In 2011, legendary San Fernando Valley studio Sound City – the sketchy rooms where everyone from Arctic Monkeys to Barry Manilow had recorded, and the place ’Nevermind’ was laid down – closed its doors for the final time. In order to preserve a piece of it, Dave Grohl bought the studio’s giant, history-infused analogue mixing desk. Not content with purchasing one permanent relic, he wanted to create another. With an experienced team of filmmakers, he put together an enthralling documentary about its illustrious history, telling the studio’s hidden stories, complete with an all-star cast of friends – Paul McCartney, Krist Noveselic, Stevie Nicks, Josh Homme among them – to soundtrack it.
But, now we know that Sound City was only the kernel for a much bigger idea in Grohl’s mind. “Music is the product of its environment,” he tells NME in a forthcoming feature interview. “I truly believe that.” In ‘Sonic Highways’ he takes that idea and blows it up on an ambitious scale.
Searching for a “fresh” way to approach the recording of his band’s soon-to-be-released eighth studio album, Grohl landed on the concept: Foo Fighters would travel to eight American cities and record a song in eight different studios. That would be the stimulus for the music, but, in tandem with that, he wanted to make an authoritative, engaging series of films about the history of American music, the like of which had never been seen before.
It starts in the middle of the US, Chicago, the place Grohl saw his first live gig aged 13. It begins with Muddy Waters and the seeds of blues planted in the city, then comes the arrival of Buddy Guy in 1957. In it, Guy, sat smiling in a corner seat, recalls playing blues with little else but a button and a string. From there, it travels through the decades.
The stories of Cheap Trick, Naked Raygun, Verboten (featuring Grohl’s cousin Tracey) and Big Black have rarely been uncovered (neither have punk hangout WaxTrax Records and venue The Cubby Bear), and certainly not like this. Here, their histories are recounted through the words of a range of musicians from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy to The Eagles’ guitarist and keyboardist Joe Walsh. Grohl personally conducted an extraordinary amount of interviews to make it come to life.
The highlight of the episode, though, is the profiling of producer and songwriter Steve Albini. Known as a crackpot genius producer in more underground circles, around 15 minutes of the hour is dedicated to detailing Albini’s contributions to Chicagoan music and his forthright ethics. He talks candidly about the experience of moving to the city, recording with Big Black and producing Nirvana, but also his struggles, the fact he’s currently “balls deep” in debt and sometimes pays his studio staff with the profits from playing poker – his “second income”. He’s labelled everything from a “righteous dude” (by Naked Raygun frontman Jeff Pezzati) to a “cynical prick” (by Grohl, referring to Albini’s reputation), but the show gets under the fingernails of the story of one of US music’s most unheralded characters.
Viewers travel to a place that’s ever closer to Grohl’s heart in episode two: Washington DC. “I will always feel like a Washington musician,” declares Grohl, who hails from Springfield, Virginia (less than an hour away). This episode is far more personal. We see Grohl returning to sit at his family home’s kitchen table with his mum, struggling to control his delight as he lingers in the corner of local legends Trouble Funk’s practise room, and proudly sitting in shot (for most of the other interviews, he is off camera) talking to his heroes Bad Brains. Even still, it doesn’t feel indulgent. And the contributions are killer, with Beastie Boys’ Mike D, Rick Rubin and notoriously interview-shy Ian Mackaye (Fugazi, and founder of Discord Records) all helping to tell the story.
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It’s clear that this series isn’t really about Foo Fighters. The creation of a new track in each episode is woven in, but it doesn’t take centre-stage until the final passage, where Grohl channels his experiences of meeting a raft of local luminaries into new lyrics. The band had the songs for ‘Sonic Highways’ written, but the frontman deliberately left the lyrics to the last few hours before committing it to tape. Episode one is closed out with a performance of ‘Something From Nothing’ and episode two is rounded off with punchy new effort ‘The Feast And The Famine’. This entwining of plots could, you imagine, be quite cartoonish – like some kind of pantomime finale – but it’s not. Like the rest of the documentary, it’s slick, stylish and tastefully done (a hallmark of broadcasters HBO).
Dave Grohl’s carved a 20-year career from writing lyrics that are grand, evocative, emotional statements. But, here, travelling on his ‘Sonic Highways’ he’s taught himself to become the master storyteller. Foo Fighters set out on a journey that would challenge their own creative process. What they’ve ended up making is something everlasting for everyone else.