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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’

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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

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, its 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.

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 whats 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 films 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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