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From Foo Fighters to Nirvana and beyond, Dave Grohl takes a long look in 'The Storyteller'

Midway through “The Storyteller,” Dave Grohl’s new 384-page book in which he shares memories across his decades of life as a musician, we reach the part where Kurt Cobain dies. Grohl doesn’t go into specifics; most everything has been told in other Nirvana books already. But he captures the emotional impact of that moment in a uniquely personal way, by contrasting it with the loss of his childhood friend Jimmy Swanson in 2008.

“That was the last story I wrote, because it was the hardest,” Grohl told me in a Zoom interview last month. “I was scared to open up and write about that experience.

"I also knew what people wanted me to write, and I avoided that. Instead of writing a detailed description or account of those few days, that whole piece was about what determines the depth of your sadness when you lose someone. Is it how strong the bond was, or how deep you brought them into your lives?

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Dave Grohl, shown here playing the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2008 with the Foo Fighters, has a new book out titled "The Storyteller."

“With my friend Jimmy, I’d known him since I was 6 years old. We lived two blocks away from each other in Virginia. Our whole lives, we shared everything. With Kurt, I was in a band with him for three and a half years. Their emotional relevances in my life are different, but equally as strong. So it had more to do with what it feels like to lose someone, and how you process that.”

Less a formal memoir than a collection of stories that weave together like a patchwork quilt, “The Storyteller” is Grohl’s first book. “I knew what I didn't want to do: I didn't want to write a formulaic, chronological, logistical, informational account of the last 52 years of my life,” he says. “Plus, as with everything I do, I had no clue how to do it. I don't know how to write a (expletive) book!”

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But now that it’s done, “The Storyteller” ($29.99, Dey Street) might just be the first of many volumes. “It was so much fun, and I can't wait to do more,” he said. “When I hit send on that last story in the book, I was sad. I thought, oh no, it's over? I guess that is the tip of the iceberg. I want to keep going.”

Dave Grohl's new book, "The Storyteller," is out Oct. 5 from Dey Street Books.

We spoke with Grohl for an hour about the book, his early days in D.C. punk band Scream and Seattle legends Nirvana, the mid-’90s rise of Foo Fighters, his visits to Austin over the years, and more. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

American-Statesman: In the introduction, you explained that this book grew out of the pandemic and suddenly finding yourself not playing shows. Had you ever thought about writing a book previously?

Dave Grohl: You know, I always thought that I would someday, but for the longest time I just felt it was too soon. I was actually offered one 10 years ago. I was at a barbecue and this guy introduced himself and said he was a book agent. He said, "Have you written a book?" I said, "No, I haven’t." He said, ‘Do you want to?’ And I said, "Well yeah, someday, I think it'd be pretty fun." Both of my parents were brilliant writers. And then Monday morning I got a call from this guy's office, and he says, "Look, it's easy, all you’ve got to do is four or five hours worth of interviews, and then we'll just have someone else write it and we'll hand you a check, and you have yourself a book."

And I cringed because I thought, oh my God, both of my parents would disown me if I ever had somebody else write my book for me. And I’ve always enjoyed writing. I’ve never done it professionally, but I’ve been asked to here and there, for magazines and introductions to other people's books.

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I realized that I finally had time, and a lot of stories. And I don't do well with time off: I’m bad on vacation. I’m not good at sitting down and watching TV all day. I can't do that. I always need something to do. So last year when everything shut down, I started this Instagram page called Dave's True Stories. …  I made a list of 30 or 40 of these stories that I could write just to give me something to do. I looked at the list and thought, this could be a book, you know. And that's kind of how the whole thing started.

Dave Grohl with his wife, Jordyn, and their three daughters. Grohl shares stories and photos in his new memoir, "The Storyteller."

There’s a chapter I really enjoyed about how you played on “Saturday Night Live” with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers just after Nirvana ended, and almost ended up becoming a member of the band. Do you wonder sometimes about an alternative universe where you did take that gig, and how differently your life would have unfolded?

Absolutely. That's a big “what if,” but that was a tricky period. I wasn't really ready to move on yet. I was taking these small steps to get back to music, but it still hurt a little. Just to be asked to play two songs with them on “Saturday Night Live,” and walk into a room and there he is, with Mike (Campbell) and Ben (Benmont Tench) and the Heartbreakers … but at the time, I think I was maybe 25 years old, and I wasn't ready to sit back on the drum stool.

I had recorded this Foo Fighters tape — it wasn’t a band, it was just me playing all this (stuff) in a studio down the street from my house. And I decided to do the Foo Fighters thing because I wasn't sure if I could do it. I could sit down with Tom Petty and play songs on the drums, but this Foo Fighters idea was like, “I’m not sure if I can do that.” And that's why I did it. At that point in my life, it was like, "OK, I need to switch it up. I need to do something that I don't know how to do." And it worked.

There’s a fair bit about your family life, and your parents’ influences on your own life, in the book. You talk a lot more about your mother than your father in the book. Did they split up when you were young?

They did. They divorced when I was about 6 years old. My father was very conservative — a Republican journalist and then a speech writer. He became a PR guy and worked on Capitol Hill as a campaign manager for Sen. (Robert) Taft from Ohio. My mother was a liberal public school teacher who loved Manhattan Transfer. She’s one of the sweetest, most open-minded, generous, loving, altruistic people. She’s what a school teacher should be, I think.

Dave Grohl with his mother, Virginia Grohl.

So you have this really conservative suit-and-tie guy, and then I’m his (expletive) son — how far does an apple have to fall from the tree? I always joke that mine rolled all the way down the hill. I was a terrible student, failing out of the high school that my mother was a teacher at.

So my father and I had a really rocky relationship until I was about 22. We relieved ourselves of the obligations that come with a father-son relationship; he basically said, “You're on your own,” and I basically said, “Finally.” And then we became friends, and I learned to love him and get to know him better.

He passed about seven years ago, but in that time where we got to know each other, he’s the one who inspired me to write. He was such a brilliant writer. When email became a thing, we had this correspondence back and forth when I was on the road. He would write me stories about D.C. in the ’70s and his involvement in reporting Watergate and stuff like that.

And as we're going back and forth, like any son, you just want to impress your father. He’s raising the bar on each one of these emails, and I’m having to write him back and give him something that he could actually chew on. After a month or so, he writes me back and says, “You know what, David? You're becoming a really good writer.” He said, “Your writing has punch, and punch is power.”

I swear to God, it was like my life’s validation. I’ve jammed with McCartney, I’ve jammed with the Zeppelin guys, I’ve jammed with Prince — but my dad sending me that letter, I hung my badge on that for the rest of my life. And it really did inspire me to write.

The Foo Fighters played a show in August in Los Angeles and brought out this amazing 11-year-old drummer, Nandi Bushell, to do a song with the band onstage. We’ve seen this kind of thing many times over the years, like a few years ago in Austin …

Oh, I know what you’re going to say — you’re going to say Kiss Guy! He was sort of toward the front, and he had this Kiss makeup on, and he’s got a sign up (that reads), “Can I play ‘Monkey Wrench’?” And “Monkey Wrench” is like the second-to-last song in a two-hour-and-45-minute set, so I’m sitting there looking at him all night, holding this sign up, and I'm like, damn his arms must be tired.

Grade-school photo of Dave Grohl in Virginia.

I had to give it to him. I was just like, he worked hard for this. He’s been holding that sign for two and a half hours. I’d never met him before; no clue that he could even play. I just thought, "OK, this could either be the greatest thing that's ever happened or a total train wreck, but I don't give a (expletive)." And he took my guitar and he was off and running.

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When we play live, it's always been important to me that there is a connection with the audience. … When I was young, I always had this twisted fantasy that I go to my favorite band’s show and someone would come out and say, “Sorry. we can't play tonight, something happened to our drummer, unless there's someone out there that knows every one of our records front to back.” And then I would raise my hand and jump up onstage and save the (expletive) day.

Every time I bring up one of those people onstage, I have to think they've had that same fantasy, to be able to jump onstage with the band and perform in front of thousands of people. It not only brings them joy, but it brings the audience joy, and me as well.