The Sound City Players include Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Lee Ving, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Rick Springfield and others united by the fact they made records at the Sound City studio in Van Nuys, Calif. Nirvana made "Nevermind" there, the first Fleetwood Mac album with Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham was done there, Rage Against the Machine recorded their debut album there; the list starts in 1973 and goes on for nearly four decades.
Grohl, who purchased the Neve sound board from the studio when it closed, set out to make a tribute album by having veterans of the studio come by his place and record. When he took possession of the board, a custom-built Neve that cost $76,000 new, he set out to make a short film.
"When they agreed to sell the board to me, I thought I'd pay tribute by making a short film and putting it on YouTube," Grohl says. "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. Then I got the shortlist of everyone who made an album there and it's not a short list. I called out to as many people as I could, thinking maybe some of them would want to talk and all of them wanted to talk.
"That's when I realized this is not a YouTube clip. It's a feature-length documentary and we need to step it up a bit."
Grohl's documentary started to take shape 13 months ago, he says, and he began to assemble a team of veteran documentarians - writer Mark Monroe ("The Cove," "Amazing Journey: The Story of the Wo"), editor Paul Crowder ("Dogtown and Z Boys," "The Last Play at Shea") and cinematographer Kenny Stoff ("Eminem's Making the Ass").
Dave Grohl's Sound City Players Tear It Up at Sundance
"We assembled a small crew, completely independent, of like-minded people who understand what we wanted to say," Grohl adds.
Seated in the living room of a condo on a Park City hillside, Grohl detailed the making of the film, shared thoughts on modern promotion and keeping the Paul McCartney recording a secret.
Who was the first person you called?
Neil Young. And he was the last interview, which is funny because those two things happened about a year apart from one another. It's hard to track him down.
The film has a lot of personal anecdotes about the studio, but also music and recording in general. What was your interview style?
I'd ask everyone tell the story of what Sound City represents to them and what it represents to music. I talked with each of these people for at least two hours. The Tom Petty interview was three hours, Stevie was three hours. I could make a movie about each one. As an interviewer, I told them, 'I'm not Barbara Walters, I'd like to just talk about music.' The last question for everyone was, 'What's your piece of advice to the next generation of musician?' You can imagine how inspiring it was to hear Trent Reznor or Neil Young talk about what they hope the next generation comes up with.
Those responses give the film a certain amount of poignancy and eloquence that you might not expect in a film about a recording studio.
During the edit, I knew I didn't want it to be a retrospective documentary, the history of a studio. (The story) has an emotional quality to it and it had to have some relevance. I love Sound City but why am I making this movie? I learned a lot from James Moll, who directed 'Foo Fighters: Back and Forth.' I just imagined it would be a retrospective on the band and what we'd done. Really he didn't want to talk about the trivial things, he wanted to ask about our relationships with each other as people that made us survive for 20 years. That's what everyone can relate to; who (cares) who produced our second record. Sound City has been home to so many influential albums, but also to so many beautiful stories about people and their relationships. It's such a deeper story than a 'Behind the Music' that would talk about 'Damn the Torpedoes.'
You say you don't know much about film-making so how would you say you directed the team?
I don't know if I would call myself a director as much as a ringleader. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's gathering people together to do something fun. One of the first meetings with Paul Crowder and Mark Monroe was in this dingy dive bar. I said 'Look, I've never done this before so I need to know what you think of what I'm doing. I'm not so stubborn that I won't collaborate. You guys are obviously great at what you do.' I'm not going to tell (Crowder) how to edit, but if it doesn't feel the way I think it should, I'm going to let him know. We all understood each other that way and had a clear vision of the direction we were taking.
How much of it were you able to plan?
The other day I was cleaning out my garage and I found the journal from the week I decided to make the movie. I wrote out an outline and it's exactly the movie we made. I'm so amazed. There were times when we didn't know what was going to happen, like put Paul McCartney in a room with Nirvana and cross your fingers that something cool happens.
And then on Dec. 12, play song that millions are watching on TV wondering what in the world the song is.
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. Just the fact that it happened, to me, was enough.
But it was such a secret. Nobody knew that you and Krist (Novoselic) had recorded with McCartney.
The McCartney song was the biggest secret (in the project). A few things leaked out, but the McCartney thing -- we couldn't give (that information) 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 (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 in a more beautiful bow than that. It really creates a cool moment.
As you move forward with the promotion of the film, obviously McCartney's presence is key to getting an audience. How do you compare what you'll be doing to promote the film to the work you do when Foo Fighters have a new album?
Promoting your album is one thing. Going out and promoting the idea of human beings playing music for the next generation, that's another. There are times when I feel like I'm a traveling minister. I'm trying to go out and get kids to pick-up yard sale instruments and change the world. Foo Fighters do worldwide promotional tours months before our albums even come out.
Independent films, especially documentaries, need a lot of word-of-mouth promotion and in some cases it feels like someone practically has to hand a moviegoer a ticket or an invite to take chance on movie like this. Did you think about that?
I don't really know anything about the movie business, but we decided we were going to direct to consumer right out of the gate and with Video on Demand. You can come to our website and get the film DRM-free and evidently that's not what everyone does. It seemed like the perfect idea for this film because it makes it available to anyone who wants to see it. We're passionate about the message of the film so it's important to us that as many people see it as soon as possible.
How did you choose Variance Films as your distributor?
We were still trying to figure out how to get it to the world. Four or five months ago, just like the rest of the project, we found people that were like-minded filmmakers or music lovers who could help us actualize this idea. It's a small crew of people and I like working that way. It's why the Foo Fighters have been a band for so long. Nobody tells us what to to do. We got to our studio, make a record and, when we're done, we license it to the label. And when it's time to take a break, we take a break.