Q&A: Dave Grohl on Austin's Musical Wizards, Gentrification

"Preservation needs to be a priority because if you're not careful, that could be wiped away and you're just left with a strip mall," says 'Sonic Highways' director

Dave Grohl and Butch Vig in the Austin episode of 'Foo Fighters Sonic Highways.' Credit: Roswell Films

For the fourth episode of the Foo Fighters' musical travelogue Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl and Co. headed to Austin, Texas Friday night to explore the history and culture of, as Grohl put it, "some of the weirdest, freakiest stuff in the city that inspires people all over the world." Delving into everything from Austin City Limits and South by Southwest to Willie Nelson, Roky Erickson and Butthole Surfers, the episode deftly cast a wide net on the diverse city. "When you bailed from your hometown," said Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes, "you landed in Austin."

On their new song "What Did I Do?/God as My Witness," the Foos recruited blues rock guitarist Gary Clark Jr. and recorded in the famed Austin City Limits studio to "feel the ghosts and spirits [of past performers] come out." "I worry about cities like Austin," Grohl says, "because it's only a matter of time before that candle burns out." Grohl spoke to Rolling Stone about the episode and the effect of increasing gentrification on America's "weirdest" city.

You recorded "What Did I Do?/God as My Witness" in the old Austin City Limits theatre. Did you take anything away from its long history?
Definitely. When you walk into the front door and see that backdrop over that famous old stage, it just brings you right back to your living room in 1979 watching someone like Willie Nelson or Ray Charles performing.

Were you an ACL fan growing up?
Oh absolutely. I was 7 or 8 the first time I saw it. I was just learning how to play guitar and there weren't too many shows like Austin City Limits back in the day. Here was a show that you could watch an entire live performance of a band – not just one song after Johnny Carson walks off the couch – in front of an intimate audience. Those experiences translate. When I was young, I was like, "Wow, that's music! That's how it's done! Now it's in my living room and it makes me want to do that too." You watch these brilliant musicians ripping on that stage week after week and it could only inspire young musicians. Maybe that's what it was for.

One of the most influential figures profiled in the episode is Roky Erickson. You seemed in awe when you talked to him.
[Laughs] His legacy is so mysterious and iconic and bizarre that sitting with him was like sitting with someone from another planet. You were sitting with someone that was not like anyone you ever met. Knowing his history and what he accomplished with his life, he just radiates and glows with this energy. He's a treasure.

What was his demeanor like off-camera?
Roky walked in the studio and said, "Hey, how you doing? Nice to meet you." He was really sweet and seemed a little nervous. I said, "How you doing, Roky?" He said, "Oh, we went book shopping." I said, "Oh yeah? What'd you get?" He said, "Self-help books." He's so for real. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

What do you think Gary Clark Jr. brought to the track?
Gary represents something very important. He is, maybe unknowingly, carrying the torch of these blues players that came before him. He would never say that; he's so humble. That's a responsibility I don't know if anybody wants to have, but he has it in his soul. When he plays a guitar, there's no disconnect between his heart and the instrument.

When he put the lead down for "God Is My Witness," he walked into the studio and didn't even bring a guitar. He just took one from Pat Smear – Pat hadn't even played it yet and it still had a tag on it – and does three takes and that's it. Pat said, "Just fuckin' keep it." [Laughs] When you're sitting next to someone like that on the couch watching him do that, your jaw is just on the floor because it is 100% pure human expression. That's every musician's goal.

You touch on it in the episode, but do you think Austin is getting too big for its own good? Is it hard to stay "weird" as it grows out of this niche city?
I think the message in the Austin episode is that we have to be careful that we don't overlook the reasons why people are drawn to these cities. There's something about Austin and its alternative culture that's an oasis in the middle of this country that attracted people to it in the first place. The personality and the fingerprint of this city is unlike anywhere else. The preservation of that needs to be a priority because if you're not careful, that could be wiped away and you're just left with a strip mall.

But that's not just Austin.
Right. That's happening all over the country. It's also New York. It's also Washington, D.C. There are so many cities that communities have shaped. It's important for the community to fight to retain what they've built and not just let the money come in and erase it like a chalkboard. But it's also inevitable [laughs]. My little HBO series might not make a dent, but at least I got my two cents in.