Recording an album is tough, but after 20 years of producing music, the most difficult aspect may be keeping the process fresh. The Foo Fighters took that concept to a new level while creating their latest album, due out in November–they toured the United States, recording each song in a different city, hoping that the music scene of the area would influence the track.
But Dave Grohl didn’t just want to record Sonic Highways–he decided to document the experience, interviewing figures important to each city’s musical history for a documentary series that shares the album’s name. In turn, those interviews shaped the album, as Grohl fashioned his lyrics out of the words of his documentary subjects.
So Sonic Highways attempts to be three different things–a history of music in America, the story of what inspired the Foo Fighters, particularly Dave Grohl, and a behind-the-scenes look at the music production process. Having to serve so many masters unfortunately detracts from the ultimate impact of each story thread, but the show’s ambition and actual construction are fascinating enough for anyone interested in American music, Foo Fighters fan or not, that Sonic Highways is still a unique and enjoyable look into the country’s defining musical history.
The first stop on the Sonic Highways tour is Chicago, in which Grohl investigates the rise of blues in the city, its punk scene, his personal connection to the area, and the creation of their new album’s first song, “Something from Nothing.” Yes, it’s a lot of ground to cover, but the story bounces around between threads so that just as one might overstay its welcome, another jumps in to take over.
It’s impossible to discuss Chicago without diving into the blues, and so Sonic Highways tackles the genre right away. Framing the story around Buddy Guy interviews, Grohl traces the impact of Guy and Muddy Waters on Chicago. “Cities are changed by the people that go there, but then the cities are changed as well” Rolling Stone’s David Fricke says in the episode. The changes caused by Guy and Waters are deep and even surprising for those who haven’t studied the musical history of America.
Guy’s anecdotes deliver enough insight, but it is equally exciting to hear from the acts he influenced. From Bonnie Raitt to Jimmie Vaughan to Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, musicians with clear and muddy blues roots were undeniably defined by the work of Guy and Waters.
The blues gave way to another, perhaps unexpected movement–a Chicago punk rock scene. Producer Steve Albini, the owner of the studio the Foo Fighters produce their first song in, helped develop the region’s sound in an entirely new direction. He produced for acts like Bush, P.J. Harvey, and even Nirvana (one of several Grohl connections in the episode).
Albini is a “cynical prick” as Grohl puts it, but his attitude is earned because of his brilliant work. For a neophyte of the music industry and the Chicago scene like myself, Albini’s inclusion is a highlight of the hour, with plenty of fascinating stories, such as his interaction with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy.
But Albini’s direct influence on the new Foo Fighters’ song? That’s less obvious. Instead, the song itself is more an amalgam of Grohl’s experiences and interviews, with just a dash of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen thrown in.
Cheap Trick may not fit perfectly into either the blues or punk scenes on display, but the band’s connections to both are clear in their songs and performance style. So it’s only natural to want musicians who combine the best of both worlds to help produce a Chicago-infused Foo Fighters track.
Nielsen lends his guitar skills to “Something from Nothing,” leading to a few amusing studio moments. In fact, nearly every scene set during the song’s production is entertaining, and Sonic Highways could have probably stayed put in the studio and still been a worthwhile peek at the Fighters’ work.
The context of Chicago goes a long way to giving the show its needed substance, though, especially for those who don’t have “Everlong” in their regular playlist rotation. Grohl’s personal history comes into play, as his extended family lives in the area and he used to play shows at venues like Chicago’s Cubby Bear, a hot spot for the burgeoning punk scene. For a musician who has spent several decades in the spotlight, Grohl’s early history grounds him, though those who aren’t fans of his career may not gleam much from these sequences.
As for the new song itself? Watching it in the immediate context of the hour evokes some cheesy lyrics, as Grohl directly quotes some of the interviews in the song. But, after listening to the song a dozen or so times, it’s a great primer for the sound that will come from this Foo Fighters album–the recording location’s inspiration is there, but not to the detriment of retaining the core Foo sound.
The episode caps off with a performance of “Something from Nothing,” and knowing what went into the song–understanding the song’s lyrics or how a certain guitar riff came to be–creates a unique and more personal listening experience. No other album has really been produced in this way, and for that alone Sonic Highways is a fascinating enough experiment.
More than that, however, it delivers what may seem like an obvious but easily overlooked message–modern music didn’t just happen. It has history, ancestry, and roots that have made the music we love today what it is. Grohl has created a beautiful reminder of just how much there is to appreciate about America’s musical past.
And if you didn’t know where to begin diving into that history, Sonic Highways is a fantastic starting point.
Sonic Highways will air for eight weeks on HBO on Fridays at 11 p.m.