Dave Grohl has been at the centre of alternative rock music for over three decades. After drumming for the legendary grunge outfit, Nirvana, Grohl redefined himself as a guitarist and songwriter of incredible skill. With his band Foo Fighters, Grohl wrote a number of alt-rock’s most enduring songs, including tracks like ‘Everlong’, ‘My Hero’, and ‘Monkey Wrench’. He has also recently side-stepped into documentary filmmaking with Sound City, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
In a recent interview, he talked about his surprise at Nirvana’s early success, as well as his reaction to the death of his friend and bandmate, Kurt Cobain, who he described as “the greatest songwriter of our generation.”
Nobody, least of all its members, would have expected Nirvana to be as successful as they were. With its dissonance, maudlin tone, and chaotic instrumentation, their sound was the antithesis of radio-friendly rock. The band’s debut album Bleach did not sell well on release and failed to chart in the US and UK.
However, with the release of 1991’s Nevermind, the band shot to the front page of every music magazine going. Recalling that time, Grohl said: “We were still in our van, and we were just watching this happen in front of us. The crowds were getting bigger. The crowds outside of the shows were bigger than the crowds inside the shows. We could see that something was happening, but we really never expected that it would turn out to be as big as it was. I don’t think any of us expected that.”
For Grohl, much of Nirvana’s success was down to the talent of its frontman and songwriter, Kurt Cobain. The Foo Fighters singer described his heartbreak after hearing of Cobain’s suicide: “It is one of my life’s greatest heartbreaks that Kurt isn’t still here to write more amazing songs because it’s pretty clear that he was blessed with a gift. I think it’s safe to say that he was the greatest songwriter of our generation. I’m very proud to say that I got to be his drummer and play those songs every night.”
Kurt’s songwriting endured where he did not. For Cobain, lyrics were frequently secondary to the music. They were, in a way, a bi-product of his song’s melodies. And it is those melodies that really allow Nirvana’s songs to soar in the way that they do.
Many of the tracks on Nevermind feature eastern scales and modes, creating that instantly recognisable moodiness that has come to define the grunge style. But it was also Cobain’s sensitivity to the world around him which has given his music such longevity.
It has been said that he kept countless journals and was always writing poems and little fragments of prose. These neurotic, deeply introspective fragments would often find a home in his songs months after he wrote them – with Cobain only realising why he’d written them once they’d found their place.
Kurt Cobain’s songwriting is one of the greatest gifts he left in the wake of his suicide. Countless articles and videos attempt to dissect his style or show musicians how to mimic his song-craft. But, Cobiain’s style was borne from myriad styles and took years to develop. It simply cannot be recreated. He managed to do something that songwriter’s spend a lifetime trying to achieve: He managed to sound exactly like himself.