When Kurt Cobain’s shocking death put an end to the seminal Seattle grunge rock band Nirvana in 1994, drummer Dave Grohl got a second wind as the frontman of Foo Fighters.
It’s 20 years later, and the band will mark that milestone with the release of its eighth album on November 10th and an eight-part HBO documentary series premiering Friday (11 p.m. Eastern). Both are called Sonic Highways and were created in eight different cities: Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
We caught up with the rock god to talk about the idea, the process, his influences and getting chummy with a certain Chief Executive.
“It’s not like anything I’ve ever done, and I will never do it again. It was a pain in the ass. But it was so exciting.”
How did the series project come about?
It started with the last Foo Fighters record, when we made a documentary about recording it in my garage. The response was incredible. It gave our band this whole new reach or audience, where people started to understand us as people. And in that, I started to realize the power of music and documentary together. When you get a little bit deeper into the artist or the song, it creates this emotional connection that comes from substance and depth. It was all about being inspired to follow your passion and that anything is possible if you really want to do it. To me, recording studios are hallowed ground; the history is unbelievable. I was like, “We’ve got to tell this story because it will humanize the whole process and make it something that people can really connect to.”
Why did you pick these particular cities and studios? Had you recorded in them before?
A few of them: The one in Washington, D.C., Inner Ear; The Los Angeles studio, which is really a house. The studio in Seattle is this insane underground studio, the last place Nirvana recorded before Kurt died and the first place that I recorded the Foo Fighters stuff by myself. Losing one band there and starting another there, that becomes the theme of the episode and the song. It all started with that. I thought, “If I can find seven more studios and do the same thing…”
We chose these cities for the connection to the band and for their theme, because each episode has a theme, which becomes the theme of the song. What is it about each of these cities that influences the music that comes from there? There’s a reason why jazz came from New Orleans, a reason why country went to Nashville and why the blues went to Chicago. And I get to interview all these people and talk to them about that. In all these cities there’s incredible diversity. In Chicago, I talked to everyone from Buddy Guy to Steve Albini, kind of a wide scope. In Texas, it was everyone from Willie Nelson to Gibby from the Butthole Surfers. That says a lot about how these cities influence the music to move in all these different directions.
I started traveling when I was about 18 years old. I left high school, and I joined a band, and I jumped in a van. And my per diem was seven dollars a day or whatever, and we slept on floors. But I got to go to each one of these cities, and each one had a community of musicians that supported each other. So in each episode, you’re seeing these people talk about these cities, you see our band in the studio writing and putting a song together. And on the very last day of the session, I take my transcripts with all the interviews, and I get a bottle of wine, and I sit in my hotel room and write the song, and the finale of each episode is the performance of the song. It’s not like anything I’ve ever done, and I will never do it again. It was a pain in the ass. But it was so exciting.
You interviewed President Obama too. Why include him in a music project?
I wanted him to talk about America as a country, where you have the opportunity to start with nothing, like Buddy Guy, make your guitar from strings and wires in your screen porch and then become a blues legend who’s inducted into the Kennedy Center Honors, or [like me] be a high school dropout from Springfield, Virginia, that winds up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or be a kid from Hawaii that winds up being the President. All of these people are really brave, driven, focused, passionate Americans. Most of them started with nothing, zilch, no training, just a dream. So I thought, “Who better to talk about that than my friend, President Obama?”
Were you a nervous interviewer?
I get nervous around people you wouldn’t expect me to get nervous around. The Big Boys are a punk band from Austin, Texas. Not a lot of people know who they are, but I grew up loving them. I had never met Tim, the guitar player, before. And I got to go to his house and interview him. Scared the hell out of me. The luxury of being a musician in my position is that I get to talk to these people about music, and it becomes a conversation that they might not otherwise have with a journalist. Most of the interviews average one to two hours long, and even the people I know, I learned more about them.
How did you get started in music? Were you from a creative family?
Yeah. My dad is a brilliant man and an incredible, classically trained musician and writer, and my mom is a teacher and writer. I come from a family of great storytellers. Since I was young I taught myself how to play the drums and guitar and always considered it a kind of puzzle. I can’t read music and don’t have any formal training, so it’s still a mystery to me. When I discover a new chord I’m so proud of myself! The ear that I have for figuring stuff out comes from my mom and my dad. Whenever I’d make a new record, I’d send it to him and he would sit there in his Eames chair with his Scotch and a conductor baton and then he’d call me and say, ‘that was amazing.’ He’s proud. But when Nirvana first got popular, he said: “Hey, you know this isn’t going to last, right? Treat every check like it’s the last one you’ll ever fucking get.” It scared the hell out of me. That was 24 years ago.
What do you hope viewers will take away?
I think it’s important for people to realize that the simple pleasure of playing music is the most important thing. I don’t want my kid to think the only way you can be a musician is if you stand in line at a song‑contest audition and then wind up having a bazillionaire tell you you’re not a good singer. That’s not what music’s about. I’m a high school dropout. I worked in a fucking furniture warehouse, but I still played music on the weekend because I loved it. At the beginning of every day, I still wake up and I can’t wait to play. And it doesn’t matter for what or whom. Last night I played in a cover band at a dive bar down the street from my house just because I didn’t want to go to bed at 10 o’clock!