Long before the city became known as an Amazon boomtown, Dave Grohl remembers the 1990 Seattle as a place that existed in a “little cultural biodome” of its own. “What did we have? Like, fish and Bill Gates and whatever.”
The Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer headlined CityLab DC on Tuesday, talking with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg about how music scenes like the one that emerged in the grunge-era Pacific Northwest can become city-shaping forces. “Those kids were connecting to what was going on in a way that doesn’t happen often,” he said. “It happens just before a musical revolution.”
In those pre-internet days, Seattle was too geographically isolated to lure many national touring bands, forcing fans and musicians alike to go it alone and build their own distinctive indie-rock community. Grohl, who grew up in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, was a veteran of Washington, D.C.’s thriving punk scene when he arrived in town. “When I first got there, I hadn’t joined Nirvana yet, but I went to go see them play,” Grohl said. “What I noticed was the identity of the audience. They weren’t like spiked hair and chains and leather jackets. They looked like kids from trailer parks. They had like flannel shirts that they got at the Salvation Army and they wore like Converse Chucks and ripped-up jeans and they just looked like derelicts.”
But thanks in part to the breakout of Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind, Seattle suddenly became a brand-name music city; bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains joined a gold rush for grunge acts, and the “Seattle sound” became a cultural phenomenon—and a marketing gimmick. “Designers started selling flannel shirts for $800,” Grohl said, “and it changed.”
The success of Nirvana launched a wide-ranging career for the onetime punk drummer; after the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1994, Grohl swiftly founded his own band, Foo Fighters, which has so far released nine albums. Grohl also created the 2014 HBO series Sonic Highways, based on the band’s 2014 album of the same name. The show chronicled the musical histories of eight American cities—including New Orleans, Nashville, Chicago, and Los Angeles—that boast influential local music scenes. Among them is Grohl’s own hometown of D.C., whose eclectic musical identity can be credited to visionaries like Ian McKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi, as well as go-go pioneer Chuck Brown.
At CityLab DC, Grohl was a tireless proselytizer for the community-building power of such local scenes. “Wouldn’t you love it if your city was famous for music?” he asked the city leaders in attendance. “A rich and vibrant music scene brings a lot of happiness. It’s like air—it’s important. You need to have that in your life just to remind you that life’s worth living.”
To foster such an atmosphere, Grohl also had a tip for the policymakers in the crowd: Create more all-ages venues. He got his start as a drummer by seeing shows as a teenager in D.C. clubs like the 9:30 Club. “It was a dump, but it was important to generations of people that found inspiration in that crappy little room,” he said. “People deserve to have an opportunity like that—for people to go to experience music, to learn how to play music, to share music with each other and build a community. Now when I talk about Washington, D.C., I’m proud of being from Washington, D.C. When I say I’m a musician from Washington, D.C., people think I’m a badass. And I agree.”
That echoed an idea that Frank Sirius, current leader of D.C.’s Chuck Brown Band, voiced earlier at the conference, where school music programs trained locals to play instruments and fed the city’s homegrown music scene. “I aspired to be like the guys I watched at the block party and clubs,” Sirius told The Atlantic’s Gillian White.
Even in an era of on-demand digital content consumption, Grohl is still a believer in the transformative power of analog musicianship and live performance. “What’s really inspiring is when you see an actual human being on stage with an instrument made of wood and wires, and one microphone,” he said, “and they do something so moving that you fall into, like, a romantic state of loving life, because people do great things.”
He talked about how, on a visit to New Orleans shooting an episode of Sonic Highways, he marveled at how spontaneous second line parades “just happened like wildfires in Los Angeles.” Every city, he insisted, should to find their own ways to let music play that kind of a role in daily life—and “let it walk down the street.”
“There are thousands of musicians in this city right now that could go on to change the course of popular music,” Grohl said. “They just need the opportunity to do it.”
Watch the full interview here: