By Whitney Friedlander
The lobby of Dave Grohl's Northridge-based 606 Studios has a Joan Jett book on the coffee table and a row of classic arcade games like Donkey Kong Jr. against one wall. On top of a photo booth sits an iconic “Moonman” MTV Video Music Award, festooned with a roll of toilet paper around the MTV flag.
What it doesn't have on this chilly Thursday morning in January are helicoptering publicists or managers restricting access — Grohl is unaccompanied as he heads into the studio for an interview. And he has no intention of avoiding controversial subjects.
Grohl is here to talk not about 606 but about another studio in the Valley. The Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer has made a documentary, Sound City, that's a tribute to the eponymous dingy yet magical Van Nuys analog studio where he, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic recorded Nirvana's breakthrough album, Nevermind, nearly 22 years ago. The film, which debuted at Sundance, is a meditation on how computer technology is changing the music industry today.
Sound City had red, shag carpet walls, a worn interior and miraculous acoustics, a huge selling point for drummers like Grohl. It was home to a custom-made Neve 8028 Console, which seemed to make everything come to life — no need for digital aids like the now-ubiquitous ProTools software. Grohl so credits the console for his success that he bought it when the recording studio finally closed its doors in 2011. And for the three and a half decades before that, Sound City was the essence of “old-school,” or, as former studio manager Shivaun O'Brien says in Grohl's film, “where real men went to make records.”
A companion soundtrack, Sound City: Real to Reel, will be released in March. It features songs written and performed by Grohl and others who cut their teeth at the studio — and some who didn't (cough, cough, Paul McCartney). The appropriately titled “Cut Me Some Slack” is the song McCartney recorded with the surviving members of Nirvana and which the newly formed group (dubbed “Sirvana” by the press) performed at 12-12-12 The Concert for Sandy Relief. And, yes, controversy ensued. Some critics labeled the performance an ill-timed promotional stunt for the film, but Grohl argues, “In those moments, I wasn't so worried about what people were going to think. I was more worried about trying to raise some money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.” Besides, he says, McCartney was the one who suggested they play it. Who was he to argue with a Beatle?
At 606, the 44-year-old Grohl — sporting distressed jeans, a gray hoodie and turquoise flannel, as well as his trademark dark beard and mustache — acknowledges that he's nostalgic for Sound City “because the 16 days we spent there making Nevermind changed my life.” He also wanted to make the film, he says, because he believes “that the room and the board of any studio is just as instrumental to the sound of an album as any of the instruments that are played on it.”
“It's something that people don't take into consideration — these old studios and these old rooms and these old desks have a life of their own,” Grohl says. “And unfortunately, a lot of them are closing because they're obsolete. People don't need this board to make an album anymore. They can buy a digital recording device and do it at home. It's a lot more accessible and available than something like this.”
Sound City is credited for pivotal moments in rock history: bringing Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham into Fleetwood Mac; serving as the proving ground for artists like Rick Springfield. It also was the recording site for Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Damn the Torpedoes, Pat Benatar's Crimes of Passion, Rage Against the Machine's self-titled album, Weezer's Pinkerton, Johnny Cash's Unchained and countless others that probably made it to your car stereo.
“There is a studio-nerd element to the movie that, as we were making it, I knew that any of my engineer friends were just going to get raging studio boners for this film,” Grohl says. “But, of course, we wanted to broaden the appeal or the message so that everyone could relate to it somehow. Part of the intention of the film is to show people that music is a human practice or a process.”
And thus the “human element” that Grohl is known for promoting. At last year's Grammy Awards, he famously said that making music is “not about being perfect, it's not about sounding absolutely correct, it's not about what goes on in a computer. It's about what goes on in [your heart] and what goes on in [your head].” He was lambasted by critics, including the Weekly's Dennis Romero, who wrote, “Pop has evolved with the help of technology, from Kraftwerk to Giorgio Moroder, Herbie Hancock to Radiohead. It's childish to blame the tools of the artist,” adding, “… Grohl has been living off the ghost of rock & roll his entire career. People like Rick Rubin (who started a techno label in the mid-1990s), Tommy Lee and Diddy have long understood what the future holds.”
Grohl responded with a letter, writing, “That thing that happens when a song speeds up slightly, or a vocal goes a little sharp. That thing that makes people sound like PEOPLE. Somewhere along the line those things became 'bad' things, and with the great advances in digital recording technology over the years they became easily 'fixed.' The end result? In my humble opinion … a lot of music that sounds perfect, but lacks personality. The one thing that makes music so exciting in the first place.” Grohl signed it Davemau5, a reference to electro/house music DJ and performer Joel Thomas Zimmerman, who's better known by his stage name, Deadmau5.
Today, he says,”I played on the last fucking Prodigy record. I'm no stranger to electronic music and the digital world of recording.” Nor is Grohl immune to the addictively catchy power of Psy's “Gangnam Style,” although this might be in part because his 3- and 6-year-old daughters know all the words and have made it hard for him to escape it. (“I also don't believe in guilty pleasures. … Just fucking own it,” he says.)
The Foo Fighters also played a show at Apple's unveiling of the iPhone 5 event (mind you, it was acoustic). A computer printout of a photo of Apple CEO Tim Cook showing Grohl the phone is taped up in the recording studio.
So technology isn't bad. But …
“Because a human being hit the power button on their laptop and then made a song, is that the human element of music?” Grohl asks. “Where does it begin, where does it end?”
Plus, he says, easier doesn't always mean better.
“The last thing you want to do is tell your kids stories about how you walked to school in three feet of snow every day, or scream at kids to 'get off my fucking lawn,' ” he says. “But at the same time, to appreciate the practice or craft of doing anything is healthy. Of course there's an easier way of doing everything, but really?”
Of course, neither analog nor digital technology is perfect. When it's suggested that cutting analog tape requires time and a certain precision, he counters with the reality that digital technology is “just ones and zeros and doesn't really exist.”He adds his own digital-disaster horror story: Several songs from the Foos' 2005 In Your Honor were accidentally zapped from the studio computer's hard drive during recording.
According to Grohl, “The greatest advantage of recording to 2-inch tape is once you've recorded something, if you have to record it again, you hit rewind and it takes about 30 seconds to wind back. Those 30 seconds of peace and fucking quiet are priceless” because they “give you time to think and relax and focus.”
As far as the Sound City documentary is concerned — which, for the record, was not shot on film but digitally — Grohl says, “The last thing I want to do is have the message of this film be misunderstood or misconstrued to say we have to do things as they were done in the past. Because I don't believe that. I only believe mostly that people connect with the sound of people, and that should be respected.”
Using authentic voices and playing, he adds, is “like writing a love letter.”
“If you were to write a love letter, would you do it in a text, would you do it in an email or would you write it out on a piece of paper, wrap a ribbon around it, fucking take a rose, stick it down the middle of it and hand it to the chick?” he asks. “That's going to be a lot more effective.”