ROCK musician Dave Grohl set out to make a recording studio the subject of his first-ever film. He was intrigued by a specific piece of recording equipment – a 1970s era sound board – that captured every note of music made there. Geek city, right? It sounds like an idea any sane moviegoer would run from.
Instead, Sound City offers a colourful piece of music history, a candid examination of changes wrought by technology and a defiant statement about not surrendering the human element in creativity.
Grohl’s first film made it to the Sundance movie festival and is accompanied by an album featuring artists he interviewed.
‘‘It honestly was more like a keg party with a camera than making a Hollywood film,’’ he says.
Grohl knew nothing about the Sound City studio in Van Nuys, California, when he and fellow Nirvana members Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic booked a session to make Nevermind in 1991. Their record company wanted Nirvana nearby to keep an eye on them and time at Sound City was cheap.
It was in a drab neighbourhood and looked like a dump, with tired shag carpeting. Then Nirvana noticed all the gold records on the wall from artists who had recorded there: Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Van Halen, REO Speedwagon, Guns ’n Roses, Neil Young, Cheap Trick, Slayer, Rick Springfield and more. After plugging in their instruments and running through In Bloom, Grohl and his mates discovered why. The sound, to their ears, was amazing. Nirvana had never been captured with such clarity and power before.
‘‘You might have never heard of Nirvana if we had recorded in Hollywood with a fancy producer,’’ he says. ‘‘The fact that that (sound) board made us sound like us is what people appreciated. To be reunited with it, honestly, it was like meeting your real parents for the first time.’’
Sound City owners bought the recording console for about $84,300 at a time many houses cost half that. When Grohl asked about buying it a few years ago, the studio operator suggested she’d rather sell her grandmother. But Sound City closed and Grohl’s wish came true (he won’t say what he paid for it).
The console is now in a studio that Grohl and his band, Foo Fighters, operate in Los Angeles.
Sound City became a hot studio after the modern incarnation of Fleetwood Mac was essentially born there, and Grohl’s film includes vintage footage of a young Tom Petty with his mighty Heartbreakers.
‘‘It was our home away from home,’’ says Stevie Nicks. She recorded Buckingham Nicks, her album with thenboyfriend Lindsey Buckingham, at Sound City, and met her current backup singer there in 1972.
Nicks and Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac soon after, and the album that propelled the band to stardom was made on the console.
Seeing Grohl’s movie, and the memories that came flooding back, made her cry, Nicks says.
Sound City struggled in the mid-1980s because technology led artists elsewhere, until Nirvana made it a mecca for a new generation. Now technology is so good that people can essentially record alone in their bedrooms, and they do. That doomed Sound City and many other studios.
As Mick Fleetwood says in Sound City, just because you can record by yourself certainly doesn’t necessarily make it a great idea.
‘‘When you get four different people, four different personalities, four different players in a room – that combination equals magic,’’ Grohl says.
director Dave Grohl at the film’s Sundance premiere.
‘‘You can get The Beatles and you can get the Rolling Stones and you can get AC/DC. That happens because of people’s imperfections and bad habits. That’s what gives music its personality, and that’s what I think is exciting about music.’’
Grohl spoke while sitting in his studio, in a room filled with guitars and overlooking the sound board he reveres. Homework assignments of songs to