“I haven’t had too many reflective moments in the past eight months,” Dave Grohl tells Rolling Stone a day before the finale of his musical travelogue series Sonic Highways.
Even though the Foo Fighters frontman has been traveling to eight U.S. cities, including Austin, Los Angeles and New Orleans, to spotlight their respective musical histories, Grohl is already thinking about his next, as-yet-unrevealed project.
But with the premiere of the TV series’ last episode and the band’s 165-minute show at New York’s Irving Plaza Friday night, Grohl took some time to discuss Sonic Highways‘ reception, reveal his Smithsonian dreams and respond to criticisms of the band’s recently released album.
In interviews — as on the show — Grohl comes off more earnest everyman than debauched rock star; the son of a Washington, D.C. reporter who says it’s “written in my DNA that I like to sit down and talk to people and their experiences.” The singer shared his experiences to Rolling Stone.
When you first conceived Sonic Highways, were you nervous about how it would be received? How much was it about pleasing Foo Fighters fans versus people just interested in the musical history of each city?
I never questioned [the reception]. I thought, “This is something that people will appreciate whether they like the Foo Fighters or not. This is something that will hopefully inspire people to fall in love with music just as all of these people [on the show] did.” So I wasn’t nervous or scared, but I had no fuckin’ idea how much work it would be.
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I could imagine it and see it in my head and I knew what I wanted to accomplish. But I really didn’t see the big picture or the scope of the entire project until months ago when we edited the first episode. I thought, “Oh my God, we did it!” and someone said, “You have seven more.” They just kept coming. The amount of information and stories and how inspiring everybody is just swept me off my feet and I couldn’t be happier, or any more sleep-deprived. I don’t really know if I knew what I was getting myself into.
You had already directed a full-length documentary, Sound City. What did you learn from that you could apply to the show?
I’m always learning. You know I have no idea what I’m doing, right? I didn’t take lessons for this. I don’t know how to read music. I didn’t take lessons to play guitar or drums. I dropped out of high school. What do I know? If I gathered all of these people [interviewed on the show] at a table for dinner and we sat down and talked about our lives musically, the histories of the cities where we came from, the culture and how it affected us as people, it would be almost the same thing. At the end of the night, we would come to a conclusion and that would be the song.
“I’m always learning. You know I have no idea what I’m doing, right?”
The vibe of many interviews feels like two musicians talking shop.
When I sit down to interview people, I don’t hold questions and I don’t know the answers. They’re more like conversations that become lessons. You just keep chasing the carrot and thinking, “I’m gonna get it. I’m gonna get it.” You never get it. When you’re sitting face to face with Dolly Parton, you’re not thinking of putting a song together or an editing booth. You’re just looking at Dolly Parton and saying, “Oh my God. I can’t believe I’m sitting on her tour bus now.” It’s tunnel vision.
But there’s still a music nerd element to the show. Was that conscious or more a byproduct of each episode?
One of the things I learned doing all these interviews is that all the musicians [on the show] are music nerds. It begins with this spark of inspiration that snowballs into a passion and life direction. Everyone is connected by that same feeling. There aren’t too many people that decided, “Well, I don’t think I’m going to become an accountant; I think I’ll be a rock musician.” It’s something that burns inside of them. When you get two musicians together talking about music, it’s easy. If I had to go interview someone about the automobile industry, it just wouldn’t work.
How much did you shoot that didn’t make the final cut? Do you have any plans for the unused footage?
Dude, we have 1,300 hours of additional footage. We got a lot of shit. We called the Smithsonian and did a screening there. If I can get the Smithsonian to acknowledge what we’re doing, then maybe someday you’ll be able to walk into a museum on the Mall and see a Sonic Highways exhibit. This is American history and that’s what the Smithsonian represents. I believe the history of American music is just as important as anything political because it’s changed generations of people. So I imagined it could happen. If you plant any seed in my head, I’m going to go at it until it blossoms into something.
If you knew going into this how much footage you’d have, would you be more or less excited?
Part of the excitement is not knowing what happens next or how to do it. And you just figure it out along the way. When we were kids in Washington, D.C. trying to release our first single, it was the same thing. We were taking advice from our friends who had done it before, but ultimately we were starting from scratch and doing it ourselves and I feel the same way when I come up with an idea.
Was editing the hardest thing to figure out?
Yeah, it was trying to reduce all this information from all of these people in each city to an hour-long episode. It’s virtually impossible. Just sitting down and watching one of these complete interviews is enough to change your life. Watching Chuck D’s interview from beginning to end, if that doesn’t make you want to start a group, I don’t know what to say.
When did you feel like the project was bigger than you imagined?
There have been a few moments where it actually sunk in. There was one moment before I had to introduce the premiere episode to the Ed Sullivan Theatre where we gathered a bunch of people from HBO and friends and journalists. I was standing on the side of the stage with the microphone, and I thought “Oh my God, is this really happening right now? I can’t believe this is real.” And that lasted for about 30 seconds. And then the other day I was viewing some clips of the final episode to be shown on some of the TV shows that we’re doing this week and I was sitting in the parking lot of a Rite Aid after buying new reading glasses.
That’s one of the least rock star things you can do.
That’s my life. What are you gonna do? But I got really choked up as I watched these clips of the finale of the final episode, because it’s heavy. I e-mailed someone I work with that has been on the project for the last two years and said, “I’m watching these clips and I’m really choked up because I can’t believe we actually pulled this off” and the response to that e-mail was “Congratulations crybaby.”
Why did you decide to end the series in New York?
This place is unlike anywhere else. Everything that we talked about in the entire series all comes to conclusion here because New York City has it all whether it’s talking about inspiration or community or industry or gentrification or creativity or survival or starting over. All of those are themes of the previous episodes, but they all come to conclusion here. There’s just no way I could tell this story of music in New York City in one hour but it’s meant to be some kind of exclamation point. The conversation turns to something much deeper than just the music community at the end of the episode that I think summarizes what we’ve been talking about for the entire series.
In the New York episode, Steve Rosenthal, owner of the recording studio the Magic Shop, discusses how his bank cares more about “the last 60 days” than the decades he’s owned the studio. Why was that important to include?
He was telling me the story of his mother who I think owned a beauty supply store in the Bronx, and whenever she was in financial trouble, she’d go to the bank and ask for help and the bank would actually help. It was people to people in the community and everyone understood the importance of helping each other. And that was something that really made an impression on me and the idea of community became a big part of the series.
Steve was one of the first interviews we did and that conversation had an impact on me and the arc of the entire story. Because what I’ve learned is that all of these people — from Dolly Parton to Joan Jett to Chuck D to Duff McKagan to Ian MacKaye — are all part of a music community. It might seem crazy that these people from different cities and different genres are connected, but I really consider it to be a community of musicians, and I think that’s important.
Do you think that sense of community is lost now?
People should realize, especially the next generation of musicians, that you can’t do it on your own and that your neighborhood or high school or garage band or local music scene is important. That’s support. The idea of people coming together and doing something together is really important. You can’t just walk up to a microphone and get berated by a bunch of celebrities because you’re not good enough to sing. It doesn’t work that way. I don’t want to sound like a nerd, but that farm-to-table concept is fucking cool.
You speak to President Obama in the final episode. How’s his rock music knowledge?
He loves music. He loves Stevie Wonder, he loves Paul McCartney, he loves Bob Dylan, he loves the Rolling Stones, and he’s knowledgeable. We talked for 45 minutes and in the episode we maybe hang out and talk for five. He wanted to talk about music and I wanted to talk about America. He’s a good dude, so it was cool.
You hadn’t worked with some of the collaborators on Sonic Highways before. Did you worry about not jelling with them or not liking their contribution?
First of all, it’s never happened so I’m very lucky. We picked people [for the album] that we felt akin to, but I’ve gotten to the place in my life where I’m a lot more free creatively than I was before. I used to hold this band in my iron fist and say things like, “That’s not what I imagined to happen!” That grip has loosened now so I can let it just be what it is. Whether that’s Rick Nielsen coming in and throwing down a baritone solo that sounds like Napalm Death or Gary Clark Jr. playing the most soulful blues lead ever, I’ve invited this person to come into my world. I just want to let them be themselves and I can sit back and do that now. I don’t think I could’ve done that 20 years ago.
Do you think this project will influence the band’s sound going forward?
We only do what feels right. If something feels forced or contrived, then we pull back. The most important thing in this whole project is that we remain the Foo Fighters. I didn’t want to become a tribute band and I didn’t want it to sound like a compilation tape by the bar band that plays down the street every Friday. I wanted all of it to come to us by some sort of musical osmosis; not some weird collage of sounds that don’t belong to our band. The experience has definitely changed us personally and emotionally as people and that’s where music should come from. It doesn’t have to come from a lesson by some Nashville virtuoso. It should come to you through how you feel and we definitely achieved that.
“In Nashville, I walked in the control room and everyone was wearing fucking cowboy hats. I was like, ‘Guys! Don’t! Stop! Wait! We are still the Foo Fighters. Don’t forget that.'”
Some of the album reviews questioned the band not incorporating the cities’ traditional sounds into your own.
Look, that was one of the first conversations that we had when we started this project. I would explain the idea and someone would say, “Oh, cool. So, are you going to play a blues song? Are you going to make a country song in Nashville? Are you going to do jazz in New Orleans?” And I thought, “Can you fucking imagine how much of a train wreck that would be?” I said, “You have to remember that not everybody has HBO and is going to see the series.”
So, first and foremost, we have to make a Foo Fighters record. That’s it. And I really fought to retain that. At one point in Nashville, I walked in the control room and everyone was wearing fucking cowboy hats. I was like, “Guys! Don’t! Stop! Wait! We are still the Foo Fighters. Don’t forget that.” I think maybe people misunderstood the concept and thought that we were going to incorporate all of the different flavors or genres from each city, and, to me, it didn’t make any sense because the last thing I want to do is chase something that’s not real.
Do you think it would’ve felt inauthentic?
Well, fuck, dude, are we a jazz band? Are we a country band? Fuck no. We are what we are. Put an instrument on each one of us and say, “Go,” and it’s going to sound like the band — that’s what we do. It’s never been my intention to chase something that’s not there. So, we do what we do faithfully and happily. Believe me, I read some of the reviews, and I was just like, “Aw, man, they didn’t get it. They thought we were going to fucking play some traditional New Orleans jazz.” Imagine those fucking reviews, oh my God.
You still read reviews when each album comes out?
You’re like, “Hey, I’ve done this thing! Fuck, I can’t wait for people to hear this! I’m so proud of it. It was such a blast to do.” You get excited and then you realize that people didn’t really understand it in the first place. So you’re like, “Aw, fuck it.” It’s one of those things that after 20 years, nothing is going to keep us from doing what we do. And there’s not much to discourage us from the path that we’ve been on for this long. Look, if some dude with a blog says the band blew it because we didn’t fucking put a lap steel [guitar] on our song in Nashville, then that same day you sell out Wembley Stadium in a day, it’s like, “OK, well, I guess we’re doing something right.”
You’ve said previously that you’re already thinking about your next project. How would you describe it in one word?
Bigger. Sonic Highways has just opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the band and for me.