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.
Grohl called on a friend from the film business, Jim Rota, a "Chronicles of Narnia" production supervisor, who in turn brought in John Ramsay, who had most recently produced "Transcendent Man," a documentary on the inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil. "When he came to us he said, 'I don't want anybody involved who's connected to Hollywood,'" Rota remembers. "'It has to be free of anybody telling us what to do or how to make it. I have a vision and I want to make what I think is the story.'" From Grohl's perspective, the process for making a film should be no different from making a Foo Fighters record: Retain creative control and then hand it to a distributor to get it in front of people.
At that first meeting with Rota and Ramsay, Grohl sketched out his vision for the film, writing out a step-by-step script of what should be in the film. Days before he traveled to Sundance, Grohl had come across the journal that had the outline for the script, which he had photographed on his iPhone. He delighted in showing the photos to visitors: "It's exactly the movie we made. I'm so amazed."
Another element that amazed Grohl was the number of people willing to share their stories about the studio that everyone--except Mick Fleetwood--described as a "dumpy shithole." "If you went to Capitol Records," Grohl says, "it was walking into Frank Sinatra's dream. Walking into Sound City was like walking into Frank Sinatra's nightmare." The secret, which Rick Rubin explains in the film, was in the drum sound that came out of Sound City, which helps explain the love that Fleetwood and Grohl--both drummers--have for the place.
Yet as Grohl explored the idea of a full-length documentary with interview subjects ranging from drummer Jim Keltner to Neil Giraldo of Pat Benatar's band to Trent Reznor, the more he realized the story needed to reach beyond the lost art of analog recording.
Each interview was filmed for two or three hours, discussing the events that led the interviewee into a rock'n'roll career as well as reminiscences about the studio itself. The last question Grohl asked of each subject: "What's your piece of advice to the next generation of musicians?"
For inspiration he recalled the way James Moll worked when he directed "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth," the 2011 documentary that started as a chronicle of the Foos recording their seventh album, "Wasting Light," in the garage of Grohl's Encino, Calif., home. (It won a Grammy Award in 2012 for best long form music video.) Moll made the film more than a retrospective on the band. "He wanted to ask about our relationships with each other as people that made us survive for 20 years," Grohl says. "That's what everyone can relate to. Who [cares] who produced our second record?"
Rota adds, "The movie has the feel it has because Dave did all the interviews himself. Dave gets them to speak loose and off the cuff. It's a conversation that makes for a more emotional interview than, 'What amp did you use on that record?'"
Grohl's attention to sonic detail is nothing new--"Wasting Light" drew considerable attention for its use of all analog equipment in the recording. It paid off last year with five Grammys. In his acceptance speech and interviews that followed, Grohl continued to reinforce the notion that analog brings out the heart in a performance.
"His attention to the importance of sonic excellence is right smack in the middle of the concerns of our Producers & Engineers Wing," Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow says. "His sensibility and desire to pass along information to the next generation, a generation limited to mediocre earbuds and technology that spends pennies on audio equipment, is incredible. He's got a huge heart."
The final reels of "Sound City" point to the future rather than the past as the filmmakers chronicle the installation of the Neve board at Grohl's Studio 606. He starts to bring in the musicians who made landmark records at Sound City--Springfield, Nicks, Reznor, Homme, Keltner and others--to record new tracks and drive home the importance of understanding music's history.
"There were times when we didn't know what was going to happen," Grohl says, his face lighting up. "Like, put Paul McCartney in a room with Nirvana and cross your fingers that something cool happens."
On Dec. 12, nine days after "Sound City" was added to the Sundance festival, Grohl, Novoselic and McCartney took the stage at New York's Madison Square Garden for the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief and performed a song no one had heard before, "Cut Me Some Slack." McCartney's name wasn't used in any of the film's promotional material and footage of him is nowhere to be found in the trailer that was released in early December.
"The McCartney song was the biggest secret," Grohl says. "A few things leaked out, but the McCartney thing-we couldn't give [that] away because this is-spoiler alert-the moment. At the first few test screenings we did, the moment where Paul appears, there were audible gasps in the room. When we were editing that segment I said, 'I don't want a "holy shit" moment, I want a "holy fuck" moment.' I was at a screening in Salt Lake City [on Jan. 22] and that moment he appears onscreen, you could just hear [the audience say], 'Jesus Christ,' as if the thing couldn't be tied up with a more beautiful bow than that. It really creates a cool moment."
The McCartney experiment, Grohl came to realize, wasn't different from his experiences with the other musicians in the film. "They're musicians who just want to play," he says. "Even Stevie, who walks in and starts to do her Stevie Nicks thing. She is really into being a musician and working with everyone else."
That ideal, the age-old jam session in which musicians gather and try to turn collective ideas into songs, permeated the entire project for Grohl. He directly addressed the idea of working with one of his idols in McCartney, but somehow it's easy to sense he may as well be talking about all of the musicians in "Sound City."
"If it had only been a day in the studio and no one had ever seen it or heard it and I had never done it again, I would die a happy man," he says. "Just the fact that it happened, to me, was enough."