"I Learned To Play From My Record Collection": Dave Grohl Recalls The Vinyl That Changed His Life
While the rest of the music industry is abuzz about Tidal and the battle for music streaming superiority, Dave Grohl is getting back to basics. The Foo Fighters founder, Nirvana legend, and all-around awesome dude serves as the ambassador for Record Store Day 2015, which will rock its way into 1,200 shops across the country on Saturday, April 18th.
It's a celebration of independent record shops, and for music lovers it's better than Christmas, birthdays, and the first day of spring all rolled into one. The day will see the release of nearly 400 limited edition goodies from artists including Paul McCartney, Metallica, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, and even the Foo Fighters. Their Songs From The Laundry Room 10 inch is a four-song collection of early demos, covers and a never-heard song.
Grohl takes his ambassador role very seriously, encouraging one and all to get out there and support their local independent record stores. "These places became my churches, my libraries, my schools. They felt like home. And, I don't know where I would be today without them."
Leading up to the big day, he spoke with us about the records that inspired him to make music, and why vinyl will always be the greatest format.
VH1: Let's go back to the beginning. The first album you ever bought: K-Tel’s Blockbuster 20 Original Hits. Always a solid choice. How did you settle on that? Were you saving up for it?
Dave Grohl: No! (laughs) The first time's always a little awkward, isn’t it? My mother was a public school teacher, and we didn’t have a record player in the house. We kinda didn’t have much in the house...because my mother was a public school teacher. So once we started listening to music on the radio, my mother said, "You know, I can bring those public school system record players home for the weekend and we can listen to records at home." I don’t know if you remember those public school system record players, but back in the day they had these record players that were like a little suitcase and you’d pop the top off and there was a speaker in the front and they smelled like burning dust or something.
So my mother brought it home for the weekend and we thought, "Oh great, now we need to get a record." And we went to a little record store in a strip mall down the street from my house and we bought this K-Tel compilation. Probably because my sister and I couldn’t decide on one album. We thought, "Let’s get the one that has KC and the Sunshine Band AND Alice Cooper." So we brought it home and wore that fucker out, man. To me, that album was so cool because it was a compilation—there’s so much to discover on it. But the needle landed on Edgar Winter’s "Frankenstein" and I was hooked. That was it. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the song, but it’s a prog rock instrumental of the ages. There’s no vocal, it’s all soloing basically. It’s a drum solo, one of the greatest riffs of all time, probably immortalized by Beevis and Butthead. And it just blew my mind, so that became my most prized possession.
We’d have to take the record player back to school on Monday morning, but come Friday evening that thing was back in my bedroom playing Edgar Winter again. And that sort of started my love affair with music, really. I really loved having that time by myself in my bedroom with my records and my posters on the wall just listening to these different voices, and different sounds, and different lyrics. And I was learning to play music myself, so I was examining bands’ structure and composition. I can’t read music, but this is how I learned how to play—it was from my record collection. I learned how to play drums from putting on records in my bedroom and playing on my bed. I didn’t even have a drum-set. So records, they really hold a very special place in my life.
I spent a lot of fuckin' time mail ordering punk records and waiting weeks and weeks for them to arrive. The first time I ever recorded anything, I was 15 years old and my band made a split single with another punk rock band from Washington DC. We recorded in a little studio down the street, sent it to the pressing plant, and they sent us back our vinyl. We xeroxed our own cover, stuffed it in the sleeves, walked them down to the record store in Georgetown and asked if they would sell them, and they did. So the whole experience isn’t just about listening to music, it’s about holding it in your hands and doing it yourself. It’s really a craft. It’s like an art form. I think of albums, especially ones that are independently created, as like sculpture. Fuck man, someone did this with their hands.
Was there a tipping point for you from being a music fan to wanting to be a music maker? Or did that happen early on?
It was pretty early on. I was mostly inspired by the underground punk rock bands in Washington DC, because I started listening to punk rock and then started going to punk rock shows. And outside of any show you have bands selling their demos or selling their singles. One of the first punk rock shows I went to was the Rock Against Reagan show in 1983 in DC on the Fourth of July on the fuckin' Mall at the base of the Lincoln Memorial steps. So you have all these families from Virginia and Maryland waiting for fireworks, and then like 600 of these crazy punk rockers beating the shit out of each other in front of a stage. It was amazing! I was like 13 or 14.
And this band D.R.I. played. They were the fastest band I’d ever heard. They were so much faster than any punk band. When they finished I walked over to their tour van where the singer was selling singles outside the back of the band, and I bought one. It was a 22-song seven inch. 22 fucking songs on a seven inch! Each song was like fucking 11 seconds long. And I still have that! That really is my fuckin' holy grail. I still remember that experience so vividly—looking into their tour van like, "Oh wow, they’re gonna sleep in that?!" And then the singer’s hair looked like he got into a fight with a razor and I’m just like, "This is fucking rad!"
Were there friends in town or at your record store that steered you to the good stuff?
Yeah, one of the great things about frequenting a record store is you establish these relationships with the people who work there or the people who go there. They’re all music lovers, they’re all in it for the craft of music and vinyl. So when you walk into a record store you’re gonna have a conversation with someone about something you’ve never heard before and you’re gonna hear something new.
There was a record store called Smash in Washington DC, in Georgetown. That was the place that sold my first demo tape when I was fucking 14. And the guy that ran the place, I think his name was Bobby. He was great. You walk in and they’re playing something you’ve never heard before and you usually walk out with it under your arm if you have enough lawn-mowing money. It’s that sense of community that’s really special.
If you’ve ever watched the movie High Fidelity, they did a pretty good job of painting that picture of an independent record store. I think it was based on Wax Trax Records in Chicago, which is where I bought my first punk rock record when I was 13 years old. But [you remember] walking in and being terrified that there was a music aficionado who knew more than you about a fuckin' zine, or walking in and feeling like you’re not worthy. Every dude I knew wanted to work at a record store because we looked up to those people.
Totally. I remember walking into a record store and hearing the Zombies' "Care Of Cell 44" for the first time. It was so good, I couldn't not find out who it was. So you reverently approach the guy behind the desk...
Exactly! That same sort of thing happened to me recently with [the phone app] Shazam. I was in a clothing store and I heard this song that I immediately fell in love with within 10 seconds. I’m like, "What is this?" So I hit my Shazam and it was a band called Haunted Hearts, a song called "Johnny Jupiter." Never heard of them before, immediately downloaded it and listened to it a thousand times. That experience versus walking up wobbly-kneed to a music geek and asking them who the Zombies are—I don’t know which is more rewarding, but there’s something to be said about hanging out in a record store with a bunch of music lovers. Pretty fuckin' fun.
There’s a whole other type of community now and whole other type of experience when it comes to music. The convenience of technology has made it so that you can have ten thousand songs on your watch, or go to one place and they’ll curate your music for you, or you can download something as your walking through Manhattan. It’s astounding, but it doesn’t necessarily overshadow the emotional experience you can have sitting on your bedroom floor listening to Let It Be as you’re looking at a beautiful picture of Paul McCartney.
Which is what I watched my nine year old do a few years ago as she discovered vinyl. She had the same experience that I had when she was my age. It doesn’t matter what material you have available—she had listened to the Beatles on her iPod or on a computer—but she’d never sat down and read through all the lyrics and held Magical Mystery Tour in her hands and smelled it as she flipped the album over herself. That’s an experience I don’t think she’ll ever forget. She was in there for fuckin' hours. I think there’s something about the human experience of vinyl and record stores that convenience can’t touch.
You mentioned your daughter—are there any albums that you're buying for your kids, as their "music education"?
Well, this Christmas I gave both of my daughters stacks of vinyl. And what I did was I gave them music they loved but then I threw in a couple things that they’d never heard in between all those albums. So my daughter Harper was obsessed with the Will Ferrell movie Elf, so I got her the Elf soundtrack. But then right behind that, I put a Kiss record. Because at some point they’re gonna start digging through that box to find something new.
I was walking into my daughter’s bedroom to wake her up for school and just looked down at the record player to see what she was listening to the night before...and it’s the 13th Floor Elevators. Some parents might be terrified, but I was beaming with pride. Like, "She’s already cool!"
What are some things that you discovered just crate diving that you would have never discovered otherwise?
Oh, XTC. XTC was one where I was just totally blind buying. I thought,"That’s a cool name." I remember thinking that was like D.R.I., cool punk rock. I brought it home and put it on and I was like, "Wait a minute. This sounds like the Beatles on meth, what is this?" And then of course I fell in love with it.
There’s been so many. I used to buy death metal records just from the cover art. If there was someone hanging upside down on a cross, or if there was blood and guts everywhere, or if the logo was totally indecipherable, I was gonna buy it. If this sounds like the cover looks, then I’m fuckin' psyched. I did a lot of discovering like that.
When I was fuckin' 13 years old I had this mail order catalog that was full of underground punk and metal bands, and there was an ad for Metallica, which I thought was a really cool name. And next to it, it said "Thrash Metal" as a description of the band. And I thought, "Thrash Metal? What’s that? Okay. There goes my seven dollars." I sent them seven bucks for a cassette and got the first Metallica record in 1983 on cassette, Kill Em All. And I had never heard them—no one had ever heard them—it was brand fuckin' new. I put it in the deck and I was like, "Hooooollly shit!" And then I looked at the picture on the back and I was like, "These guys are just as fuckin' ugly as me! This is amazing!"
And the crazy thing is that this year they’re releasing their first demo on cassette for Record Store Day, which is fucking rad. And that was a great discovery for me because I will always be a lifelong diehard Metallica fan because of that experience. Because of the feeling I had 20 seconds into the first song, my life was changed forever. I had chills, I wanted to destroy my bedroom, and I still recognize that feeling to this day. So Metallica in my eyes can do no wrong because they changed my life when I was 13 years old.
You still got the tape?
No, I don’t have the fuckin' tape! I still have my first album and the D.R.I. seven inch, but the Metallica one… I think my friend Jimmy wound up with it. But yes—dreams can come true, my friend, through cassette and vinyl.