When Dave Grohl broke into the music industry in the early nineties, he was almost immediately recognized as one of the greatest drummers in rock music. But by 1995, he had also proven himself to be a phenomenal songwriter, guitarist and singer. The Foo Fighters began as a Grohl solo-project in the wake of Nirvana’s tragic end, but quickly became one of the biggest powerhouse bands of the nineties. Their hit single “My Hero” showcases the band’s amazing talents bringing together phenomenal musicianship and production alongside rock’s historic attitude and edge.
Following the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994, remaining Nirvana members – Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic – decided to disband the group. Unsurprisingly, Grohl received offers to play drums in several other bands. However, he was reluctant to return to his old life after the death of his friend. He later explained to Howard Stern: “I had just started doing this thing and I just felt weird going back to the drums because it reminded me of being in Nirvana and it just would’ve been sad for me personally…It would’ve been an emotional thing to be behind the drumset every night and not have Kurt [Cobain] there, so I was like, ‘Nah, fuck it. I’m gonna try this other thing.”
“This other thing” was a series of studio recordings at Robert Lange Studios which would become the foundation of the Foo Fighters’ first album. During these sessions Grohl recorded 15 tracks which he wrote. He also played all the instruments and sang.
After finishing the recording, Grohl still wasn’t quite ready to enter the music world as himself, and chose to release the recordings anonymously – under name “foo fighters” – which he had derived from a Royal Airforce term used in World War 2 to describe unknown objects in the sky.
As the tracks gained positive responses, circulating in the industry, Grohl put together a band to support the album: Nate Mendel on bass. William Goldsmith on drums and guitarist Pat Smear – who had toured with Nirvana – joined Grohl on guitar. According to a 2020 social media post, honoring the band’s 25th anniversary, the Foo Fighters first performance was at a Keg Party at the Marine Store in Seattle Washington on February 19, 1995. Grohl released his recordings – now the band’s self-titled debut album – under his new label, Roswell Records and distributed by Capitol Records.
Returning from touring in the Spring of 1996, the band entered Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, Washington to record their second album – The Colour and the Shape.
The album produced three hit singles: “Monkey Wrench” “Everlong” and “My Hero.”
“My Hero” is an anthem celebrating the everyday heroes of our world – and the realization that those we had once idolized on a distant pedestal are perhaps not as important as those closest to us…the ones who stand right beside us.
Bradley Cook, the engineer for the record, has explained that Grohl told him that the song was about Cobain. However, this attribution has often polarized fans. Grohl has often denied or re-directed this interpretation in interviews. Like many artists, he encourages listeners to find a larger – less autobiographical – meaning in the song. He explained in 1996:
“Heroes are a funny thing. When I was young I had Kiss posters and I listened to Rush and thought The Beatles were magicians. But the real heroes in my life were people that I was close to. Pete Stahl who was the singer of Scream was one. I was 17 years old when we hit the road and that guy showed me the ropes, so to me he was a hero. And family members …my mom’s a saint. She raised two kids with no money and we managed to be a happy family, so she seems like a hero to me. After Kurt died, the whole idea of hero worship or idolatry warped into something I thought was strange. You take a human being and you turn them into a deity. It’s really bizarre. I remember I was driving around Ireland when I was trying to get away from that whole fiasco after Kurt died. I was in the middle of nowhere and it was beautiful. But then I was driving down a country road and I saw a hitch hiker with a Kurt Cobain t-shirt on so my perception of a hero kind of changed. If you listen to the lyrics to the song it’s all about an ordinary hero. Just a regular person.”
And that is perhaps the perfect irony that Grohl captures in this song – Cobain, the idol, was to Grohl, an everyday friend. To Grohl, Cobain was never a deity; he was a regular person. Thus, the song can be both. It can be, on a personal level, about Grohl’s relationship to Cobain, without actually being about Cobain, the rockstar. It is a song that is much larger than one person. It is about finding the everyday, true heroes in our lives.
“My Hero” and several other tracks from The Colour and Shape album first started to come together at Bear Creek Studios in Woodinville Washington. The band brought in Pixies producer Gil Norton. Grohl was still the primary songwriter, but unlike the first album (which was basically a solo album), this album was more collaborative. Grohl reflected: “I could never have made an album like this new one on my own…And you know what? [It] doesn’t sound like one person was playing all the instruments. When you throw different personalities and different perspectives into the mix, it’s going to be totally different”
The process was not without its challenges. They got off to a rough start at Bear Creek as the band members struggled with personal challenges, followed by the departure of drummer William Goldsmith. Further, the sessions took much longer and were much more expensive than they had anticipated. Nate Mendel recalled in 2007: “While recording this record two marriages fell apart, we lost a drummer, someone nearly went to jail, and we discovered late in the day that record making is hellishly expensive and best done with a budget prepared beforehand.”
For Smear, Mendel and Goldsmith – musicians who had cut their teeth in the world of punk in which attitude held paramount to musical perfection – Norton’s production style was completely different. He encouraged them to record take-after-take to get things exactly right. Norton explained: “When you’re a producer the aim of the game is to extract the best performances, the best songs and the best album at the end of the day…I want them to be proud at the end of it.”
For Goldsmith, this process was especially challenging. Despite his talents as a drummer, he felt the continual pressure of being the drummer in Dave Grohl’s band.
As the band made plans to move over to Grandmaster Studios in Hollywood to re-record some tracks, there was talk of Grohl playing drums on some of the songs. Norton later explained:
“William [Goldsmith] (the original drummer) was awesome too. He was a great friend, and I felt really bad about what happened. But I’ve only lost two drummers on a session… and he was one of them. We never intended to lose him. He just went into meltdown, that was the problem, he went AWOL for a while. It was Christmas and I went home after the first recording session in Seattle, and said to Dave [Grohl] that I don’t think we’ve got the right parts in all these songs. Dave wasn’t ever going to be the drummer on that session, and I was never going to ask him either, but we talked and he said he would try them. I suggested we try one or maybe two again. We were going to get William back and redo some of the drums. He did do some of the drums on the album, it wasn’t like he didn’t play anything. The first song we re-did was Monkey Wrench. Dave did a run through to get the sounds, and then did it in one take. That’s the one we used for the album.
I felt sorry for William because he knew how good Dave was at drums, and that was part of the problem. I kept talking to him about the importance of being your own person. You can’t be somebody else, no matter what they did.”
After Goldsmith’s departure, Grandmaster sessions turned into essentially a re-recording of the album, and Grohl did indeed re-record many of the drum parts himself. Since the band had already recorded the tracks once, the Grandmaster sessions were quick and efficient.
With Grohl back on drums, we hear the massive, heavy sound that we expect from his playing. To capture that, Cook explained that they double recorded the drums – on tape – in two different spaces. In particular, Cook recalls using two Neuman 87 mics – which they had walked down from the upstairs drum room, and a shotgun mic, all spaced out in the giant parking garage to get that unbelievably massive sound.
Because everything was recorded on Tape (no Pro Tools) edits were limited and done usually by punching in a fix. The double vocal tracks too were achieved by punching in. Grohl’s vocals are so electric and exciting on the track – It feels like it’s just hanging on an edge.
“My Hero” and the rest of the album were mixed at Skip Sailor Studios by Chris Sheldon. It was almost an assembly line of productivity as the band would finish tracks one day and send them immediately over to Sheldon to be mixed. The result was a phenomenal album of great songs and production – all while still maintaining that undeniable power-sound and edge.
“My Hero” was released on January 19, 1998 as the third single from the band’s second album The Colour and The Sound. The album had been released the previous May, and the two singles which preceded “My Hero” were “Monkey Wrench” and “Everlong”. All three singles were hits and the album peaked at number 10 on the Billboard 200 Chart, receiving largely positive reviews. Victoria Segal at Melody Maker called it “a great rock album at a time when great rock albums are viewed with increasing suspicion” “My Hero” peaked at number 6 on the US Billboard Alternative Songs Chart. It remains a fan favorite and a phenomenal example of the nineties post-grunge sound – merging together classic rock with grunge and punk’s edge and attitude…made even more brilliant by the band’s phenomenal musicianship.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about the Foo Fighters and ‘My Hero’!