Across eight studio records, countless enormous world tours and a list of ambitious projects that would make the most hyperactive creative person's eyes water, they have become a blueprint for the ultimate modern rock band.
They're commercially successful, but retain a certain credibility that they have earned by continually doing things on their own terms. While the Foo Fighters of 2014 sound quite different to the band that started almost 20 years ago, a lot of the principles of the band are the same. That, along with Dave Grohl's ever-maturing songwriting skills, has made them a continually well-loved band for so long.
It doesn't seem like Foo Fighters, or the love for them, will end any time soon.
Dave Grohl was the drummer in Nirvana, the biggest band of the early '90s. But then, in 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home and that band was over. Grohl was left wondering what to do.
He briefly considered stepping away from music, but fellow Seattle punks 7 Year Bitch – who had lost their guitarist to a heroin overdose in 1992 – wrote him a postcard, encouraging him to continue through the pain and grief.
"I'm forever in debt to them for that," he told Richard Kingsmill in 1995. "I got it at a time where I didn't feel like I could do something like I'm doing now. That was one of the things that inspired me to get off my ass and into the studio.
“Basically it said 'We know what you're going through. We went through it too. We know that you're feeling like you never want to play music again, but that'll change.' And it did.
"I've been touring in bands since I was 17 years old and there's not much else that I know as well as playing music. It's like kicking a nasty habit, I don't think I'd be able to do it. So that's when I realised there was no way I'd be able to stop doing what I'd done for ten years. There's no way. I can't stop. Plus I knew it was good for me to keep going, just to keep moving."
So he hit the studio with the best songs he had and made the debut self-titled Foo Fighters album in just six days. The concept of making an album by himself was not completely foreign to Grohl, he'd been multi-tracking music for years.
I was running through the studio just to see how fast we could get it done. We were getting a song done every 45 minutes.Dave Grohl
"I started recording stuff maybe six or seven years ago," he told Kingsmill in ‘95. "At first it was just an experiment but then when I realised I could actually do this and make it sound like a band, I kept on trying to write the better song. Out of the 35 or 40 songs that I've written in the past seven years and recorded, the songs on the Foo Fighters record were the ones that I thought were the strongest. It's like a challenge – I keep on challenging myself to write a catchier chorus, or a weirder verse or a weird riff and a very melodic melody over it – things like that."
When it came to making the album, he wanted it done quickly and he wanted it to sound like a proper album.
"So I went in to record the Foo Fighters record it was the same feeling as it always had been, but this time it was almost like a race. I wanted to see how fast I could get it done, I wanted to kind of produce it, I wanted it to sound produced instead of all the other eight track tapes I had done, this time I wanted it to sound like a record.
"I was literally running from the drums to the guitars to the bass. I was running through the studio just to see how fast we could get it done. We were getting a song done every 45 minutes."
That first album began with a real statement. 'This Is Call' showed that Grohl had a melodic sense that was never explored in Nirvana, but that he could rock just as hard as he did in his old band.
"It's basically thanking and paying respect to everyone I've been close to I suppose, whether it was friends or previous bands," Grohl said of the song.
Foo Fighters is full of brilliantly constructed melodic rock songs that would have been successful no matter who was in the band. But Grohl had been the drummer of the biggest band in the world, anything with his name on it would have attracted attention.
Grohl had intended on issuing limited copies of the record on his own record label. He wanted a degree of anonymity that would allow the songs to speak for themselves and not be popular just because of who he was.
"I was really worried that it was going to be such big fucking deal," he said. "I didn't want everyone flipping out over my solo project. That would make me puke. I just wanted to put it out totally anonymously."
But he got too excited, passed around too many copies to his mates and his plans were foiled.
I listened to the whole thing on my Walkman and immediately went and searched Dave out and said 'Hey, if you're doing a band I want to be in it. This is great.'Pat Smear
"I fucked up," he told Richard Kingsmill in 1995. "I made too many fuckin' copies. I wasn't thinking. I just wanted to give copies to my friends.
"I was just going to release it on my own label, do it on vinyl and not put my name on it. Just put it out for fun. Eventually I'd get into a band where I could play guitar and sing and play some of these songs. It'd be great. It just spread like wildfire, it got all over the place. I had record companies calling me at home."
The album’s popularity led Grohl to form the Foo Fighters band within a few months, with Nate Mendel on bass, William Goldsmith on drums, and Pat Smear on guitar.
"I loved it," guitarist Pat Smear tells Double J about hearing Foo Fighters for the first time. "I listened to the whole thing on my Walkman and immediately went and searched Dave out and said 'Hey, if you're doing a band I want to be in it. This is great.'"
In some ways Foo Fighters are very similar to how they were after that first record. Initial drummer William Goldsmith was replaced by Taylor Hawkins quite early on, and Chris Shiflett’s been on lead guitar since 1999, but the line up hasn't changed all that much. They continue to play a fairly similar brand of melodic, anthemic, guitar-heavy, not-quite-hard-rock, and Grohl's boyish charm has followed him through to his 40s.
But Foo Fighters are also a very different band than the one we first hear 20 years ago. Dave Grohl's inability to sit still has led to the band trying all manner of different projects and recording methods over the years.
I feel like I'm not accomplishing anything unless I'm on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Hanging right there on the edge makes me feel like I'm doing my job.Dave Grohl
"I cannot stand sitting around doing nothing," Grohl told triple j's Michael Tunn in 1997. "I love doing this and there's nothing I'd rather do. I feel like I'm not accomplishing anything unless I'm on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Hanging right there on the edge makes me feel like I'm doing my job."
Following the success of the debut album, Grohl was desperate to get back into the studio, this time with a full band in tow. At the time he considered 1997's The Colour and the Shape to be far superior to the album he had made alone.
"To me it seems really one dimensional and not that exciting at all," Grohl said of Foo Fighters while speaking with Tunn. "This record I think is so much more interesting because it's everybody. It's such a big difference. I'm glad. It's such a nice progression, going from this glorified demo tape to actually going in and making a proper record."
While the first record was made quickly, the second one was intensely laboured over.
"With the first record it was really simple, there wasn't much overdubbing. With the new one, we went into the studio and spent a month and a half or two months working on it," Grohl said. "We just started layering guitars over everything. It's so much more challenging than last time, this time we're having to work on it."
Then came There Is Nothing Left To Lose and, again, Grohl changed his approach. After a year in Los Angeles, he moved back to Virginia, Washington and built a studio under his house.
"For the first record we were up in Seattle being homely and living in our little homes in Seattle, which is a nice little mellow community. Just before the second record came out I moved to LA and lived there for a year and a half and was surrounded by that whole scene. I wasn't into it and moved back to Virginia where I grew up," Grohl told Richard Kingsmill in 1999.
"We had all the time in the world, we didn't have a deadline at all. We built the studio so we weren't racking up a big studio bill. It was so mellow. With the last record it really seemed like we were this hardcore punk rock band that was trying to write these melodic rock songs. Some of it to me seemed a little forced. With this album it was definitely a lot more confident and comfortable and relaxed."
This was Grohl and the band's gutsiest move to date. Recording technology was advancing rather quickly at the turn of the century, but was nowhere near as accessible or advanced as what is available today.
"It took balls to go in and say 'we're just gonna go make a record and when we're done we'll hand it to you'," Grohl said. “Because there's a lot to lose, actually. But when you go into something like that you have to have that kind of attitude. Give the world the finger and go 'we're doing this for ourselves' and everything else is irrelevant. 'There's nothing left to lose now, we just gotta get it done and do it right'.”
What eventuated was a bizarre juxtaposition. The songs on There Is Nothing Left To Lose were slicker and more pop-friendly than ever, but the ramshackle studio set up meant that it lacked the glossy production sheen of their former albums.
"It's way less produced than anything we've ever done," Grohl said at the time. "I think the melodies are stronger and sweeter and the arrangements are a lot tighter and more well thought out.
'Learn To Fly', the album's first single, was a crystalline and succinct guitar pop song that had Foo Fighters sounding more accessible than ever. Grohl said it could have been slicker, though.
"It's pretty rough and raw," he said. "If we had recorded it with a different producer in a different studio it probably would have turned out sounding even more slick. The basic vibe of the song is so middle-of-the-road guitar, sweet pop that it does sound more commercial than anything we've ever done."
On their third record, Grohl was more considered about his vocal performance than ever.
"If we had've done these songs two or three years ago I would have tried to scream the whole thing," he said. "But this time I focused more on what the song deserved. Should I scream it or should I sit back with it?"
Foo Fighters became more mainstream after these first three records, but Grohl continued to try new things to keep himself interested.
In 2002 Foo Fighters spent months and reportedly over a million dollars on trying to make their follow up record before scrapping it all and heading back to Grohl's studio in Virginia to try again. The album ended up being a huge commercial success.
The band then attempted the ambitious double album with 2005's In Your Honor. Grohl had written a collection of softer, acoustic songs, so one half of the album was the kind of hard rock most expected from the group, while the other half was more sedate. That album also saw the band move their studio from Grohl's Virginia garage to a purpose-built studio in Northbridge, Los Angeles, where they also recorded 2007's Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace.
On that album, Grohl believed he had reached new songwriting heights. Comparing that record’s songs to his debut, he said the passion was more powerful than ever.
"'This Is A Call' – I recorded that song in like 15 minutes by myself. Then I listen to a song like 'The Pretender' and to me there's so much more invested in the music now," he told Robbie Buck and The Doctor on triple j in 2009. "When I write a song like 'The Pretender' now I mean what I'm saying, I put my heart into that arrangement."
By 2010 there was absolutely no disputing that Foo Fighters were one of the biggest bands on the planet. In spite of this, and the fact they'd built a state of the art recording studio over the previous half-decade or so, the band decided to literally go back to the garage.
With super-producer Butch Vig, the band set up in Dave Grohl's garage and made Wasting Light using only analog equipment. The process was documented in a feature length film Back and Forth, which also looked at the band's career to that point.
Grohl then went from one extreme to the next. On this year's Sonic Highways, the band travelled to eight different studios across America, where they recorded the tracks for the album and collaborated with famous musicians in each city. Guests included Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie and Joe Walsh from the Eagles.
"Dave's full of great and crazy ideas all the time," Pat Smear tells Double J. "We already have the next album planned which is also crazy. He's always one step ahead. When we're making one album the next album's already been plotted out. That's what keeps it fun and that's what keeps it exciting. It's an adventure.
The same goes for the band's live performances. They can fill stadiums the world over, but they're inclined to play anywhere that suits.
"We'll always play different venues," Smear says. "We'll play small clubs or stadiums or things in between. We'll do an acoustic tour or [Grohl’s 2013 film] Sound City where we just backed other musicians playing their songs. It's always different all the time."
In 1995 Richard Kingsmill asked Dave Grohl whether he felt he was on the right track with the Foo Fighters. Grohl had no idea.
"I dunno," he shrugged. "To try to make that kind of forecast is silly. I'm having a blast doing what I'm doing and it's something that I've never done before. That's almost good enough. I'm trying something that I never thought I'd do. It feels like the first band I've ever been in because I'm doing something entirely different. It's a great feeling."
It feels like the first band I've ever been in because I'm doing something entirely different. It's a great feeling.Dave Grohl
One thing is for sure, Dave Grohl is immensely proud of the legacy his band has created thus far. Speaking to Robbie Buck and The Doctor in 2009, he admitted that the band meant everything to him.
"I had no intention of it being a band or a career or anything," he said. "To think of that as the beginning of all of this... the band means so much more to me than it ever has. Outside of my family, it is my greatest love and my greatest achievement, this band that we have. When I listened to the whole [Greatest Hits] CD, I got really kinda choked up, because it was like This Is Your Life or something."
It's not just the five members of the band that makes up Foo Fighters. It's like a gang, Pat Smear explains.
"It's the band, it's the crew, it's the whole thing," he says. "I don't really know how to explain it. It's like a gang. Or the mafia or something like that. There's a definite family vibe. It goes for the band but it also goes beyond the band. It's a very large gang."
He can't see any reason why Foo Fighters won't continue for another 20 years.
It's like a gang. Or the mafia or something like that. There's a definite family vibe. It goes for the band but it also goes beyond the band. It's a very large gang.Pat Smear
"Fuck, who knows," Smear says. "It's been crazy already. I say why not? I don't see any reason not to."
Foo Fighters have never employed gimmickry into their music or their live performances, nor have they obsessed over portraying a certain image. For all intents and purposes, they're just a straight-ahead rock'n'roll band. In 2000, Richard Kingsmill asked whether a lack of focus on their image was hurting the band.
"We're not gonna reach [new fans] with eyeliner," Taylor Hawkins replied. "There's a lot of passion and energy when we play. That's what we give to people when we play. That's what we have to give to people when they come to shows. We're just as enthusiastic about what we're doing as someone who puts on the makeup or whatever. Maybe more so. We just care about doing a good show. It will always convert someone. We put everything we have into it and that's the key."
When asked how the Foo Fighters should be remembered, Pat Smear puts it best.
"I'd like the records to be remembered just for the music," he says.