For the sixth episode of Sonic Highways, Rolling Stone cover star Dave Grohl and the rest of the Foo Fighters traveled to New Orleans to explore the city’s rich musical history and detail the influential and decades-long careers of city veterans Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and the Meters, among others.
Along the way, Grohl interviews the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Trombone Shorty, Bonnie Raitt and Preservation Hall Jazz Band leader Ben Jaffe about the city’s unique cultural and historical influences, including jazz funerals, Jazzfest and the effect of Hurricane Katrina. Grohl talked to Rolling Stone about why he included the city in the show, not knowing anything about jazz and finding hurricanes in a Los Angeles bar.
In the New Orleans episode, you say, “I was drawn to it because in a way, that’s what this entire series is all about.” What did you mean by that?
The celebration of life in that city is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. Whether it’s coming out of a bar or Preservation Hall or a second line coming down the street, there’s a soundtrack to that city everywhere, 24 hours a day. You’re just immersed in music. It makes people smile and dance and drink and celebrate life. I don’t know if I could survive there the rest of my life because it’s just too good. It’s like the sweetest piece of cake you’ve ever had: The taste is delicious, but you can’t eat it every day.
But for any musician you need that for your soul. If you need your batteries recharged, go spend one week in New Orleans and it will renew your faith not only in music, but in the human race. As you walk down the street, you’re standing next to a gangster and a lawyer and a cop and a college student and people from all walks of life together, dancing and celebrating music. That doesn’t happen everywhere. I wish it did; the world would be a much happier place.
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Did any of the culture stay with you when you returned to Los Angeles?
After that week, you had to tear me out of this place; I fuckin’ went through withdrawal after I left. I was making fuckin’ beignets and listening to jazz for a month [laughs]. I went to this bar in L.A. and went, “Can y’all make me a hurricane?” The bartender goes, “I don’t know what a hurricane is.” The owner comes up and says, “Well, we make hurricanes, but it’s made from organic juices.” I was like, “No! It’s fuckin’ Kool-Aid!”
How much did you already know about the city’s musical and cultural history?
None, dude. Before I turned on the camera with Ben Jaffe from Preservation Hall [Jazz Band], I said, “I don’t know shit about jazz and I don’t know shit about New Orleans. We’re rolling.” A lot of the interviews were like that. I’m a music nerd, but I’m not a musicologist. I love talking about music and hearing these stories, but I also love not knowing everything. The interviews turned into conversations that turned into lessons.
Are you purposely picturing someone at home who may only have a cursory knowledge of the city?
Yeah. In a lot of these interviews, I imagine myself as the viewer because the intention of the entire project was to inform people; not just tell them something they already knew. I’m sitting here in front of Allen Toussaint or Cyril Neville or Dr. John and they’re telling me things I just never knew. I think I have to do that to keep the tone conversational and genuine because I don’t pretend to know everything. And I’ll tell [the interview subjects] that sometimes. I’ll ask them a question and tell them, “Just so you know, I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.”
You handled Hurricane Katrina by discussing, in part, the influx of musicians to the city in recent years. Did that boon surprise you?
After the hurricane, New Orleans realized how much they had to lose and the focus turned to preserving it. One of the reasons why I loved Preservation Hall so dearly is Ben Jaffe’s dedication to preserving New Orleans jazz is his life’s passion. It’s so honorable and so important that I looked at the city a whole new way after that. Of course there are more musicians. They almost got washed away. Here you have that whole new generation that’s going to carry on a tradition that’s really important to our history and culture.
When you see a loved one in crisis, you help. You can’t necessarily write a documentary; you can try to create a theme or begin with an idea, but you just never know what you’re going to get. In talking to all of these people, that one question turned into something much more — the importance of music in American culture. Not only in New Orleans, but everywhere else as well.