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Life Is A Highway: The Foo Fighters Interview

Categories Lifestyle

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To celebrate their 20th anniversary a year or so back, Rod Yates spoke to the Foo Fighters for Men’s Style.

On October 17, 1994, Dave Grohl entered Robert Lang Studios in Seattle. A makeshift studio that its owner had started building under his house, it was the last place Nirvana ever recorded before Kurt Cobain committed suicide on April 5 that year. Still reeling from the loss of his friend and his band, Grohl had booked a block of five days at the studio to record some songs he’d been working on, for no other reason than he thought it might help the healing process.

Then known to the world as a drummer, on these demos Grohl would play every instrument and sing – he’d turned down an offer to join Tom Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers, partly because every time he sat behind a kit it reminded him of Kurt and Nirvana. Being a frontman carried no such baggage. Eventually, the demos he recorded that week would become the Foo Fighters’ 1995 debut album, kickstarting one of the most successful careers in modern music.

Fast forward two decades, and Grohl found himself back at Robert Lang Studios, this time with a full band in tow as the Foo Fighters recorded a song for their eighth studio album, Sonic Highways (out now). Nothing had changed. “It’s been unfinished for about 20 years,” smiles bassist Nate Mendel, speaking from his home in Encino, California. “I assumed we’d show up and it would be this sparkling and beautiful finished studio. But it’s exactly the way it was in 1994.”

In an eerie coincidence, the first episode of the documentary series that accompanies the album’s release, also called Sonic Highways, just debuted on HBO in America on October 17, 20 years to the day since Grohl entered Robert Lang Studios to record those first demos.

The series shines a light on eight different cities and recording studios across America, with the Foo Fighters spending a week in each recording a song for their new album. The idea behind the show is not only to shine a light on the band at work, but also on how the environment in each city shaped the music it became known for – why did Nashville become the country capital of the world? Why did New Orleans become famous for jazz?

Grohl directed the series and conducted 45 interviews with a diverse array of artists and prominent figures – one minute he’s talking to the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes, the next President Barack Obama – using the stories and transcripts as inspiration for the lyrics on the album.

“This record’s not about me, it’s about America,” he explains from his home, late on a Wednesday night in October. “It’s about all these people and their stories. Originally we were thinking about going all over the world to do this and we realised logistically that was kind of impossible. But then we came to the conclusion, this is a good opportunity to give [America] a musical document that people can use to understand why we are where we are.”

Crucially, the idea was also formulated to keep the Foo Fighters on their toes. On their previous album, 2011’s Wasting Light, they recorded analogue to two-inch tape in Grohl’s garage without the aid of any computers. “That’s considered a challenge these days,” says the frontman. “So for this album, why not take that tape machine all over the country? And why not record in a room like Preservation Hall in New Orleans, which has no microphones? We had to build a studio in that room, it’s a 200-year-old room in the French Quarter. The more I thought about it the more the idea snowballed. The concept started getting bigger and bigger.”

The project is a fittingly grandiose way for the band to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished as a band, and I feel like we have just as much to offer, probably more ’cos we can play now,” says Mendel, the longest standing member of the Foo Fighters besides Grohl. “This will be a marker. The 20-year marker. A defining moment for us, because we’re going off and doing something we haven’t really done before as a band.”

“It’s been a year that none of us will ever forget,” adds Grohl. “It’s been an unforgettable experience. And every time I sit down to edit one of these episodes I think, at least we documented this.”

THE ULTIMATE FOO FIGHTERS MIX TAPE

10 Songs To Download

“This Is A Call”

The first-ever Foo Fighters single and the song that started it all. Hey, this drummer can sing!

Find it: Foo Fighters, 1995

“Big Me”

Effortlessly melodic, and proof Dave Grohl knows his way around a great pop song.

Find it: Foo Fighters, 1995

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“My Hero”

Heavy with emotion and sentiment, the song earned a second life when the Foo Fighters played it at the 2012 Democratic Convention.

Find it: The Colour and the Shape, 1997

“Everlong”

Arguably the greatest song the Foo Fighters have written, accompanied by a bonkers video by Michel Gondry.

Find it: The Colour and the Shape, 1997

“Learn To Fly”

The Foo Fighters go AOR? Yep, but they do it very well.

Find it: There Is Nothing Left To Lose, 1999

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“Times Like These”

The One By One album was a bit of a stinker, but this remains a live favourite.

Find it: One by One, 2002

“Best Of You”

The band indulge their arena rock side, penning a song tailor made for waving your lighter (or iPhone) in the air.

Find it: In Your Honour, 2005

“These Days”

It didn’t spend 16 weeks in the Australian singles charts for nothing.

Find it: Wasting Light, 2011

“Walk”

If the climax doesn’t leave you feeling 10 foot tall and bullet proof, you may well be deaf.

Find it: Wasting Light, 2011

“Something From Nothing”

The first single off Sonic Highways, and one of the most adventurous of their career.

Find it: Sonic Highways, 2014