Interview: Director Dave Grohl of 'Sound City'
'Write something that means something to you, make a huge f**king noise, and do it in front of people ...'
You know him as the leader of the Foo Fighters -- or, if a little older, as the drummer for Nirvana, whose pounding drum tone drove the songs that killed a thousand hair bands and, briefly, made the radio waves and Top 40 charts a safe haven for flannel-clad outsiders who wrote their own songs. But with "Sound City," Dave Grohl steps into a different role, as a director whose documentary "Sound City" celebrates the run-down, shut-down recording studio of the title that was built around a then state-of-the-art 24-track Neve Recording Console -- or, as Grohl puts it, 'board' -- that captured hit songs for decades, from Fleetwood Mac to Rick Springfield to Weezer to Rage Against the Machine.
The story of "Sound City" has a happy-ish ending -- when the Sound City Studios shut down, Grohl managed to find a new home for the Neve recording console in his own recording studio, and invited luminaries who'd used it before to return and make new songs, filming that process for the documentary. "Sound City" premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival; we spoke with Grohl in Los Angeles about moviemaking, rock and roll, happy endings and the imperfections of human achievement.
MSN Movies: I was at the Sundance premiere -- how was it to play "Sound City" for an audience for the first time? With family and friends in a big, public venue at America's best-known film festival?
Dave Grohl: It was crazy. As we were making the movie I was convinced we were making the greatest rock-and-roll documentary of all time, that it was a movie so relevant that everyone should see it, and that I was doing something amazing. And then the first time I showed a clip to a friend of mine I was terrified I'd realize it's the biggest piece of s**t I'd ever seen in my life.
'Cause Ed Wood just thinks he made plenty of great movies.
(Laughs) Exactly. When you're sitting in a room, oh God, the worst -- I'll tell you the worst. I had to bring it up and screen it for the people at iTunes, and rather than sit behind them, I sat in front of them by mistake because I had no idea what I'm doing screening a movie about how computers have ...
... destroyed ...
... destroyed music to the entire staff of iTunes. (Laughs) You could imagine. It was terrible. I felt them, their eyes burning a hole in the back of my head.
Honestly, this project started off as a short film concept between me and my friend Jim Rota. That's it. Like, we just wanted to make a short film about the history of this board (recording console) and see if we could tell that story in 12 minutes. For nothing, but, I wanted it to be a sidebar to the Nirvana "Nevermind" 20th Anniversary. Like now, I'm reunited with the board that made that album and the board that I consider to be responsible for the person I am. So we eventually reached out to as many people as we could find, and everybody reached back. And that's when we realized this is more than a 12-minute YouTube clip. This is actually a feature-length film. And that's when everything snowballed. Within our boundaries we were like, "Okay, we don't want to make it a big Hollywood thing. We don’t want to go to a big movie studio. We want to do it completely independent of anyone. We're going to pay for it ourselves. And we want to be able to tell this movie without anybody telling us how to tell the story."
And I mean at a certain point you knew you were buying the board. You figured you might as well shoot some stuff.
I mean that's really where it started, was when the Foo Fighters were making our last album, we did it in my garage. I have a recording studio in the valley, but I didn’t have any gear at my house. And so I started hunting around for gear. And someone said, "You should call Shivaun O'Brien at Sound City. They're starting to sell off stuff from Studio B 'cause I think they're going to shut down." I'd always been friends with them ever since Nirvana recorded there. So I called Shivaun, and she was distraught. She'd been there for 20 years and had done everything she could possibly do to keep that studio alive, to taking money out of her own pocket to paint the walls. And it was clear that it was going under. And so they were doing as much as they could to keep it open as long as they could, but it wouldn't work. So I very gingerly offered to buy the board in A room if it were for sale. And she said, "I'd sell my f**king grandmother before I sell that board." And I said, "Okay .."
So what price did grandmother go for, because you own the board now ...
Exactly. She's at home with the kids right now. (Laughs) No, I mean...
You did the package deal. Get the recording console, the grandmother's free.
I think then what happened is that Shivaun split, and then Tom and Sandy who own the place realized that they needed to get rid of the board. And they decided that I should be the person to have it, and so they sold it to me for ... I didn’t even ask how much it cost. I didn't say, "How much do you want for it?" I said, "You just let me know, and then I'll take it" because not only do I consider that board to be worthy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from everything that's been recorded on it, but personally to me if it weren't for that board who knows what would've happened. I honestly believe that. If you understand audio engineering and how albums are made, you would know that it's the specific combination of these elements, like the room, and the board, and the players, that makes for the album that you eventually hear. And if anyone of those elements in that combination is replaced or taken away, it changes the way the album sounds. So I really consider that board to be just as important -- that board, and Sound City, and Nirvana (are) the reason why I'm here.
It's as if you lost your virginity at Mt. Rushmore ...
(Laughs) That's the perfect analogy.
You worked with Mr. Mark Monroe as a writer, who's also involved in Sundance 2013 movies like "Who is Dayani Cristal?" and also 'The Summit." You have a three-act structure for "Sound City" up there on a corkboard laid out with index cards. When you know you're not doing something verité, when you're shaping the story you want to tell, was Mr. Monroe incredibly helpful?
Yes. I'm going to show you something funny that I found three weeks ago as I was cleaning out my garage. I was cleaning out my garage...
As long as it's not the body of a hobo, we're fine.
No, it's not. It's the outline of the film that I wrote up before we started the movie. And so this is this cute, little journal that I had where I had the introduction, and the title, and the driving down, you've got some history, you've got the people that should be interviewed in that section, the bands Petty and Cheap Trick, you go through the '80s, you start talking about technology. So I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do. I didn’t even know that you could have a writer on a documentary. The first person I met with was Paul Crowder, the editor. Paul's great. Not only is Paul a wicked editor who is also a musician, so he has a very musical way of editing, a very rhythmic and great sense of humor, but he's also an audio engineer. So he grew up working at recording studios in London. He understood this entire conversation completely. I didn’t have to say, "Hey, I want to do a section in the film that talks about the sound of the drums in a room."
... As a demonstration of in-room acoustic tone ...
Right. So all I had to do was tell him that, and he'll go, "Oh, okay. Great."
So when I first started interviewing people I would get the transcript, I would watch the footage back, and I would highlight all of these great quotes and what they were pertinent to. And then Paul says, "Hey, you know I have a partner, this guy Mark Monroe. He's really good. We have a company called Diamond Docs together." And I said, "Writer? What does he do?" He goes, "Well, he pulls the quotes and we form the story before we even start putting anything onscreen." And I was like, "Wow. I don’t have to watch all those f**king interviews again?" (Laughs) So it was great. And the arc of the story is really clear. And I mean it was, to be honest, with that simple concept in mind it was hard to deviate from it, you know? You're talking about telling the story of the studio chronologically, and the technical discussion is parallel to that because of what's happened with technology.
And in the end you use the board to demonstrate the technological points.
And so, now this is the funny part, that came from my mother. So my mother, she's a retired schoolteacher. She was an English teacher for 35 years. She taught AP English. She was a forensic coach, a debate coach, and she taught creative writing. So when I bought the board I said, "Mom, I got this board, and I'm going to make a movie where I tell a story of the board. But then I also invite everyone back to make a new record with me." And she says, "Okay. Well, you know you don't start the movie by saying you bought the board. You tell the story of the studio until they close, and then you rescue the board and invite everyone back." This is long before I think I met Paul or Mark, and I said, "Okay. I'll do that 'cause you're a teacher. You're smart." (Laughs)
So with that in mind when we sat down to talk about it, Mark and Paul and I, we broke it up into those three acts, you know, Act 1 being the history, Act 2 being technology, and Act 3 being performance and demonstration of everything we've talked about earlier. And it was really f**king easy. The hardest part was keeping it to under seven hours.
Right. 'Cause the next thing you know...
Just the Neil Young interview would've been worth a film in itself.
Is asking Neil Young about digital recording like asking your uncle ...
How to use the VCR? (Laughs)
No, is it like asking your uncle if Oswald acted alone? Like you're gong to get a lot history and a lot of conspiracies.
You'd imagine so.
Neil is one of the most forward thinking, technical minded people that I know. He and Trent Reznor are pretty much in the same place. You'd imagine Neil would be some analog steam engine that only made feedback and 18-minute long songs. Not true. The guy's f**king, he's a genius. Of the four minutes of him that we used in the film, I have hours of him talking about his company Pono that he started...
... and his proprietary non-compression audio system ...
... which gets over what he sees as a big objection to CD.
Yes. Now, that side of the digital debate to me just goes right out the window because I'm deaf as a f**king post. So you could like play me something digitally recorded and something analog, and it would just sound like (HUMMMMMMMS) 'cause I'm f**king ... it's been a long time of playing loud drums. But so I was more concerned with the conversation about the human element and the imperfection of human feel.
But yeah, Neil understands all of those things completely. As does Trent.
I was thinking ... as you can tell I'm a huge nerd and still own a turntable, and I like getting stuff on vinyl because it's a way to think about sequencing, which nobody seems to think about anymore.
Is it just the whole thing of the age of click, shuffle, or click, download, single, single? Is that kind of hurting the album as we know it?
Yeah. Well, hurting it I don’t know, but it has changed the way that we experience albums. I remember f**king 15 years ago my manager saying, "You know one day people won't buy an entire album. They'll just buy one song at a time." I said, "Get the f**k out of here. You're f**king crazy." Because there was a time when sequencing the album was just as crucial as writing a verse-chorus-verse in a song because it even changed from album to CD. When LP's were around you'd go A side, B side. You had to have a good opener for side A and a good closer for side A, then the flip side. Then with CD's you could sequence like a set list.
And as Rollins pointed out, going form vinyl to CD, you go from like 40 minutes to like 70 minutes. You have a lot of those second or third-cut songs wedged on so people don't feel ripped off.
But I mean, yeah, I think it's important to me to still think in that sort of mentality, like to look at an album as an entire piece and not just like little things. But yeah, I mean my daughter ... I came home with the Beatles box set, vinyl box set, about, I don't know, a month and a half ago. I walked in the house with it. She saw it. She loves the Beatles. She's almost seven. She sees this big black box that's like a tombstone; it f**king weighs 50 pounds. And she sees it and she says, "What is that?" And I go, "Boo, these are all the Beatles records." So I open them up. She's like holding them and "Magical Mystery Tour" isn't just some icon on her f**king iPod touch. It's tactile, you can hold it, and you look at it, and she's leafing through. And so I put the turntable in her room, and I showed her. I said, "Okay, here's how you do it. Take it out of the sleeve, drop it on the little post, you take this and put it on careful." She goes (mimes placing needle; makes horrible scratching sound). And I said, "You know there's songs on both sides. Just look and see in the middle which songs you like." And I left her there and came back and like all the records were on the floor, she's dancing to "Get Back" in the middle of the room looking through stuff. And what it made me realize is that the experience has changed, but people haven't, children haven’t. So you have all of these tools available that make it so you can make your own album in your bedroom, or you can listen to, you can store 100,000 Beatles songs on your phone. But that experience that she had is the exact same one that I had when I was six years old in 1975. So people, we're not robots you know? We still react to these things emotionally as human beings, which gives me faith. Like a lot of people feel sometimes that progress moves too quickly and that there's this hopeless need for convenience, you know what I mean? Like how can I make this easier? How can I make this easier? How can I make it so that I don't have to...
... At one point Neil said, "You can't get in the way of progress. You can't stop technology. What we need to do is we need to figure out how to make it better." Like when he's talking about Pono, he's talking about the transferring the analog to digital. He says, "We just need to make it better. We haven't figured it out yet. It's there. We can do it. But we just need to figure it out." And so, you know, the way people experience albums might be different, but they're still people. People haven't changed.
I mean it's in the trailer and not in the film, but you use Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's "Whatever Happened to my Rock and Roll" as the music cue to the trailer. Is that the big rhetorical question of the whole film?
Yes, it is actually. (Laughs)
Before when I found out that they recorded that album at Sound City I immediately -- that's one of my favorite albums of all time -- I immediately said, "That's the song we need for the trailer. That needs to be the song for the trailer. What other song would be more perfect for this trailer? That's the one for the trailer." Abso-f**king-lutely. It just worked out so perfectly. Like yeah, I mean you know, look. There are still kids in garages all over the world that are playing s**tty yard sale instruments and ready to become the biggest band of all time. It's going to happen. To me making the "Sound City" movie was to try to inspire that, was to try to inspire people to fall in love with that simple, human side of music and to have faith in it because it doesn't matter what happens to the world or technology. People will always be people. Like, you will be a human being. There will be more human beings. And they will react to music emotionally, and there's something about the emotional connection between human beings when they make music together. And so the movie's supposed to not only shed light on that but to demonstrate how cool it is when people just get into a room to jam. And that's what makes people, that's what made me want to become a musician. I had KISS posters and Rush albums, but I could never imagine being in any of those bands because Kiss weren't human beings; they were monsters. And Rush were too f**king good, you know? I could never play drums like Neil Peart. But then I saw a punk rock band with a 12-year-old kid playing guitar. He knew three fu**king chords. I'm like, "Wait, I know three chords. I can do that, too." And that was it. Relating to an artist or a musician or a f**king 12-year-old kid and thinking, "Wow, I can do that. I'm going to do that." And so early on in the project we realized that that's what this film was going to be. And every single interview I asked everybody, "What's your advice for the next generation of musicians?" Every single person and we hardly used any of them. But you could imagine what would come out of Stevie Nicks' mouth.
So in the limited time we have, you ask people their advice to the next generation. What's the one big theme? The number one, the thing that bubbled up the most often?
(It) was to be yourself. That was it, you know? And what that means to me is to embrace your imperfection or the way that you sound. Most people they hear their voice on an answering machine they go, "Ew. God, I sound like that?" Yeah, you do. Get into it. It took me a long time. As a drummer, I always liked I played the drums because I played like all of my heroes together, all of my punk rock heroes that I stole all of their s**t so that I could play drums in my band. And I liked the way it sounded because it reminded me of all of my influences, you know? Sloppy as s**t, I was out of my f**king mind. As a vocalist I hated my voice for the longest time until I finally gave in and said well "Who the f**k am I going to sound like, John Lennon? No. I can only sound like myself. But that's what makes me different from everyone else." And so instead of trying to be something that you're not or being down on yourself for sounding the way that you sound, just f**king embrace it and get into it, you know?
It should reflect the difficulty of human aspiration, not the ease of mechanical perfection?
(Laughs) Well, yes. I mean as a drummer, I'm really sensitive to any sort of digital manipulation because I feel like the thing that makes drummers great are all of their bad habits and all of their imperfection. And if you were to take some of my favorite drummers that have changed the f**king world and had them apply to the Berklee School of Music, I guarantee you none of them would be accepted. But the music that they've made has changed the world. So it's those things that I think people need to understand. Don't walk up to a judge and sing a song and have him say, "Sorry, you're not good enough." That's not how it works. It doesn't work like that. Like, write something that means something to you, make a huge f**king noise, and do it in front of people so that'll it inspire them to do it as well. That's the reward, I think. So that's what "Sound City" is.