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

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The show struck me as liner notes of your own musical history, because of the stories you were telling between performers.
My original idea was that we'd have a video presentation between each performer, which is what we're doing in Los Angeles, New York and around the world. The screen will come down, you'll have a clip from the movie, and then some of the interview with the next performer, and we'll play three or four of their songs. It's basically the movie, but it's live. We couldn't fit that production in the [Park City] club, so I was killing time in between songs by telling stories.

Will McCartney tour with you?
You just cross your fingers and hope that he can make it. A lot of times it's very last minute. I don't know if you've ever met him, but he's the greatest. He's the nicest person and loves to play and really understands who he is and what he represents to everybody, but in the best way. I've gotten to the point where I'm not afraid to say, "Hey Paul, you wanna jam?" Because I know that he usually does. He likes to fuckin' jam.

What did it feel like to be in that studio with him? 
It was nuts. The funny thing about musicians from that generation is that they're pioneers. The reason why they changed the world is that they were doing something that no one else was doing, and they weren't scared to do it. So when you play with Roger Waters or John Paul Jones or Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger, they're not afraid to get weird. It's our generation that gets safe with music. A lot of people from my generation of music are so focused on playing things correctly or to perfection that they're stuck in that safe place. They're not willing to, like, fuckin' get rad. And Paul definitely is. That day was really funny, because honestly, Krist [Novoselic] and Pat [Smear] had never met Paul before and they were very nervous – they were terrified. The Beatles meant the same thing to all of us. I mean, without the Beatles we wouldn't be who we are. So when we started playing for the first two hours, maybe, we were so in awe of Paul that we forgot about Nirvana. It took a few hours before I realized, wait a minute . . . we haven't done this in maybe 20 years, Krist and Pat and I – wow, how cool. And fuckin' Paul is here, too. 

Why don't people take risks like they used to?
That's a long conversation. Part of the intention of the Sound City movie is to show that music is something that's very human and there's no right or wrong. When you're watching the performances, you see these legends in a really vulnerable place. You see Paul McCartney asking advice from Butch Vig. You see Stevie Nicks saying, "No, no, stop, I fucked up." These are things that you might not imagine because you're used to the icon, and you're used to the album being so perfect or pristine. Modern production has made it so that music almost seems inhuman. And I think that it's not something to aspire to. Like, you should aspire to the opposite of that. How can I get more real? How can I get more fucked up? How can I get more emotion out of my voice? How can I get my voice to crack? How can the tempo speed up to bring some tension to the music? Rather than, how do I play perfectly on the beat or how do I sing perfectly in tune? Every musician should focus on the craft and really be as good as they can be, but the goal, I don't think, is perfection. So if you listen to a song like "Helter Skelter" and give it to the guy that produces Ke$ha records and say, "Hey, do you think this is a hit?" What the fuck do you think that guy would say? "Um, it's out of tune, it's out of time, the lyrics aren't catching me." I think the reason why that song is so amazing is because of how it makes you feel. It has a vibe, and it has a vibe because it's fuckin' people.

Are you not a Ke$ha fan?
I love Ke$ha. I think she's very sweet. I just don't think her producer would appreciate The White Album. Maybe he does, I don't know.

Video: Tom Petty, Trent Reznor Reminisce in Dave Grohl's 'Sound City' Doc

Some people have said that Sound City is a conversation at least partially about analog versus digital, but I took it to be more nuanced.
A lot of people are confused with the debate, because I don't really necessarily know if it's a debate. You're talking about the advantage of analog and the advantage of digital, and the disadvantage of analog and the disadvantage of digital. It's a double-edged sword, because you have technology, and it's availability to everyone. It's inspiring that any person, any kid, any musician, can now make an album in their living room and distribute it around the world with the click of a button. That's fucking amazing; can you imagine? But the downside of that is that these places that were, like, museums and churches and hallowed ground are closing doors, because they can't survive in a world of that accessibility. So it is what it is. I record digitally all the time, I do demos at home with the Pro Tools Unit. Some of the songs on [Foo Fighters'] Greatest Hits record were recorded on a Pro Tools rig, Pro Tools is unbelievable. The fact that the options and the capability of what a Pro Tools rig can do is phenomenal.

To me, the conversation isn't about digital versus analog – it's about the person behind each one of those things. We're not fucking robots, we're human beings. And you can capture that on either of those devices, so the conversation of technology is relevant to Sound City, because ultimately it's why the studio couldn't survive. Fortunately we have someone like Trent Reznor to inspire the other end of the conversation, to say, like, "Hey, man, I'm a classically trained pianist who can outplay everybody in the studio at their own instrument, and rather than use this computer to make up for the things I can't do, I use it for things that have never been done before. I use it as an instrument, but not as a crutch. I use it as this inspired, inspiring tool that has capabilities that are practically unimaginable."

So what's the happy medium between digital and analog?
You use either of those things to capture yourself. Not to manipulate it, not to change it, not to get away from the artist or the person that you are. It's a sensitive subject for any drummer, because the drummers that have changed the world have all had really definite personality, and that personality comes from all of their imperfections. You listen to John Bonham, and his feel was not metronomic, but it was legendary. Keith Moon played like he was on fire. He was a wild drummer. He was sloppy and he was fuckin' frenetic and manic, but that's the Who. Stewart Copeland, his tempo would fuckin' blast off like the space shuttle, but that's the Police. Nowadays, I think it could be hard for a kid to find a favorite drummer, because a lot of that personality is being robbed from these musicians for the sake of perfection, and it's kind of a drag. It's nice to hear drummers like Meg White – one of my favorite fucking drummers of all time. Like, nobody fuckin' plays the drums like that. Or the guy from the Black Keys. Watch that guy play the drums – it's crazy. The dude from Vampire Weekend. Like, if any of those people went to the Berklee School of Music they'd never be accepted, because they're not considered technically proficient. But their music's totally changed the world.

Was it hard to teach yourself to be a director?
No. This movie was not hard to make. Apocalypse Now – probably. The Sound City movie was really getting together with friends and digging deep into what music means to each one of us, telling the story of a studio that's very close to me, and trying to give the viewer something that will inspire them to fall in love with music like I did.  

You said at the film's premiere, it feels like the most significant thing you've ever done.
When you're making records, you're trying to make the best album you can make, so that it will represent the person that you are or the band that you're in. The Sound City movie's different. It's more about having kids see this film and be inspired to go to a yard sale and buy a guitar and start a band and play in the garage and then take over the world. Because that can still happen. It happens all the time. To me, personally, it's the most important thing I've done because it's not for me. The story and the idea – that it seems like a memoir, I can understand that. But ultimately I'm trying to turn people on to what it's like to be a musician, and hopefully people will take that and fuckin' run with it. So that there's another kid in a garage, and in 20 years, my daughter will hand me a record and say, "Dad, you might like this," and it'll be some new band that's the biggest band in the world. 

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