Dave Grohl Talks Foo Fighters' New Saturday-Night Party Album, 'Medicine At Midnight'
Last year was supposed to be a big one for Foo Fighters – it was the band's 25th anniversary, with a huge tour planned and a new album to play through. But when the pandemic shut everything down, the group decided to delay the album's release and wait it out. For almost a year, the record just sat on a shelf.
"Yeah, that's not what music's for," says Dave Grohl, laughing.
Originally started as Grohl's solo project, after drumming with Nirvana for five years, the Foo Fighters have released their 10th album, Medicine at Midnight, today. He calls it the band's "Saturday-night party album" — a sound that Grohl says they hadn't explored until then. "When [producer Greg Kurstin and I] got together to make this record, the intention was pretty clear," he says. "It was like, 'Let's make some rhythms and some grooves that people are going to bounce around to.' "
Dave Grohl spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about how Medicine at Midnight came together, his memories of battling a 10-year-old girl on the drums and his perspective on fame after more than 25 years. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Martin: 2020 ... It upended all of our lives. It was supposed to be a big year for your band as you, kind of, looked forward to this album, a huge tour. Can you just walk me through — if we could go back in time — what was it supposed to be like? What had you envisioned for 2020?
Dave Grohl:Well, we knew that this year  was gonna be a special year for the band, because it's our 25th anniversary. We started the band in 1995. ... We wanted to make our 10th album to celebrate all of that. We had planned a world tour. We had made a few different documentaries. We had made videos. The trucks were packed; the T-shirts were pressed. Everything was ready to go. The album was finished. It was mixed and mastered.
By February, we thought that 2020 was going to be the biggest year that the band's ever had. And then, of course, things just stopped. At first we just wanted to make sure everyone was safe and healthy and we all went our separate ways and just waited, you know? We would have these meetings about once a month just to check in and see if it was time to to rev up the engines and start the machine. But eventually, we realized that this was going to be a long break.
I mean, so much has changed over the past year – and the music you would make today, I'm sure, would be different. Or maybe not. But when you listen back to this album, can you explain what holds it together? What is this album saying, cohesively?
I took a look back at all of the work that we've done over the last 25 years. So, we've done things that are kind of loud and dissonant and distorted and hard rock or punk rock. But we've also done things that were acoustic and orchestrated and much more gentle, and everything in-between. And, you know, the one thing that I realized we had never done was, like, an uptempo, sorta boogie-rock party album. I thought, "Instead of making some acoustic record, where we're riding off into the sunset of our career as, you know, distinguished gentlemen of rock and roll." It was like, "No, no, no, let's open a bottle and let's get down!"
And our producer, Greg Kurstin — he's most famous for these huge pop albums, whether it's working with Beyoncé, or Adele, or Sia or Pink. He's not known for his big, hard rock records. And he's a close friend of mine, I mean, he's my neighbor. When I met Greg, I didn't realize that he was one of the world's biggest producers. I recognized him from a band that he's in called The Bird And The Bee, which is sort of like an indie band, kind of obscure. And when I saw him in a restaurant one day, I recognized him and ran up to his table and said, "Oh my God, I love your band. I love your album. I think you're a genius. What's going on with The Bird And The Bee?" And he said, "Well, we're going to make another record, but I have to finish producing Adele and Sia and Beyoncé." And I had no idea. And we became friends. A few years later, I approached him to make a Foo Fighters record, and he did.
And when the two of us worked together, there's not only this sort of mutual friendship or appreciation, but we seem to bond somewhere in the middle — between his technique and my ragged, rock-and-roll heart. ... I imagined an arena or a stadium full of people dancing to this music and singing these big choruses. And I would close my eyes and think, "This is perfect. This is going to work. This is going to set the festivals on fire, man!"
And then it just shut right down.
But Dave, we were in our homes, locked in this isolation ... here in these little bubbles, we need to move and we gotta groove!
That's what I eventually realized – that, that was the most important thing. One of my biggest revelations this year was, in the summer, I wound up having this drum battle with this 10-year-old girl from England named Nandi.
Yeah, Nandi Bushell. It was awesome.
Nirvana's producer, Butch Vig, actually introduced me to Nandi online. He said, "Oh man, you have to see this kid play this Nirvana song, 'In Bloom.' " And her energy was just — she was like a supernova! She attacked her drums and would scream as she did drum rolls! It blew my mind.
And then months and months later, someone sent me a link that she was challenging me to this drum battle. And at first, I thought, "Aww, that's adorable," you know? Isn't that — isn't that cute? But after 57 texts from my closest friends saying, "Dude, you have to respond. Like, you have to respond to this girl." So, I eventually — I'll come back with something she can play as well. Little did I realize that she just is so far outside of my abilities. I mean, this kid can really play, you know?
Are you being real? I mean, you're not exaggerating? You weren't throwing it for her?
Oh, absolutely not! I cannot keep up with this person. But the thing that I realized in that exchange: it was bringing people happiness. And in a time where people desperately need something to lift their day, they could go to their phone and have four minutes of happiness. That, to me, its currency was huge.
So, thinking about that, that time when you were growing up in the mid-to-late 1980s, what that looked like politically in America. It was the Cold War, right? ... And that leads me to this song on your album, "Waiting on a War." Can you tell me about it?
When I was young, I had this fear of war that might have had something to do with living so close to Washington, D.C. I always imagined that if there was going to be a war, that we would be the first people to get hit by the missiles.
And then one day, I was taking my daughter to school and she turned to me and she said, "Dad, is there going to be a war?" And I was shocked. At the time, I think there was maybe something going on with North Korea. And I immediately realized that she was living under that same, sort of, hopeless cloud that I lived under when I was her age. But this is 40 years later. And it kind of broke my heart. You know, kids are supposed to have these imaginative, impressionable, beautiful, formative experiences at this age — not fear of war. And I wrote that song, "Waiting on a War," that day.
What did she make of the song?
I don't think she likes the Foo Fighters, honestly.
Well, that's a whole other conversation.
They look at me like I might as well be an electrician, or work at a coffee shop.
That can't be true. I mean, I know that they're musical, right? Your daughter Violet's name is on the credits of this album.
My daughter, Violet, she's 14 years old. She has absolute perfect pitch. She has a photographic memory. And when it comes to any sort of arrangement or composition or pattern, she can memorize them immediately. And she sings from her soul. She sings from her gut. I mean, she's — she's been singing like Etta James since she was 8 years old. So it's kind of crazy.
And one day, my daughter Harper comes up to me and she says,"'Dad, I want to be a drummer." And I looked at her and I said, "Drummer? You know, that's an entry-level position. That's the mail room of any band." And she said, "Yes." And I sat her down at the drum set with a pair of sticks and, you know, by the end of the day, she was playing along to an AC/DC record. So, they are musically inclined.
Where do we hear Violet most prominently on the album?
Well, Violet wasn't formally invited to be on the album. We didn't record this record in the studio; we recorded it in an old house, down the street from where I live. I would pick up Violet on the way home from school, and we'd come to this house. She'd sit on the couch and do her homework. And one day Greg Kurstin, our producer, knowing her ability, said, "Hey, Violet, do you want to put a vocal on something?" And she said, "Yeah, sure." So she stepped in front of the mic and did a couple takes. And that was a song called "Making a Fire," the first song on the record.
I just looked at it as some sort of casual occurrence, until a few months ago when my accountant called me and said, "What do you want me to do with this money for Violet? Since she sang on the record?" And I said, "What?" They said, "Well, you know, she sang on the record. So she has to be paid." And I said, "OK, well, we're not giving a 14-year-old that much money right now. So let's put it into an account that she can have when she's 18 years old."
You still seize everything that's good and positive and joyful in what your experience has wrought. And in my question, I guess, was embedded my bias – that fame can be so destructive and so dark. ... And you seem to walk so lightly over all of that. I wonder if that's something that you have come to intentionally and have tried to instill in your kids as they, kind of, look over the horizon of their own possible fame? Or if it just is subconscious?
When Nirvana first became popular, I was 21 or 22 years old. And, you know, I was a kid. Before that, all I wanted to do was to survive playing music. Really, my biggest aspiration was, you know, to have an apartment! ... I never imagined that things would turn out the way they did. I never imagined Nirvana would become so popular.
I just didn't, you know? At the time, that type of music just wasn't commercially accessible. It wasn't popular music. It was an underground music. And when the band first became popular, it happened at a frightening speed. It was within a month or two that we went from being relatively unknown to being number one on the charts and a name that everyone recognized. So at that age, at 21 or 22 years old, that's a lot to process. And if I ever felt overwhelmed, I would just go back to Virginia. I'd go back to the house where I grew up and I would go hang out with my friends from high school and stay in my neighborhood until I felt grounded again. And then I would go back to Nirvana.
Now, that being said, I was the drummer of the band. I surely was not at the forefront or in the spotlight; Kurt [Cobain] was.
You think that helped you?
I felt pretty anonymous in that band. I was lucky, that I could avoid a lot of the dark corners or the pitfalls – but at the same time, reap a lot of the benefits of that. I mean, I bought my first car. I bought an old Ford Falcon Futura 1963. That was it for me. I was set for life. I had a car. And it was that simple then.
And then, of course, when Nirvana ended, I was stuck in a place that I wasn't entirely sure how to get out of. I didn't want to play music. I didn't want to just join another band. I didn't necessarily want to sit behind the drums ever again. But I eventually realized that music had always been that thing that had healed me or comforted me, and that was going to be the thing that saved my life again. I'd always recorded music by myself in a basement studio, playing all the instruments and making these experimental demos — just for fun — just some sort of creative outlet. And I decided to lean on that. I decided to go into a studio and record some music by myself, almost, you know, in some sort of therapeutic way, just to exercise a lot of the pain or the sadness. I looked at that as some kind of continuation, not necessarily musically, but just in life — emotionally. And that was the beginning of the Foo Fighters. And still to this day, it's what the Foo Fighters represent to me.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.