IN NOVEMBER 1991, Nirvana's Nevermind was beginning its climb up the charts. The album had not yet sold more than 10 million copies, or become the defining moment of the alternative rock movement, or given Kurt Cobain the "voice of a generation" status that would help prove his undoing.
Already, though, the band's newest member, the drummer Dave Grohl, was expressing his concerns about the impact it would have on his future. "Everyone is always asking if I'm afraid of the band's success going too far," the 22-year-old told Rolling Stone, in the band's first interview with that magazine. "That doesn't really make any difference. I just don't want to be David Grohl of Nirvana for the rest of my life."
"What a spoiled brat," Grohl, now 40, says with a laugh when that quote is read back to him. "But I think any musician would say the same thing – there's a lot of ground to cover, a lot of work to do. I wouldn't want to be tied down to one project or defined by any one thing."
The odds, however, were certainly stacked against Grohl leaving a legacy beyond his role in Nirvana. The trio became the biggest band in the world for a time, then ended in horribly dramatic fashion with Cobain's suicide in 1994. Grohl, known for having a personality as laid-back as his drumming was explosive, was now permanently linked to one of rock's most public tragedies.
But Grohl was able to create a second act for himself as the singer, guitarist and primary songwriter for Foo Fighters. From its humble beginnings as a one-man project, an attempt to find an escape from the shadow of Nirvana, the band has become a commercial force, steadily racking up hit singles for the past 15 years.
Even more surprisingly, the affable drummer who hid behind his long hair, became believable as a frontman. It was as if one of the biggest bands of the 1970s had actually been Ringo Starr and Wings.
Now Grohl has formed another group, Them Crooked Vultures, which puts him back behind the drums alongside the guitarist and singer Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and the former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. "People's perception of Dave is that he's the nice guy of rock'n'roll," says Homme, "and that's accurate. He's generous, comfortable in his own skin, but he's also ambitious. He's never really satisfied with what he's done."
This month offers the opportunity to consider the sweep of Grohl's history. Within a two-week period a Foo Fighters' Greatest Hits album, a DVD and CD of Nirvana's breathtaking performance at the 1992 Reading Festival, and Them Crooked Vultures' self-titled debut album are all being released. "November is like This Is Your Life for me," Grohl says. "It's very nostalgic, but at the same time I'm in this brand new band, and a husband and a father. My life is pretty out of control right now, but I wouldn't have it any other way."
Nirvana were a struggling young band on the independent label Sub Pop in September 1990, when Grohl, a veteran of the Washington hard-core punk scene, became the sixth drummer to try working with Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic. He moved to Seattle and became Cobain's roommate; the troubled singer hardly said a word to him for weeks. In the spring of 1991 the band completed the sessions for Nevermind.
The Live at Reading performance shows the group at their peak, blasting through 25 songs in 90 minutes for an audience of 50,000, with Cobain's impassioned yelp and guitar splatter powered by Grohl's ferocious pounding. His memory of the show, however, focuses more on the chaos leading up to the festival.
"That was a pretty strange experience," he says. "Kurt had been in and out of rehab, communication in the band was beginning to be strained. Kurt was living in LA, Krist and I were in Seattle. People weren't even sure if we were going to show up." Cobain was delivered to the stage in a wheelchair, dressed in a hospital gown, and collapsed on his back before getting up and starting the show.
"We rehearsed once, the night before, and it wasn't good," Grohl continues. "I really thought, 'This will be a disaster, this will be the end of our career for sure'. And then it turned out to be a wonderful show, and it healed us for a little while."
Grohl says that, over time, Cobain's tortured personality and violent end have determined too much of Nirvana's image. "It's easy to imagine that we were followed by a black cloud. But it wasn't all misery and doom. People know the biography, but it's a little more complicated than that."
Grohl had been writing songs during his years with Nirvana, and in the months following Cobain's death he began to record them, playing all of the instruments himself. He planned to release 12 songs anonymously, under the name Foo Fighters (taken from a Second World War term for unidentified flying objects), but record companies got wind of the project and began to pursue him.
"Had I considered it as a career, I would have spent more than five days on that tape," he says, "and I probably would have called it something other than Foo Fighters."
The Foo Fighters' record company first asked them for a greatest hits collection a few years ago. "We thought, 'Yeah, someday, that could be kind of funny, but let us have some hits first,'" Grohl says. "But now that we did it, I drove around listening to this album, and I got kind of emotional. Now I know where those 15 years went."
After the release of the album, Foo Fighters will take a break, as Grohl begins his own next chapter with Them Crooked Vultures, which he formed with two of his numerous occasional collaborators. Since Nirvana, he has maintained something of a parallel career as a one-man bridge between the worlds of alternative rock and classic rock, performing with superstars such as David Bowie, Tom Petty (who once asked him to become the permanent drummer in the Heartbreakers) and Queen.
This year Grohl set up a "three-way blind date" with Homme and Jones, to see what might transpire. "Only a few minutes passed before it felt like not only a band but a really good one," he says.
Them Crooked Vultures' music – long, twisting songs with multiple sections and tempos, shot through with a scuzzy menace and dark humour – is more complex than the Foo Fighters'. Grohl calls it "the most musical band I've ever been in," and says he is happy to be working as a drummer again: "You're the goaltender, the buck stops with you."
Homme says that he considers Grohl a great frontman, but that "when he plays the drums, he always leaves my jaw dropped – that's really where the world needs him."
The band played shows, even major festivals, for months prior to the album's release, leaking song snippets and hints on the Web as if leading some hard-rock scavenger hunt. "People had serious expectations but no clue what the band actually sounded like," says Grohl. "So it only made sense to take everyone by surprise and go stealth."
He says that spending these few weeks toggling between Them Crooked Vultures and Foo Fighters has illustrated more of the similarities in his various musical roles than their differences. "It's a good example of all the lessons I've learned. I know what it's like to be a drummer and what it's like to be a lead singer, what it is to sit down and shut up and what it is to make 80,000 people stand up and sing."
Grohl has made an unlikely life for himself by keeping all of his interests in play. Unlike the burning intensity of Jack White, say, who juggles different bands to keep up with the music pouring out of him, Grohl just seems to stay open to what he calls the "happy accidents" that have kept his career going.
"I wouldn't want the nostalgia to ever keep me from coming up with something new," he says. "I definitely look ahead more than I count trophies."
Them Crooked Vultures new album is out now on Columbia. The band play the Corn Exchange, Edinburgh, 15 December www.themcrookedvultures.com
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 22 November 2009.