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Q&A: Dave Grohl on His 'Sound City' Doc and Taking Risks in Music

'It's the most important thing I've done, because it's not for me'

Dave Grohl attends the Cinema Cafe at Filmmaker Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on January 22nd, 2013.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
January 25, 2013 1:45 PM ET

After debuting his film Sound City – Real to Reel and his supergroup, the Sound City Players, at Sundance last week, Dave Grohl is finally ready to celebrate.

"Sundance was always our goal," he tells Rolling Stone. "If we could make the deadline, submit, get accepted, this is where we would premiere the movie. [Last year] we got trashed in a yurt up in the mountains and were like, if we come back, we're having the party here. That was exactly a year ago, and it actually fucking happened."

The Sound City Players are scheduled to play their next show in Los Angeles on January 31st, with other dates "coming soon in cool places," Grohl says. "The musicians have all really jumped on after the [Park City] show. I didn't know if Stevie [Nicks] was gonna be able to do New York, and after we did this she was like, 'I'm doing New York.'" Grohl says he'll keep crossing his fingers for an appearance from Paul McCartney.

Rolling Stone sat down with Grohl in a mountainside condo overlooking Park City and chatted with the drummer and first-time director about the Neve soundboard, sharing a stage with Lee Ving and why the film is the most important thing he's ever done.

Video: Peter Travers Picks 5 Great Films From Sundance 2013

I have a theory that Sound City is actually your memoir.
Oh yeah?

Well, it's framed with three guys from Seattle getting in a van.
The great thing about the Sound City story is that it's not just one story. I'm sure each one of these musicians would tell the story the exact same way. Their love for the studio, how important it was to them as a person, how that place changed their life, what technology has done to the way we make music and what technology has done to Sound City and the importance of the human element in making music. I bet you Neil Young and Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks and Rick Springfield could all make the same movie that I did. Because even in that introduction where I say, "We were just kids, we had these songs, and we had these dreams and we threw them in the back of a van," each one of those people can say the same thing.

I always had a strong connection to that studio because Nirvana wasn't meant to be the biggest band in the world. We just weren't. So when we went there for 16 days, we weren't making that album with the intention that we were going to change the fuckin' world. We just wanted it to sound good . . . The fact that what happened actually, happened, makes me think there's something a more than just wires and knobs in that place. Personally, I have a strong emotional connection to it.

Musically, there's something magical about that place, and when I heard that they were closing I thought, "I have a studio, I make records every day. If I could be reunited with this piece of equipment that I consider to be the best sounding board I've ever worked on and the board that's responsible for the person that I am, it would be a huge full-circle emotional reunion for me." And that's why I made the movie.

You sort of isolated the Neve, the soundboard, as the magic. Are there other elements that you think were also significant?
The room where everyone recorded, it used to be a warehouse. It's where they made Vox amplifiers. It was never acoustically designed, it was just a room. But for whatever reason, if you put a drum set in this one spot, it sounded incredible. I'm not an acoustic engineer, and I could never design a studio mathematically, because it's crazy what people go through to build these acoustically perfect rooms. But Sound City just happened. And the board and that room, those two things together. That's why everybody went there. And it wasn't planned.

How much did the aesthetic of the space affect the sound that came out of there?
Tons. You didn't feel like you were at the Mondrian. You didn't feel like you were in a laboratory – you felt like you were back to the garage where you started as a musician, and in a way it would remind you that the most important thing is how it sounds. And the most important thing is how it feels. It doesn't have anything to do with the glitz or the glamour – it's all about being badass and doing something real. And they never bought a Pro Tools rig because they thought, well, you can bring one in yourself. 

How did you end up there? How did you land on Sound City?
I don't remember. I think that Nirvana had signed with the David Geffen Company and they gave us . . . maybe $100,000 to make, or $60,000 to make a record. And rather than just send us a check to Seattle, they decided they wanted us to come to L.A. so they could keep an eye on us. We couldn't afford one of the fancy places downtown, so we found out about this place that had an old Neve board. None of us had ever been there before.

And how did you decide to invite all the different artists to record with you in the film?
Part of every discussion with the musicians was about the human element of making music. Feel, imperfection, emotion, the conversation as a player, conversation between players, craft. All of those things we talk about in the film, but I thought it would make those things more clear if we demonstrated them. If you're talking about spontaneity and connecting in a moment, the McCartney/Nirvana segment makes perfect sense. I wouldn't even have to say that, you just watch it and think, Wow, they just walked into a room together and made something explosive out of nothing because of the energy in the room. It could take years to explain how or why that happens, but if you see it, those seven minutes make perfect sense. 

And releasing an album was the next step?
I wanted to show that all of these musicians come from the same place. I wanted to mix up these combinations of people that might not normally make albums together. A guy from the Germs jamming with a Beatle. Rick Springfield jamming with the Foo Fighters. Those configurations are meant to show, we're all just people and we're just musicians. I started in the garage and you started in the garage and you might have gone this way and I may have gone that way, but deep down we're all still there where we began, hopefully. So it was fun to make new music and not just go back and do the old stuff.

And the Sound City Players were an outgrowth of that?
It's an extension of the same idea. You talk about music, and then show people what that means. Take it out of the movie and put it on a stage. I am not organized in the rest of my life, I can hardly fuckin' do my laundry, but for whatever reason, I can imagine these things happening, and if I can imagine them happening then I really try to make them happen. An hour beforehand, I didn't know if we were gonna be able to do it. It's hard for me to believe, but if you have these opportunities in life, why not do them? There are times where I get so nervous before performing that I almost ruin the moment, or the experience, and I've finally realized that in those moments you have to let go of that bullshit and say, "I can't ruin this moment by being scared or by being nervous, or by being insecure or thinking that I'm not going to be able to do it. It'll be much more rewarding if I actually just do it." I would be terrified to ask Tom Petty to be in my movie, but God, I'd be an idiot not to, and when I finally did he said, "Well, you can't have a movie about Sound City without me in it, now can you?" And it's like, that's the perfect answer.

What was the most surreal moment for you at the Park City show?
Having my heroes compliment me. I'm really used to praising these people that I love, but when they sort of send praise back, it's weird, man. When Fogerty's talking about, well, this couldn't have happened without Dave's childlike enthusiasm about music, I'm like, "Stop talking about me, stop talking about me!" To be onstage with Lee Ving from Fear – I swear to God, The Decline of Western Civilization, the Penelope Spheeris movie, I got the record when I was like 12, and that really inspired me to become a musician and start a band and play punk rock music. So to stand next to Lee Ving and play "Beef Bologna," it doesn't sound like it would be this profound, life-altering moment, but it really was. It was 30 years ago that I discovered this guy, and now I'm onstage playing the songs that inspired me to become a musician. That's fuckin' nuts.

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