Musician Dave Grohl delivers keynote address at South by Southwest
Dave Grohl, founder of the Foo Fighters and former drummer for Nirvana, had a message for the aspiring rock stars that crowded an Austin Convention Center ballroom during South By Southwest yesterday.
"There is only your voice. Your voice screaming though an old console, singing from a laptop, echoing from a street corner. It doesn't matter," he told the crowd of about 1,000 people, many of them musicians themselves, during his keynote address. "What matters is it's your voice. Nurture it, challenge it. Because every human being was blessed with a voice. It's there if you want it. Find your own voice. This is vital."
Like so many musical careers, the discovery of Grohl's own voice began in his bedroom, in the house he shared with his mother in Washington, D.C. (his parents divorced when he was six). After hearing "Frankenstein," by the Edgar Winter Group, he bought a cheap guitar and painstakingly figured out the riff. Soon he was spending hours perfecting one rock lick after another.
"The reward of playing a song from beginning to end without a mistake, that's what fed me for weeks," he said. "No matter how bad I sounded, there was nobody there to tell me I was right or I was wrong. It was mine."
Grohl worked out a crude way of multi-tracking, using two cassette recorders, which he demonstrated during his talk.
First, he played a guitar riff into the first cassette recorder. Then, he moved that cassette to the second machine, and played the guitar part back on that one while playing a beat on the shoulder of his guitar, recording both sounds on the first machine.
"Eventually, I figured out how to be a one man band," he said.
But it wasn't until his family went to Chicago a few years later to visit relatives that Grohl added punk to his reportoire. After his cousin Tracy played him the Ramones, the Misfits, the Sex Pistols, and the Bad Brains, there was no going back, he said.
"This was the first day of the rest of my life," he said.
His dedication to his new tribe solidified during a concert and anti-Reagan rally at the Washington Monument on July 4, 1982.
"It was 7,000 sun-burned rednecks from Virginia, Maryland and D.C. singing their song, 'I Don't Need Society,' by the Dead Kennedys", he said. "Helicopters overhead, as police beat their way through crowd with billy clubs. This was my Woodstock. This was my Altamont. I was possessed and inspired and enraged and so in love with music, it had the power to incite emotion, to start a revolution."
After that, he quit school to play music full-time, sleeping on "stages and floors," he said. "I loved every minute of it. Because I was free."
And then came the next day that changed his life forever. At a mud wrestling event in 1990, he met Kurt Cobain, who asked him to join a band called Nirvana.
"They had the same things we did, and the same intentions, but they had songs," he recalled. "And they had Kurt. And they needed a drummer. So I packed my duffel bag and went to Seattle."
For months, the three-piece, which also included bassist Krist Novoselic, practiced for long hours in a barn, the new lineup's sound building and building with each new session, until the three of them were speaking only a language they could understand.
"We were speaking to each other without words," Grohl said. "Verbal communication was not Nirvana's forte. So we spoke to each other with our instruments."
And so, when record labels started to come calling, the band was ready. The group settled on Geffen Records and began work on their first album at the revered Sound City Studios, where Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" and other classic albums were recorded.
"It was mega-mind," he said. "It was the sound of three people playing like their whole lives depended on it."
Weeks after the album, "Nevermind," was released, it went gold, then platinum, usurping cotton-candy pop megastars like Mariah Carey and ushering in a new era of grunge.
"I never really figured out how that happened," Grohl said.
"It was three people who had been left to their own devices their entire lives and had found their voices," he said. "Up until then, no one had ever told me what to play or how to play."
For a time, after Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, Grohl lost the voice he had fought so hard to find, he said.
"When Kurt died, I was lost. I was numb," he remembered, clearly still saddened by the memory of Cobain's death. "I had no voice. I turned off the radio. I put away my drums. I couldn't bear to hear anybody's else's joy."
In time, though, he rediscovered his voice, and recorded a few tracks, playing all of the instrument parts himself. He made 100 cassettes and gave them out to people he met —at diners, fueling up at gas stations. Someone in the music industry got ahold of a copy, and the Foo Fighters were born.
"Eventually that feeling I had on July 4 1982 in Washington came back," he said. "So in love with life, so in love with music, that I had the power to incite a riot, a revolution. I felt it again."
Despite the phenomenal commercial and critical success Grohl has had over the years, internally, not much has changed, he added.
"After all that happened, I'm still the 13-year-old kid who realized I could start my own band, make my own record," he said.
Artists who find tremendous success often become defined by it, always wondering how to top their last record, whether it will measure up. But that kind of thinking can be destructive to the creative process -- and to your mental health, he said.
"Guilt is cancer. It will destroy you as an artist," he said. "Remember writng your first song or lyric? There was no guilt then. You will always be that person at your core. A musician. F**k guilty pleasure. How about just love it?"
Like most of the musicians, record label representatives, promoters and other music industry people in attendance at South By Southwest—part industry convention, part festival —Grohl had something to promote. His new documentary, "Sound City," about the studio where Nirvana recorded "Never Mind," screened today during the SXSW film festival, which overlaps with the music festival. You can read about the film here: http://buy.soundcitymovie.com/