AUSTIN – If you’re looking for Dave Grohl this year at SXSW, he won’t be hard to find. He’s one of the unofficial faces of the conference.
On Thursday, he’ll deliver the keynote address for Music. (Which reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s funny quip from last year’s keynote: “How important can this speech be if we’re giving it at noon? Every decent musician in town is still asleep!” Gotta feeling Grohl probably thinks the same way.) And on Thursday night, his Sound City players will play at Stubbs. It’s an eclectic group that includes Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield and others. The only real requirement for membership is that you recorded at some point at the famed Sound City Studio in Van Nuys, Calif.
Grohl’s love for that studio is really the genesis of all of this. And it led him to make the documentary Sound City, which debuted at Sundance in January and is also playing here. Grohl first came in contact with Sound City when Nirvana loaded up the van and drove there from Seattle to make Nevermind. And even though that record rejuvenated the studio, it’s place in rock history was already solidified. Everyone from Neil Young to Dio had recorded there. Tom Petty made Damn the Torpedoes there. And Fleetwood Mac as we know it met there when Mick Fleetwood heard Lindsey Buckingham playing guitar in a studio down the hall.
These nuggets from days gone by are preserved in the Sound City documentary. Grohl lovingly tells the story of the place, inserting himself now and then but also stepping back when appropriate to let others share. What’s left is a portrait of a place that was fiercely analog and the people who embraced that way of making music.
That mentality, though, is what also lead to Sound City’s demise. In the last 10 years or so, the lure of ProTools and other recording techniques has been too strong for most musicians. Perfection became too easy to come by.
The point that Grohl makes again and again in Sound City, though, is that perfection has a cost: authenticity. Grohl and the other musicians featured in the film embrace the moments in their recordings that make them sound real. And Sound City, with its much-lauded Neve soundboard, captured everything. If your playing wasn’t quite up to snuff, you’d hear it in the recording. As one of the people who worked there says in the film, “Sound City was a place where real men went to make records.”
Alas, Sound City is no more. But a piece of it does live on. When the studio closed, Grohl purchased that famed Neve soundboard and installed it in his home studio. And all of the songs he cut with his Sound City Players were recorded on it.
Sound City played for one weekend at the Texas Theatre earlier this year, but if you missed it, you can check it out on iTunes.