Touring in support of Foo Fighters seventh album ‘Wasting Light’ came to an end in September 2012 with a performance at the Global Citizen Festival in New York City. Grohl caused some alarm during the show by telling the crowd he “didn't know when the band would play together again”. Whilst Dave had simply meant that it was the end of the tour and their future diary was empty for now, the media quickly ran wild with the quote, questioning if the band was splitting up. Quick to dispel those stories Grohl released an open letter days later clarifying the intent of his statement, noting that “I can't give up this band. And I never will. Because it's not just a band to me. It's my life. It's my family. It's my world.”
Grohl also explained that his immediate priority would be finishing up his Sound City movie project, with Foo Fighters temporarily put on the back burner. The Sound City movie would see release in January 2013 and in the weeks that followed Dave Grohl took the music from the movie on a limited time tour. The band of musicians dubbed ‘The Sound City Players’ included several musicians featured in the movie, including Lee Ving, Krist Novoselic, Rick Neilsen, Rick Springfield, and Stevie Nicks. Backing a revolving door of musicians on the shows would be all five Foo Fighters, with the huge ensemble playing half a dozen shows in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
It was during that tour guitarist Chris Shiflett was first informed by Dave Grohl of his plan for recording the next Foo Fighters album. “I remember Dave saying that, for the next record, he wanted to go all over the world and record in different studios,” recalled Shiflett.
Drummer Hawkins also acknowledged the connection to the Sound City project although he was unsure exactly when Dave came up with the plan - “I swear I feel like he had this idea to do the record like this before we did Sound City. Because they're so connected, it just makes sense that it was before, or around the same time. But I feel like it was before for some reason.”
Whatever the truth, the plan was ambitious. The initial vision from Grohl was for the band to travel across the world, visiting up to fifteen recording studios in different cities. In each studio, the band would record one song and alongside recording a documentary would also be filmed, documenting the process and exploring the musical history of each city. As part of that documentary, Grohl planned to interview many contemporaries associated with the location, and from those interviews and experiences write the lyrics for each song on location.
According to guitarist Chris Shiflett it was not unusual for Dave to come up with several different ideas, many of which would not come to fruition. “He always got 10,000 ideas for crazy stuff. I personally try not to get too wrapped up in any until I see we’re actually going to do one of them.” When it became clear a scaled-down version of this idea was a goer, Shiflett was not too fazed - “It never seemed like a daunting idea, it always seemed very doable. If you have the resources to do something like that it’s a great way to make a record.”
Following several meetings between the band, their management and record label it was decided the original plan was just a little too ambitious, and not to mention costly. The project was scaled back, with the band now set to trek across the United States only, visiting eight different locations and studios. The final number was cut down to eight not only for cost reasons but also in a nod to the fact this would be the eighth studio album by the band. It was planned for the band to spend one week in each location, recording just one song as well as exploring the city for the documentary side of the project.
Writing and demoing of songs began soon after all Sound City commitments were complete and in Autumn 2013 serious pre-production work got underway at the band’s Studio 606 complex. This was something the band did before recording all of their previous albums, a time for them to select their best material, flesh out the structure of songs and generally hone them, ready for the final recording session. Pre-production for this album was particularly intense according to guitarist Shiflett, owing to the pressures they would face in having to record each song in one week on location, no do-overs.
“We started learning the songs and working on demos probably around the beginning of last summer, so by the time we actually went out to record we were all pretty confident on the musical side of stuff” Chris recalled. “We did a lot of pre-production, more than we ever did in the past. We demoed these songs over and over and over and really hammered out everybody’s parts, so musically we knew exactly what we were doing when we got in there.”
Whilst the instrumentation of each song had been meticulously rehearsed no lyrics were written for any songs, their working titles only relating to their structure and style. As per the plan, Grohl was not going to write any lyrics until he’d arrived in each location on their studio tour.
Thirteen songs were worked on during pre-production and whilst eleven were finished, the number would then be whittled down to eight, ready for recording in each of the eight locations.
Recording of the album proper started in January 2014 with the first location on the schedule set for Chicago, Illinois. The band had booked time at Electrical Audio, a recording studio in the north of the city owned by famed recording engineer Steve Albini. An unsuspecting building from the outside, the studio is located just a few hundred yards from the Chicago River.
Drummer Taylor Hawkins believed Chicago was specifically chosen as the first location owing to the history Grohl had with the city. “I feel like Chicago was first because that’s where Dave had his first eye-opening experience with music that drew him to become a full-on musician”. It was a theory that Dave himself seemed to back up - “Chicago's the place where I saw my first show. The first time I ever saw a live band play was at this little bar called the Cubby Bear right across the street from Wrigley Field. It was just like 'I want to do this for the rest of my life.' So the idea of the song, and the episode, is that once you find that spark and inspiration, that begins your path in life, for whatever it is you want to do.”
Whilst studio owner Albini was interviewed by Grohl for the documentary he was not directly involved in the recording session. “Steve wasn't recording the Foo Fighters” confirmed fellow engineer at the studio, Greg Norman. “He got interviewed, and the show kind of makes it look like they were recording with him, but they had their own crew,” he added.
Butch Vig instead continued in the role he occupied in the recording of the seventh album, ‘Wasting Light’, with James Brown similarly continuing his role as an engineer. “I love Dave like a crazy brother,” said Vig of Grohl. “I don’t know anyone who has such infectious enthusiasm for life and for music”. Also on hand were Electrical Audio engineers Greg Norman and Jon San Paolo, assisting Vig and Brown. Butch Vig described the first recording location as “not posh or super fancy, but really well appointed”.
Whilst there was not the hubbub as with when promoting Wasting Light, recording for this session remained analog, at least initially. ProTools wasn’t a dirty word this time around, used to manipulate tracks after the initial analog capture. As well as shipping all of their musical instruments and gear across the country, they also took Hal and Betty with them, their two Studer A827 tape recorders.
The track selected for Chicago was ‘Something From Nothing’, albeit only given that title at the end of the recording. Once all the equipment had been set up the band ran through the song together a few times before getting started for real. “The basic recording process was the same as the last record,” explained Chris Shiflett. That process began with Taylor Hawkins laying down his drum track, followed by Chris, Pat Smear and Dave Grohl all adding their own unique guitar parts.
Nate was next to record his bass track before the now semi-permanent member of the band Rami Jaffee would add Clavinet, Organ, Mellotron onto the track, giving it an almost psychedelic feel.
With the basic tracks down, it was then time for Dave Grohl to gather together all of his notes from interviews he’d carried out, including Cheap Trick’s Rick Neilsen, to write the lyrics for the song. Whilst at the studio to be interviewed Neilsen was asked by Grohl if he wanted to take part in the recording and having agreed, recorded a deep baritone guitar part on the song. Chris Shiflett was almost starstruck by the visit to the studio of someone he’d looked up to as a kid, with the rest of the band similarly enthused by having the legendary Cheap Trick founder on their record.
Recording of the first song for the album had gone very well, Shiflett describing it as “a great way to make a record”. In particular the guitarist enjoyed the one song at a time format, bemoaning that in the early days of his time in the band he’d spend weeks twiddling his thumbs waiting to record - “What we would do in the past is record all the drums and that would take a while, and then Dave would do all his guitars and that would take a while, then we’d throw some bass, so for me it would be a month into recording before I really did anything”.
The lyrics of the song written by Grohl heavily referenced among others the life of Buddy Guy, noting his move to Chicago with nothing to his name, meeting Muddy Waters and making his way in the Blues scene in the city. “It’s basically about these people and how they all started with nothing,” Grohl said of the song and accompanying documentary episode. “They were just inspired to follow their dream.”
‘Something From Nothing’ was first released on October 16th, 2014 as a promotional single for the album.