On a chilly night in April, 20 years to the month since the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl did what many people thought was unimaginable. Taking the stage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at New York’s Barclays Center, the 43-year-old rocker embraced Courtney Love, his friend and bandmate’s widow with whom he’d had a long acrimonious relationship. It was the hug felt around the world.
Airing May 31 on HBO, the Rock Hall promises the rare real TV moment — one that will no doubt spur a surge of emotion and an unlikely bond both for those watching and those experiencing what looked like a magical coming-together: Krist Novoselic, Cobain’s mother Wendy, Love and Grohl, among them.
The showing was accompanied by an unforgettable performance — Nirvana songs delivered by Grohl, Novoselic and a slate of fierce female singers including Lorde and Joan Jett. Ahead of the Rock Hall’s HBO premiere, Grohl talked to THR about how it all came together and revealed further plans for his forthcoming docuseries on the network.
Tonight on HBO, we’ll all be witnessing that gulp of a moment at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when you and Courtney Love embraced on stage. Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on the evening, what are your thoughts?
You know, the wonderful thing about that night was the personal side of it. It was the Hall of Fame ceremony, but it meant so much to all of us personally that sometimes you forgot about the other stuff — like the arena and the trophy — and focused on real, personal things. I saw Courtney walking past [earlier in the night], and I just tapped her on the shoulder and we looked at each other in the eyes and that was it — we’re just family. We’ve had a rocky road. We’ve had a bumpy past, but at the end of the day we’re a big family and when we hugged each other it was a real hug.
So you saw each other earlier …
Yeah, that was not on camera — that was just the two of us in the hallway. And we said, “How are you doing? Are you good?”
“Yes. Are you good?”
“Yes. OK, let’s do this.”
And that was it. And after we walked off stage, we just walked down the hallway together, it was almost like no time had passed at all. Those things are real and no matter what it looks like in a magazine or on a website. That’s real shit and I was very, very happy that we had those moments. It was beautiful.
The most magical part of the evening. Thank you Dave, love you. I know this made him smile up there pic.twitter.com/1VPdVKAAbc
— Courtney Love Cobain (@Courtney) April 11, 2014
As was the Nirvana performance with Lorde, Kim Gordon, Joan Jett and Annie Clark from St. Vincent. Tell us about how that came together.
When we started thinking about how we were going to choose performers, that was heavy. It was tricky. It was more complicated than just jumping up onstage and playing music. It was emotional, there’s a legacy to preserve, there’s so much to take into consideration. And Joan Jett was the first name to come up and there was no question that she should be there. I mean she is the queen of rock and roll.
Kurt and Nirvana had always tried to promote women in music. And I think we just felt like this is perfect. Then a few names bounced around that didn’t seem to pan out and we finally decided that we wanted all of our performers to be these incredibly talented and powerful women.
We had fashioned the sequence of songs in chronological order. So we had Joan Jett first, because she’s the queen, then we had Kim Gordon, who is an iconic hero to us, and then Annie St. Vincent. We didn’t only want to focus on the past. We wanted to emphasize the future and that music is moving forward. Because Annie is surely doing that. And Ella [Lorde] is a great example of what we have to look forward to. She is able to have the biggest song of the year be something deep and meaningful and real — that’s what I hear when I listen to that song. So once we had that locked we knew that it was gonna be something special and it was just a matter of rehearsing and getting it together. And it’s still hard to believe that it happened but it did and I loved it.
After the ceremony, the rock continued — and was also filmed — on stage at Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus bar. Any plans to use that footage on your forthcoming HBO show or elsewhere?
I don’t know what we’ll do. We did film it and it’s f—in’ amazing. When we walked into that little bar to play songs that we hadn’t even touched in 20 years, I thought, “Well, this is great — our good friends get to watch us jump around and have a good time.” And then it turned out that I got to watch our friends jump around and have a good time. People I’ve known for 20 years bouncing around, moshing. I did not expect that to happen. The front row was Carrie [Brownstein] from Portlandia and Annie St. Vincent, going f—in’ bananas the whole time. It was like, “Wow, really? You guys like it that much? Holy shit!” Yeah, it was fun.
You’re really in bed with HBO these days, having recently announced the docuseries Sonic Highways. Tell us about the genesis of that idea.
I’ve been working on this for a year and a half. After making the Sound City movie, I realized that the pairing of music and documentary worked so well because the stories give substance and depth to the song, which makes a stronger emotional connection to it. If you know the story behind the artist, or the story behind the studio, or the song, it widens your appreciation for the music. The four-minute long video is a blessed thing but sometimes it can be just an image. And these stories and these people give so much more depth to the music.
So on the last day of the Sound City tour, my producers, [Jim Rota and John Ramsay] handed me a present: it was a journal with a pen and said, “Congratulations on the success of Sound City, now get to work.” I had a blast on Sound City and a wonderful team that worked on the movie with me and I thought, I wanna do this again. I love music, I know music, I understand music, so I wanna stay in this world. But instead of just walking into a studio and telling its story, I want to travel across America and tell its story.
So it became a deeper project. And I thought OK, this is going to be the story that will influence the next Foo Fighters record. We’re coming up on our 20th anniversary, we’re an American band. Each one of these cities have had artists and music that have influenced us directly, so let’s go there. Yeah, and that was the idea. And that was just a matter of actually making it happen.
Watch a teaser for Sonic Highways below:
What was the criteria to pick the cities or the studios?
At first, we wanted to go all over the world. But that seemed logistically impossible so we zeroed in on eight cities. Some of them we have personal connections with — the studio in Washington, D.C., a studio in Seattle, a studio in Los Angeles — these are all places that are part of our band’s history. Then there are some we’ve never been to. Preservation Hall in New Orleans is a great example. It’s one of the great things about this project — that we get to spend a week in each city, and by the time we leave each place, I feel like I know the people, I know the food, the music. Seven days is enough to get a little bit of each city under your skin. And New Orleans is just so deep — there’s not only a musical community but it’s a community of families where generations of musicians have been playing music in the city for hundreds of years. … It was just f—in’ magical.
Were certain songs earmarked for certain studios? Or did you get to the studio and start writing?
Yes and no. Each city has a theme. As we’re telling the story of not only the music but the history of the city, I had to find the theme first and then match it to the music. The lyrics I don’t write until the night before I sing them or sometimes an hour before. So once the music and the theme of each city was set, we traveled to each place and spent a week there. We’d get there, start recording and I would just run around town filming and interviewing as many people as I can. I did over 100 interviews. At the end of the week, I’d take all of my transcripts, put them on the floor, sit there with a pen and my journal and I reduce all of these stories into a song. I take from peoples’ backgrounds, anecdotes, the environment — it’s like reporting. It’s musical bungee jumping. It’s just f—in’ crazy.
And incredibly ambitious …
It was tricky because it’s not just a series, it’s an album. And so when you’re sequencing the series, you’re sequencing the album, so what do you sequence first? And how can you write the music before you shoot the episode? How do you know what the theme is going to be and how can you tell the story? These things would keep me up at night. I’m not only thinking about the lyric I have to spin the next day, I’m thinking about how it fits into the overall arc of the history of American music.
It’s meant to be the musical equivalent of the finale of Usual Suspects. Like that scene where he’s sitting there, you’re going back through the whole episode. It’s basically that.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to tell the story?
I don’t know if I feel it’s a responsibility but I have the opportunity and the resources. I am fortunate to be the guy that can send an email to Chuck D or Gibby [Haynes] from the Butthole Surfers or Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick or Carrie Underwood and say, “Hey, can I interview you for a project I’m doing?”
How does the show connect to the sound of the next Foo Fighters album?
You’ll recognize Foo Fighters in this record but you’ll also be surprised by us. We’re doing things that we’ve never done before. And I want to say that it’s only eight songs but I think it might be our longest record because, as I was writing these songs, I had to take a cinematic approach. Like I couldn’t just write a three-and-a-half-minute long KROQ jingle and film it for the finale of an episode about the history of music in New Orleans, ya know? We really had to step up what we do. The music is a progression or an evolution for sure, but it’s a Foo Fighters record.
So there could there be horns on a Foos record?
There could be horns on a Foos record, absolutely. We’ve never done that before. Honestly, there are sections of songs that will really take you by surprise. And then there are choruses that you’ll just recognize as Foo Fighters within the first three seconds.
How is the album being recorded?
We’ve been dragging two 24-track tape machines around the country because we still love the sound of tape. Some of the places [we recorded] are houses and some are stages and some of them are old rooms so we’d have to build a studio in some of these locations. And that’s easy to do when you just open up the laptop. It’s not easy to do when you’re dragging two 800-pound two inch tape machines across the country, but we’ve done it everywhere we’ve went.
That sounds a little crazy.
I don’t know, man. I mean, I already know what we’re doing for the next Foo Fighters record and that’s even f—in’ crazier!
What the f— are you talkin’ about?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I came up with this idea a month and a half ago. The guys were, like, “Dude, we have to finish this first.” I know, f—!
You’ve long been considered one of rock’s greatest overachievers. Now, in addition to drummer, frontman and guitar great you can add director, TV producer, talent booker. Is a feature film in your future? Are we looking at Dave Grohl’s fourth act?
It’s all pretty complicated. I’m used to making records on my label with the Foo Fighters in my studio, doing what we’ve done. Now this is an album and a TV series with HBO. And so I have sat at the head of the f—in’ board table and had meetings with 65 people. This is a whole new ballgame for me. But if there’s a story to tell, f—, I’ll tell it. I don’t really know what it means to be a director. I don’t really know my way around the film industry, but I can gather a team of people and fire ’em up to make something great. I know that because we’ve done it. And who knows? I feel more comfortable on this side of the camera than the other side, that’s for f—ing sure.