Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl is one determined rock star. He created, produced and directed all the episodes of the HBO series Sonic Highways, which is up for three Primetime Emmys. The series celebrated the 20th anniversary of the band—which recorded an album with sessions held in eight American cities—and included exhaustive documentary histories of the music and the rebellious artists, producers and sound engineers who forged music that defines places like New Orleans, Nashville, Washington D.C., New York and Seattle, the latter where Grohl first became known as the drummer of the iconic grunge band Nirvana. I just saw Grohl and his band play Citi Field in Queens, where he sang and played guitar as manically as is possible while seated in a Game Of Thrones-like chair designed by tour engineers to prop up the ankle he shattered when he fell off a stage in Sweden. After that injury, Grohl got backstage treatment for an ankle he said had turned into soft-serve ice cream and returned to finish the show with the doctor onstage, supporting Grohl’s leg so that it would not fall apart. Anybody want to bet against a guy this determined in the Emmy race?
At Citi Field, you gave a shout-out to the Emmy nomination that Sonic Highways received. It seemed like a moment of real pride. What is most gratifying about being recognized this way when you come so far out of your comfort zone?
It’s just the feeling of achievement. I didn’t finish high school, and I didn’t take lessons to learn how to play music. I always just followed my gut feeling. “OK, I think this is how you’re supposed to play the drums. I think this is how you’re supposed to play guitar. I think this is how you’re supposed to sing.” All of those things, I kind of figured that’s how you’re supposed to do it. When you accomplish something like that, you do feel a bit of pride because nobody told you what to do. As a rebellious little punk rock kid, I never wanted anybody to tell me how to do anything. I remember my first trip to Ikea, I brought the furniture home and threw the instructions away. I wanted to figure this out.
Well, you are certainly the first rock star I’ve seen give a concert from a throne, singing and playing with your leg in a cast propped high in the air. How is that busted ankle of yours doing?
I’m doing good, and have gotten used to it propped up in the air. I’m more worried right now about my voice on tour. I wake up in the morning and that seems to be my biggest issue. I sound like Abe Vigoda.
You get so much out of your voice, night after night. It seems effortless, but obviously it isn’t…
I do think I am genetically predisposed to screaming my balls off, until I die.
It must have been great for the other passengers when you were small and your mother had to take you on a plane or a bus…
I can’t even imagine. Actually, I can. I’ve got one of those at home, believe me. My youngest, she’s got some pipes.
There are a lot of stories of musicians in Sonic Highways who probably would have thrown out their Ikea instructions to instead struggle their way through. How does that method usually work out for you, especially with something as complicated as putting together a documentary series?
It doesn’t always work. When we made the Sound City movie four years ago, I was flying blind, man. I just imagined, “This is how you’re supposed to do it.” I had a great team, and I knew the story. So what I did was visualize the things that I saw in my head, or felt in my heart. It was a matter of making that real. And it was a joy, it never felt like work. There were times where I wasn’t sure what to do, I just followed my gut feeling. Sonic Highways was the same thing. I never studied composition, but I’ve sat with my belly up to the bar, telling stories over the last 25 years. I just imagined the composition of an episode would be the same as the composition of a song. You draw someone in with an intro, then you feed them a hook, and then you give them a verse and then the first chorus. You get to the bridge and hold them there until you hit them with the finale. That’s what you do musically, so I figured it should apply to directing a television show. You have to grab them and keep them there. But I just imagined this was what you’re supposed to do, I don’t really know. I figured, just fake it till you make it. The first time I really heard the word Emmy was from Nina (Rosenstein, HBO SVP Original Programming). She said, “You’re going to get nominated for an Emmy.”
What did you say?
“Shut the f*ck up.” What does anyone care about a show that is about music? That’s the way it seemed when I had this idea in the first place. Nobody’s really interested in music. I said, “You know, I think if you do it right, do it in a way where you dig a little deeper and get to the substance and depth and passion and history, then it might work.” When Nina brought up the Emmy thing, I said, “You’re f*cking out of your mind. There’s no way.” So when it actually happened, I shrieked, “Oh my God!” I don’t really know how to process it. I’m a foreigner in the television world, and as a director. I’ve had fun doing the projects I’ve done. But honestly, I’m a drummer, man. This is just a funny place to be.
You did a really good job of telling stories with visual images. You’ve got a knack for it. What about directing a narrative feature?
I’ve gotten approaches, ever since the Sound City project. I started getting offers to do everything from narrative features to Heineken commercials. I get hit up with these things and I have to say, wait, I have this other job. It’s exciting. I’ve been really lucky in my music career in that I’ve only done things that felt … right. With the Foo Fighters, we’re on Roswell Records, which I’m the president of. That makes no sense at all, but we license and distribute our albums through Sony/RCA and so we only do stuff when we feel it’s OK to do stuff. If we don’t want to be on tour, we don’t go on tour. If we don’t want to make a record, we don’t make a record. It’s the same way with these projects. I started getting asked to do a lot of things. There were a couple that caught me, and I thought, “This could be really good.” All I need is to be able to imagine it in my head, picture it in my head, feel it in my heart, and then it’s a done deal. It’s done. I’m not nervous or worried about it at all because all I have to do is exorcise that, get it out of me and I feel that it will work. It’s so exciting, it’s unknown territory, uncharted, and those are the most exciting projects, musically and otherwise.
Your series took me back to a different time, when kids bought albums and maybe joined record clubs and got a whole bunch of them at once, and you’d listen to the Foreigner album even though you knew there were only two good songs, and you became invested in the progression and the struggle of bands as they got better and better. Today, it’s all about single songs, and I can only imagine how hard it must be for an emerging band when there is no patronage or patience like we showed. This documentary brought back that whole feeling of struggle to grow, and not conforming or selling out. You have Dolly Parton recalling the time when she so badly wanted Elvis to sing her song “I Will Always Love You,” but she couldn’t bring herself to bow to Col. Tom Parker’s insistence she sign over half her songwriting credit. There are so many examples of self-belief and defiance. Can you distill the spirit that of the stories you captured in going city to city like you did?
A lot of these episodes, these cities, we would enter with blind faith. A place like New Orleans—I didn’t know anything about that city; I didn’t know anything about jazz. Being there six days and talking to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and … some of the musicians, I left there feeling like New Orleans was a part of me. I think what happens, in today’s world, music can seem very one-dimensional. It can seem like product. It can seem synthetic; it can seem really shallow in that you hear it but you don’t really connect to it. It goes back to this Foo Fighters documentary we made called Back And Forth—we made a record in my garage, we told a story of the band and then we showed us making an album, analog style with no computers, in my garage. When that movie came out, the popularity of the band just skyrocketed. I think the relatability of the band, people saw us as human beings, which added this emotional depth to our music. It was no longer just sound spitting out of a car stereo in traffic. They saw us as people, and the stories told in that documentary made us seem like we are, which is just like anyone else. I think when you go and hear Dolly Parton’s story, from growing up in a house with a dirt floor to then refusing to give her publishing to Elvis, everybody can relate to the human aspect of her career. When you put the 100 people I interviewed, you can connect to each one of them as a human being, which makes the music seem more relatable. It’s no longer the song you hear behind a Stove Top Stuffing commercial; there’s a song in there, an artist in there and a story in there. That’s what struck a lot of people. All of these musicians, our stories aren’t too different. Not really. My story isn’t that different from Chuck D of Public Enemy. Or Tony Visconti, the legendary producer. Or Dolly Parton. We all started with a dream and we just followed that, without fail. We were passionate and driven, because music was inside of us. We just had to get it out. Some people took it to different levels, but that is what was so great to me, about the series as a whole.
There were specific themes for each episode, and the overall arc of the entire series was something more than musical. It was about all of us, as Americans. It was about the country and American music. That’s why I ended the series with President Obama. I knew early on as we were filming that the very last word in the entire series would be from the president, talking about America as a place where this opportunity is real, and that you can follow your dreams and that music is available to you because it’s entirely human. We just had to get from point A to point B.
You bled on the screen in the segment on Seattle, where you came of age as the drummer of Nirvana. You covered how shattered you and everyone in the music scene there was after the death of Kurt Cobain. You had a profound line when you said that for you, Seattle is like a phantom limb in that you still feel it. I’ve seen a lot of concerts and can only think of Bruce Springsteen and Michael Hutchence of INXS who had voices that filled a baseball stadium as completely as you did at Citi Field recently—from a chair, no less. I never knew you could sing when you were playing drums in Nirvana. You always hear rock bands break up because of egos and personal ambition. Are you that selfless, that you kept that booming voice inside? Why did you do that?
Because I was in a band with Kurt Cobain, who was the greatest songwriter of our generation. I didn’t want to pollute that process. To me, music … one thing I discovered, which we touched on in that episode is, you have hobbyists and careerists and what happens is, the hobbyists are more likely to go out on a limb and take chances because they are doing it solely for the passion of experience. Careerists might have some other motive that could create some kind of boundary or barrier—the idea that I don’t want to do that because it might not be good for my career. My entire life … when I was a kid growing up in Springfield, VA, there wasn’t really any career opportunity in music. I was either going to become a drywaller or work at the furniture warehouse, where I worked for years. I’m a high school dropout, so I didn’t imagine I was on some fast track to stardom, in my bedroom in Springfield, VA. So everything I’ve done is really just for the sake of having fun, experiencing music. The whole time I was in Nirvana, I was recording stuff in my basement. But I didn’t let anyone hear it, because I didn’t need to. Because I heard it. I didn’t feel like I was keeping this incredible secret; it was just stuff I did in my basement. That was the beginning of the Foo Fighters. It was like a coming out, like, “OK, I also do this.” The Foo Fighters is a band that was born out of … just survival.
These were all musicians who’d been in bands that ended prematurely, and we weren’t done yet. There was some really heartbreaking history behind us, but we had a lot to look forward to. And so that was really our greatest motivation. It wasn’t that we wanted to become the biggest band in the world. We just wanted to continue playing music. We maybe told a bit of that story in the Seattle episode, but in that one and the one in Washington, where you see where I grew up, those were really personal episodes. I had to temper that personal, emotional side and not let that get in the way of telling all those other beautiful stories. I had to let Seattle be Seattle. Seattle is not me; I just have a little bit of history there. In order to make those episodes connect, I had to tie that emotional string to it.
You can’t help but watch that show and think of the possibilities after you announced a second season and said you might go overseas. London with Jimmy Page? Dublin with U2? Africa with Peter Gabriel and all those musicians who play on his albums? How crazy ambitious can you be on this, given the fact you do have this other day job?
Look, when I told someone I wanted to interview the president of the United States on music, I wanted to interview the president about music and I was determined it was going to happen. When it comes to talking about music, everybody is open to that and has at least a little bit of it inside of them. I’ve always been lucky in that; I don’t think anything is impossible. I think if you’re passionate enough and driven enough, that ambition will carry you to wherever you want to go. No matter whether you know how to do it or not. You just figure it out. So, look, I’ve got a list of people I’d love to talk to and a thousand people who tell me, “You’ll never get them.” And I’ll f*cking get them. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I’ll get ’em.
Here’s an excerpt of Sonic Highways and Dave Grohl’s interview with Dolly Parton: