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Rock 'n' Roll Jedi

Dave Grohl

When Dave Grohl got onstage with the rest of the Foo Fighters last winter to accept their Grammy for best rock performance, he went on a rant about “the human element” in music. “Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument—learning to do your craft—that’s the most important thing!” he said. “It’s not about what goes on in a computer!” Then he pointed at his heart and his brain. “It’s about what’s going on in here and here!”

Dave Grohl as John Connor, fighting the rise of the machines. Not that Grohl wasn’t a hardline punk rock soldier with Nirvana, but after Kurt Cobain died, Grohl surprised us by becoming a goofier warrior. With the Foos, Grohl seemed to be the biggest trickster in rock, making videos that referenced Mentos commercials and cracking jokes in Spin about musicians who took themselves too seriously. Now he was seriously positioning himself as a crusader against Apple’s GarageBand software? Of course, he caught himself right away. He didn’t want to be perceived as the out of touch, anti-technology drummer guy—the new Lars Ulrich! So a few days after his speech, he released a statement that essentially apologized to laptop DJs such as Skrillex, signing off with a classic Grohl joke: “So, don’t give me two Crown Royals and ask me to make a speech at your wedding, because I might just bust into the advantages of recording to 2-inch tape.”

But now Grohl has produced an even grander statement, directing a documentary about the rock ’n’ roll Jedis and their ancient analog tools. The film is called Sound City, and it’s the story of Sound City, a lovable dump of a recording studio in LA—well, actually in the valley—where Nirvana recorded Nevermind, Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours and Rick Springfield recorded “Jessie’s Girl.” Hallowed ground, this. And Grohl interviews all the saints—Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, etc.—who are now his buddies.

Photo by Andrew Stuart.        

I ask Grohl if he was comfortable being the interrogator after all those years being on the other side of the microphone. “You know, it’s funny,” he says. “Obviously I’ve been doing interviews for a long time, but I was nervous when I had to interview other musicians.” I can instantly commiserate. Yeah! I think. Musicians can be really hard to interview—always invoking the “magic” of the creative process while desperately dodging any push toward specificity. It’s probably because they’re drawn to an art form that attempts to convey emotion by circumventing language in the first place. But Grohl says that once he started talking to the musicians, he realized he was one of them—and then it was easy. (Damn it.)

“Mick Fleetwood was one of my first interviews,” Grohl says. “And if you’ve ever talked to that dude, he’s the sweetest guy in the world—he’s just a trip.” It was during this conversation that Grohl realized, “Oh right, we’re just talking about music here. And because we’re talking about music, it can become a debate. And it’s not really a two-sided issue. It’s like one of those f****** Dungeons & Dragons dice that has all the different sides to it.”

But because Grohl has so forcefully advocated for the side of the die that defends and preserves the craft of making music with amplified guitars, he’s been labeled a “rockist” by music critics. That is, someone who is prejudiced not only against other genres of music, whether rap or dance or bubblegum pop, but against the ways in which other kinds of music are manufactured. And because music critics use words like “rockist,” Grohl (correctly) believes this critical language is gibberish. So he made Sound City for the people who speak his language: rock musicians and people who want to become rock musicians.

“This movie wasn’t made for cynical middle-aged music critics, it was made for my daughter,” he says. “Or for the teenager down the street who’s trying to figure out how to start a band. When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, ‘Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight f****** hours with 800 people at a convention center and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not f****** good enough.’ Can you imagine?” he implores. “It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old f****** drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll f******* start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some s***** old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-a** s***, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a f****** computer or the Internet or The Voice or American Idol.”


Grohl says that when he was young, he didn’t have a rock documentary like Sound City to help him, he only had Beatles records. “And those could teach you all of those lessons just by listening to them,” he says. As if to prove his point, the second half of Sound City somewhat bizarrely focuses on Grohl buying the original engineering board—the mystical Neve Board—when the studio closed and putting it in his own garage. The rest of the movie is about a bunch of famous musicians jamming with Grohl in said garage—Nicks, Springfield and most incongruously, Paul McCartney, who came and recorded with the remaining members of Nirvana (and ultimately performed with the band at the 12-12-12 show and on Saturday Night Live).

One of the reasons the film’s shift in focus seems so bizarre is because the jam session with McCartney and a semi-reformed Nirvana overwhelms his original point. Grohl has had to answer many questions about this portion of Sound City. He acknowledges this. “At this point everybody knows we recorded a song with Paul McCartney,” he says. “We were trying to keep that a secret but it’s hard to keep a Beatle under wraps.”

“You know, it was a funny day in the studio, but it was just a day,” Grohl continues. “I’ve met Paul before and we’re friends, but Pat [Smear] and Krist [Novoselic] haven’t. So they were really nervous.” I ask him what it was like to jam with Sir Paul. Was McCartney anything like Cobain? Similar melodic sensibilities? Different styles of playing with others? Anything specific?

He points to McCartney’s confidence—which he says is an essential trait for a musician—but then adds: “No two people play the same. Even if you’re playing the same song on the same instrument as somebody else, you will play it differently because you are you. And that’s a good thing! All of your imperfections and all of your bad habits give you your own sound and style. Music’s not meant to be perfect. It’s meant to sound like the way you do it. So the way that Pat and Krist and I sound together sounds like Nirvana. If you substitute those things for someone else, it won’t sound like that anymore. That’s what the movie’s about. When you put human beings together with other human beings to make music you get magic.”

I feel like he can sense that I don’t totally understand what he’s talking about—that I’m probably thinking, Maybe Dave’s not a rockist—but he’s DEFINITELY a musician. By playing with McCartney is he telling me that you can’t really bring Nirvana’s sound back, not with a Neve board, not with Paul McCartney, not with a Kurt Cobain hologram? Maybe. He tries to appeal to me directly, guy to guy.

“I guarantee you, that chick you dated in high school—go kiss her again,” he says. “You know what she’s going to kiss like? Like she did in high school.” //

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Jonathan Harnum
Right on, brother! Paragraph 7 is perfect!
12/9/2013 12:00:07 PM

Inspiring words.
3/18/2014 1:26:57 PM

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