Dave Grohl on the emotional impact of discovering music

The Record Store Day ambassador talks thrash metal, mowing lawns, and passing the torch

If it weren’t for records and record stores there would be no Dave Grohl, at least as the world knows him today. As ambassador for Record Store Day 2015, the former Nirvana drummer and current singer/guitarist with the Foo Fighters makes no bones about the impact brick-and-mortar record stores played in his life as a musician. From his humble beginnings in Washington, D.C.’s early ’80s hardcore and punk scenes to his forays into documentary film work with the HBO series “Sonic Highways” and his 2013 directorial debut, Sound City, Grohl has enjoyed a long and illustrious career. Before the April 18 record-shopping blitz begins, Grohl took a few minutes to reminisce over his early years spent mowing lawns to buy music, hanging out at D.C.’s Smash Records, and that moment when Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All blew his mind.

What does it mean to be Record Store Day ambassador?

I don’t know. I’ve never been one till now (laughs). I spent a lot of time in record stores when I was growing up. I have a wonderful love affair with my record collection, and I still have the first album I ever bought when I was 6 or 7 years old. It’s a silly K-Tel record that has lots of disco acts, but it also has Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” which is one of the greatest instrumentals of all time. That song changed the way I listened to music. It made me want to become a musician. Then once I discovered record stores, I wanted to spend all of my time and money there. I would get jobs mowing lawns just so I could have money to spend on more music. I cherished my albums. I learned to play drums by listening to my favorite records. I had a little record player in my room and I would put on my favorite punk rock records and play along.

Vinyl and record stores were a big part of growing up for me. To this day, kids appreciate how special they are. Even with all of the technology being what it is you can’t beat the experience: walking into a record store, being surrounded by music lovers, and people having conversations about music, discovering new music, flipping through bins, holding a record in your hands, taking it back to your room, and listening to the songs while staring at the cover art. Reading the lyrics. Sure, all of these things can be done virtually, and the convenience of technology is amazing. But there’s something about the tangible, emotional experience of being immersed in all of these things that’s life-changing. So when they asked me if I wanted to be the ambassador I said, “Yeah, whatever you want me to do, let’s do it!”

Did you have a favorite record store when you were growing up?

I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. In my little suburb there was a record store called Kemp Mill Music. It’s still around, but it was pretty mainstream. But downtown there were stores that had local music sections, punk rock sections, and import sections. There was Yesterday and Today in College Park, Md., and Smash. Smash Records was the punk rock store in Washington, D.C. — in Georgetown. That was a really good one, and it was the first place that ever sold a copy of anything I had recorded. It was just kind of a hole-in-the-wall that a punker ran and everyone hung out there. It was the place to be. You’d walk in there and they would be playing the newest release by some punk band from Sweden you’d never heard of, and you’d walk home with that record. Or you would record with your band in someone’s basement, scrape up the money to press a 7-inch or a whole record, and then everyone would sit around on the floor stuffing the records into covers. When you were done you would walk it down to Smash Records and say, “Bobby, will you please sell a couple of these records for us?” Smash was a big one for me.

Smash is still going. It might have moved since those days, but I went there on a recent trip to D.C.

Oh that is so cool. I haven’t been there in so many years. I remember when Smash opened. It was like, “Ahhh! Now there’s a record store that sells the kinds of records we’re looking for!”

In the early ’80s hardcore and punk rock scenes, most of your records were mail ordered. There wasn’t some massive distribution company stocked full of Fugazi records, or whatever you were looking for. You had to mail order them, sometimes directly from the artists. So I’d pick up a fanzine at Smash and there would be these classified sort of advertisements for bands that I’d never heard of. I’d send $4 to the address, and four weeks later I’d get it in the mail, usually with a note from the singer.

Are there any Record Store Day releases that you’re stoked about this year?

I hear that Metallica is releasing their first demo tape — on cassette — and that is fucking rad! I bought the first Metallica album on cassette from a mail-order catalog in 1983. I had never heard of them. I didn’t know anything about them other than they had a cool name, and the description said “thrash metal.” I didn’t even know what that meant. I had listened to tons of punk rock music, and I loved Motörhead, but thrash metal? That sounded scary and cool. So I sent them my $6 or $7 and a couple weeks later I get this tape in the mail. It was Kill ‘Em All and it blew my fucking mind. I will be a diehard Metallica fan until the day I die because of that experience. It was like someone had sent me the Holy Grail. I was like, “Ahhh! This is so killer!”

So when I heard they were releasing their first demo I thought, “Kick ass! And it’s on a cassette, too!” That’s going to be a lot of fun.

And it’s Metallica when Dave Mustaine was in the band.

Yeah, that’s amazing. And what’s really great is that you have one of the biggest bands in the world sharing those early experiences with a whole new generation of fans, which is important and cool.

That and it’s on a cassette tape.

Yeah. No matter what new technology is devised to make listening to music more convenient, the experience of going to a record store and buying a record, or in this case a tape, sitting on your bedroom floor and reading the lyrics to your new discovery is still the same. It’s just as romantic and emotional as it was when we were kids. I know this because I have watched my kids discover listening to records. I had to teach them how to put the record on the turntable, put the needle on the record, and then you open up the sleeve. I left them like that on the floor one day, and when I came back a few hours later they were still there! Albums scattered everywhere, listening to the Beatles — Let It Be — staring at Paul McCartney. It was the exact same thing I did when I was their age. Even though the world has changed kids are the same, and that experience will never change.