Dave Grohl's teenage obsessions: 'I learned drums by arranging pillows on my floor'

Ahead of the 10th Foo Fighters album, their frontman recalls the music and scenes that made him – from punk gigs in Chicago to sleeping on floors in Italian squats

Punk rock

Before I was a teenager, I started playing music in my bedroom by myself. I fell in love with the Beatles, then began to discover classic rock. I went from Kiss to Rush to AC/DC, but in 1983 I discovered punk rock music through a cousin in Chicago. My world turned upside down. My favourite bands were Bad Brains and Naked Raygun; I listened to Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. My introduction to live music came when my brother took me to a punk show in a small bar in Chicago. I didn’t have that festival/stadium/arena rock experience; I just saw four punk rock dudes on the stage, playing this fast three-chord music, with about 75 people in the audience climbing all over each other. It changed my life. One of the most prolific scenes in hardcore American punk rock was in Washington DC, just across the bridge [from Grohl’s home town of Springfield, Virginia]. So I started going to see bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi. By the time I was 14, I was cutting and dyeing my hair and wearing leather jackets. All I wanted to do was leave school, jump in a van and tour shitty basement clubs with my punk band.

Virginia Grohl

My mother was a teacher at the high school I went to. She spent her career dealing with rebellious little assholes like me, but she was known as the cool teacher. She understood that every child learned differently, and having a difficult time at school doesn’t necessarily mean that a kid can’t learn. I think I was her most difficult student, but she saw the passion in my musical obsession. So when I hit that stage of rebellion, I just glided through it. My mother was entirely supportive, and she was encouraged by the independence and creativity of the underground punk rock scene, because everybody did everything themselves. There were no record companies helping anyone: you just started a band, wrote a song, played a show, got $50, went to the studio, recorded something, pressed your own vinyl and put out your own record. To see your kid that passionate about anything at that age must have been very inspiring. It’s always the things that you most want to do that you do well. Really, all I did was listen to music.

John Bonham

At 13 or 14, I had a narrow-minded vision that everything could only be punk rock all the time. I scoured the record shelves for anything dissonant and subversive – death metal, industrial music – anything that wasn’t on the radio or seemed rebellious. By the time I was 15 or 16, my friends and I had already made records, played shows out of town. I had learned to play drums by arranging pillows on my floor and my bed in the formation of a drum set and playing along to Bad Brains. We discovered Led Zeppelin just as I started progressing as a drummer and I became obsessed with John Bonham: what he played and why. It’s hard to explain, but his feel and sound is unmistakable and undefinable. Anyone can take the chart of what he played, but it would never be the same because it was as unique to that human as a fingerprint. I became like a monk, listening to these records and memorising them. It was like poetry to me. I became so obsessed that I gave myself a three-interlocked-circles John Bonham tattoo on my arm with a fucking sewing needle and some ink. I was branded for life.

Travelling and touring

Like most musicians playing punk and underground music in the 80s, I didn’t have aspirations to make a career of it. When. When I was in my later teens, the reward was just some sort of appreciation from the audience. At the most, I hoped that some day I wouldn’t still have to work in the furniture warehouse that I was working in back then, and would have my own apartment. Going on the road at that age [with the Washington punk band Scream], it’s such a beautiful time in anyone’s life. You’re discovering identity, finding some freedom and you’re becoming who you are. So it was the perfect window of time to leave home and start wandering around the planet. I started touring at 18: carrying my stuff in a bag, sleeping on floors, and if I was lucky, I’d get seven dollars a day to budget on cigarettes and Taco Bell. I was open to experience.

If we were playing a squat in Italy, I’d be learning about their sense of community, their political ideas and language. Then Amsterdam and ending up in a coffee shop every night. I saw America for the first time through the window of an old Dodge van. It was John Steinbeck shit. I had a five-year plan: to learn music and become a studio drummer, then with the money I made go to college and become a graphic-design artist. When Nirvana got popular, all that shit went out of the window. I still can’t read music.

Free-thinking weirdos

In later life, I’ve realised how fortunate I was to be surrounded by really amazing creative individuals as a teenager. I wasn’t locked into any high-school social scene. I was hanging out with people in the Washington music and arts scene: photographers and writers or musicians who had labels of their own. In reconnecting with them in more recent years, I realised that they all went on to do such great things. One of my oldest friends from the Washington DC punk scene became head of the Sundance TV channel and worked with BBC America. Another one became a chef in Brooklyn. Another became an editor of Bon Appétit. Everyone went on to do great things, I think, because we were raised in the community of free-thinking weirdos that decided we weren’t going to follow the straight path. We were cool when we were young.

Home recording

In my teens, I also realised that I could record music by myself. When I was about 13, I figured out how to multitrack things with two cassette decks. I would record songs with my guitar on my little handheld cassette, then take that cassette and put it into the home stereo, then hit play as I was recording another cassette on the cassette recorder. So I would add a vocal. I could multitrack that way.

Eventually, I became close friends with another musician who had an eight-track in his basement, so by 17 or 18 I started recording songs by myself, playing the drums first, then adding guitars then the vocal. Really only as an experiment. I never played the songs for other people, but it was wild. I could do this and 15 minutes later I would have a song that sounded like a band but was only one person. I learned to write and record, and that turned into Foo Fighters.

• Foo Fighters’ album Medicine at Midnight is released 5 February on Roswell/Columbia Records


As told to Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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