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

Dave Grohl

Musician and director Dave Grohl arrives at the screening of "Sound City" during SXSW. (Getty Images / March 14, 2013)

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
CHICAGO
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