Someone asked Dave Grohl if rock'n'roll is dead.
It probably wasn't the wisest question to pose to a die-hard rocker like Grohl, who leads the Foo Fighters, and is considered by many to be the greatest rock drummer alive.
"I said, 'Dude, ask the 130,000 people who are coming to see us at England's Milton Keynes Bowl in July. Ask the 2,000 people who were drinking and having the night of their life at South by Southwest," says Grohl, who in late March visited the conference for the premiere of the Foo Fighters' revealing new James Moll-directed documentary "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth" (see story, below) and played a packed gig at local staple Stubb's.
"Just because rock'n'roll isn't No. 1 in the commercial mainstream doesn't mean it's gone," he says. "It doesn't mean it's dead. All I know is what rock'n'roll means to me. It's this living, breathing thing that you can see in someone's eye."
You don't need to catch Grohl's eye to know he's an authentic rocker. If his résumé isn't convincing enough-he drummed for Nirvana before releasing the Foo Fighters' self-titled debut as a one-man band in 1995-then his old-school approach to recording the Foos' seventh full-length album should cast away any doubt. For "Wasting Light," due April 12 on Roswell/RCA, the band ditched Pro Tools and laid down the 11-track set-the group's most aggressive-sounding release to date-on analog tape in the garage of Grohl's home in Encino, Calif. Butch Vig-who helmed Nirvana's groundbreaking "Nevermind" album-steered the Foo Fighters' first studio release since 2007's "Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace." The set also features guest appearances by Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and singer/guitarist Bob Mould (formerly of Hüsker Dü and Sugar).
"There's poetry in being the band that can sell out Wembley but also makes a record in a garage," Grohl says. "Why go into the most expensive studio with the biggest producer and use the best state-of-the-art equipment? Where's the rock'n'roll in that? What happened to the kid who dropped out of high school, painted houses and worked in a furniture warehouse just so that he could get on the road and fucking escape from everything? I don't like doing what people expect me to do."
DUCKS IN A ROW
Adopting vintage recording methods to produce a warm, nostalgic rock sound is a dicey move in today's music climate. Pop music reigned last year with artists like Justin Bieber and Ke$ha commanding the sales and radio charts (Billboard, Dec. 18, 2010). But while rock is experiencing a down phase in terms of album sales and radio listenership, the Foo Fighters are confident that the rock music buyer's market will welcome "Wasting Light" with open arms.
Their optimism isn't unfounded. Since the band's launch 16 years ago, it has scored 24 hits on the Alternative chart and sold 9.5 million albums (and 8.5 million track downloads) in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And Grohl, guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mendel, drummer Taylor Hawkins and guitarist Chris Shiflett are coming fully loaded with an arsenal of marketing and promotional efforts in what RCA Music Group GM/executive VP Tom Corson calls "one of the most comprehensive campaigns I've ever been involved with."
In addition to concert and festival dates booked globally through the end of August, there's already a single at rock radio ("Rope"), various TV appearances and synch placements in the works (including a "Saturday Night Live" appearance on April 9), two new music videos, the exclusive vinyl covers album "Medium Rare" for Record Store Day (April 16), secret club shows in Los Angeles, a Foo-branded 1989 white limousine cruising the country previewing "Wasting Light" for radio stations and indie retailers, another North American tour planned for the fall and the forthcoming documentary. The Foos' camp is also focusing part of its marketing/promotional strategy on the "garage" theme of the album, which includes a BlackBerry-sponsored North American tour (brokered by MAC Presents) where the band will play in the actual garages of eight lucky fans.
"Like anybody else who's making music right now, we're looking for new ways to let people know you have an album coming out," says Mendel, the Sunny Day Real Estate bassist who joined the Foo Fighters in 1995. "There are lots of areas where you can be concerned or complain about the state of things, but there are cool opportunities to do something different, too."
So far, the buzz for "Wasting Light" is strong-especially online, where in addition to gritty videos for the punky song "White Limo" (featuring an appearance by Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister) and sinewy first single "Rope," numerous websites and blogs posted quotes from Grohl siding with Kings of Leon and Slash in slamming "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy for his negative comments about being declined permission to use certain songs on Fox's show. (The Foo Fighters share Sony Music Entertainment as a parent company with "Glee," which releases its albums through Columbia.) "You shouldn't have to do fucking 'Glee,' " Grohl told the Hollywood Reporter.
"Glee"-bashing aside, the Foos have also experienced success at rock radio in recent weeks. "Rope" recently topped Billboard's Alternative chart, giving the group its eighth No. 1. The five-piece is now the first act with Alternative No. 1s in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. The band also ties U2 for fourth-most leaders in the chart's history, with only the Red Hot Chili Peppers (11), Linkin Park (10) and Green Day (nine) boasting greater sums.
Radio programmers are thrilled to have new music from the rock vets. "This album is great for rock radio," says Matt Pinfield, who hosts the morning show with PD Leslie Fram at alternative WRXP New York. "Rock radio needs the Foo Fighters and the Foo Fighters need rock radio. It's a great relationship."
Fram adds, "You have to realize that most people in alternative radio have been with this band from day one. So for them to be year after year a core band for alternative radio-and one of our top five core bands-it's very important that we keep current music from the Foo Fighters on the radio station."
RCA Music Group senior VP of rock music Bill Burrs, who has worked off and on with Grohl since Nirvana's demise in 1994, plans to follow "Rope" with another heavy-hitting rock track. "Normally we'd go rocking into something like a 'Times Like These' or 'Long Road to Ruin,' then come back with another rocking song," he says, noting that the follow-up single is a toss-up among "Bridge Burning," "Walk" or "These Days." "We're going to keep it in the vein of rock'n'roll because that's what this record is really about."
ROUGH FOR ROCK -- AND ALL GENRES
In recent years, rock radio has experienced a decline in listenership. The Nielsen BDS audience totals for the No. 1 song on the Rock Songs chart have dipped from about 15 million-16 million each week in mid-2009 to about 10 million in recent months. Nevertheless, "Rope" is at 15 million on this week's list, the highest sum for a No. 1 on the chart since February 2010.
Looking at the past 10 years, in late 2002, 86 stations were playing the No. 1 song on the Alternative chart; nine years later, there are 61, a drop of 25 that reflects the hefty number of stations that have either all-out switched or tweaked their playlists significantly from a core alternative focus. "A lot of the traditional indicators indicate that rock needs a refresher and is in a bit of a down cycle. What's happening more is that rock music is being consumed in ways that it wasn't consumed before," RCA's Corson says. "Yes, there are less stations playing rock music. And the audience has dwindled because it's moved online a lot."
Since 1994 (the first year for which Nielsen SoundScan still has genre data available on its current site) alternative rock has seen its sales soar from 13.4% of total U.S. album sales to its peak in 2004 when it comprised 20% of all U.S. album sales. Since that year, however, the genre has slid backward. In 2007, alternative rock comprised 17.7% of the album market, rebounding somewhat during the next two years to 18.9% (2008) and 18.2% (2009) before falling to 16.5% (2010) of all U.S. albums.
So far this year, alternative rock accounts for 17.1% of U.S. album sales. In 2010, new rock albums by Kings of Leon ("Come Around Sundown"), My Chemical Romance ("Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys") and Linkin Park ("A Thousand Suns") likely failed to sell as well out of the gate as some in the music business expected for such high-profile bands.
Granted, album sales continue to decline in all musical genres. But, for instance, in the 15 weeks following the release of My Chemical Romance's "The Black Parade" (2006), the set had sold 889,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In the same time period in 2010, follow-up "Danger Days" shifted 238,000 units. The trend is similar for the other aforementioned releases. The Foo Fighters' best-selling album, "The Colour and the Shape" (1997), has sold 2.3 million copies, while 2007's "Echoes" has moved nearly 900,000.
But the downturn certainly hasn't dampened the band's spirit, especially since it still does well on the road. In 2008, the Foo Fighters grossed $19.4 million from 42 arena concerts that drew more than 431,000 fans, according to Billboard Boxscore.
And thanks to a hefty album promotion campaign spearheaded by Silva Artist Management (the Foo Fighters are managed by John Silva) and RCA, fans will have plenty of reasons to purchase "Wasting Light." One reason in particular: A limited number of physical copies will include a piece of the master tape used to make the recording, according to RCA Records senior VP of artist development Aaron Borns.
Also: They're embracing digital practices to build awareness for "Wasting Light," which began late last year with Grohl using Twitter to tease fans with photos and news updates about the recording of the album. "That's certainly something we haven't had in the past," Borns says, adding that other early digital strategies included offering brief song clips on the band's website as well as a free ringtone of "Bridge Burning." "The band wanted to be more engaged with the fans earlier this time."
In addition to a TV partnership starting in April with ESPN to feature Foos tracks "I Should Have Known," "These Days," "Rope" and "Walk," the group has synch placements in the works for a couple of upcoming films, though Borns declined to reveal specifics. But in an effort to further engage the band's younger demographic, it partnered with Fuse for a contest that allows fans to submit their own videos for each of the 11 songs on "Wasting Light." In the week following the album's release, a special program will air on Fuse to debut the self-made clips.
Grohl acknowledges that the Foo Fighters' fans have changed during the band's 16-year career, and that younger, more tech-savvy listeners are coming onboard each day.
"Our relationship with our fans is different now than it was 15 years ago, because the range in age is really wide," he says. "I'll look down and see kids that are 8 years old with Foo Fighters shirts on singing every word, and then I'll see their 65-year-old mustached dad with a beer sitting a couple seats above them."
Grohl adds that "Wasting Light" is the last Foo Fighters album owed to RCA under the band's contract, though the label declined to comment on its contractual status with its artists. "Our deal is up," Grohl says, noting that the band technically makes albums under Roswell ("Which I'm the fucking president of," he says) and hasn't yet discussed where its next album will be released. "We haven't seriously talked about it. But they're great people that I loved working with for a long time."
For now, Grohl isn't worried about the business side of his music, he's relishing every moment at the forefront of what some believe is a dying genre. "To me, rock'n'roll is analog. Rock'n'roll is imperfection," he says. "Rock'n'roll is musicians onstage who aren't pretty and don't sing perfectly. They get a little drunk and don't sound like the record. And they don't have computers behind them fucking playing things for them. To me, rock'n'roll is fucking real. It's alive and well."