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Dave Grohl's 'Sound City': The Billboard Cover Story
With a unique release strategy for his film, the Foo Fighters frontman intends to spread his rock gospel far and wide
In 1982, the Los Angeles band Fear released The Record, a pounding document of punk snarl that included such songs as "Let's Have a War" ("… we can hold it in New Jersey!") and "I Don't Care About You." A 13-year-old Dave Grohl heard the album in Evanston, Ill., where his cousin Tracy played it for him. It is, he says, the album that made him want to be a musician.
He is relating this story onstage, in Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival. In fact, Grohl-along with compatriots from Foo Fighters and Nirvana-is backing up the singer of Fear, Lee Ving. It's the first live performance by Grohl's Sound City Players-which includes John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac and Nirvana's Krist Novoselic-and there's barely room to breathe, let alone move, in the 800-capacity club Park City Live. The toughest ticket at this world-renowned film festival will turn out to be this concert.
Imagine a fantasy football league with rock stars and you'll have a clear idea of the rotating bands Grohl assembled for the debut of Sound City Players. The group is an outgrowth of his documentary "Sound City," a portrait of the dumpy Van Nuys, Calif., studio where Nirvana recorded Nevermind, Fleetwood Mac added Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham to the lineup and Neil Young cut his classic After the Gold Rush.
For three-plus hours, the Sound City Players delivered a stroll through rock'n'roll history, a living reminder of the great records that came out of Sound City. One impressive lineup featured Novoselic, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, Slipknot singer Corey Taylor, Queens of the Stone Age's Alain Johannes on guitar and Grohl on drums. Masters of Reality guitarist/singer Chris Goss fronted a unit with Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk and Grohl on bass; Foo Fighters choogled Creedence-style backing Fogerty, then spun the mellow gold of Fleetwood Mac behind Nicks.
Grohl was a ringleader and a fan at the concert. Not only did he gush with praise for each act, he related his own personal history with each performer's work. Beyond Fear, Cheap Trick's "Surrender" was the soundtrack to his drunken summer as a 16 year old in Delaware; Rage Against the Machine was the debut album that sounded like absolutely nothing he had ever heard before. When the Sound City Players hit the final chords of "Jessie's Girl" while backing Rick Springfield, Grohl leaned into his microphone, waved his right arm and said, "Bucket list. Check."
To make the night happen, Grohl's first call was to the Foo Fighters with a request that they learn 40 songs in 10 days. "Then I made these charts of each performer, the songs we would play with them and who was going to play which instrument," Grohl says. "It was so overwhelming, but it was like cramming for the coolest test you've ever taken in your life. Because we had done the rehearsals separately, we had never run the entire show. That night [Jan. 18] was the first time it had happened in sequence."
Grohl hopes to do the show "all over the world" but realizes the logistical nightmare of gathering 16 or 17 musicians in far-flung places. The show after the Hollywood premiere of the film, held in the 4,400-capacity Hollywood Palladium, is the model Grohl would like to duplicate elsewhere-performances separated by the screening of various scenes from the film.
"One of the great things about telling the story of a studio is there is obviously so much history," Grohl says, comfortably stretched out on a sofa in a condo on a Park City hillside. "Sound City has been home to so many influential albums, but also to so many beautiful stories about people and their relationships.
"When we [Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl] pulled up to Sound City, we had no idea the next 16 days were going to change our world. I wanted to pay tribute to that." As he says in the film, "Sound City represents integrity, some sort of truth."
Grohl's film unfolds as a triptych: the history of the recording studio and its handmade Neve mixing console; Grohl's personal connection to Sound City through the recording of Nevermind, and his purchase of the Neve console in 2011 when the studio was closing; and the recording of a new album with Sound City veterans.
The custom-made Neve console was installed at Sound City in 1973, four years after the studio opened as a state-of-the-art facility. After he bought it, Grohl wanted to make a short film about the board to post on YouTube. "It was right around the 20th anniversary of Nevermind so I thought, 'This will be a nice sidebar, that I'm reunited with the board that made that album,'" Grohl says.
Sound City owner Tom Skeeter brought out the paperwork to show Grohl the original receipt for the board-about $76,000, twice as much as a house in that section of the San Fernando Valley in 1973-and a 10-page spreadsheet of every album recorded at Sound City. That list included the Grateful Dead's only studio album recorded in Southern California, Terrapin Station, six Tom Petty albums, Rage Against the Machine's debut and Nine Inch Nails' The Slip.
"That's when I realized, 'This is not a YouTube clip,'" Grohl says. "It's a feature-length documentary and we need to step it up a bit." Which led to Grohl assembling a crew and setting a deadline for the film based on when projects needed to be submitted for Sundance consideration.
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