It’s hard to imagine a more daunting gig in rock than taking the drum stool in a group fronted by Dave Grohl, widely celebrated as the greatest drummer of his generation. That gig would have seemed all the more daunting, considering Foo Fighters’ previous drummer, William Goldsmith, had exited after Grohl re-recorded the drum parts for the group’s troubled second album, The Colour and the Shape, believing Goldsmith’s contributions not up to scratch.
That Taylor Hawkins chose to grab this seemingly poisoned chalice regardless spoke to his confidence in his own drumming, but also the strength of the bond he’d already built with Grohl.
Hawkins, treasured by the Foos’ loyal fans for his skills as a drummer and songwriter, his abundant ebullience onstage and in music videos, and his obvious affectionate kinship with Grohl, would hold tight to that drum stool for 25 years, until his untimely death on Friday.
Texas-born, California-raised Hawkins was playing drums for Alanis Morissette when he and Grohl first crossed paths in 1996. Both Hawkins and Grohl were spending that summer playing festivals in Europe; Morissette was very much the more successful artist then, her breakthrough, Jagged Little Pill, the year’s bestselling album, having shifted a staggering 18m copies worldwide. Still, Hawkins was intimidated when he first met Grohl. “Nirvana were my favourite band in the world at that time,” Hawkins told me in 2005, “and I was convinced Dave would think I was a dork. But he came up and introduced himself to me, and was really complimentary, just a really nice cat.
“Everybody tells us we’re like brothers, but we’re actually very different – but we had a similar energy, not to sound like a fucking hippy.” Grohl, meanwhile, recalled that his first impression of Hawkins was “this fuckin’ crazy partying surfer. Which was absolutely correct.”
The following year, after Goldsmith’s exit from the Foos, Hawkins reached out to Grohl. “I’d read that Will was quitting Foo Fighters, or being fired or whatever,” Hawkins told me later. “I got hold of Dave and told him: ‘Yo, I heard you’re looking for a drummer.’ And he said: ‘Yeah, you know anybody?’ Cocksucker! He made me ask [for the job] ... Actually, since Alanis was one of the biggest artists in the world at the time, and Foo Fighters were still just kinda starting out, he thought: ‘Why would you want to bail on someone who’s selling 30m records?’ But I wanted to play rock music, and I loved the Foo Fighters – they were my favourite band.”
Hawkins made his studio debut with Foo Fighters’ third album, 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose, recorded as a bare trio of Grohl, Hawkins and bassist Nate Mendel in the basement of a house in Virginia, Grohl trying to exorcise the bruising experience of making The Colour and the Shape. In Hawkins, Grohl found a kindred spirit: able to hold his own on the drum kit and match Grohl’s pulverising, disciplined and never showy style, sharing Grohl’s passion for then unfashionable classic and heavy rock influences, and with a joyous nature that bore the group aloft in moments of tension.
Grohl himself had always seemed the goofy, sunshine element amid the darkness of his previous group, Nirvana. Now, in Hawkins, he’d located his own Dave Grohl figure for Foo Fighters. “Taylor and I are like brothers,” he said, years later. “The two of us are best friends. You only find so many best friends in a lifetime. Taylor and I wound up being separated at birth.”
There Is Nothing Left to Lose struck a perfect balance between Grohl’s native grungey instincts and his love for melodic rock; it remains Foo Fighters’ finest album, and surely the injection of positivity that came with Hawkins’ arrival on the drum stool was a key element.
Bands are hostages to precarious, volatile chemistry, and for all their lovable public image and abundant bonhomie, Foo Fighters have been as subject to internal ructions as any. But Hawkins’ giddy presence had always seemed a balming influence, as the group enjoyed subsequent commercial success and pursued ambitious projects such as their acoustic/electric double album, 2005’s In Your Honor, or their documentary series/album Sonic Highways, or, indeed, their recently released horror movie, Studio 666.
Hawkins and Grohl’s unique connection electrified Foo Fighters’ live performances, with Hawkins telling one interviewer that the duo would “get into these battles live, guitar versus drums, and Dave’s virtually playing drums on the guitar … and I like to sing a little bit and he can go back on the drums and remember what real hard work is and then go back out front.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Foo Fighters without Hawkins’ high-spirited presence. When, in August 2001, Hawkins overdosed on heroin, Grohl sat by the drummer’s bedside while he remained in a coma for a fortnight. Grohl later told biographer Paul Brannigan that those weeks were “the first time in my life that I ever considered quitting music. Because I was wondering if music just equalled death. I didn’t want to do music if everyone is just gonna die all the time. I was out of my mind, I was so frightened, and heartbroken and confused. And I said to everyone: ‘I don’t even wanna hear the word Foo Fighters until I’m ready to say it again.’”
Hawkins recovered, and later described the experience in terms of a wake-up call as regards his hard-partying ways. Grohl, meanwhile, realised he needed to stretch his wings beyond Foo Fighters, going on to pursue his all-star metal project Probot and playing drums with Queens of the Stone Age, among other extracurricular activities.
And while Foo Fighters soon reunited, Hawkins also began to explore other avenues. The three albums he recorded as part of his Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders side project – which he described to me as “a bit of a piss-take, as you British say”, though it’s clear it was more heartfelt than that – allowed him to indulge his classic rock fantasies, and showcase his gifts as a singer-songwriter, which Foo Fighters fans had glimpsed on Cold Day in the Sun, the Tom Petty-esque soft-rocker he wrote and sang for In Your Honor.
The Coattail Riders’ three albums featured appearances from luminaries such as Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen, Chrissie Hynde, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Sex Pistol Steve Jones and James Gang’s Joe Walsh. Hawkins also fronted another group, the much heavier The Birds of Satan, which grew out of his heavy rock covers band, Chevy Metal.
But Hawkins’ true allegiance was always to Foo Fighters. Just over a week ago, 18 March, marked the 25th anniversary of the announcement of his joining the group. On Friday night, Foo Fighters were supposed to be headlining the opening night of the Estéreo Picnic festival in Bogotá, Colombia. In their place, the organisers played a message reading “Taylor Hawkins Por Siempre” over the video screens, as fans sang along to Foo Fighters’ 1996 anthem My Hero. The void left by Hawkins’ passing will be profound.