More Songs About Buildings: Foo Fighters’ ‘Sonic Highways’ and Dave Grohl’s Lifelong Search for Inspirational Architecture

Paul Morigi/Getty Images

In the HBO documentary series Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl is nothing if not deferential to people. Steve Albini is a mensch. Ian MacKaye is a personal hero. Zac Brown is one of his bros. Grohl dispenses fist bumps like Oprah used to hand out cars. But if Grohl enjoys humans, he goes absolutely gaga for buildings. In the first episode, Grohl argues that the “environment in which you make a record ultimately influences the end result.” This idea isn’t new, for Grohl or anyone else prone to pontification on the record-making process. Grohl has, in fact, used his faith in architecture as a muse throughout his career.

The conceit of Sonic Highways is that Foo Fighters travel to eight different American cities over the course of as many weeks, and write and record a new song in each place for the album, which is out today. The point isn’t to replicate a city’s signature sound, but rather to integrate the mystical vibe of institutions like Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and New Orleans’s Preservation Hall into Foo Fighters’ own aura. “If we spend enough time there, it’s going to make its way in by osmosis,” Grohl explained to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. 

As a filmmaker, Grohl is drawn to landmarks with rich musical histories like John Ford once gravitated to Monument Valley. Grohl’s feature directorial debut, 2013’s Sound City, paid tribute to a legendary and outmoded L.A. recording studio that birthed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes and Nirvana’s Nevermind. The mix of fetishism for rock arcana and Grohl’s personal history in Sound City is echoed in Sonic Highways — in the Washington, D.C., episode, Grohl dwells both on Inner Ear Studio (where D.C. punk classics by Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and dozens more were recorded) and the childhood bedroom in suburban Virginia where young Dave first played those records. He’s like an HGTV host trapped in the body of a rock star.

As a musician, Grohl has continually returned to the same mantra: “Location! Location! Location!” Foo Fighters’ 2011 LP, Wasting Light, was the “We recorded an album in Dave Grohl’s garage” record. Similarly, 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose was the “We recorded an album in Dave Grohl’s basement” record, whereas 2002’s One by One was the “We started in Dave’s basement, moved to an expensive studio, then went back to Dave’s basement” record.

If you’re familiar with those albums, you’ve likely noticed an obvious flaw in the “environment dictates content” theory: Every Foo Fighters record is the same. As in, exactly the same. Sure, some Foo Fighters records (like One by One and Wasting Light) are a little louder, and some (like 2005’s In Your Honor) are a little quieter. But for the most part, you can expect a Foo Fighters song to sound like this: The rhythm guitar goes DUNGA-dung-DUNGA, the lead guitar goes weow-WHEEDLE-weow-WHEEDLE, and Grohl sings the verse softly and screams the chorus, which will typically be about heroes, living forever, or things that are the best.1

No matter his adventurous travel schedule, Grohl is a homebody when it comes to his music. When Foo Fighters venture even a millimeter outside of their established parameters on Sonic Highways — like when a brass band enters “In the Clear” or the lumpy, Dio-biting “Something From Nothing” is augmented with some funky jam-band keyboard — it’s immediately noticeable and not all that successful. The nods toward localizing the lyrics fall flat as well; if you haven’t watched Sonic Highways, “The Feast and the Famine” won’t register as a discernible tribute to D.C., but rather as more do-or-die hectoring.

On the album, the Foos’ inherent Foo-ness overwhelms the backstory. This is not a criticism; to the contrary, it dispels the oft-made argument that Grohl has spent his post-Nirvana career churning out generic rock-radio gruel. This gruel has always had a distinct Foo Fighters flavor.

foo-fighters-sonic-highways--kevin-mazurKevin Mazur/HBO

As a devotee of that endangered genre known as mainstream hard rock, I’ll always have a soft spot for Foo Fighters. They are perhaps the last vestiges of a once-sturdy and commercially dominant archetype — the uncool but unstoppably popular hockey-shed heavy-rock band. These days, the business of writing bombastically earnest, riff-centric pop songs that everybody just sort of accepts without thinking about is a thankless task. But credit where credit’s due: After falling off a bit in the mid-’00s, Foo Fighters have rebounded lately with two of their better albums, first with the overt hesher-bait that was Wasting Light, and now with Sonic Highways, a concise and direct statement that contrasts nicely with its expansive and meandering HBO counterpart.

I can dissect Grohl’s songs, but I cannot resist them, even when I see them coming from an entire ice rink away. “Congregation” has all of Grohl’s auteurist touches: It starts out a little jangly, delves into some explosive grunting in the middle, slips into a dreamy breakdown toward the end, and then launches into a climax in which Grohl hollers, “Open your eyes, step into the light!” It’s totally foreseeable and it completely kills. For “Outside,” Grohl had the good sense to simply rewrite “Everlong” and invite Joe Walsh to play guitar on it — Grohl can check out of “Everlong” anytime he likes, but he can’t ever leave his greatest song.2

Clocking in at around 42 minutes over only eight tracks, Sonic Highways is a briskly efficient record, a testament to unsexy rock-and-roll attributes like craftsmanship and professionalism. Something like “The Feast and the Famine” has appeared countless times on previous Foo Fighters records, but it is once again catchy and kinetic and will slot well in the live show between “Times Like These” and “I’ll Stick Around.” It just works. The psychedelic “Subterranean” drags a little, but the back half of “What Do I Do?/God As My Witness” sounds like Motorhead’s unrealized Radio City period, which means it’s Dave Grohl’s previously realized and slavishly well-executed ideal.

It doesn’t take a marketing genius to observe that presenting Sonic Highways for what it is — merely another solid Foo Fighters album — isn’t a tenable way to do business in 2014. The promotional subtext for every big album release these days is, “How do we make this feel more substantial than a record, so it’s more like an iPhone or a bottle of Diet Coke?” For Grohl, packaging a Foo Fighters album as prestige television is both canny and consistent with how he has guided Foo Fighters to elder-statesman status. At the start of the band in the mid-’90s, Grohl had to operate gingerly in the long shadow of Kurt Cobain. Even though Grohl rarely talked about his former bandmate publicly, the implicit expectation was that Foo Fighters would carry on Nirvana’s musical and philosophical M.O. 1995’s Foo Fighters and 1997’s The Colour and the Shape are Grohl’s angriest (and therefore most Nirvana-like) albums, and the “basement” LPs that follow suggest a symbolic attachment, at least, to his old band’s come-as-you-are punk idealism.

2014 Summer TCA Tour - Day 3Frederick M. Brown/Getty

Upon entering a new decade, Grohl remade himself into the mayor of Classic Rock Town, always making himself available to fete the dignitaries of ’60s and ’70s rock in documentaries and Hall of Fame ceremonies. (His only real rival for the office is fellow grunge survivor Eddie Vedder.) Along the way, Grohl slowly extricated himself from Cobain’s skeptical example. He could now comfortably breathe rarefied air in public, leveraging his status as a member of modern rock’s most hallowed band without any of the anti-celebrity baggage.

Grohl’s recent work has been about subtly reenforcing the barriers between us (Grohl and his old-world rock-star peers) and them (the less-heralded pretenders of the scaled-down, post-glory-days music business). In Sound City, Grohl posited a backdoor critique of ProTools by extolling the virtues of ancient record equipment that’s too costly for 99.9 percent of musicians. For Sonic Highways, he had the budget and access to make an album in some of the world’s best studios while shooting the shit with otherwise inaccessible luminaries, from President Obama on down. Sonic Highways may sound like a journeyman rock record, but as the TV show makes plain, Grohl carries himself as the opposite of a journeyman, with a life only a person of his means could even dream of living. Only the shiniest houses will do.

Filed Under: Music, Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Dave Grohl, sonic highways, TV, HBO, steve albini, ian mackaye

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden