Yet by the Foos' second album, 1997's The Colour and the Shape, Grohl's ambition had begun to shine through the cracks of his increasingly substantial songwriting. For one thing, he actually assembled a band, hiring Sunny Day Real Estate agents Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith and ex-Germs (and occasional Nirvana) guitarist Pat Smear to help lift his music out of his cozy home studio and the band out of its questionable side-project status. On the phone from L.A., where he now spends most of his nontouring time, Grohl explains that that was crucial.
"One of the reasons why we put out the second record so quickly was because we didn't want people to think that it was a side project," he says. "I was really pretty careful with everything on the first album. I didn't wanna just jump out and make videos right off the bat." Then after forming the live band, "we jumped in the van and started doing some touring before we let the whole thing go," he says. "We tried to hold it back as long as we could."
Once freed from self-imposed constraints, the band quickly began to grow into itself. As an alt-rock record, Colour is about as slick as they come, but there's also a clear-headed gravitas to it that late-'90s rock fans weren't getting from the Offspring and were getting only in a lamebrain version from Bush; take another listen to "Everlong" and check out how much bristly post-punk tension Grohl fits into such a pretty melody. Before the recording of Colour's follow-up, '99's There Is Nothing Left to Lose, the band experienced one of its frequent lineup shuffles: Smear departed and was replaced by Scream/Wool guitarist Franz Stahl (who later left and was replaced by No Use for a Name member Chris Shiflett), and Goldsmith made room for current drummer Taylor Hawkins. Nothing suffers for the instability -- nice singles, but as an hour a little bland.
No such problems on the recent One By One. It's the band's best work yet, a tight wad of pummeling guitar roar and Hawkins's faux-Grohl drumming that's balanced by neatly defined melodies and Heavy Things to Say About Life. If you've had issues with the Foo Fighters before, the disc dissolves them: no power-pop flippancy, not much studio gloss, no boring tunes. Still, tell Grohl that you've taken a good look around and decided that in the commercial rock mainstream he's pretty much alone in representing for folks who identify with serious guitar music, and he'll try to rationalize his way out of it.
"To me the sweetest songs aren't the ones that are made by fucking cute kids with pierced eyebrows," he says. "They're a little more emotionally twisted than that. Bands like Hüsker Dü or bands like Rites of Spring or bands that have this raw, emotional rock music -- that always touched me the most. Having grown up listening to the '80s kind of post-hardcore college rock -- or whatever the fuck you wanna call it -- that stuff had a really big influence on me, whether it's made with an acoustic guitar or made with a fucking lousy rock band."
He remembers back to his days in the mid-'80s D.C. hardcore scene, when he drummed with the Dischord Records outfit Scream -- a place and a time that's come to be known as emo's ground zero. "A lot of the music in the punk rock scene had lost any relevance or any meaning. There were bands that were still ultrapolitical, like MDC or Dead Kennedys, but for the most part music was lacking something. So you had Rites of Spring and Embrace, where the emotional quality of the music was on ten. These bands were writing songs that were truly overly emotional, and it was a fucking trip. A lot of them just kind of reminded you of Hüsker Dü, but for the most part you'd never seen anything like it. Going to a show and afterwards half of the audience is in tears -- what the fuck is that all about?" He laughs.
"At first it was kind of funny, but you know what? It's infectious. You get in there and the emotions start working on you. It was a whole other side of music: 'Wow, emotion in music! Holy fuck!' And I was, like, 15, so to me music was just about taking acid and getting laid and being death metal."
Actually, at 34, that last bit still holds true, to a degree. Grohl famously took a break from the Foo Fighters last year to fill the revolving drum seat in the blitzed Californian hard rock outfit Queens of the Stone Age, playing on the band's acclaimed Songs for the Deaf and hitting the road for a spate of high-profile live shows. Grohl says he loved the sabbatical from his front-man duties and the opportunity to indulge the baser pleasures he's all but phased out of the Foos' repertoire. (And though I haven't confirmed it with them, the Queens loved having Grohl's stone-age drumming.) One By One displays Grohl's background in metallurgy, too (don't forget the straight-up stoner cut he sported as a Nirvana member), but he entertains the notion that it's down to the Queens' influence with a weary sigh.
"First of all, joining the Queens was a head trip to a lot of people," he says, "because they're like, 'Wait a second. He can't fucking switch instruments! He can't be in another band! That's not allowed!' Like you're swapping ingredients in recipes or something. It's fucking stupid; musicians are musicians, they're not cast members in stupid sitcoms. So that's weird enough, and then going back to the Foo Fighters and making a rock record, it was like, 'Oh, now this shit's rocking. And there's melody to it? Yeah, that's Queens of the Stone Age.' You know what? Go buy the fucking first Foo Fighters record, listen to a song like 'Weenie Beenie' or listen to a song like 'Exhausted.' Whatever. You make a rock record, you make a record that's acoustic, you make another rock record. I mean, if I went out and fucking played drums for Björk and came back and made a bunch of space-dance music, okay. But we're a rock band, you know?
"The reason why it's heavier than the last one is because each record is sort of a response to the last. For [Nothing] we wrote all these mellow, mid-dynamic songs that don't really have anything to do with the distortion pedal and had a great time recording them in the studio in my basement. Then we went out on tour and we only played maybe five or six songs off that record. So this album it was like, 'Okay, we gotta make 11 songs that we're gonna play every night.' And we were writing as a band in a little tiny room, so those are the kind of riffs that come out; those are the kind of songs that we enjoy playing when we're writing. It's like, 'Click, amp on, volume up to eight and one-two-three-four go' -- that kind of thing. It was about pleasing ourselves and feeling like we've gotta make a record that's gonna make us happy for the next two years on the road."
They've evidently done that. Grohl says he begged his management for a single month free of band goings-on, but that after four days without playing he was "seriously frustrated," itching to work again. "I just can't stop," he laughs with a pause. "But that's good, right?"