From Sound City to City Sounds: Dave Grohl Talks Risky Foo Fighters Album, HBO Project

Foo Fighters performs at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C.
Kyle Gustafson / For The Washington Post

Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters performs at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. as part of the birthday celebration for Big Tony of Trouble Funk. Grohl hosted the event, played drums with during a set with members of Scream and Bad Brains as well as performing a full set with the Foo Fighters.

Foo Fighters' 20th anniversary comes with an album, its own cable docuseries and an ambitious mission to tell the story of America through its indigenous music

If Dave Grohl is gunning for the title of rock's top overachiever, he is well on his way. Since forming Foo Fighters in 1995, he has churned out seven albums that have sold a combined 11.1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan; he directed the 2013 documentary Sound City -- about the fabled former Los Angeles recording studio of the same name - which boasts a 100 percent review score on Rotten Tomatoes; he crossed off "jam with Paul McCartney" on his bucket list; and, in April, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Nirvana. As he told a crowd at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival premiere of Sound City, "Next, I'll be flying your plane to Dulles."

What actually is next on Grohl's to-do list is the new, as-yet-untitled Foos album, due this fall, which might be the band's most ambitious yet. The band visited eight American cities rooted in music -- Seattle, Chicago, Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York and Washington, D.C. -- where Grohl, 45, interviewed some of the musicians who helped shape those sounds and used each conversation as inspiration to write and record an original song for the album. Grohl filmed this creative process for an HBO hourlong series he is directing that will debut around the time that the album is released (November, says a source). The footage will feature the Foos performing with local artists interviewed for the project, such as Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen in Chicago. "After making Sound City, I realized that the pairing of music and documentary works well because the stories give substance and depth to the song, which makes for a stronger emotional connection," Grohl tells Billboard of the project's genesis. "So I thought, 'I want to do this again, but instead of just walking into a studio and telling its story, I want to travel across America and tell its story.'"

As he did with Sound City, Grohl handled the booking and interviewing of some of the film's subjects himself. “It completely relieves any of that middleman tension,” he says. “It’s artist to artist, talking about music.”  He is also supervising the editing process.  The workload, as well as the scope of the project  “is a fucking beast,” he says.  “It's basically the history of American music broken down to the cultural roots of each place: Why did Chicago become a blues capital? Why did country go to Nashville? Why did the first psychedelic band, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, come from Austin? How did the second line rhythm make its way to New Orleans? It's crazy."

Crazier, perhaps, is Grohl's decision to use this cultural expedition to inform the Foos' next album, which promises to stretch the bounds of the band's hard-rock hooks. The hip-hop and soul-inflected blues of Gary Clark Jr. was on the menu in Austin, Zac Brown for Nashville and Eagles member Joe Walsh added a dash of country rock during a session in Joshua Tree, Calif., that was part of the band's visit to L.A. Butch Vig, who helmed 2011's Grammy-winning Wasting Light, returns to produce - again recording in analog.

The Foos’ most unlikely collaboration took place in New Orleans with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in mid-May. The track that resulted incorporates horns and jazz tones, says Grohl, and while in NOLA, the band shut down St. Peter Street in the French Quarter on May 17 to perform a surprise show at Preservation Hall. The doors to the legendary venue were opened so that the band could play to the jam-packed block.

“Those doors haven't been open to the street in 60 years,” says Grohl, who notes that not only were HBO’s cameras rolling, a crew from CBS’ 60 Minutes was capturing the event for an upcoming segment by Anderson Cooper. “A hundred feet away from Bourbon Street on a Saturday night — it was fucking chaos,” he says.

For its closing number, "This Is A Call," the band was joined onstage by “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, who ably handled a horn solo and Preservation Hall Jazz Band drummer Joe Lastie and clarinetist Charlie Gabriel. The latter, Grohl explains, is 82 and a fourth-generation New Orleans musician. “His family came here in 1850 — I mean, that's deep,” says Grohl. “It's like standing in a forest of musicians and you're looking up at enormous trees. It’s fucking beautiful. It’s epic.”

Andrew Stuart
Foo Fighters play at Preservation Hall in New Orleans on May 17, 2014.

Having landed 27 songs on Billboard's Alternative chart in the last two decades - 20 of them in the top 10 ­- the Foos' upcoming album could be considered a risky commercial venture. After all, says Brad Hardin, evp of programming and rock and alternative brand manager for Clear Channel: "The Foo Fighters are a core artist for alternative and rock radio, delivering a robust library to both formats from the late 90s to now. We are very excited and eagerly awaiting the follow-up to Wasting Light."

Whatever direction this new record takes, Grohl makes no apologies. "As we were coming down from the success of the last record, I thought, 'Now we have license to get weird,' " he says. "If we wanted, we could make some crazy, bleak Radiohead record and freak everyone out. Then I thought, 'F- that.' " The goal, he adds, is to make stadium anthems that startle. Instead of just "banging out these big choruses, because that's what we do, we're banging them out in the middle of instrumental sections that will take you by surprise," he says. "The music is a progression or an evolution, for sure, but it's a Foo Fighters record." 

This article first appeared in the May 31 issue of Billboard. Click here to buy your own copy.