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How Creative Discomfort Fueled the Foo Fighters’ Latest Project: “Sonic Highways”

Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl on how Sonic Highways–part album, part HBO series–is an exercise in breaking from familiarity.

For a band like Foo Fighters, which during its 20-year career has recorded eight studio albums, the process of stepping into the studio to create a new record is a familiar experience. But for creative endeavors, familiarity can be a serious drawback. If there’s one thing that should never be done by rote, it’s writing music. So in contemplating a creative approach for the band’s new album, front man Dave Grohl opted to make the experience as challenging and as uncomfortable, yet creatively stimulating, as possible.

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The idea: to record each track for the new album in a different studio in a different influential music city, allowing the vibe and collaborators from each location infect and influence the song-writing process. And, of course, film it all.

The result is Sonic Highways, a super-meta project. There’s the Sonic Highways album, which was born out of the TV series, and then there’s the eight-episode HBO series Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, which documents the making of an album. But mostly it’s a window into an oft-unseen creative process and an experiment in creative alchemy.

Grohl says the concept for the ambitious project grew out of Sound City, a feature-length documentary that followed the recording of Foo Fighters’ previous album. “With the last album, instead of making another record in the studio, I wanted to challenge the band by putting us in an unfamiliar environment and trying something new. So we built a studio at my house in my garage–I wanted to see if the environment would influence the outcome. It always does,” says Grohl over the phone from Chicago.

Sound City went on to exceed everyone’s expectations and the feedback I got was that people were inspired by these stories of musicians and of the people that ran the studios. So then it came time to make another Foo Fighters record and I thought, well, we can’t just waltz into the studio and make another album just to go on tour. We need to do something special. So I put both of those concepts together. Rather than just one studio, I thought why not challenge the band in eight unfamiliar environments and then tell the stories of all of these musicians and studio owners and people from each city. That just kept snowballing into the history of American music and regional relevance.”

Over the course of the eight-episode series, which airs on HBO on Friday nights, Grohl and the band travel to Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, Seattle, Nashville, New Orleans, Austin, and Los Angeles where they settle in at studios that influenced the city’s music culture, such as Chicago’s Electrical Audio, which is run by one-time Nirvana producer Steve Albini, or Washington, D.C.’s Inner Ear Studios. Along the way, Grohl sits down with music legends such as Dolly Parton and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, Rick Neilsen of Cheap Trick, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, and Buddy Guy among others.

Each installment follows a similar arc: the band arrives, sets up in the studio and immediately starts laying down some music, with interviews with influential artists interspersed. Through those conversations Grohl explores each city’s musical history–painting a picture that he calls a “love letter to American music”–and draws lyrical inspiration. On the final day in each city the band records a new track.

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As a creative process, it’s both structured and freeform. Tight scheduling creates necessary boundaries where the lyrics and spirit of new songs open until the last minute. Here, Grohl talks about how Sonic Highways, the album and the show, came together.

David GrohlPhoto: Andrew Stuart

How a universal story was told through a personal narrative

Since news of the Sonic Highways series, produced by Therapy Content, became public Grohl says people have asked him about why he chose the places he did to visit. Like, why didn’t they go to Detroit?

“You already know about Detroit and Motown,” he says. We made a decision to go to the places and tell the stories of the people that not everyone is familiar with. Steve Rosenthal has a little studio called Magic Shop. I think it’s the greatest studio in the world. The one we visited in New Orleans, it isn’t even a studio; it’s a preservation jazz hall. So, you know, in picking the cities we also had to choose places that held some sort of personal connection or relevance, too. Chicago was the first place I ever saw a band play, I was inspired to become a musician here. Washington, D.C.–I grew up there and I wouldn’t be the same musician if not for there; Seattle, I made music there.

“The greatest challenge is trying to tell the history of a city’s music in one hour. It’s just impossible. So what you have to do is write a story, a personal story that weaves in and out of all these different genres and all these different decades of music.”

Photo: Andrew Stuart

How the lyric writing process grounded the series

“The lyric writing process is kind of the hook of the whole series,” says Grohl. “We didn’t write the lyrics until the very last day of each session because I wrote them around all of these people’s stories. So we’d go into a city for a week, we’d begin recording, and I’d go do interviews and by the last day I’d have all of my transcripts, take them back to the hotel and pick out words, phrases and sentences and put them in my journal.”

The interviews were, in fact, more impassioned chats between accomplished musicians who equally nerd out on music and wax nostalgic on its importance in their lives. “My first question for anybody was to ask them where they’re from,” says Grohl. “We would talk about the place they’re from and how they became a musician and how that place influenced them as a musician. The idea was to talk not only about their history but also about the history of the city and how that influenced the music from that city. But I’m not a journalist so I just sat down to have conversations with them.”

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This informality yielded more honest and revealing interviews than formal interviews might have, according to executive producer Jim Rota. Because Grohl was approaching the musicians as a peer, they let their guards down a bit.

Jim and JohnPhoto: Andrew Stuart

“I think it’s very bold when anybody opens up their creative process to other people,” says Rota. “It’s admirable to open up and say this is how the sausage is made. By keeping the show honest in terms of not being scripted at all and not setting up events to happen to create drama, it really does give people a unique perspective into a process that not a lot of people are familiar with, unless they’re into music and playing in bands. And by process I don’t mean what buttons you push to make things happen. I mean the actual creative process. I think the lyric writing is a great way to tie all of that together.”

How the essence of a city seeped into the music

Why do cities have distinct musical sounds? Why do studios have a signature touch? These were the questions that Grohl wanted to address in Sonic Highways and bring into the album.

“The tempo of the city, the weather, the historic roots in each city… all of these things have an influence on what you do,” Grohl says. “If you go into the fanciest studio in the world to make a record, you’re probably going to make a fancy record. If you make a record in a 200-year-old room in the French Quarter of New Orleans, it’s going to sound different. There are so many different factors that go into influencing how a song sounds. It’s maybe hard for people to understand nowadays because you can pick up the computer and scroll down from a menu of different sounds and put together something that really doesn’t have anything to do with your surroundings.”

Beyond the vibe, he says that physical attributes have a distinct affect on the sound of music. Like humidity, for instance. “The humidity in New Orleans affects the instruments. Even the humidity in the air will affect the sound of a piano because the wood stretches and the strings stretch. It affects the sound of the horns,” he says. “Or rain. Rain is a great motivation. It draws people inwards and makes them go inside. One of the reasons there was such a vital community in Seattle because everyone couldn’t be fucking bothered to go outside.”

While it would be easy to assume that each song from the album would bear distinct marks from the place in which it was created, Grohl says it its much subtler than that.

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“Our first priority was that we make a great Foo Fighters record. Outside of the TV show and the concept of the series, we needed to make a really great record, first and foremost. Which meant that we didn’t want to go to each city and assume that city’s genre of music. We didn’t want to go to Nashville and make a Nashville song, and then go to New Orleans and make a jazz song. We wanted to go to each city and write a Foo Fighters song but let the city under our skin a little bit. When I listen to it now, it wouldn’t sound this way had we made it any other way, which answers the question of the concept.”

Photo: Kevin Mazur

How Sonic Highways is a living photo album

“When I listen to any of our albums they sound like diary entries, they feel like photo albums to me. I just remember everything as memories,” says Grohl.

The reality with most of those albums, however, is that they’re a diary that can only be read by Grohl and his band. Sonic Highways, then, is a shared album that call can experience. “The audience now has the same connection with the songs that the band does,” says Therapy Content executive producer John Ramsay.

“Imagine how much footage we have. It’s tens of thousands of hours of footage from the last year. That’s how many memories I have. New Orleans is such a magical place that it will change your life. Like, I went through withdrawal from New Orleans for a good month; I couldn’t get it out of my system,” says Grohl. “And somewhere like Nashville–I never knew that much about it and now it’s one of my favorite cities in America. We recorded out in the desert outside of L.A. Spending a week under the stars by a bonfire with a joint and a glass of red wine is pretty awesome. There were some good times.”

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About the author

Rae Ann Fera is a writer with Co.Create whose specialty is covering the media, marketing, creative advertising, digital technology and design fields. She was formerly the editor of ad industry publication Boards and has written for Huffington Post and Marketing Magazine.

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