“The musician comes first” was Dave Grohl’s mantra during his keynote speech Thursday at South By Southwest, an engaging and carefully prepared 45 minutes that encouraged up and coming artists to protect their independence and creative visions first and foremost.
“There is no right or wrong -- there is only your voice,” Grohl, sporting a plaid shirt and glasses, told the attendees. “Your voice screaming through an old Neve 8028 recording console, your voice singing through a laptop, your voice echoing from a street corner -- it doesn’t matter. What matters most is that it’s YOUR voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Respect it. Stretch it and scream until it’s f***ing gone… Who knows how long it will last. It’s there if you want it.”
With many of his Foo Fighters bandmates and Sound City Players cohorts in attendance, Grohl -- the son of a former political speech writer and a writing teacher (hence the written remarks) -- noted that he had a tall order to live up to in following epic keynotes by Bruce Springsteen last year and Bob Geldof in 2011. Grohl talked about having dinner with Springteen and telling him what he was about to do; “I congratulated him on last year’s amazing keynote, quoting him on his insight and humor, and told him this year’s keynote speaker was me. He started at me for a moment, then slowly cracked that famous smile that we all know and love, a smile that can light up an entire stadium, and then he started laughing. At me. As if to say, ‘Good f***ing luck, buddy.’ But truth be told, that’s not the first time anybody’s said that to me.”
Mostly Grohl spent the speech talking modestly and self-deprecatingly about his life as an example of that independent spirit. He talked about being turned onto music after hearing the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” on a 1975 K-Tel collection, which led to him first getting a guitar, writing songs “about my bike, about my dog, about my dad” and making primitive multi-track recordings -- which he demonstrated with an acoustic guitar and a pair of old cassette recorders. “I liked my new voice, because no matter how bad it sounded, it was mine,” Grohl noted.
He recalled being turned on to punk rock by a cousin in Chicago and attending a Rock Against Reagan concert in 1983 in Washington, of becoming a young, one-man operation and becoming so consumed by music he dropped out of school. “I burned inside,” Grohl said. “I was possessed and empowered and inspired and engaged and so in love with life and so in love with music. This was rock ‘n’ roll. No matter what shirt you had or what f***ing haircut you had, this was f***ing real. It had the power to incite a f***ing riot or an emotion or to incite or start a revolution -- or just to save a young boy’s life.”
Grohl remembered moving to California and living with some female mud wrestlers (“Don’t ask; that’s a whole other keynote speech,” he quipped) and then getting the call to join Nirvana and all that inspired afterwards. Relating a meeting with Columbia Records’ Donnie Ienner, Grohl recalled that, ‘Donnie turned to Kurt [Cobain] and asked, ‘So what do you guys want?’ Kurt… looked up at Donnie sitting at his massive oak desk and said, ‘We want to be the biggest band in the world.’ I laughed. I thought he was f***ng kidding. He wasn’t.”
Grohl spoke of Nirvana’s ambivalent rise to fame and the “guilt” the group felt with its success, and of the pain of Cobain’s death. He talked about developing Foo Fighters as a one-man project and laughed at the fact he’s the owner of his own record company (Roswell). He took shots at “The Voice” and critics and anyone or anything else that judges music, and he noted that “now more than ever independence as a musician has been blessed by the advancement of technology, making it easier for an aspiring musician to start their own band, write their own song, record their own record, book their own shows, write and publish their own fanzine -- although now I believe you call it a blog. But now more than ever you can do this and it can be all yours, and left you your own devices you can find your voice.
“Remember that simple reward of just playing music,” he encouraged his audience. “You are still and will always be that person at your core, the musician and the musician comes first.”
While in town Grohl was also screening his acclaimed new documentary, “Sound City: Real to Real,” and he plays a show Thursday night at Stubb’s with the Sound City Players.