A clip of Pharrell Williams and Dave Grohl from the latter’s Paramount+ series From Cradle to Stage went a little viral earlier this summer when the world was gently reminded that Grohl is one of our greatest living rock drummers. The segment in question was less about Grohl than his previously-unheard disco influences, namely The Gap Band, Cameo, and Tony Thompson of The Power Station and Chic. Grohl, once the lanky backbone of Nirvana and now the picture of an American father who loves to grill out, taps out the famous flam intro to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Williams, very much in the show appearance prime of his life, mimes his mind being blown while Grohl tries to maintain an admirably self-deprecating demeanor. “Dude, stop saying I’m a good drummer because I’m the most basic fucking drummer,” he says, leaning back in his office chair, lying to Pharrell’s face.
Of course, it’s welcome to have yet another prominent white musician acknowledge black music’s irrefutable place in the history of modern pop music. But Grohl should know better than to pretend he’s anything but insanely talented at playing drums. Dave, my dude, you should know better.
Grohl’s prowess as a drummer gets picked up every few years when the Foo Fighters release a new album, or music industry vultures pump out a new Nirvana retrospective, or some kid challenges Grohl to a drumming competition. Various articles and blog posts point to the same three or so songs as examples of his best post-Nirvana appearances: “No One Knows” with Queens of the Stone Age, “My Hero” with the Foo Fighters, “You Know What You Are” with Nine Inch Nails, maybe a Tenacious D song just for fun. All worthy entries, but they tend to lean on showiness, on Grohl’s obvious technical proficiency. That’s fine, but being a good drummer, let alone a great one like Grohl is, requires more than a sense of rhythm or higher-than-average coordination. Still, his talent is often treated as a novelty, passed off as a throwback to the still-ubiquitous popularity of the music he made with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. How quaint!
I’m more than a little biased here. I’ve played drums for over ten years and I still keep coming back to him. Drummers talking about other drummers is as insufferable as the impassioned conversation of any other insular group. The popular ones are overrated, the obscure critically undersung, you know how it goes. More than most musicians, drummers pride themselves on what they see as a kind of God-given aptitude for bodily control, their “chops,” their sense of “feel,” the ability to slip into “the pocket.” These are silly, euphemistic terms, as confusing and nonsensical as the lingo you hear at a skatepark. They’re really just shorthand for a given drummer’s ability to play different genres, which require different levels of discipline. See Whiplash, see Drumline. Professional drumming, in orchestras or jazz bands or marching bands, is incredibly difficult. I would argue it’s just as difficult to develop a recognizable style that communicates technique and flair. I would also argue it’s difficult to do this in a genre like rock that, unlike R&B or jazz, doesn’t always demand very much of its drummers.
Look, for some reason, people seem very reluctant to admit that, if you’re decently coordinated, rock drumming is pretty easy. I started out learning “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, the platonic ideal of a straightforward rock beat, in about five minutes. But there comes a time, after the early phase that every drummer goes through of being wowed by the likes of Rush’s Neil Peart and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Van Halen’s Alex Van Halen, where you run into a wall. It’s more than two-minute fills or double-bass drums, both drumming components that are visually spectacular and in your face about how cool it must be to be a drummer. I mean, it is. It’s awesome. You should definitely quit whatever instrument you are or aren’t playing and try that instead. But drums have a place in the larger framework of a song and a band, something that gets lost on a lot of guys who think that becoming someone as showy as Blink-182’s Travis Barker is all about being an asshole.
Which brings me back to Dave. Oh Dave, sweet Dave. You’d never know that one of the nicest guys in the game, who clutches his ordinariness close as if it’s a life vest protecting him from the tumultuous seas of celebrity, who turns out rock albums with the Foo Fighters that are the dictionary definition of fine, is an absolute monster behind a kit. It makes me angry and a little sad that he doesn’t do it more, or, if I’m being honest here, that it isn’t all he does. Of course, the Foo Fighters are fun. They make people happy the way that car commercials with cats do. Far be it from me to stifle anyone’s artistic ambitions. But watch the live Nirvana shows, you’ll see it. The beast within. The funny face he makes hides the divine gift.
Plus, Grohl’s propensity for scurrying back to the drums whenever he can is chronic. In an interview during the 2011 Oxegen Festival, he talked about the difficult recording sessions for the Foo Fighter’s second album The Colour and the Shape. Grohl re-recorded the drum parts of William Goldsmith, who had been hired as the band’s drummer, after being dissatisfied with how they sounded. “There was that part of me that was like, ‘Y’know, I don’t if I’m finished playing the drums yet. That’s a really hard thing to give up. As I’m sitting here talking to you, I’m thinking about playing the drums.” Insert the “He admit it!” meme from I Think You Should Leave.
I respect Dave’s struggle. It’s hard to give up the thing you love. But he doesn’t have to! Finding success through other endeavors doesn’t necessarily mean that that success is because your new work is better. Jordan ditched basketball for baseball for a little, in part as a tribute to his late father, and he made Space Jam, both passable, even admirable diversions that offered glimpses at an alternate universe. But everyone knew where he really shined. Also, Grohl has a funny way of “leaving” drumming behind. Look up his Wikipedia page, specifically his discography. Look at the tracks or entire albums he’s featured on with other musicians. Drums, drums, guitar, drums, drums, drums, guitar, etc. For the NIN album With Teeth, Trent Reznor asked drummer Jerome Dillon to play more like Grohl until Reznor finally called him up and asked him to play on the album instead. Queens of the Stone Age made one of the best rock albums of the 21st century, Songs for the Deaf, with Dave on drums.
It’s okay that Grohl will never write a better song than “Everlong.” Most songs that have been written in the history of the world are not better than “Everlong.” Facility like he has is rare to come by. So too is the joy that a drummer, famously the more chaotic member of a band, can bring to an ensemble. The breadth and nuance Grohl has carved out over a long career behind the kit in a genre that, in the mainstream at least, can often lean on obviousness can’t be overstated. Grohl’s best drumming, the stuff other musicians still obsess over, came after Nirvana. For some even more insane reason, no one has admitted this either. I’m happy for him. He’s happy doing what he does, which sounds like an ex looking back forlornly at a lost love. This is simply an earnest plea. Dave, please. Pick up the sticks and hold onto them.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.