I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for the Foo Fighters. They catch a lot of flak, but I can’t think of another band since the Chili Peppers that has managed to commercialize hard rock while maintaining an authentic identity that resonates globally. So thus I’ve been pretty intrigued by HBO’s Sonic Highways, less for the album itself but rather for the fascinating chronicle of the process. It’s almost such a romantic ideal that it seems impossible: to travel around America, find the “sound” of certain cities and then record a track from whatever creative inspiration is birthed there. But Dave Grohl’s ingenuity is so pervasive that you really learn from him no matter what your musical preferences are. Here are a few essential rules I’ve picked up from watching:
RESPECT THE YOUNGINS
It sounds clichéd, but you really never know who the next Mozart might be. One of my favorite parts of the Chicago episode was Dave Grohl talking about his maiden live music voyage. He was a super dorky-looking adolescent on vacation with his family, when his give zero fucks punk rocker cousin found herself in a relatable predicament. “Sure honey, go have fun, but take your cousins with you,” was the gist of what her parents told her. Parents never get punk rock. So she dragged prepubescent Dave to see a Naked Raygun (not pronounced Naked Reagan) show, the first time Dave Grohl had ever seen a live concert. Smells like teen spirit, indeed. Imagine if the Grohl family had stayed home and watched an episode of Magnum, P.I. or if his cousin had gone full punk rocker and ditched young Dave for some kid from Evanston with ear gages and Parliament cigarettes. We might never have had the guitar riff from “All My Life,” and being 15 would have sucked.
In the same vein, the episode contains a profile of Steve Albini, a brilliant, cantankerous producer who owns the coolest recording studio in Chicago. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem recants a story of how he wrote Albini a letter of reverence as a teenager, talking about his dreams of recording his own music. Most big shots would have tossed an innocuous piece of paper like that in the trash. Steve Albini sent James Murphy a series of detailed diagrams explaining how to build a proper recording studio, and then Murphy went ahead and built one. Even the smallest gestures can have legendary reverberations.
DAVE GROHL MEANS WHAT HE SCREAMS
If you told me to list my favorite songwriters, it would be a while before I got to Dave Grohl. Not that he doesn’t have a talent for it – platinum is platinum, after all – but I generally don’t finish a Foo Fighters track feeling like I’m a wiser soul for it. The most essential aspect usually seems to be screams emanating from the majestic goatee of Grohl.
When I heard “Something From Nothing,” the lead single from Sonic Highways, I thought it was a quintessential catchy Foo Fighters anthem that sounded a lot like all their other singles, heavy guitar riffs with corny lyrics. But then I watched Sonic Highways and realized that when Dave Grohl is screaming, “You can’t make me change my name,” he’s reflecting on his interview with Buddy Guy, who told record companies to fuck off when they insisted he change his name to Buddy King. It’s this combination of elements, from blues guitar to punk rock, that lives in the lyrics of the album and gives it a depth that I think would be impossible to appreciate without visible behind the scenes access.
TWO TYPES OF COUNTRY
In one episode the merry band of rockstars takes on Nashville, the epicenter of country music. This was the episode I was most unsure of, because although I learned fairly quickly that Dave Grohl’s appreciation for music meant that he could draw inspiration from anywhere, I didn’t see much of a connection between country music and the Foo Fighters. Also, I just don’t care much for country. But then Dave Grohl taught me that umbrella statements like that are lazy and uninformed.
The Nashville episode is interesting in that it eviscerates “country pop” like Florida Georgia Line as a deviation from the origins of country, which were as basic as a person with a guitar telling a story. “Real country,” per Sonic Highways, is the Zac Brown Band writing a song, getting Dave Grohl to play drums on it, and then performing it a couple days later at the CMAs even though no one had heard it before. That takes stones, and true musical talent. In an era where so much of the music we hear is akin to factory products, it’s important to recognize those people who are in it for the rhythm and not the photo ops.
YOUNG WILLIE NELSON
Willie Nelson once looked like this, and if not for Sonic Highways, I would have had no idea. Thank you, Dave.