Sound City: Dave Grohl doc suggests beautiful music is made together
A documentary about all the great albums (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes, Nirvana’s Nevermind) recorded at Sound City studios just outside of Los Angeles, Sound City provides an excellent overview of how good old-fashioned studios fostered camaraderie and chemistry. Directed by Dave Grohl, of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame, the movie has real heart as it tries to emphasize the importance of the human quality in making music. Producers Jim Rota and John Ramsay recently phoned in to talk about the making of the movie, which has a one-night only theatrical run at select theaters on Jan. 31 and then arrives on VOD and as a download on Feb. 1.
How did you guys get involved in this project?
Rota: I got involved because Dave [Grohl] called me and asked us to help him film the moving of the console that he bought from the Sound City studio back in May of 2011. Once we got out there, the studio was being leased to a producer and he did not want the Neve console that had been in there for 40 years. He wanted to bring in his own console. The original owners told Dave that they were ever going to sell it, they’d tell him so he could make the purchase. Sure enough, it happened and he bought it. We documented the move and the owner brought us this 11-page spread sheet of all the albums that had been recorded there. Along with the obvious ones like Damn the Torpedoes, Nevermind and After the Gold Rush, there were hundreds and hundreds of other quintessential releases from the past 30 years. Dave got home that night and told me he wanted to interview some of the people and do a web series. I said, “Yeah, sure.” By the next morning, he wanted to make a feature. I called John Ramsay who is partner in a production company and that’s how we got rolling.
Ramsay: It was a pretty simple no-brainer. Dave Grohl wants to direct a movie. Did I want to work on it? Yes, please.
What was it like for Dave Grohl to direct his first movie?
Ramsay: It was great. He’s directed music videos for Foo Fighters. He knows his way around, but this was his first serious directing project. He’s a really creative guy. He’s good at explaining a vision in his head and painting a picture in his head. As far as we were concerned, it was simple to figure out what he was looking for. He did something like 50 interviews. He would just sit down and talk for like two hours or sometimes more. We got great stuff.
Is there extra footage that will end up on the DVD?
Rota: When Dave interviewed a lot of these people, he decided he wanted to invite a handful of them back to record new music on the old Neve console and we filmed that. Aside from the history of the studio and all the great records that were made there, there’s a lot of discussion in the film about what makes great music and what makes great songwriting. We’re pulling the curtain back and showing these iconic musicians writing songs together. Our cameras captured all of that.
Talk about that theme of the “human element” and how the studio enabled musicians to emphasize music’s human element.
Ramsay: A big part of the movie is about how the human element gets lost when there’s no performance. When you get a bunch of people in the room together, you get their personalities and perspective. They have to come together and figure out a way to work. The four guys — John, Paul, George and Ringo — made up the Beatles. If it had been John, Paul, George and Al, it would be a completely different band. Dave was trying to make sure that’s there’s a discussion about the human element missing in music. It’s not the technology that has ruined it. It’s not about what you can do with a computer. It’s the lack of human interaction and people reacting to other people that’s missing.
What was it about this studio that lent itself to the creation of such great music?
Ramsay: It was cheap. No, I’m kidding. Actually, it was the combination of the giant room and the board there that really gave it this signature sound as far as being very lively and very performance capable. I think it was one of those weird things that happened when you combined those two elements. It’s kind of like the Reese’s peanut butter cup of recording. You have this room and you have this board, like these two great tastes that taste great together. It was this dumb luck thing.
What do you hope people take away from the movie?
Rota: The message of the movie is that you can buy a guitar at a garage sale and hook up with your friends and become the biggest band in the world. If you have this love for music, you should pick up an instrument and make music and make it with other people. It’s not about standing in line to get on a game show so you can get up and sing a song and have a couple of judges tell you that you’re not good enough. [And music] is not just reserved for famous people or superstars. It’s in your power to make something happen. You just need to get up and do it.