platform to put the equipment underneath, and you sleep on top of the platform.
Before Nirvana, I started touring when I was 18 with a band called Scream. We never stayed at hotels, ever. You either slept in the van, or you met someone that was nice enough to let you crash on their couch. And that was a luxury. If you didn’t have to sleep on top of your amplifiers, you’re actually on a fucking cushion couch, it was like, “Oh God, this is amazing.”
I’ll tell you what: Still, to this day, when I fall asleep at night, one of the first things that comforts me as I put a blanket over myself, is remembering what it felt like to fall asleep on a stranger’s couch and the comfort in that. That’s what puts me to sleep almost every night. I’m not kidding. I swear to fucking God, that if I think about that one couch in Des Moines, Iowa, that that person let me sleep on, in my sleeping bag, I’ll fall straight to fucking sleep.
So all three of you in Nirvana were sleeping in the van in these little bunks that you had made?
I mean, by the time Nirvana started touring on the Nevermind Tour, we would have hotel rooms. So I shared a hotel room with Kurt. Krist [Novoselic] shared a hotel room with his wife. And the fucking sound guy and the guitar tech shared another room. But I mean, it was like Motel Six shit. Even that felt like, “Oh, I’ve arrived. I’ve made it. I have my own pillow. Fuck.” Before then, it was lined up like sardines in a can.
There were nights that were so cold that the condensation from everyone’s breath would freeze on the fucking metal ceiling of the van, and then little drops of ice would fall and hit you in the face and wake you up. It was disgusting.
There was no heating?
Yeah. Well, no. I mean, you’re driving down the highway in a fucking blizzard in Canada. It’s the same experience that every young touring band has had. We’ve all been there.
All that driving in bad weather can be pretty dangerous. A band from Liverpool, Her’s, was killed in their van by a wrong-way driver in Arizona in 2019.
I remember that. Yeah. I mean, it’s those things that you just don’t necessarily consider when your heart is overflowing with this insatiable desire just to get to the next town and get onstage and play your fucking heart out. You kind of throw caution to the wind. Believe me, there weren’t a lot of seatbelts or airbags. I suppose it was a bit dangerous. But I think that wasn’t top priority.
How did you find your drivers?
You kind of know in every band who is responsible enough to take the wheel as who is not. It’s an unspoken pecking order that you realize like, “No fucking way is that guy getting behind the wheel. And if he does, I’m not sleeping a fucking wink tonight. There’s no fucking way.”
I love to drive from the time I got my driver’s license. I have no problem driving for fucking 18 hours straight, still to this day. I’ll fucking jump in and go, dude. To me, it’s almost meditative. It’s great. I love a good road trip. It’s fucking one of my favorite things in the world.
So you didn’t have a dedicated driver or a manager driving you?
Oh, no. No. Fuck no. I mean, having one more person in the van only makes it more crowded, and that’s one more sandwich you have to buy. It’s like, “Fuck that.” The guys in the band are driving. That’s the way it works.
Was Kurt Cobain a good driver?
I think maybe he was one person we didn’t allow to drive the van. I don’t remember him driving ever. No, it was me and Novoselic and the sound guy. No, I don’t think Kurt got behind the wheel. That’s a good question. That’s funny.
And then once you graduate to a fancy tour bus, is it just not the same, or how is that adjustment?
I remember the day that Nirvana got a tour bus. There was a tour in the winter of 1991, we did a tour, where it was Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
What a lineup!
It was a run up the West Coast. And we show up, and there’s a bus. And we’re like, “Oh, shit.” Rock star shit. We’re like, “Oh my God.” You could [have] microwave popcorn and watch movies, and there’s a bunk. We’re like, “Holy fucking shit.”
I remember walking out to the bus, and a generator was running. I’m like, “Oh my God.” And Krist Novoselic, our bass player, was like, “Why is the generator running? You’re single-handedly destroying the ozone layer with that fucking generator.” And the driver was like, “Yeah. We run the generator.” Krist was like, “Now turn it off. It’s bad for the environment.” So he turned it off. Everything in the fridge went bad.
Damn. Way to ruin the party.
Yeah, dude. What are you going to do?
Interview edited for length and clarity.