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Foo Fighters frontman examines Van Nuys recording history in 'Sound City'

A Van Nuys recording facility is hallowed in the histories of such bands as Nirvana and Fleetwood Mac. Dave Grohl's fascination becomes a documentary — and concert.

January 18, 2013|By Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times
  • Dave Grohl seated at left in studio. Grohl's directorial debut "Sound City" is set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. His documentary examines the history of the Van Nuys recording Studio.
Dave Grohl seated at left in studio. Grohl's directorial debut "Sound… (Sundance Film Festival )

Amid the splintered drum sticks and empty coffee cups littering his Northridge recording studio, Dave Grohl contemplated the enormous mixing desk before him.

The Foo Fighters frontman looked at the seemingly endless rows of faders and dials on the console, admiring it like a car lover might a vintage Aston Martin.

"I consider that board to be responsible for the person I am today," said the former drummer of Nirvana. "Had it not been for that board, who knows what 'Nevermind' would've sounded like. And who knows if anyone would ever have heard of Nirvana."

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The custom-designed Neve console came from Sound City, the Van Nuys recording facility where acts such as Fleetwood Mac, Metallica and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — as well as Nirvana — made some of their best-known albums.

Dressed in a brown hoodie and blue jeans, Grohl, 44, was preparing for the premiere of his documentary about the studio and its lore, "Sound City," which was scheduled to debut Friday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. He'd pulled together an all-star band of Sound City alumni to celebrate the premiere and was rehearsing last week for the show.

Three large poster boards rested on easels in the main room, each scrawled with a dozen song titles: "Landslide." "Jessie's Girl." "Born on the Bayou." Rick Springfield was due over in a few hours; Stevie Nicks and John Fogerty were to drop by in coming days.

The Sound City Players, whose lineup also includes Trent Reznor, Nirvana's Krist Novoselic and members of Cheap Trick and Rage Against the Machine, have an album out March 12. In addition to a performance at Sundance, they will play the Hollywood Palladium on Jan. 31, following a screening of the movie at ArcLight Cinemas' Cinerama Dome.

"You can imagine, logistically, this was almost impossible to put together," Grohl said with a shake of his shoulder-length hair. "But now that we did, it's blowing my mind."

The studio that united these artists seems to pale in comparison to the talent it incubated. Tucked behind a grungy facade across the street from a food-truck depot, Sound City today appears no more impressive from the outside than it did during the decades following its opening in 1969.

"The place basically looked like a white-trash double-wide," said Springfield, who recorded his 1981 album "Working Class Dog" at the 7,200-square-foot studio. "You went into the bathrooms afraid you might catch something."

Yet a mystique developed early on around Sound City, and the allure went beyond sonics. Neil Young recorded parts of the classic "After the Gold Rush" there, Petty did "Damn the Torpedos" there, and Charles Manson reportedly cut tracks in the studio shortly before he became famous for an entirely different reason.

"It was like a club," said Nicks. The Fleetwood Mac frontwoman acknowledged that getting to Sound City, deep in the San Fernando Valley, was hardly convenient for rock stars living closer to top-flight studios in Hollywood or Santa Monica. "But once you were in, you were in, and so you made the trip out there as often as you could."

Business stayed strong throughout the '80s with sessions by hair metal bands such as Ratt, but after Nirvana made "Nevermind" there in 1991 — and the album went on to sell 10 million copies — Sound City found a second life as an alternative-rock hot spot.

Throughout the rest of the '90s band after band came seeking what "Nevermind" producer Butch Vig described as the studio's "one-of-a-kind vibe." "The acoustics in the room — there was just something about them that made everything sound amazing," he said.

By the middle of the next decade, though, the music industry's slowdown and advances in home-recording equipment had cut seriously into Sound City's business. Bookings dried up and in 2011 Kevin Augunas, an L.A.-based producer who's worked with the Lumineers and Cold War Kids, took over the studio and remodeled it; he uses it now primarily to record bands signed to his label, Fairfax Recordings.

Grohl began work on "Sound City" after he bought the Neve board, which he moved to his place in Northridge. His original idea was to make a short film in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of "Nevermind." But once he started interviewing other artists who'd recorded at Sound City — each rhapsodizing at length over the experience — "I realized this was a real movie," he said.

"Dave didn't sound like some guy pitching an idea, like in 'The Player,'" said Fogerty, referring to Robert Altman's 1992 Hollywood satire. "He sounded like a little boy. I could tell his enthusiasm was pure."

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A message materialized along with his cast.

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