Mr. Grohl’s Cabinet of Wonder

(Photo by Nathaniel Wood)
(Photo by Nathaniel Wood)

By Chris Martins
Spin
Wednesday, February 20 2013

With the wild-eyed exuberance of a teenaged obsessive, Dave Grohl continues his quest for the ultimate Rock Supergroup, and along the way, tells the remarkably intimate tale of a legendary recording sanctum and its sacred totem – the Neve 8028 console. And oh yeah, Stevie Nicks stops by to sit a spell.

So, this happened: Stevie Nicks, microphone in hand, accompanied by Dave Grohl on acoustic guitar, performs “Landslide” to a packed house in Park City, Utah, while snow banks pile up against the building’s outward-facing walls, as if stretching to see inside, only to wither into water at Nicks’ heart-melting voice.

In honor of his Sound City documentary on the Van Nuys, California recording studio of the same name, first-time director, former Nirvana drummer, and full-time Foo Fighter Dave Grohl had called forth, on this brisk night, his incredibly star-studded new band the Sound City Players — including everyone from Stevie Nicks to Rick Springfield to Slipknot’s Corey Taylor. In honor of the Sundance Film Festival, they played for three-and-a-half hours straight, with Grohl onstage the entire time, usually backed by the Foos.

“Can you imagine?” gushes Grohl the next morning in the guts of the Park City Library, where his film is presently screening. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that in one evening I’d play Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Proud Mary’ with John Fogerty, Fear’s ‘Beef Bologna’ with Lee Ving, and Masters of Reality’s ‘Blue Garden’ with Chris Goss. It was like my ultimate mixtape.” Pause. “Live.” Pause, now quickly: “And I’m in the band.”

In most cases, the concept of “living the dream” has been reduced to a garishly tawdry, ubiquitous vision — a Cribs episode, a Mötley Crüe memoir, a sex tape. But Grohl’s dream is still flush with the cheek fat of youth, imbued with the bong water of a thousand high-school rips while others were doing homework, light on excess (sex, drugs), heavy on awesome (loud music), and built around a music geek’s teenage bucket list. It’s basically a rock’n’roll fantasy camp.

“I love to play,” he says, shifting his six-foot frame on the small couch like he hasn’t figured out what to do with this man-body. “And fortunately, I don’t know a lot of musicians that suck. I know a bunch of really good ones and they’re always up for playing.”

But Grohl is clearly the only reason that the smoky voice of Fleetwood Mac and the guy who refined the SoCal desert rock sound are sharing a Sundance stage. What’s more, his ability to pull off such a strange feat has everything to do with his impossible enthusiasm, which is always saying “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to whatever comes along, regardless of possible payout. Dave Grohl is as Dave Grohl does.

All of this began when he discovered that Sound City was closing up shop. Having recorded Nevermind there in 1991, he not only felt nostalgic for the funky old place, but knew of its most beguiling charm: the Neve 8028 console, a rare and powerful sound board that had offered its warmth to Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album, six Tom Petty albums, Ronnie James Dio’s Holy Diver, Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut, Tool’s Undertow, Weezer’s Pinkerton, etc. Grohl asked after the gear and won the bid.

He got the idea to make a short clip documenting the Neve’s journey from its original home to his own Los Angeles-area Studio 606, so he called his pal Jim Rota, a producer who helped manage workloads for the Narnia films, and Rota pulled together a skeleton crew to get the job done. And they did. When Rota got home, he says he received a text from Dave: “I think we need to interview some of the people who recorded on this thing.” By the next morning, Grohl had outlined a feature-length documentary in a sketchbook.

“He didn’t just write one e-mail and BCC everyone,” says Rota by phone. “He wrote each person individually explaining his vision for the movie and asking them to do an interview. Every single person wrote back saying they were in. Over the course of a couple of weeks, the e-mails would come in, and he’d be like, ‘Holy shit! Neil just said yes! Eddie Vedder is in! Holy shit! Rick Springfield!’“

The more they dug, the more stories they discovered: Mick Fleetwood first met Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham at the studio; Springfield met his wife working behind the front desk; the first Heartbreakers jam happened there. Those who recorded at Sound City loved the place for both its quality sound and unsound qualities. In the film, musician after musician describes it as a dump, a shithole, an ashtray, a piss pot. At one point, producer/exec Jimmy Iovine is seen telling Petty, “Somebody should firebomb the place.”

The first 60 minutes of Sound City lovingly chronicles the unlikely hit-making haven, in part as an allegory about the demise of analog methods and person-to-person music-making. But rather than dive too deep into the shallow end of the authenticity pool — per his 2012 Grammys EDM rant — Grohl uses the final 30 minutes to show rather than tell. He has several of the film’s subjects over to his studio where he plays Lord of the Jam, demonstrating the might of skilled humans doing things in a small room with other skilled humans.

The Nicks session is impressive and the Trent Reznor-Josh Homme-Grohl mindmeld is transcendent, but the crown jewel, as everyone knows, is the part where Nirvana’s surviving members — Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic, and touring guitarist Pat Smear — reunite with Paul McCartney at the helm and grind out some “Helter Skelter” gnarl, which becomes the song “Cut Me Some Slack.” (All of this is available on the Sound City — Real to Reel album.) There’s a great bit toward the end where Grohl says, “Why can’t it always be this easy?” and McCartney quips, “It is.”

“You can do no wrong when you’re making music with that guy, because anything goes,” says Grohl. “What I find in jamming with people from that generation is that they’re a lot more loose when it comes to vibe. They appreciate the energy of something chaotic. You look at Paul and think, ‘Wow, well, he’s obviously brilliant and he’s a master of melody and has made some incredibly delicate music.’ But he’ll strap on that Cigfiddle guitar through a tiny distorted amp and do a raging slide solo that sounds like a jet airliner.”

But it didn’t end there. While the so-dubbed “Sirvana” went on to play the 12-12-12 concert for Hurricane Sandy relief and Saturday Night Live to boot, the star-studded Sound City Players took shape, debuting in Park City, hitting up L.A. and New York, with plans to play London, Berlin, Sydney, and possibly Austin. Grohl knows he’s asking a lot of everyone involved, but “yes” is apparently contagious.

(Photo by Nathaniel Wood)
(Photo by Nathaniel Wood)

Asked what he likes about Grohl, Sound City’s producer Rota unwittingly explains what everybody likes about his friend: “In high school, there’s the guy who gets excited over sports and then there’s that dude who when you’re listening to ‘Achilles Last Stand’ by Led Zeppelin air drums the fills perfectly. That’s Dave. He’ll stop mid-conversation, slap you on the arm and then drum, to perfection, whatever is playing. That’s a certain kind of dude. Plus, he likes to drink beer and listen to music really loud. People horde together by their passions. If yours is giving a shit what amp somebody used on an album, you hang out with Dave.”

“Are we getting that shirt?” says a shrill voice not once, but twice. “Are we getting that shirt?” The red carpet for Sound City’s Sundance premiere is a tented, bifurcated runway of chaotic bustle with the stars passing through at their leisure while the other half of the makeshift reception hall is a roiling bolus of reporters with their cameras and microphones and stupid hats vying for attention. My tiny recorder captures the fibrillations of two such people all too faithfully.

“Is that Stevie Nicks?” says one. “Oh my God, I’m gonna die,” says the other one. “My mother-in-law is going to too-tahl-leee fuhh-reeek out.” Like the following night’s concert, we witness a veritable smörgåsbord of radness and unlikelihoods. To wit, here’s Nicks, in a fur coat with sunglasses: “I never want to be a movie star; it’s not in my veins. But this is all very fun.” Fear frontman “Lee Fucking Ving” (as indicated by a strip of masking tape on his jacket lapel) speaks eloquently on the “heart and soul” that went into the production. Rick Springfield mistily recalls some studio memories, his wife standing a few paces behind him. Corey Taylor from Slipknot is a bundle of charisma, hopping from mic to mic to talk about his experiences with ghosts (he’s writing a book). Chris Goss simply looms like the desert-rock ghoul that he is.

Then, in comes Novoselic. “I get a call from Dave: ‘Krist, do you want to play with Paul McCartney?’ And I live in Washington, so I’m like, ‘Dude, I’d walk there.’ Paul shows up and he starts doing this badass slide guitar, so I did this old grunge bass trick where I tuned the E string down to a D to get that rattly sound. Dave is on the drums, Pat is playing and we’re making all kinds of sounds and then we had a song! It was magical how it came together.” He repeats proudly, “We had a new song.”

Would he hit the studio with the old gang again? “I might be open. I’m always willing to play. I want to make a lot more music this year.” Smear has arrived too and also seems happy to be anywhere. Does he object to the words “Nirvana reunion,” asks one reporter. “Nah, I don’t care what you call it. I’d do it either way.” He’s soft-spoken, smiley and looks like one of Fred Armisen’s middle-aged Portlandia peaceniks. “So if Dave calls, you’re there?” asks the reporter. “Yeah!” Nearvana attained?

His rock’n’roll justice league assembled, Grohl appears just in time to be ushered through the swarm by a Sundance official. But the grinning grand poobah leaves himself enough time to drop Sound City’s thesis, reimagined as a call to arms: “Buy a fucking guitar at a garage sale and start a band with your neighbor and if everybody is as passionate as I am about this, there will be a wave of radical garage bands!”

Amen, Brother Dave.

“I think it really started with Queens of the Stone Age,” says Grohl, back in L.A., far from the blinding white snow, surrounded by manly hues. The office of his movie company, Roswell Films, is stocked with hides and leather furniture, plus lined with classic Sound City LPs and the aroma of coffee. I’d asked him when, exactly, it was that he became the Supergroup Guy. Circa 2002’s Songs for the Deaf, he guesses. Makes sense he’d return to the desert for QOTSA’s new one.

“The musicians that move in and out of that band are all really inspiring. We’re conditioned to think that bands are a specific combination of people and that you can’t deviate from that. The Beatles or U2 or whatever. Simon and Garfunkel.” Beat. “But that’s not as much fun as it is to be a total musical whore and jam with everyone… Nick Oliveri is one of the best bass players I’ve played with in my entire life, solid as a rock. Josh Homme is a creative mastermind with a wicked sense of improvisation. [Mark] Lanegan is just… Lanegan. That record let me stretch my wings and do stuff I had never done before. Nirvana was such a meat-and-potatoes band that I was basically playing disco drums. A lot of the drum fills I did I took from Cameo and the Gap Band. I’m not kidding.”

He lifts his elbows and air-drums a fill like Rota said he would, mouthing “crack-uhn-crack-uhn-crack-uhn-crack.” Unsurprisingly, he also says collaboing with QOTSA reminds him of the older kids he looked up to as a Virginia youth — high school burnouts who lived in 420-friendly communal jam dens stocked with shitty drums, basses, and guitars. At Friday’s show, he relayed a familiar anecdote about how for his 13th summer, he and his sister moved in with family in Illinois, and he discovered his raison d’être.

“My cousin came down the stairs and she was suddenly punk rock,” he told the audience. “She played me a record, The Record, by Fear, and that changed my life. It made me want to be a musician.” Now it occurs to him that one of his biggest influences was a music documentary — L.A. punk paean The Decline of Western Civilization — which not only featured Ving, but made music-making less daunting and fueled Grohl’s zeal for the spirit of collaboration.

After his staggering performance on the Queens record (not to slight Tenacious D’s debut LP) reminded the ear-having world that, oh yeah, dude is still a monster drummer, the calls came in. Killing Joke. Nine Inch Nails. Garbage. And when he realized what he was capable of, Grohl made the Probot record (2004), wrangling his favorite metal singers (Lemmy, Wino, Snake, Cronos) from his salad days as a teenage hesher.

Plus, with the Foo Fighters…wait, how have we not mentioned the Foo Fighters? Oh, because you can talk to Grohl all day about all manner of projects and forget that he’s not only the puppet-master-slash-pulse-pounding beat-keeper to a dozen concurrently active rhythms, but that he also has a highly functioning full-time group who’ve made a respectable seven albums in 18 years and have done strange things like record with Norah Jones.

(Photo by Nathaniel Wood)
(Photo by Nathaniel Wood)

“I’m the luckiest person in the world because everybody in the band is so talented and ready to go,” he says. “So when I call and say, ‘Hey, I know that we’re taking a break right now, but we need to learn 50 songs in the next 10 days and we’re gonna do shows all over the world,’ they just go, ‘Okaaaaay.’“

Oh, and Them Crooked Vultures. Yeah, that too. 2009. Dave Grohl. Josh Homme. Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. We’re out of breath. Please, Dave, say something.

“What am I trying to prove?” That’ll do. “Why am I doing this to myself? I think my wife [Jordyn Blum] has asked me that question a million times. I don’t know. My mother was a public school teacher for 35 years and she got up at five in the morning and went to sleep at fucking 11 at night her entire life and didn’t complain once.”

In each of our two talks, Grohl references a shitty job that he doesn’t have to do anymore. In Utah, it’s “pushing a wheelbarrow around to build someone’s patio that they’re just going to walk on and never going to think about.” In L.A., it’s working “at that furniture warehouse.” He’d rather produce an EP for Swedish metal enigmas Ghost or direct a Soundgarden video (“By Crooked Steps”) any day of the week, and the reason he can do all this owes, in no small part, to the studio that gave birth to Nevermind.

Grohl’s is the first voice you hear in the film:

“We were just kids with nothing to lose and nowhere to call home. But we had these songs, and we had these dreams, so we threw it all in the back of an old van and started driving. Our destination? Sound City.”

He doesn’t need to say who “we” are. We know. Dave Grohl. Krist Novoselic. Kurt Cobain. Like, Nirvana. For his next bit of narration, he transforms our nostalgia for a thing we never witnessed, but whose reverberations we so wholly felt, into a reminder of not just how fleeting the innocence of youth can be, but also how fickle fame and fortune and favor and, yes, life itself so often are.

“When you’re young, you’re not afraid of what comes next. You’re excited by it. We were driving a van that could break down any moment, going on tours that could be cancelled at any moment, and playing music with people who could disappear at any moment. We had no idea that the next 16 days were gonna change everything.”

I ask him what he’d tell that young Dave who didn’t yet know anything about the everything that was to come.

“Oh God, I don’t know,” he smiles. “I wouldn’t change a fucking thing. There are certain obvious things that I regret, of course.” He pauses. “I regret that we didn’t take any fucking pictures of the making of that album. I think we had three photos and we used all of them in the movie. Nobody cared. You know, when I was young and in Nirvana, before we made the album and after it came out, I wasn’t very relaxed. I was super hyperactive.”

Ahem.

“I know,” he laughs. “I’m happy that I have my family, and I’m happy that I had Virginia, where I grew up, to retreat to any time I felt overwhelmed. Whenever there were times when I felt like the rug was being pulled out from under me and I was floating in this crazy space, I would stop and go back to that neighborhood and realize nothing’s changed, really. The world hasn’t changed and I’m the same person, I think. But I don’t know.”

But he is older now — 44 as of January 14. He’s married with two daughters: Harper Willow, 4, and Violet May, 7. He spent the previous Sunday with Violet eating pizza and watching Lord of the Rings films, which he enjoyed immensely. He’s aware of his legacy and the wider world that he’s a part of — otherwise Sound City couldn’t exist — and if Novoselic and Smear seemed a little bit moony on the red carpet, they weren’t alone.

“You know, as people, as friends,” says Grohl, “our history together is pretty deep. We’ve been to weddings together, we’ve been to funerals together. We’ve been through incredible highs and incredible lows. That comes out when you pick up an instrument and play with each other. Your personal history is a part of what happens with your hands and your head as you play music. So when I look up at Krist bouncing around the stage and I’m beating the shit out of my drums, it’s hard not to remember and reminisce. You look up and smile, like, ‘Oh my God, first of all, we survived, but also we’re still playing.’ It’s like getting back together with an old girlfriend, but minus the drama. It’s fucking great.”

There are easier ways to tell a coupla friends that you miss them than bringing in a guest Beatle, closing out a massive benefit concert, booking SNL, and flying them to some of the world’s most historic cities. But Grohl’s got his living dream to uphold — you wouldn’t expect him to send a card, would you?

“To be honest, it sounds so stupid, but this is one of my greatest insecurities,” he admits. “I try to keep my head above water because I’m afraid if I stop, I’ll sink. I start to think, ‘Oh no, I’m in everybody’s face too much, I gotta go away!’ And then, ‘No, don’t go away! They’ll forget who you are!’ It doesn’t make any sense, because at the end of the day, if it all stopped now, I would be completely happy. I’d still have to play, but if this were it, then fuck it, that was great.”

But that’s not it, of course. He rattles off his upcoming commitments: reviewing the video content for the L.A. concert; hosting Chelsea Lately for a week in which he’ll interview both Nas and Elton John; holding a Reddit AMA as if he hasn’t faced enough questions from a double-barrel of music and film press; bringing his Sound City Players to New York the following week; and delivering the keynote address at the SXSW conference in March, where he also hopes to throw another show.

“I’m just trying to get there,” he says, feigning an exhausted eye-roll. But he loves it and I know it because he hasn’t actually finished his sentence yet and it’s going to end like this: “…because I’m already getting inspired to make the next Foo Fighters record.” Now he does pause, like an exuberant high-schooler who’s just realized that he’s shared too much, tipped his hand too far to maintain cool, so he does the next best thing — he owns it. Dave Grohl shrugs and then says, “I’m a spazz, man.”