Dave Grohl, center, with The Foo Fighters
This week, Foo Fighters releases its latest project, Sonic Highways. Why "project" rather than album? Sonic Highways is more than just eight new songs. It's also an eight-part documentary currently running on HBO. Together, the album and film series look at the intersection of geography and music. It's what Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl calls a love letter to the history of American music. The band wrote and recorded each song in a different city. Grohl interviewed local musical icons in each place and wove the stories he heard and the history of each location into his lyrics.
The first stop in the band's musical journey was Chicago, followed by Grohl's former hometown, Washington, D.C., then on to Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York.
When Dave Grohl stopped by the NPR studios in Washington, D.C. to talk about Sonic Highways with us, he reflected on growing up in the area, on what it was like to see his favorite bands play the 9:30 Club and how the city's complicated and controversial history shaped his world view and the song "The Feast and the Famine," which was recorded at Inner Ear Studio in the D.C. area. Grohl also explained how some of the other songs for Sonic Highways came together and talked about the local musicians that inspired them.
- Song: Let's Get Small
- from Let's Get Small
Grohl on hearing go-go while growing up in D.C.:
"As I was walking down the street, a car drives by, and go-go's blaring out of it. That's how you know that you're in Washington, D.C., because it doesn't even really stretch to Baltimore, or Richmond. It is Washington, D.C. Now, New Orleans has jazz, right? Chicago's got the blues. D.C. [has] go-go music, which is like a funk-based music that was started in the early '70s, pioneered by this guy Chuck Brown. It sort of evolved into this huge local scene. When I was a kid, growing up [in Washington, D.C.], you'd get three or four go-go bands to play together: Trouble Funk, Junk Yard, Rare Essence — put 'em all together, you had a good, like, 30,000 people. You know, that doesn't happen anywhere else. I was always really proud that wherever — when I started touring as a young musician, I'd go to Europe and I'd say to people, 'have you heard go-go?' They'd say, 'what's go-go music?' And I'd play 'em Trouble Funk."
01The Feast and The Famine
- Song: The Feast and The Famine
- from Sonic Highways
On the D.C.-based influences of "The Feast and The Famine":
On the day before [recording] the vocals, I take all of my [interview] transcripts back to my hotel room, and I highlight words, and phrases, and ideas, that I thought summed up the story of this city's history. ['The Feast And The Famine'] says, 'Last night they were burning for truth down on the corner of 14th and U.' That's a reference to the Chocolate City riots. 'They took your souls and they took you for fools / Took all your windows from prisons and schools,' because the Bad Brains guys went to a high school where the windows look like prisons and there was one door in, one door out. 'Crossroads, there's nothing to lose': That's a reference to Bailey's Crossroads."
- Song: Something From Nothing
- from Sonic Highways
On collaborating with Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen on "Something From Nothing":
"Rick Nielsen was sitting down in the studio after the interview and he goes, 'Well, aren't you gonna ask me to play on your song?' And it was the first session of this whole project, and I thought, 'Well, of course! Yeah!' So we gave him a baritone [guitar], and he just made this noise, man. I mean, the way he plays guitar — honestly, nobody plays guitar like that guy. The title is referring to the spark of inspiration that sort of lights the fire to do whatever it is that you do. That thing where you create something from nothing."
- Song: Stiff Competition
- from Greatest Hits
On the music of Cheap Trick:
"People know a lot of the hits. And a lot of people think of Cheap Trick as this really sort of anthemic, melodic rock and roll band. 'Stiff Competition' is the best song that The Sex Pistols never wrote. And I love it. They're amazing."
Preservation Hall Jazz Band
- Song: Come With Me
- from That's It!
On the deeply ingrained music scene in New Orleans:
"New Orleans probably had the biggest impact on all of the [Foo Fighters] band members of this whole entire trip, because there was a parade. And we went walking. And I'm next to a business man, who's next to, like, a gangster, who's next to a college student, who's next to a cop, and there's 4,000 of us. And we're walking over cars. And we're climbing through trees. And we're walking. Someone's pulling a cooler and selling Sutter Home Rosé out of plastic bottles. And that's just Sunday, man. And I thought, you know, honestly, if every city did this on Sunday — imagine, if every city in America just had that Sunday, where all of these people could get together and dance — what would happen? It blew me away.
- Song: In The Clear
- from Sonic Highways
On writing "In The Clear" for New Orleans:
It's hard not to talk about the hurricane when you go to New Orleans, you know? They're still recovering. So, I wrote [this] song after interviewing all of the musicians, and the people that went through that experience, and it can apply to almost anything in life. There's reference in there to a Second Line marching band, there's reference to the Paddle Wheel, there's reference to the storm. But ultimately, I'm one of those people that, I can't relax, because I don't feel like everything's OK, ever. And, so, the lyric is 'I'm not in the clear, we are not in the clear/ but don't go count me out yet.' So, I feel like that, every day of my life. And I feel like I wrote that song for New Orleans, because they're still struggling."