Dave Grohl may well be one of modern rock’s greatest frontmen, taking Foo Fighters to stadium-sized success as well as worldwide recognition. That said, his career got a major jump-start in 1990 when he got his lucky break to sit behind the drum kit alongside Kurt Cobain and Kurt Novoselic in Nirvana. It was a move that rescued the band as much as it rescued him.
Finding the perfect drummer was a quest that Novoselic and Cobain found themselves on ever since they moved to Tacoma and Olympia respectively to form Nirvana. They initially practised with Dale Crover of the Melvins who played on their first demos but he then moved to San Francisco and appointed his friend Dave Foster as his replacement. However, Foster’s tenure with the band would be unfruitful and he would leave the group after a short few months—but at least he still gets to tell people today that he used to be in Nirvana, albeit momentarily.
The last straw, according to Kurt Cobain, was when Foster got arrested for assaulting the son of the mayor of Cosmopolis, Washington, which landed him a two-week prison sentence. The drummer was never told he was sacked but found out the hard way when he saw an advertisement for a Nirvana show that they’d kept him out of the loop of. Aaron Burckhard then replaced Foster but he had an equally short-lived tenure in the band after telling Cobain he was too hungover to practice, which wasn’t the sort of dedication to the cause that Kurt wanted to see from a bandmate.
Cobain and Novoselic then put an advertisement seeking a replacement drummer in Seattle based publication The Rocket but, disappointingly, received no noteworthy responses. Meanwhile, a mutual friend introduced them to drummer Chad Channing and, after a short back and forth, the three musicians agreed to jam together. That said, he was never formally asked to join the band but played his first show in May 1988.
Following the somewhat heady success of Bleach, they began work on their sophomore effort in April 1990. With a clear determination, Cobain and Novoselic quickly became disenchanted with Channing’s limited drumming capabilities which they thought was hampering the band. Channing was equally frustrated at his bandmates for not letting him be involved in the songwriting process and he soon left the band by ‘mutual consent’.
Meanwhile, as chance would have it, Dave Grohl’s band Scream had suddenly split up and he called his friend Buzz Osbourne for advice about what to do next. Buzz knew Nirvana needed a drummer so made the call and Grohl was given the opportunity to audition.
Novoselic later said on Grohl’s audition that he and Kurt “knew in two minutes that he was the right drummer.” Grohl also later remembered to Q about his first impressions of that day, “I remember being in the same room with them and thinking, ‘What? That’s Nirvana? Are you kidding?’ Because on their record cover they looked like psycho lumberjacks. I was like, ‘What, that little dude and that big motherfucker? You’re kidding me’,” he quipped.
Nevermind, the band’s seminal album, then took the band to unexpected heights in 1991 and they became one of the biggest groups on the planet with Grohl at the helm. Of course, the addition of Grohl wasn’t the only reason for Nirvana’s ascendancy to stardom but, after years of plodding along with a gaping hole at the helm in the eyes of Kurt and Kris, in Grohl, they finally had someone they could trust.
In a rare interview with Cobain, which was recently unearthed by Studio Brussels, a radio station in Belgium who had a conversation Ghent during November 1991, Cobain says: “Krist [Novoselic] and I have been playing together for about four and a half years now with a few different drummers,” the musician says in the interview. “Dave has been in the band for about a year. This is the first time we’ve felt like a very definite unit. “The band is finally complete because all the other drummers we had pretty much sucked.”
The music of Nirvana carries such a heavyweight of emotion for Grohl that it makes it a near-impossible task for him to successfully appreciate the brilliance of their music, without looking back at the time with sadness because of his yearning for Kurt. “I remember everything about those records; I remember the shorts I was wearing when we recorded them or that it snowed that day. Still, I go back and find new meanings to Kurt’s lyrics,” he said.
Grohl’s role in Nirvana is not often given the recognition it deserves and even if his drumming was not the best in the world, the calming influence that he had on the band kept them going which also got the best out of his two bandmates who took their childhood band to the next level with Dave behind the drum kit.