Dave Grohl on Sound City, Macca and why ‘Nirvana is hallowed ground’
The Times

Dave Grohl has made a film about Sound City, the legendary LA studio where Nevermind was recorded. The Foo Fighter tells Craig McLean about his bromance with Macca and guarding Nirvana’s legacy

Dave Grohl Dave Grohl has made a film about Sound City, the legendary LA studio where Nevermind was recorded. The Foo Fighter tells Craig McLean about his bromance with Macca and guarding Nirvana’s legacy

In May 1991, Nirvana turned up at Sound City recording studio in Van Nuys, Los Angeles. Two years earlier, their first album, Bleach, had failed to chart. Now a major label had given them $65,000 to record their follow-up. But it was not a promising beginning.

“We were very underwhelmed,” Dave Grohl laughingly remembers of the day that he, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic first arrived at Sound City to begin work on the album that would become Nevermind. The trio had driven down from Seattle, full of expectation. “But look,” Grohl shrugs, “we weren’t accustomed to state-of-the-art recording facilities. We fucking wrote and rehearsed that album in a barn. I lived on a couch. And we toured in an old Dodge van. We weren’t looking for Abbey Road, you know? But we got there and just thought, ‘Oh, Jesus, they haven’t cleaned this place up in fucking years’. That was the funny thing: it really honestly was a dump, but with these platinum records on the walls. It made no sense at all.”

Opened in 1969, Sound City was the birthplace of countless classic rock albums, including Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes and Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1975 release, the record that introduced Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to the Brit blues group’s fold. What the grotty facility lacked in basic comforts it made up for in great recording equipment and that elusive rock ’n’ roll alchemical quality: vibe.

It certainly worked for Nirvana. Nevermind was the cheapo record that roared. It sold 30 million copies, transformed the face of rock and ultimately hastened Cobain’s spiral into heroin and despair and, in 1994, suicide.

Grohl, the band’s drummer, went on to found the Grammy Award-winning Foo Fighters, and is now a rock god in his own right. But, he says, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Sound City.” Which explains why he has spent almost two years making a documentary about it. The first part of Sound City is given over to interviews, mostly conducted by Grohl, with musicians and staff who passed through the studio’s doors. The second comprises footage shot in Foo Fighters’ cavernous LA HQ, Studio 606 West, of the band jamming with some of Sound City’s illustrious alumni, including Nicks, John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival) and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails).

Paul McCartney, too, pops in, and in illuminating detail we see the “grunge Beatles” write from scratch a new song, Cut Me Some Slack. All these new songs are recorded on the hallowed Neve mixing desk that Grohl bought from Sound City when it was being shuttered in 2011.

“It was unbelievable. Can you imagine?” a still giddy Grohl says of his collaboration with McCartney. “I love Paul so much,” says the 44-year-old father of two and lifelong Beatles nut. “Not only because he is a great person, but because he is a fearless musician. He walked in here with the bass and the Les Paul [guitar]: two of the most iconic instruments in music history. And he decides to play a cigar-box guitar in front of everyone, to record a song. Not a lot of people would do that. To sit down and start from scratch and three and a half hours later have this raucous fucking jam come together — it was huge. It really was a huge, full-circle moment.”

It’s the morning after the rock’n’roll night before. Following a screening of Sound City at the ArcLight cinema in Hollywood, the brawny, toothy, tattooed Grohl hosted an all-star, three-hour-plus gig at the nearby Hollywood Palladium. The Sound City Players comprise Foo Fighters, Novoselic and whichever affiliated artist Grohl can drag on stage. Last night the line-up included John Fogerty, Cheap Trick’s guitarist Rick Nielsen and Nicks, whose performance of Landslide was Grohl’s highlight. “Just to stand there watching her sing to a church-silent room and I just have a 12-string in my hands, playing as gently as possible. That doesn’t happen often.”

As would also be the case at the London show a few weeks later, even with two thirds of the grunge legends sharing a stage, there were no Nirvana songs. “You know, that’s hallowed ground,” explains Grohl. “We have to be careful. We have to tread lightly. We have talked about it before, but the opportunity hasn’t really come up, or it just hasn’t felt right. And we did have an idea for the London gig that maybe we would do a Nirvana song, but it didn’t pan out. The person we wanted to do it with wasn’t available,” he says, declining to name names.

“It’s different than just playing songs from your back catalogue. These songs were written by Kurt, and he’s not here,” he says. “So unless the opportunity were just right I don’t really know if we would casually throw one out.”

Does he feel it’s incumbent on him to protect Nirvana’s legacy? “Absolutely. Oh, we always have. There’s a reason why you don’t see Nirvana’s songs in chewing-gum commercials. Krist and I do our best to try to keep that sort of thing from happening. The band stood for something; we took pride in our integrity and in our band. We understood the world that we were living in, having gone from the van to becoming what people understand as Nirvana now. But we really tried our best to keep our cool. So Krist and I still do. There’s a reason why the Foo Fighters don’t blast out Nirvana songs every night: because we have a lot of respect for them.”

As Grohl talks, he is sprawled on a sofa in 606, a few feet from that imposing Neve mixing desk, originally bought from the UK 40 years ago for $76,000, at the time, twice the cost of Sound City co-owner Joe Gottfried’s house. Grohl is tired but buzzing — and burping. “It’s not the chemicals,” grins the man who likes a beer but who has never touched cocaine in his life because he knows his addictive personality too well. Last December one incarnation of the Sound City Players performed at the Hurricane Sandy benefit in New York, with McCartney joining the fold for one night only. With yawning inevitability Cobain’s widow Courtney Love — long a thorn in Grohl and Novoselic’s sides — popped up online with some typically snarky comments. She criticised Novoselic’s musical skills: “Paul better get earmuffs for the bassplaying is all. [It’s] not exactly known for its brilliance.” And after the 12/12/12 concert, she duly posted: “There it was. Uh it was bad.”

Of course, Grohl says with a shrug, he read the comments. “You know,” he sighs, “I really try to look on the bright side and remind myself that I’m getting to play music with my dear old friends, and a Beatle. Nothing else matters. I think what we did was cool. Rather than go up and turn it into some circus by revisiting our past, we went up and did something new.

“I feel like those musicians from [McCartney’s] genre, that generation, are so much more exciting to play with ’cause they’re willing to push the boundaries. They’re willing to do things that they haven’t done before.” He knows whereof he speaks. This veteran player has just finished work drumming on a new album by Queens of the Stone Stage, the LA hard rockers fronted by his friend Josh Homme. Another guest on the project: Elton John.

Even with the film completed and Foo Fighters some way off recording their eighth album, Grohl remains busy. He’s drummed on the debut album by RDGLDGRN, a “go-go scene” band from Virginia (the state in which he grew up) and next week he’s giving a keynote speech at the South by Southwest new-band music festival in Austin, Texas. “The theme is,” he reveals after some prodding, “the musician comes first.” We quickly ascertain that this is not a bedroom reference, but Grohl says he can’t say any more. “That’s all I got,” he says with a laugh. So he’s not written the hour-long address yet? “No. I’ve never had a problem talking for more than an hour.”

It’s probably fair to say that the speech will take a positive view. Unlike many of his peers Grohl doesn’t go in for bellyaching laments about the parlous state of the music industry in the digital era. For artists the internet has enhanced — and monetised — the independence he and his punk cohorts worked so hard to preserve in the Eighties. And he stands by comments he made a decade ago, when he said that music piracy was no crime. “It’s just people that want music and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said then. “The first thing we should do is get all the fucking millionaires to shut their mouths and stop bitching about the 25 cents a time they’re losing.”

Yes, he acknowledges, that’s easy for him to say, seeing as he is one of those fucking millionaires. “But what people have to understand is that music should be available to everyone. I don’t want to have to put a quarter in my radio every time I wanna hear a song. I honestly believe that had Adele made that album and put it on the internet for free and gone out and performed the way that she performs, she would still be as huge as she is. Because she’s a wonderfully talented artist.”

But would she be as rich? “I think she would,” he insists. “She’d be out playing gigs. I think she’d be doing just fine. Honestly, does anyone make any money releasing records any more? Not unless they really do it themselves.”

Now, he insists, is a great time to be involved in the music business. “I mean, if you wanna be Simon Cowell, you’re up for a bit of disappointment,” he laughs. “But if you want to be a functioning, performing musician, then just do it. Now people can do what the hell they wanna do — go make some crazy-ass record and sell it on their own website and go play gigs. That’s the thing that people don’t seem to remember: the most important part is just playing. Fuck being on TV. Go kick ass live.”

But right now, Grohl’s daughters — Violet (almost 7) and Harper (nearly 3) — need collecting. He grabs his phone and keys, stands up and heads for the door, past the hulking majesty of Sound City’s legendary mixing desk. Will the next Foos album be recorded on the Neve? “It might be, yeah. I mean, come on, it’d be a waste. Look at that fucking thing,” he marvels. “It’s just sitting there, staring at me . . .”

Words: Craig McLean

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