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Writing a Dave Grohl Biography: A Discussion with Author Paul Brannigan
Paul Brannigan’s newly-released book, This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl, is a richly-detailed (and endlessly entertaining) insider account of the eventful career of the Foo Fighters front man and ex-Nirvana drummer.
In tracing Grohl’s entire life, from his childhood through his earliest musical involvement in the Washington D.C. hardcore scene to what it’s like being the so-called “nicest guy in rock” in one of the world’s biggest bands, This is a Call presents a side of Grohl that the fans and public aren’t always allowed to see.
Rock Cellar Magazine recently had the pleasure of speaking with Brannigan, a former editor of Kerrang! Magazine and contributor to MOJO and Q Magazine, about how the project came about, the process of its creation, and what it was like writing a book about a music icon everyone seems to think they already know everything about.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You have spent quite a lot of time with Dave Grohl and the rest of the Foo Fighters over the years. What gave you the idea to actually write an entire book about him, and how did he react when you brought it up?
Paul Brannigan: The book is something of a happy accident. I conducted a five hour interview with Dave Grohl towards the end of 2009 for a magazine feature, and found myself with a 45,000 word transcript for a piece commissioned to run at 5,000 words in total: the idea that so much material would never be seen seemed like such a waste to me, and I knew that I had an interview that was more revealing and personal than anything in the existing DG biographies, so I approached a literary agent in London with the idea for a book. And happily there was a lot of interest in the idea.
It was only then that I approached Dave’s management about the idea of doing an authorised biography. I didn’t speak to Dave directly during this period – it would have been impolite to do so – but after some discussion Dave’s management told me that Dave would prefer to wait until his career is over before writing an official book. Which makes complete sense, but Dave is a lifer in this business, and I’m not sure I’ll still be around in 20 years when his career draws to a close, so I made the decision to press on with the idea, albeit that the book would be unauthorised. This is a Call isn’t the official Dave Grohl story, but I think it’s the most complete, accurate and hopefully compelling account of Dave’s story to date.
RCM: How much time elapsed from the initial “Hey, I’m going to write a book about Dave Grohl” to it being published? Based on the extensive amount of sources used and research that went into This is a Call, it must have been a massive undertaking.
PB: The book was published a full two years after the initial idea was mooted. Given that most of my journalistic career has been spent working on a weekly magazine where copy has to be turned around in days, if not hours, this seemed like an eternity, but the research period flew by. It was nice to have the time and space to research Dave’s story properly.
RCM: Relatedly, did Dave have any say in how many of his quotes you used in the book, and was he careful to see how he ended up being presented?
PB: As This is a Call isn’t authorised, Dave had no input at all into the finished book. I spoke to Dave last July, when I had a finished manuscript, and asked if he wanted to go through the text, but he told me that he trusted me, and that if I was happy with the story then that’s the story I should print. In truth I don’t know that Dave will ever read the book – it might be a bit odd to read someone else’s take on your life story – but I hope he’d regard it as a celebration of his career to date.
RCM: When discussing the Seattle “grunge” scene, you note in the book that Alice in Chains were “often written out of the history of Seattle rock”. Overall, AIC seem to generally be relegated to ‘also-ran’ status, at least in the mainstream. Can you speak more about that? What about their darker, more sinister musical themes separated them from the pack?
PB: I don’t really think it was AIC’s music or lyrics that isolated them within the Seattle music community: it was the fact that they came from a heavy metal background, which was deemed ‘uncool’ by the taste-makers in the city and by the English music magazines who championed grunge in the pre-Nevermind years. Alice In Chains were the first Seattle band to break on radio, and the first to score a gold record, but this has proved to be something of an inconvenient truth to those who’ve made a career out of chronicling the grunge years, because their success doesn’t owe anything to the scene’s hype men.
The official line is that grunge was a revolution in rock music, but of course many of the people who bought Nevermind and Ten had also bought Metallica’s ‘Black’ Album and Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums – you can’t sell 15 million records in America by connecting only with hipsters. And it was Alice In Chains and Soundgarden who built the bridges between the ‘alternative’ rock and metal audiences on radio, which opened doors for Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Of course the story of the ‘Seattle Sound’ isn’t just about the multi-platinum bands – Mudhoney, Tad and the Melvins, for example, were brilliant, inspirational bands who laid the foundations that lesser bands took to the bank – but it seems churlish to pretend that AIC didn’t exist.
RCM: One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is how you intertwine your own critical reviews on the Foos’ albums. When discussing In Your Honor, you liken The Last Song to Enough Space from The Colour and the Shape, saying that both seem “…written with the express design to cause festival crowds to bounce”. Do you hold any other specific Foo tracks in similar esteem?
PB: Well, neither track would be among my personal Foo Fighters’ favourites, but Dave is a master of writing songs which can unite a stadium-sized crowd. There’s more to the Foo Fighters than their populist anthems – hardcore fans will argue the merits of Wattershed or Butterflies above Learn To Fly, for instance and personally I’d love to see songs like Floaty or Wind Up sneak back into Foo set lists – but there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing 70,000 people screaming Best Of You or Times Like These back at the stage.
RCM: Was it particularly difficult to track down members of Grohl’s childhood for the book, such as Chris Page of Mission Impossible or the guys from Dain Bramage, or were they excited to reminisce about Grohl’s early days as a budding musician?
PB: I connected with people like Chris Page and Reuben Radding and Nick Christy from Dave’s first band Nameless online first: it wasn’t so difficult finding them, but the challenge was to get them to trust me – a complete stranger – with their memories.
I was honoured and humbled that they did so, and Chris Page in particular was a real gentleman. I think that people were a little reticent initially, but once they understood that I was genuinely trying to capture the energy and excitement which characterised their days playing alongside Dave they rather enjoyed the trip down memory lane.
RCM: Regarding Dave’s status as the so-called “The Nicest Guy in Rock”, he mentions in the book that “it’s just not important to me to be everyone’s best friend”, and that he only reveals the “real Dave Grohl” to close friends and family members. That seems at odds with his incredibly outgoing, friendly onstage persona. Considering how many examples are included in the book of Dave cracking jokes and generally livening up any room he enters, what is significantly different about “downtime Dave Grohl” from the one revealed to fans around the world?
PB: I think that most performers feel that they have to assume a larger-than-life persona onstage in order to project and connect with large crowds, but I think Dave is the same guy onstage and off: there’s no ‘fronting’ with Dave, what you see is what you get. As much as Dave’s life might look like a rock ‘n’ roll fairytale to casual observers, he’s experienced some pitch-black days, and while his friendly, gregarious character is genuine, that doesn’t mean that he is going to spill his guts to everyone with whom he shares a beer backstage.
I think that’s totally understandable: there’s something much more peculiar about celebrities who are an open book. But of course there are times too when life must seem a little overwhelming to him. As the Foo Fighters’ leader he’s responsible for decisions that impact upon hundreds if not thousands of people, and as with any head of a successful corporation there are stresses and pressures involved. He loves the life he lives, but that big smile can mask genuine concerns at times.
RCM: Did James Moll’s documentary Back & Forth challenge you in any way when assembling this book? The film is extensive in its depictions of the Foo Fighters’ history, so was it a conscious effort to not simply reiterate the points made in the film? This is a Call is remarkably deep and well-executed in its own right.
PB: Well, to be honest, I didn’t know that there was a plan to document the Foo’s history already in place when I started work on This is a Call. But I’m glad I didn’t, because I might not have started the book had I known! The book was 99% written before I saw Back & Forth and I must admit that I was a little nervous that the official history might jar somewhat with my own account of the story, but those fears proved unfounded. I loved Back & Forth, I think it’s a brilliantly assembled story, and I hope that James Moll might one day put out an expanded 4 hour long Director’s Cut for hardcore fans, because he must have incredible footage that didn’t make the final cut. But whereas that focussed exclusively on the Foos, This is a Call has a broader canvas, in that it’s about Dave’s whole life, so hopefully some of the people who loved that film will be inspired to dig a little deeper with the book.
RCM: What is your all-time favorite Foo Fighters song?
PB: Hmmmmm. Maybe Monkey Wrench. But maybe This is a Call equally. That was the first Foo’s song I ever heard, and it was so joyous and explosive, and such a fabulous surprise. Every single time I hear it it gives me goosebumps.
RCM: Do you think there will ever be a sequel to this book, once Dave decides to finally call it quits and relax with his family? That said, do you think Dave will EVER decide to take a break from it all? He seems like the kind of guy who will be playing music until he can no longer physically do so.
PB: I agree with you, I think Dave is a lifer, and he’ll be making music for decades to come. There won’t be This is a Call Part 2 – though hopefully there’ll be scope for updates in future editions – but I sincerely hope that Dave will do his own book one day.
RCM: As a music aficionado yourself extremely well-versed in all things Foo and the context of their songs’ histories, have you found it frustrating how people are so quick to assume any dramatically-themed Foo song is “about Kurt Cobain”?
PB: I can’t honestly say that it’s frustrating for me – I find it pretty laughable that people would think Dave is so limited in his emotional range – but I imagine it’s slightly tiresome to Dave…
RCM: What do you see the Foo Fighters doing next? Wasting Light was a tremendous success, rejuvenating their career substantially. Where do they go now?
PB: In truth, I’m as in the dark as anyone else. But I think that the Foos have very adroitly positioned themselves in a place where they can do whatever the hell they please. There’s one point in the book where Kurt Brecht, the singer of D.R.I., says ‘Dave has what every musician wants: freedom’ and that’s a great observation. Personally I’d like to see them make a full-on, uncompromising punk rock album, a celebration of the music that brought them all together…but I’m not holding my breath.
RCM: On a slightly unrelated note, from your stance as a professional music journalist who has been doing what you do for a long time, what do you think about all these classic British rock bands (Pulp, The Stone Roses, The Las, etc.) getting back together? It’s trendy to reunite for a big tour these days, but is there a real need for it?
PB: There’s a need for it from their bank manager’s perspectives clearly! Personally, I couldn’t care less, but I can see why people get excited: as conflicted as I might have been about the likes of Faith No More or Soundgarden reforming, I’d be first in line to buy a ticket. The sad fact is that there hasn’t been a new generation of bands to eclipse these iconic acts, and almost all these reformations are driven by the desperation of concert promoters to draw in credible festival headline acts. I don’t begrudge anyone the chance to get their pay day, but it’s a little sad that nostalgia is driving the music industry right now.
RCM: What’s next for you as a writer? Any new book ideas, now that you’ve written ones about Dave Grohl and Lemmy of Motorhead?
PB: I have some ideas, but no concrete plans just yet. I don’t want to jinx anything by jumping the gun, but I hope there’ll be more books in the years ahead.
RCM: What was the most rewarding aspect about writing This is a Call, either professionally or personally?
PB: I guess it might be that in telling Dave’s story I’m also celebrating the bands and scenes that soundtracked and changed my own life. Even now when I re-read chapters of the book it makes me want to pull out my AC/DC and Zeppelin and Bad Brains and Minor Threat and Nirvana and Foos albums, and I hope that readers of the book might feel similarly inspired for years to come.
UPDATE: After conducting this interview, Brannigan inked a deal with Faber & Faber to compose a definitive, two-volume biography chronicling the life and times of Metallica. Volume 1 will be published in 2013, with its follow-up scheduled for 2014.
To purchase This Is A Call, head over to Amazon.
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