When Dave Grohl took the stage to give the keynote address at the SXSW music conference, one of the first things he did was tell a story about having dinner with one of his idols, Bruce Springsteen, who gave last year's address.
When Grohl told Springsteen he would be giving this year's address, he said Springsteen laughed.
"It was as if to say, 'good fucking luck buddy," Grohl said.
It was fitting then that Grohl's speech was mostly about the importance of musicians finding their own voice.
"The musician comes first," he repeated several times.
To illustrate why that principle mattered, he told his own story: from hearing the rock chords of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein," to getting his first guitar—which sounded "like that goats video on YouTube"—to using multiple tape machines in his bedroom to record songs about his bike, to discovering his cousin's punk rock record collection, to the Rock Against Reagan concert he attended that turned into a riot after Jello Biafra called the Washington Monument "the great Klansman in the sky," and, finally, to finding himself in a Hollywood bungalow full of female mud wrestlers—a whole OTHER keynote address, he said—where he heard the five words that changed his life: "Have you heard of Nirvana?"
Grohl said that what had gotten him to that point was being generally left alone. First to play guitar however he liked, then by deliberately joining bands that were noncommercial so he could find his own voice, rather than being a mouthpiece.
"I was no longer one of you," he said. "I was one of us."
Nirvana was also one of us. But Grohl said what set them apart was that they had songs. And Kurt.
"But what they didn't have was a drummer," he said.
Grohl told of packing his drums and moving to Seattle, where the trio played in a barn, communicating more with their instrumental voices than their vocal cords.
"Verbal communication was not Nirvana's forte," he said.
When the bidding war over Nirvana broke out—which according to Grohl, primarily involved dinners at Benihana—a record executive asked Cobain what they wanted, to which he responded: "We want to be the biggest band in the world."
"I laughed," Grohl said. "I thought he was kidding."
Then Grohl listed the top artists of the year to show why: Phil Collins, En Vogue, Wilson "fucking" Phillips.
"How Kurt could think we could make a ripple in this mainstream world of polished pop was beyond me," Grohl said.
More than that, Grohl wondered why Cobain even wanted to.
"It was so outside what we were conditioned to," he said.
But they signed and drove to L.A. to record.
"Sixteen days, 13 songs," Grohl said. "We were used to recording 16 songs in one day."
The studio was Sound City, where some of the most iconic albums in rock's history have been recorded. But Grohl said it looked like no one had cleaned up the place since Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham had been runners there.
All it took was one listen of the first track to win him over, however.
"It didn't sound the BBC sessions, or the demos or the 'Sliver' single," he said. "It sounded like Nevermind. Like three people playing as if their life depended on it."
Grohl said the record company expected about as much success from Nirvana as Grohl did. The initial pressing was 35,000 copies, supposedly enough to last for months. Eventually, the record was selling 300,000 copies a week, the point when they went from being Nirvana to Nirvana.
"Up until that point, no one had ever told me how to play or what to play," Grohl said. "And after that point, no one ever would again."
Grohl said that freedom has made all the difference, and he derided the attempts to shape musicians into the market by critics and business.
"How can we decide what makes a good voice? The Voice? Can you imagine Bob Dylan sitting there singing 'Blowin' in the Wind' in front of Christina Aguilera," he said. "It's your voice. Cherish it."
He then discussed the process of making the Foo Fighters debut: "I ran from the drums to the guitar to the coffee maker," he said. Grohl then made it into a tape and gave it to people at gas stations. Somehow, it made its way to a label.
Grohl closed by discussing the wide availability of online tools that better allow today's musicians to do it on their own, like he did.
"Am I the best drummer in the world?" he asked. "Certainly not. Am I the best singer-songwriter in the world? Not even in this room. But I've been left alone to find my own voice since the day I first heard Edgar Winter's 'Frankenstein.'
"What matters most is that it's your voice," he added. "Cherish it. Stretch it. Scream until it's fuckin' gone. Every human being is blessed with that and who knows how long it will last?"