Most rock musicians make terrible teachers, because so many of them learned through a process of trial, error, and accidental inspiration, which makes it harder for them to explain how they wrote a song, or how other bands influenced them. But then there are the rockers who are lovable, helpful nerds—like Dave Grohl, founder of Foo Fighters and former drummer of Nirvana. Grohl’s someone who gushes over what he loves, and is more than happy to talk process, believing that the particulars of how a recording studio works or where a lyric came from are cool things to know.
In 2013, Grohl poured all of that wonkishness into the documentary Sound City, a tribute to where he recorded Nevermind with Nirvana, and a testament to the idea that when it comes to making music, location matters. Grohl’s new HBO series Sonic Highways is partly an extension of Sound City, and partly Grohl’s way of forcing himself to make a new Foo Fighters album in another way. Much like Sound City was anchored by a marathon recording session with Grohl and his famous friends, each hour-long episode of Sonic Highways documents the recording of a single song. The Foo Fighters arrived in eight different cities, in eight historically significant studios, with the music for new songs that Grohl would then finish on-site, inspired by his surroundings. Each episode follows the progress of the song, but more importantly, the series gets into the history of each city’s music scene, and how it directly and indirectly influenced Grohl.
In the first two episodes of Sonic Highways, an uncomfortable question presents itself, asking whether this show is meant to be a grand statement on American music or a Grohl autobiography. The broader approach tends to be weaker, put across with generalities like “Chicago has always been a mecca for music of all sorts,” “You have to know your past in order to know your future,” and “Cities are changed by the people who go there, but the people are changed, too.” It’s really only when Sonic Highways gets personal that the series becomes something special.
The disconnect between these two modes is especially bothersome in the first episode, “Chicago.” After a quick run-through of the major musicians who made their home in Chicago—from Gene Krupa to Kanye West to Wilco to, yes, Chicago—the episode settles into talking about Chess Records, Cheap Trick, and the city’s ’80s punk scene. Grohl has a long interview with Buddy Guy, who talks about recording for Chess and befriending Muddy Waters, and Grohl tries his best to tie the DIY spirits of blues and punk together. But the R&B material in “Chicago” comes off as more academic, with none of the enthusiasm Grohl shows in the scenes of him hanging out with Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen.
But “Chicago” also shows what Grohl alone can bring to this project. Whether he’s talking with the cousin who introduced him to punk or he’s visiting irascible producer Steve Albini (who worked with Grohl on Nirvana’s In Utero), there’s a sense of connection that goes beyond “here are a bunch of Chicago bands you should know.” When Grohl and Albini talk about Naked Raygun, they bring with them memories of how the Chicago punk scene grew, one all-ages Cubby Bear show at a time. When “Chicago” waxes rhapsodic about Wax Trax Records, it has LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy to reminisce about the importance of witheringly snobby record-store clerks in the development of a young person’s musical taste. The best parts of “Chicago” are all like this—all first-hand.
Sonic Highways’ second episode, “Washington D.C.,” is better integrated (in every sense of the word). Grohl, who grew up in suburban Virginia and was an active part of the 1980s D.C. scene, dives directly into the dichotomies of Washington, exploring the divides between urban and suburban, black and white, and funk and punk. The Foo Fighters’ songwriting and recording process is almost an afterthought in “D.C.,” which instead proceeds deliberately though a passionate mini-history of go-go clubs, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Inner Ear Studio, and the growing politicization of the various underground musical movements happening in Washington during the Reagan/Bush years. Again, Grohl approaches all of this from an affectingly personal place, as someone who remembers when “downtown was a place you went on field trips”—and again, Sonic Highways has some electrifying archival footage, of Bad Brains’ H.R. and Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye screaming and writhing across the stage. “D.C.” also features a lot of sound bites from the gregarious MacKaye, whose journey from Ted Nugent fan to punk hero mirrors Grohl’s.
(Actually, “Washington D.C.” feels like it should be Sonic Highways’ first episode, but perhaps “Chicago” precedes it so that Grohl can pay proper homage to Cheap Trick’s Live At Budokan, with a hearty “this next one is the first song on our new album.”)
As heartfelt as it is, Sonic Highways still comes up short here and there. Grohl includes Ministry in the montage of acts in “Chicago,” but otherwise leaves out the city’s rich history of industrial and electronic music. “Washington D.C.” focuses on Dischord Records, but ignores the equally vital indie labels Teen Beat and Simple Machines (the latter of which put out Grohl’s solo project Pocketwatch). And frankly, as nerdy as Grohl is, Sonic Highways could stand to be nerdier. For example, when Grohl praises Albini’s “signature sound,” it’d be great if he explained what that sound actually is.
That said, Sonic Highways does dig deeper than a lot of other musician-centric documentaries do. The “Chicago” episode doesn’t just mention Albini’s unorthodox “no royalties” approach to working as a producer—a stance that cost him a healthy ongoing payday with In Utero in particular—it delves into exactly what that means for Albini, who says he has to average $1,000 a day to keep his studio open, and has gone deep into debt several times. Similarly, when Grohl talks with go-go pioneers Trouble Funk, he leaves in the moment when one of its members asks if maybe Trouble Funk could tour with Foo Fighters sometime and make some of that arena money.
That kind of self-awareness from Grohl—knowing that he’s reached a level of success far beyond the people who helped feed his roots—deepens Sonic Highways in incalculable ways. Without making too big a deal about it, Grohl contrasts himself with Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who admits in “Chicago” that he doesn’t really know or care much about the blues, and in “Washington D.C.” confesses that he’s never been part of any kind of indie scene. And Grohl himself admits that the unusual method of recording this new Foo Fighters album is just a way for a seen-it-all/done-it-all veteran rock band to introduce some novelty. Sonic Highways subtly acknowledges the differences between the scholarly and the intuitive, and between the mega-millionaires and the guys still making records in their basements.
Grohl knows he’s fortunate to have played in two of the most popular rock bands of the past 25 years, and to have the backing of HBO and the well-heeled production company Worldwide Pants Inc. (whose founder, David Letterman, is a big Foo Fighters fan, hailing them for going out every night and “fighting foo”). But Grohl also knows none of this happened by chance. Sonic Highways is about Chicago, D.C., Austin, Seattle, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, and Los Angeles; but it’s also about Grohl, remembering where he came from and what he owes.