Dave Grohl's SXSW Keynote: "The Musician Comes First"
In a funny, personal, F-bomb-laden keynote address at Austin's South By Southwest music conference this morning, Dave Grohl proselytized for the power of the musician's voice -- and the importance of letting artists develop on their own.
Christopher Victorio Dave Grohl at SXSW
Dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans, and wearing drug store reading glasses, Grohl outlined his own history with music, from the recording of the Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein" that inspired him to pick up the guitar to the solitary, caffeinated recording of the Foo Fighters' first album in the wake of Kurt Cobain's suicide.
Grohl called it "my musical life's greatest honor to be asked to share with you what I know about music. So what do I know? The musician comes first."
"What matters most is that it's your voice," he said, listing guitarists, street performers, and -- conspicuously -- laptops as vehicles for this voice, and saying that the "independence of the musician has been blessed by technology."
Grohl demonstrated onstage how he used to make multitrack recordings at home with a tape recorder and a home stereo, using the guitar for both melody and drums.
He recalled his very first concert -- Naked Raygun at the Cubby Bear while on a family trip to Chicago -- and talked about seeing the Dead Kennedys perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at a Rock Against Reagan concert on July 4, 1983.
"This was my Woodstock, this was my Altamont," Grohl said.
In some of the funnier moments of the speech, Grohl decried the notion of creative guilt, and anyone telling artists what or how to play.
"Who's to say what's a good voice? The Voice?" he quipped. "Imagine Bob Dylan standing there, singing 'Blowin' in the Wind'" -- then Grohl imitated Christina Aguilera dressing down an out-of-pitch Dylan.
"Fuck guilty pleasure -- how about just pleasure?" he said. "I can truthfully say out loud that 'Gangnam Style' is one of my favorite fucking songs of the past year."
Some of the most poignant parts of the speech came when Grohl recalled joining Nirvana and the early days of the band's career. Practicing every day in a barn in Seattle, he said, the three musicians were left alone to find their voice without anyone telling them what to do. It involved more playing than talking.
"Verbal communication was never really Nirvana's forte," he said.
Eventually Nirvana became the subject of a bidding war between record labels -- entailing a lot of free box sets and nightly dinners at Benihana. Grohl recalled a meeting with a record executive in New York, where Kurt Cobain was asked what he wanted. "We want to be the biggest band in the world," he remembered Cobain saying. "I laughed, I thought he was fucking kidding." (Grohl pointed out that the No. 1 song of 1990 was Wilson Phillips' "Hold On" -- decidedly different territory than Nirvana.)
"How Kurt could even think we'd make a ripple in this ridiculous mainstream world of polished pop music was beyond me," he said. "It was beyond everyone. It made absolutely no sense. It was the type of hopeless, shallow ambition we'd been conditioned to reject."
Then, of course, with the release of Nevermind, Nirvana did become the biggest band in the world, going platinum by the end of 1991 and eventually selling 300,000 copies a week.
"What the world heard in Nirvana's music was three human beings, three distinct personalities ... proudly on display -- three people that had been left to their own devices their entire lives to find their voices," Grohl said. "It was honest, it was pure, and it was real. And up until that point no one had ever told me how to play or what to play, and now no one ever would again."