“Is there always such a circus around you?”
It’s Aug. 26, day two of the Rock En Seine Festival in Paris, France, and someone is about to die. Fans are lunging at fences, swaying dangerously with the groaning planks. Reporters are flushing scarlet with the force of their shrieked questions and shoving press passes at alarmed security personnel. Somewhere, somehow, an animal is barking. And I am in the eye of the storm, one foot from Dave Grohl, uttering the first words I’ve ever said to my hero.
He looks at me, grins, and replies, “Always.”
Stars come in modest packages – Grohl, for his Midas touch on rock music, is notably shorter than his reputation alludes. He speaks with a soft resonance, in paradox to the diaphragm-ripping howl of his singing, and shuffles unassumingly with slightly arched posture. And his hair needs a wash. But when he arrives at the media tent with the other Foo Fighters in tow, all heads turn and a spiral of inquiring bodies slowly tightens around him.
“OK, let’s talk about stuff,” Grohl says blithely, opening the band’s press conference. “Let’s talk about questions.”
It’s his show for the next 20 minutes – just as it will be in an hour, when the Foos play a solidly roaring set for thousands of delighted French scenesters.
Grohl sits at the head of the conference table; the order descends to his left with Taylor Hawkins (drums), Nate Mendel (bass) and Chris Shifflett (guitar). The hierarchy is telling: Grohl started the band as a solo project and his star has risen exponentially in its 10 years and five albums. He’s the “Last of the Rock Stars,” with an awe-inspiring history (not including Winona Ryder).
Hawkins is Grohl’s oft-noted best friend, an animalistic percussionist who bounced back from a near-fatal overdose and now stands healthy and radiantly friendly. Mendel is the second-senior member, and though he attempts a broken French greeting that day, he doesn’t pipe up much. Shiflett is a punk hero in his own right (No Use for a Name, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes) but the newest member. Throughout the conference, he doesn’t so much as exhale audibly. But as Foo fanatics roundly ignore him, he hunches inward in steady recession.
Clearly, Grohl’s the prize Fighter, and he’ll do the talking. When I ask what each band member’s favorite Foo song is, he replies, “‘In Your Honor’ – it’s my fave. I love it. It’s really powerful.”
The other musicians are coaxed to answer, but they are elusive creatures; Hawkins cracks a joke about having to agree with Grohl, as per contract, then they both adopt unidentifiable foreign accents and coo, “We ah coming to Amehica, so whichevah one you liiiike.”
Ever press-savvy, Grohl deflects interest in his side projects (he’s worked with Tenacious D, Queens of the Stone Age, Bruce Springsteen and Brian May, among others). Attention generally sprints to the Foos’ latest album, “In Your Honor.”
“In my experience, Norah Jones was probably the most talented person we’ve ever worked with,” he says.
A beat later, he cites another recent guest star: “John Paul Jones (former Led Zeppelin bassist) was even better. Different, but a lot better. I’ll take Zeppelin over Norah Jones any day, and that’s saying a lot. He told some stories and we listened with our jaws on the floor.”
“He’s never done anything (musically) to embarrass himself until he played on our album,” Hawkins added.
Underwhelming appraisal, surely, but Grohl still knows how to drop the bomb. He says the N-word once in passing, irrelevantly and without preamble, and reporters physically stagger – and, in at least one instance, clutch at their hearts.
This word, of course, is Nirvana, his legendary alma mater and more recent source of prying questions and financial squabbles.
In fact, before the conference, all attendees were told strictly to refrain from queries involving Kurt Cobain and his litigious widow Courtney Love – also Grohl’s own wife Jordyn, as she is pregnant.
But finally, talk turns to other music in a tangent littered with obscure musings.
“Who produced that Butthole Surfers album?” asks Hawkins, largely to himself.
Grohl shrugs and offers, “We did a BBC session recently and they asked us to do a cover of a song, so we kinda did an Oasis one. It had to be a song that we could learn in an hour.”
“We were gonna do a Coldplay one, but we found out there’s a lot of chords in there,” Hawkins explains dryly.
“Yeah, there’s like pianos and shit,” Grohl says.
With that, they nod graciously, and the conference is over. Thrilled faces descend, thick accents beg for autographs and Grohl and Hawkins oblige them pleasantly. Mendel drifts away; Shiflett slumps in his seat and, upon my encouragement to have a good show, looks up with tired eyes and sighs. They will – the Foo Fighters’ sunset hour is poignant and precise, with a narcotic effect on most of the French scenesters, but Shiflett’s invariable expression looks even more haunting on a megapixel screen.
Maybe he doesn’t like crepes.
Regardless, the Foos’ charisma still translated. When it comes to rock, they are arguably the reigning heavyweights – and they’re standing behind their man. For that day in Paris, and maybe for 10 more years, that’s something worth fighting for.
Stacey Anderson is a journalism and music senior, KCPR DJ and February star. Catch her Sundays from 7 to 8 p.m. and Tuesdays from 2 to 4 p.m. on 91.3 FM. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.