SXSW 2013 keynote: Dave Grohl and the importance of 'voice'

AUSTIN, Texas -- Dave Grohl, looking more professorial than usual (it must have been the dark-rimmed glasses he donned for the occasion), might have a future scripting reality shows if this music thing doesn't work out.

During his keynote speech Thursday at the South by Southwest Music Conference, the Foo Fighters founder and former Nirvana drummer outlined a delicious scenario for a reality show that could be entitled "Your voice vs. 'The Voice'": "Imagine Bob Dylan singing 'Blowin' in the Wind' in front of Christina Aguilera." The scene practically writes itself, no?

It was one of many inventive ways that Grohl returned to his key theme: self-expression at all costs. Lacking was a more incisive guide into the obstacles that stand in the way of that, and how to overcome them.

Like last year's keynote speaker, Bruce Springsteen, Grohl presented a powerful message wrapped inside a casual, self-deprecating series of anecdotes, a life lesson masquerading as a life story. Grohl became Jack Black for an instant, mimicking the riffs on Edgar Winter's"Frankenstein" as he explained how his first encounter with the instrumental hit turned him into a music obsessive in the '70s. Later he was turning his bedroom into a multi-track studio and himself into a one-man band, recording himself playing instruments on crude tape recorders. A family vacation to visit relatives in Chicago introduced him to punk rock, thanks to the guidance of a leather-jacketed skin-head "super hero" cousin. Playing his cousin's punk 45s and seeing Naked Raygun at the Cubby Bear in 1982, he said, was "the first day of the rest of my life."

The punk scene taught him there was no wrong or right way to make music. The utter lack of interest, if not contempt, of the mainstream was liberating, a license for everyone in the scene to be themselves. He dropped out of high school to play in a series of punk bands, which left him penniless in California. That's when he got the call to play drums in Nirvana, a band that had something more than most punk bands he'd encountered: "they had songs, they had Kurt."

Before things took off with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, Grohl said there were endless hours of practice in a barn. "There was no sun, no moon, there was just the barn." The three didn't talk much to one another, but they developed an intimacy, a conversation with their instruments. When record labels came courting, Cobain was unabashed about his desire: "We want to be the biggest band in the world," he told the head of Columbia Records at the time.

"I laughed," Grohl recalled. "I thought he was (expletive) kidding."

Such ambition from a punk rocker was shocking to hear at the time. "What did we need with that world?" Grohl said. As a keynote speaker, it would have been instructive to hear the drummer dive deeper into that conflict, the notion that Nirvana did have every commercial wish fulfilled with the help of a corporate label and massive airplay on the type of radio stations that once routinely ignored bands of Nirvana's ilk. Though Nirvana recorded "Nevermind" in a run-down San Fernando Valley, Calif., studio (Sound City), with "brown shag carpet on the walls," the album was mixed and mastered to sound pristine; some would argue that Nirvana's voice was compromised in the process. Even Cobain complained afterward that "the album doesn't sound like us" because of the slick post-production work.

Grohl is uniquely positioned to address the way the voice of the '80s indie-underground was compromised by the rise of so-called "alternative rock" as a major-label marketing category in the '90s, but he chose not too probe too deeply. Instead, he fast-forwarded to Cobain's tragic death in 1994, and how he started over with Foo Fighters -- essentially recording its debut album himself, much like the kid who once played one-man band in his bedroom.

Foo Fighters now is a band that has defined mainstream rock for the last 15 years. If that success came with any compromises, Grohl wouldn't go there. He stayed on message: "Guilt will destroy you as an artist"; "the musician comes first"; "it's your voice, use it."

Technology, he said, has made it easier than ever for do-it-yourself artists to create, "to incite an emotion or a riot." And it also makes the rise of a song like Psy's "Gangnam Style" more possible. To Grohl's credit, instead of mocking the novelty hit, he owned up to loving it.

"Gangnam Style," he said, "is one of my favorite songs of the last decade. ... Is it any better or worse than the last Atoms for Peace record?"

There is no "guilty" in pleasure, he insisted. "Paging Pitchfork, we need you to define the value of a song? Who (expletive) cares? Who's to say what's a good or what's a bad voice?"

It was a great message. But still too often, the music industry can be like Christina Aguilera judging a singer with a Bob Dylan voice.

greg@gregkot.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • SXSW 2013: Hawtin, Deadmau5 see cracks in EDM's rise

    SXSW 2013: Hawtin, Deadmau5 see cracks in EDM's rise

    AUSTIN, Texas -- Richie Hawtin and Joel Thomas Zimmerman, better known by his stage name Deadmau5, allowed a packed hall to eavesdrop on their conversation Tuesday at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. They geeked out about gear, cracked jokes, and alternately gushed about and lamented...

  • Must-see winter music shows in Chicago

    Must-see winter music shows in Chicago

    Tribune music critics Greg Kot (pop/rock), Howard Reich (jazz/blues) and John von Rhein (classical) pick some shows you should see in Chicago this winter.

  • Bold predictions for Lolla 2015

    Bold predictions for Lolla 2015

    The Lolla schedule is sort of like the NCAA tournament: there are millions of possible combinations, and it’s anyone’s guess what the winning picks will be. With that in mind, we make some bold predictions about how this year’s fest (returning to Grant Park Fri.-Sun.) will turn out. Breakout artist...

  • 2010 killing of Chicago cop detailed at trial; man claims self-defense

    2010 killing of Chicago cop detailed at trial; man claims self-defense

    The man on trial in the killing of Chicago police Officer Thor Soderberg hated police and surprised the officer as he changed out of his uniform at shift end and placed his duty belt down, a Cook County prosecutor alleged Monday.

  • Aldermen to hold hearing on untested rape kits

    Aldermen to hold hearing on untested rape kits

    Chicago aldermen on Monday called on police officials to provide information on how quickly rape kits are being tested by the state crime lab, part of a largely symbolic effort to determine whether a large backlog is hampering work to apprehend rapists.

  • Alderman's 'Chi-raq' criticism falls flat

    Alderman's 'Chi-raq' criticism falls flat

    A South Side alderman's effort to tweak filmmaker Spike Lee for using "Chi-raq" as the title for a movie about Chicago violence fell flat Monday with his colleagues.

Comments
Loading

74°