Foo Fighters may have been on a break of late, but Dave Grohl hasn't been sitting on his arse. Oh No. The most connected man in rock has called on some buddies to make a movie about Sound City - the LA studio where Nirvana recorded Nevermind. Simon Young headed there to ask Dave about his new vocation, Nirvana, and when the Foos might return...
"You guys realise we've got a lot of songs to play,"
smiled Dave Grohl, casting a glance over the
sea of people in front of him as the Foos closed
last year's Reading Festival. "It's our last show
for a long time."
What a buzzkill, eh? There we were, having a great time, and then Dave hints at calling it a day on the band's 18-year career. What the hell was the busiest, most-connected man in rock going to do with his newfound downtime?
Well, it turns out that the busiest, most-connected man in rock had several things up his plaid sleeve. Phew. And, almost six months later, we're at Studio 606 in Northridge, his recording complex 10 miles northwest of Hollywood's hustle and sun-cracked pavements. Deep in the bowels of 606 - decorated with massive Black Flag posters, Nirvana and Foos memorabilia, and framed Zeppelin prints - we find Dave sitting back in a leather chair, nursing a huge coffee. He beams his toothy grin and offers a firm handshake. There's that Bonham tattoo. Cool. The Nicest Man In Rock- it's true -is feeling the after-effects of a big night out. Just 18 hours before, he hosted the Los Angeles premiere of his directorial debut, Sound City - a ios-rmnute film about the now defunct Van Nuys studio that birthed Nirvana's 1991 album, Nevermind - at Arclight cinema on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. After the film, he hightailed up the road to the 4,000-capacity Palladium for a three-hour celebrity jam with some mates, who happen to play in Slipknot, Fleetwood Mac, Cheap Trick ... that kind of thing. Oh, and his Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic was there, wearing his bass just as low as you've seen in all the band's videos.
The unlikely star of the film - a gigantic, custom- built Neve 8028 analogue mixing console - sits nearby, like an old, robotic uncle made of wires and buttons, as we begin our chat with Dave, to find out how two weeks in that studio changed his life, why he's dipping his Vans-clad toes into film-making and what the future holds ...
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO MAKE
"The studio is part of my life. I don't know if I'd be here if it wasn't for that studio. It made Nevermind sound the way it did. The idea started when we were making the last Foos album [2011'S Wasting Light, produced by Butch Vig, who also helmed Nirvana's Nevermind in 1991] in my garage. Butch and I started hunting around for some equipment and someone said I should call Sound City, because they were selling everything off in Studio B. I said if they ever wanted to get rid of the [Neve 8028] board in the A room, to let me know. They were like (adopts pinched, angry face), 'I'd sell my grandmother before I'd sell that board: I was like, 'Okay, just sayin" It was only a matter of time before they closed and they asked me if I was serious about buying the [console]. It didn't cost as much as you'd think."
2011 WAS ALSO THE 20TH
ANNIVERSARY OF NEVERMIND...
"It was perfect; it'd be a nice sidebar to that story, where I'm reunited with the board we made the album on, that I consider to be responsible for who I am as a person. So I called my friend Jim Rota, who's in [Californian metallers] Fireball Ministry, and said, 'Let's make a little short film and put it on YouTube: I talked to Tom Skeeter, the owner of the studio, and he told me so many crazy stories about people who'd recorded there: Evel Knievel, Vincent Price ... Charles Manson! I thought this was more than a YouTube clip. I could spend all day talking about the board, but the bands who've played through it? It's nuts! It's a long list."
WHEN YOU SET OFF
FROM SEATTLE TO MAKE
NEVERMIND, WHAT WERE
YOUR EXPECTATIONS OF
"We basically slept in a van when we went on tour, so we weren't used to top-of-the- line shit! Sound City was kinda run-down and was a perfect match for us. We rehearsed all the songs [for Nevermind] in a fucking barn! Kurt [Cobain] and I lived in an apartment full of turtle shit and cigarette butts. But when we got there, we were surprised, because we were coming to Los Angeles, the music industry capital of the world. I'd thought the place would've been a little cleaner, but the cool contrast was that the platinum records on the walls were legendary: Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers [1979'S Damn The Torpedoes], Fleetwood Mac [their 1975 self-titled album] and Dio [1983'S Holy Diver] ... "
CAN YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TRACK YOU RECORDED?
"In Bloom, I think. We immediately knew that the big room sounded good. It was just a room with linoleum tiles, but when you put your kick drum in the middle of the room and hit it, it sounded good. There was deep resonance to the room that you just don't get [anywhere else]. Sound City was never designed acoustically - it just sounded great. [So] we put the drums in the middle of the room. Krist set up his bass amp in a closet down the hall, Kurt's amp was in a doorway, and we did a take or two of In Bloom and listened back to it. It was the first time I'd ever heard Nirvana sound like that. It didn't sound like [1989 debut] Bleach, it didn't sound like the  Sliver single, or the Peel Sessions. We were just like, 'Oh my God, that sounds huge!' With Butch Vig at the board (points at the console), it blew us away. After that take, we knew the album was going to sound good."
SO WHAT WERE THOSE 16 DAYS LIKE, THEN?
"I hardly remember! We stayed at this crappy apartment complex called Oakwood. It was right off the highway, next to the Hollywood Hills and filled with child actors, guys and high-priced escorts; there was a hot tub where people would meet - it wasn't a pleasant place. We just wanted to record. We started playing each day at loam and Kurt sang all of his scratch vocals as if they were real takes. But if you're going to do that for six hours, you're going to blow your voice out."
DID YOU HAVE ANY KIND OF
INKLING THAT SOMETHING BIG
MAY BE ABOUT TO HAPPEN?
"I was 22 and didn't have a credit card or a bank account. I lived hand-to-mouth and it was fun. I just remember before that, I knew what was going to happen every day. Like I'd have to sell something so I could eat, or we'd get in our shitty van and go play a gig. Or when this is all done, I'm going to have to go back to the furniture warehouse and beg for my job back. I knew those things were going to happen. [But] when we started making Nevermind, I suddenly didn't know what was going to happen next. Even though none of us expected what happened to happen, suddenly there was this chance that maybe it could. All of our friends were listening to the songs and going, 'You guys are going to be huge: It's a sweet thing to say, but at the time Michael Jackson was huge; Whitney Houston was huge; Michael Bolton was huge. Poison were huge! There was no place for us in that. To us, huge meant Sonic Youth; they played to 1,000 [people] a night. It was exciting."
WERE YOU HAPPY WITH THE WAY NEVERMIND CAME OUT?
"Yeah. I really wanted it to be good, so at night I'd listen to the rough mixes on cassette, but all I could hear was my inconsistency. I couldn't see the bigger picture. I was so focused on playing really well and there were times when I wondered whether [the drums] were good enough. But when I heard the rough mix of Breed, I thought, 'Damn, this is fuckin' good!' It was a good feeling. After we'd finished recording, we had a vacation and then went on tour with Dinosaur Jr .. That's when things started really picking up."
IN THE FILM, YOU PLAY ALONG TO SMELLS LIKE TEEN
SPIRIT TO DEMONSTRATE THE STUDIO'S DRUM SOUND ...
"When we transferred the board from Sound City to Studio 606, it was stressful as it hadn't moved for 40 years! It was like robbing a tomb or something. I'd just bought the most important piece of recording equipment in Los Angeles, and I was about to yank it over to my place [in Northridge]. Sound City is now called Fairfax Recordings; it has the same room and a new board. Kevin Augunas, the guy who runs Fairfax, said to me he was producing [DC-based reggae indie trio] RDGLDGRN and asked if I'd play drums on a track [I Love Lamp]. It was a perfect opportunity to set up and play along to Teen Spirit for the movie."
HOW DID YOU FEEL AFTER PLAYING TEEN SPIRIT?
"I listened to it on headphones and played along. And you know what. .. I got really choked up. I didn't want to break down in tears in front of everyone, but I did. It was a really strange day. It was really weird, like there were ghosts in the room."
During the premiere of Sound City, it wasn't
apparent at first that Dave was playing along to
that song that made Nirvana's career explode.
But after a few beats, it dawned on the audience, and
there was an audible gasp as the new footage was
spliced with Samuel Bayer's classic high-school gym
promo video. "I thought it would be cool to show how
old I look now," laughs Dave.
To be honest, the idea of a documentary about a recording studio might sound a little dry and, well, challenging. But it's more than tired producers hunched over faders and enthusing about "warm mics". Much more than that.
"It's a personal journey:' smiles Dave. "It begins with me entering a studio and ends with me playing with my heroes."
You'd think that with Dave's resources and status, he'd be able to walk into any film studio, pitch the idea and get the film made on the spot. But, even though he's comfortable performing in arenas and stadiums around the world, he's never forgotten his punk roots. Why let a soulless film studio make all the decisions when you can do it yourself?
WERE YOU WORRIED THAT A HOLLYWOOD
STUDIO WOULD RUIN YOUR INTENTIONS?
"I sat down with Jim and my manager, John Silva - who I've been with for 22 years - and said, 'We have to take this seriously and not have any Hollywood studios involved with this. It has to be US; we all understand Sound City. We've all been there, we all understand the board and the human element of music. The only people who can work on this movie are the ones who can understand that."
WAS THE FILM EASY TO MAKE?
"Nobody ever taught me to play the drums. I just kinda figured it out. Nobody taught me how to play the guitar. I figured that out, too. When I did the first Foo Fighters record, I did it in six days and played all the instruments; I didn't know what I was doing. No-one told me what to do. Had there been a producer involved, I guarantee you it would have been different. I like that record because it's so naive and it is what it is. It's an accurate representation of my vision or my personality. There was nothing in the way. It's not the greatest record in the world, but to me, it's like, cool. Same thing goes for the movie. I don't know how to make movies, but I could tell you the story of Sound City like that (snaps fingers). So why would I need anyone's help? We rounded up the coolest people we knew and it was fucking great."
HOW DID YOU ASSEMBLE THE SUPERSTAR CAST?
"I got a list of the big albums that were made there and got everyone's email addresses: Rick Springfield, Rick Rubin, Rick Nielsen, Corey Taylor ... and started writing emails. 'Hi, my name's Dave. We have something in common: Sound City. I'm going to make a movie about it. Can I interview you?' I'd never interviewed anyone before, but everyone agreed and, all of a sudden, I had 40 people say yes. That's when I realised that not only is this a movie, but it's a big movie, and we should treat it as such."
WHAT DID YOU LEARN DURING THE MAKING OF THE FILM?
"My mother [Virginia] probably gave me the most important piece of advice during the movie-making process. I told her I was making a movie about this board that I bought and I was interviewing all these people, who are going to come back and make a record. She told me that I shouldn't start the movie by saying I bought the board: 'You tell the history of the studio, then you rescue the board and invite everyone back to make an album.' She's a writer. Thanks mom!"
YOU'VE DESCRIBED THIS FILM AS
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
YOU'VE EVER DONE. WHY DO
YOU SAY THAT?
"When you're in a band and make albums, you're sort of doing it for yourselves. Of course, you want your audience to appreciate what you do, but ultimately, it's a selfish act. You want people to think your band is amazing. You want people to think your album is great. With the Sound City movie, I wasn't making it so people would think I was a great director; the intention of that movie was to inspire people, to love the human element of music, or go out and start a band. You'll see musicians in a room jamming and coming up with a song. That's how songs are written."
DO YOU THINK DIGITAL RECORDINGS AND MODERN
CUT-AND-PASTE TECHNIQUES CAN REALLY STRIP THE
MAGIC OUT OF A BAND'S PERFORMANCE?
"As we get further down the line with technology, it's easy to lose the simple foundation of music - it's a kid buying an old guitar, learning how to play it, writing a song and then becoming [part of] the biggest band in the world. These studios that have changed the world are, one by one, closing their doors because they're considered obsolete. That's the double-edged sword with technology - the availability of digital recording equipment makes it so that anyone can make an album. You can do it in your bedroom, or basement, and with the click of a button you can transport it all around the world. When I was a kid, I would have fuckin' killed to have that opportunity! The downside is that these [studios] are just disappearing. So when I say this [film] is the most important thing, it's because the movie is not really for me; I'd like to think that some of the bands I've been in have inspired people to play music, but that wasn't really the intention. With the film, that was the intention. I want people to get in a room with their friends and jam."
SOUND CITY ENDS - SPOILER ALERT - WITH
COLLABORATIONS BETWEEN THE FOOS, KRIST
NOVOSELIC, LEE VING, SIR PAUL MCCARTNEY, STEVIE
NICKS, TRENT REZNOR, JOSH HOMME ... GETTING
EVERYONE TOGETHER TO RECORD MUST HAVE BEEN
"I'm still a nerdy rock fan and these were huge experiences to me. But logistically, the project was nuts! That's when I needed help! The Stevie Nicks song [You Can't Fix This] was something I wrote for [Foo Fighters' 2005 album] In Your Honor, but we didn't use it because the music sounded too much like Fleetwood Mac! The song was just sitting there, so I sent it to her and asked what she thought. She said, 'I love it!'"
WAS IT TERRIFYING WORKING WITH ALL YOUR HEROES?
"Fuck yeah! It was even terrifying working with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club! I have a lot of respect for these people. So, when I had to play the drums in front of Sir Paul McCartney or sing harmonies in front of Josh [Homme], it was all terrifying! You want to impress the people you respect. You don't want to let them down. It just happens that these legendary people are friends of mine! [Recording Sound City - Real To Reel, the soundtrack] was amazing."
SPEAKING OF JOSH HOMME. WE LEARNED YOU HAD
REJOINED QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE IN THE AUTUMN.
IS THE ALBUM DONE?
"With Queens, I think Josh is mixing the record and doing the vocals now. It's really cool. It's unlike any other Queens record and really sounds like a band in a room. That's what it sounded like when I heard it, but, if you leave something with Josh, you don't know what you're going to get when it goes out the door. People will like it. It rocks!"
WILL THERE BE ANOTHER FOO FIGHTERS ALBUM OR WERE
YOUR READING FESTIVAL COMMENTS AS OMINOUS AS
"(Laughs) We're writing another Foo Fighters record. We always do best after a nice rest. But it's going to happen. We have to do it. We can't not do it."
DOES TAKING PART IN THESE DIFFERENT PROJECTS
RECHARGE THE FOOS' BATTERIES. THEN?
"Yeah, you could imagine. That's one of the great things about collaborating. When you play with other people, everyone plays differently. So you learn from people and you change as a player. You adapt to whoever you're playing with. It broadens your musical scope and makes you a better player. When playing with other bands or other people, it makes you appreciate what you have in your band. Foo Fighters are a good fucking band. If I say, 'Hey guys,let's learn 40 songs in 10 days [for the Sound City Players shows]: they'll do it. They'll really do it. They're fucking good and, when you jam with other people, you realise that you're lucky to be in the Foo Fighters. I don't want to live in a world without my band."
And with that, our time with The Nicest Man In
Rock has drawn to a close. Getting up from the
leather sofa - above which hangs a tongue-in-cheek
company director portrait of the studio's
owner, resplendent in a red velvet smoking jacket
- he gives Kerrang! a quick tour around the recording
room and a moment to gawp at the huge recording
console that he feels he owes, in somepart, his
incredible rockstar life.
But the most connected man in rock, however, also has stuff to be getting on with, including planning for future Sound City shows. With that in mind, he bids us a smiley goodbye, whips on his mirrored aviators and baseball cap, and jumps into a vehicle least befitting of a man who's sold millions of records and sold out arenas and stadiums around the world - a bright red vintage Ford Falcon Family Wagon - and pulls away. He literally can't, and won't, stop.
Words: Simon Young     Pics: Lisa Johnson
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