When Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters took a film crew with them on the road as they criss-crossed the US to make their new album, they didn’t expect the White House to throw its doors wide open
Dave Grohl has an open invitation to the White House. The Foo Fighters frontman and filmmaker didn’t believe it either when President Barack Obama first suggested he could “just come over”. Bring the family. Hang out.
He tested the invite after he was granted an interview with the President of the United States for his Sonic Highways documentary series.
The series both shines a light on the rich musical history of eight key cities in the US and captures the making of the much-loved rock band’s eighth record.
Grohl wanted to talk to the country’s boss about America as the land of dreams. And pick his brain about music, particularly after spying a hefty volume of Bob Dylan’s lyrics in a White House library during a previous visit.
Their conversation aired in the first episode of Sonic Highways, filmed in Chicago where the Fooeys also recorded the album’s opening track, Something From Nothing.
“We talked about music for a while and afterwards he said ‘Bring the family next time, just come over’. And I said ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just come over to the White House’. And he said, ‘No, really. Come on over’,” Grohl says, sitting in the band’s Studio 606 in Los Angeles.
“So a couple of weeks later, I had my daughter on a daddy trip, just the two of us, and I told her she could go anywhere in the world, and she said Virginia (Grohl’s birthplace).
“I asked her if she wanted to go to the White House while we’re over there. So we went to the White House. Believe me, I understand it’s nuts.”
It would have been nuts for Grohl and his bandmates to contemplate such an epic undertaking as Sonic Highways 20 years ago when he formed Foo Fighters in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, which brought the curtain down abruptly on his former band, Nirvana.
The idea was to record a song in famed studios in Chicago, Washington DC, New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Seattle and Austin. Fear of creative malaise may have fuelled Grohl’s vision but it was the success of his film Sound City, about the influential LA studio where everyone from Neil Young to Nirvana recorded seminal albums, which cemented his desire to make the documentary. The passionate music man wanted to inspire others to reconnect with the art form in an age where sound is ubiquitous.
“People would tell me they stopped listening to music because it’s on the iPod or in the cloud and there’s too much to choose from and to me, that just means you are not inspired to go and find it. You have to instil that motivation, get people inspired to fall in love with it, otherwise it’s just a sound,” he says.
“Not everyone said ‘Wow, what a cool idea for a music series’. We got the foot in the door (with HBO) and we realised ‘F---! Now we really have to do it because who else is going to f---ing do it?’”
With producer Butch Vig in tow, they spent a week in each city throughout May and June, with Grohl interviewing musicians and the musically minded from Buddy Guy to Nora Guthrie, the daughter of revered American folk singer Woody and sister of Arlo.
The band fleshed out the musical skeletons they had demoed back in LA and Grohl would write the lyrics on the final day, drawing phrases and stories from his interviews.
His four bandmates – Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear – all agree the early sessions to write the music before they hit the road were tough.
“We demoed things six times and they wouldn’t change. I could see this unfulfilled feeling in Dave a lot of the time. At one point he said, ‘This sounds like the record we threw away back in 2002 or whatever’,” drummer Hawkins says.
“I think in a way he meant to push us to the limit of what we could do and play as a band. And then let it go. You did all that prep and then it’s ‘Press record. You guys sound great’.”
Once on the road, there were plenty of good, hilarious and just plain awkward times.
Like the magnificent feast of whole pig stuffed with sausage slow-cooked on a smoker by Zac Brown’s chef.
Or hearing Nora Guthrie’s stories about repeatedly telling Bob Dylan to go away when he kept turning up at the family home asking to meet her dad.
The Foo Fighters were tested and pushed to the limit by Dave Grohl in the recording process for their new album.