Dave Grohl: The Documentarian

Music Features Dave Grohl
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Dave Grohl is the frontman for the Foo Fighters and the former drummer for Nirvana. But tonight he’s also the bandleader, emcee and organizer for an unlikely group of musicians—Lee Ving of punk-rock pioneers Fear, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, Alain Johannes of Queens of the Stone Age, his Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic, the rest of the Foo Fighters, plus John Fogerty, Rick Springfield and Stevie Nicks. They’re all here in Park City, Utah, to celebrate his directorial debut Sound City and the Los Angeles studio it documents.

The concert here at Sundance where Sound City premiered the night before is just the latest phase of a project that began when the storied studio finally closed its doors and Grohl bought the soundboard. He was originally just going to make a short film about the board’s history, but that evolved into a full-blown documentary… which led Grohl to gather some of the musicians who recorded in Sound City studios to record new songs for a soundtrack… which led a group of them to play shows in Los Angeles, Park City, New York and maybe even Australia.

“To me, it seemed like a logical extension of the film,” he says two days later at a condo overlooking downtown Park City. “Like, here we’re telling a story about what this stuff means. Well, OK, we’re going to have these performances in the film to demonstrate what this shit means? Then why not take it off the screen and put it in a club so that, all of a sudden, all these people come to life, and it sort of makes sense with the message and human element and ‘we’re just people.’”

“But, God, it was a pain in the ass to organize,” he adds. “Thank God for my sweet Foo Fighters because those guys are so fucking good. You know, we’re on break right now. We’re on hiatus, which Pat Smear called the ‘I-Hate-Us.’ So I go to them and say, ‘Hey you guys, we got to learn 40 songs in the next 10 days.’ They’re just like ‘OK.’ Having all of those artists together, it’s cool because they’re alike. They’re the same type of person. And they’re just as passionate about it as I am—like Fogerty. Jesus Christ, Fogerty. What a badass. The scarf and the flannel, and he’s kicking ass on these songs that are 40 years old. It was fun. It was really fun.”

Grohl was 21 years old when he traveled from Washington D.C. to Seattle to audition for Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, eventually replacing Chad Channing as Nirvana’s drummer. The band was looking to follow up Bleach, its debut on Sub Pop, and had generated a surprising amount of interest from major labels. The trio signed with David Geffen’s DGC Records and headed down to L.A. to work on the tracks that would become Nevermind.

Grohl had spent time in studios before. He dropped out of school at 17 to join the punk band Scream, playing drums on its fourth album No More Censorship. And there was nothing about Sound City that marked it as anything special. In fact, his first impressions were almost all negative. But that was before he heard what he, his bandmates and producer Butch Vig would do with Cobain’s songs there.

“We drove down from Seattle,” Grohl recalls of that fateful trip. “We didn’t know anything about Sound City. We got there and it was a total shithole. We spent 16 days recording there. And those 16 days totally changed my life forever. And I always remained friends with the people at the studio. It was a really small studio in the San Fernando Valley, outside of Hollywood. It wasn’t a big fancy commercial studio; it was really this kind of dumpy room out in this warehouse complex. Not a lot of people went to Sound City, but the people that did recognized that it was kind of a magical place.”

Among those to spend time in the studio were some iconic names in rock ’n’ roll, both before and after Nirvana rolled into town. Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham practically lived at Sound City, so when Mick Fleetwood lost his old bandmates, he found a couple new ones and recorded Fleetwood Mac there. Neil Young recorded After the Goldrush at Sound City in 1970. Rick Rubin used the studio to record Johnny Cash’s Unchained in 1996. Tom Petty, John Fogerty, Barry Manilow, Dr. John, Pat Benatar, Cheap Trick, Rick Springfield, Trent Reznor, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Frank Black, James Brown and Metallica all recorded at Sound City and many of them appear in Grohl’s documentary.

The musicians recall with great fondness studio co-owner Joe Gottfried and the people who worked for him and his partner Tom Skeeter. But more than anything, the film is a love letter to a piece of recording equipment, a soundboard created by English electrical engineer Rupert Neve. It was a passion for that particular Neve board that led Grohl to make Sound City.

“When [the studio] closed last year,” he says, “because I’d been friends with them for so long, I very kindly offered that if they ever wanted to sell that board, I’d be honored to have it. Because I felt like that board is really responsible for me being the person that I am now. So they decided that I would be the one to have the board. Because I mean, everybody’s recorded on this thing. It should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So I thought I would just make a short film about the history of the board, just to sort of pay tribute to the studio and the people who worked there and the history and all the people who have recorded through this thing. And then it just blossomed into this huge project.”

His “huge project” premiered at Sundance alongside the works of folks like Richard Linklater, David Gordon Green and Lynn Shelton, but the first-time director seems completely at ease. He’s a film buff who loves the works of Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, but this week he’s rented a mansion 20 minutes outside of the madness and spent a good part of the week snowboarding.

The fact that all of his prior filmmaking experience consisted of making a couple of music videos for Foo Fighters and Soundgarden didn’t phase him at all going into something of this scale. He just wanted to “make something rad” and hoped he could show it somewhere like Sundance.

“Jim Jarmusch—what a badass,” he says. “His appreciation of the marriage of film and music together—Dead Man and the Neil Young score. Or Ry Cooder and [Wenders’] Paris, Texas. Oh my God, it’s so inspiring. Those movies and those albums have just made me want to be a human being. Fuck being a director; I just want to be rad as a person. When I was young, I was like ‘You know, I’m too fucking stupid to go to college. And my family doesn’t have any fucking money, but I’ll figure something out.’ That’s how I honestly believed I would sort of live the rest of my life. How much do you really need? As long as I have somewhere to sleep and eat, I’ll be fine. It was sort of the same way as a musician. I didn’t take lessons to play the fucking guitar; I just sort of figured it out. I didn’t take lessons to play drums; I just figured it out. And left to my own devices, I sort of winded up doing it the way I do. So I guess just having that stubborn-independent attitude—like when I get IKEA furniture, I would much rather put it together without looking at the fucking instructions than suffer through those weird diagrams. And this seems like the perfect type of place. This was our goal. If we can get a movie that is good enough to be accepted by Sundance and then premiere the movie there, this is where it would make most sense. I’m a person that just thought ‘Fuck, I’m gonna make a movie. And I don’t want anybody to fucking tell me how to do it because I’ve never done it.’ And we’re here and hopefully that can inspire other people to do the same thing. If you are passionate and have a clear vision of what you’d like to do, then just fucking do it. Don’t even call yourself a director; just fucking make something rad.”

Sound City spends a lot of time focused on the Neve board—its place in history and its journey to Grohl’s own studio in Virginia. But the movie also tells the stories of many of the bands who recorded on it, from Fleetwood Mac to Tom Petty. Grohl had no trouble gathering them for interviews.

“When I would reach out to Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick,” says Grohl, “‘Hey I’m making a movie. You want to talk about music?’ ‘Absolutely.’ ‘I’m making a movie about Sound City to tell its story’—what do you think Stevie Nicks would say? ‘Like, oh my gosh, that’s such a huge part of my life.’ When I talked to Tom Petty on the phone to ask him to be in the movie, I was so terrified. I’m such a huge fan and he’s such a legend. I consider him a friend, he’s really good dude too. I didn’t want to impose or hit him up to be in my movie. So finally after talking for a while, I said, ‘Tom, I’m making a movie about Sound City.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, since you spent so much time there, do you think maybe I could interview you?’ And he was quiet for a minute and he said, ‘Well, you can’t have a movie about Sound City without me.’”

One of the most affecting tales was of Rick Springfield, who began his career in the U.S. with Studio City’s Joe Gottfried as his manager before unceremoniously firing the man who’d put him on the studio’s payroll just so he could spend his days writing songs.

“Sound City was a home to hone my writing craft,” Springfield says. “I was one of those guys who had a four-track recorder at home, and I’d get up in the morning and write songs and record demos. Then I’d take them in and record them on this staggering Neve board, which was like turning a Volkswagen into a Lamborghini. It was one of the most forming times for me as a songwriter. It was more than a studio—it was instrumental in nurturing young musicians.”

But Springfield’s relationship with Gottfried, who passed away in 1991, fell apart when he hired a new manager.

“It was surprising that I still had so much emotion,” Springfield says. “[Grohl] didn’t know that’s how I felt about it. He was just asking questions to follow the story. It took us both by surprise. It was really hard to watch. I’ve seen it twice now—once with my wife in L.A. I did love Joe, and I was a good guy most of the time, but when it came to the separation, the sharks were circling, the lawyers saying ‘Your manager’s not doing a very good job.’”

Springfield was one of the musicians Grohl invited to his studio to record a new song with him and the Foos on the newly relocated Neve board. “He just sent out an email—it was typical Dave,” Springfield recalls. “He’s a very gracious guy, and that’s part of what makes whatever he touches work. It just started out as just that, but once he got all these people together for interviews, he said, ‘Why don’t we all record something on this board?’ The song [“The Man That Never Was”] came out and it felt great. We were all thrilled to do it. And then Dave said, ‘Why don’t we all play a show?’ And there have been several, one in L.A., one at Sundance, there’s going to be one in Australia.”

Sound City reveals clips of some of these recording sessions, including a memorable one with Paul McCartney. After jamming with the former Beatle, an almost-giddy Grohl says, “Don’t you wish it was always this easy?” Sir Paul looks at him for a second and replies matter-of-factly, “It is.”

“You know, it’s a really funny moment in the movie,” says Grohl. “But that one line sums up the entire film. That’s it. ‘Why can’t it always be this easy?’ ‘It is.’ You don’t have to be on a television-song-contest show to be a singer. You don’t have to go to the Berklee School of Music to be a guitar player. You don’t have to do any of these things. Everybody has it inside of themselves. If you’re comfortable with who you are and how you sound as a musician, then you got it. It’s great. Frank Black says, ‘Feel is not about playing in time,’ like you could be gloriously out of time and it could just feel awesome. It’s one of the cool things about music. I was mostly inspired to play music by seeing punk rock bands. Because I saw them and was like ‘Oh good! I don’t have to be Eddie Van Halen. Awesome. I can just go [guitar shredding sound]!’ That gave me a lifetime of music with all of my friends. You know you strive to be a great player and to get better, but ultimately it’s not really about that. It’s about the feeling when you and your friend get together and start jamming and all of a sudden you have that connection. It’s like ‘Oh my God what just happened? That’s fucking awesome.’”

Talking with Grohl, you get the sense that the targeted audience for this film is young musicians who might appreciate the history of late-20th-century rock ’n’ roll but who also just need a kick in the pants for inspiration. Some of the last scenes are basically little nuggets of wisdom from Neil Young and Rick Rubin.

“My first question with every interview,” he says “was ‘What was your first impression when you walked into Sound City?’ And everybody said, ‘Well it was a fucking shithole, obviously.’ Then my last question was always ‘What’s your advice for the next generation of musicians?’ I did 40 interviews, so I could make another movie of just how to get kids to fall in love with music. But that was really our intention. When I told someone that I consider this to be the most important thing that I’ve done artistically in my life, she was like ‘Really? Well you sold a bazillion records with Nirvana.’ Yeah, but that’s not what it’s about really. Being in a band and making records is one thing. You’re making songs and you want to be good and you’re kind of doing it for yourself in a way because you want to be the best Nirvana that you can be. Or you want to be the best Foo Fighters you could possibly be. I don’t make this movie so people would think ‘Wow he’s a kick-ass director!’ I made this movie so that kids like my daughter and her friends could see these legendary musicians in a vulnerable place in a recording studio so that they can see ‘Oh wow, they’re just people too. Oh, I could do that too ’cause they’re just people. Like, I don’t have to have a degree in music or a degree in computer science to make an album. I can just make it with my friends.’”

“That really became the mission,” he continues, “for all of us involved. A lot of us are musicians and all of us are music lovers. And for the crew of the film, it was just like ‘We’re doing something good. We’re not just making like a rock record that’s going to help us go sell t-shirts on the road. We’re actually doing a service, I think.’ And in that, I’m very proud, and I feel like it’s the most important thing I’ve done.”