With four songs in the bag Foo Fighters were at the halfway stage of recording for their eighth album as they headed to their fifth recording location in late March 2014 – Austin, Texas. “The first time I came to Austin it was 1987,” said Dave Grohl of the city. “I was like, ‘Shit, we gotta go to Texas? We’re dead fuckin’ meat’ – purple hair, all scruffy. Then we pulled into Austin and it felt like home. I thought it was filled with open-minded, beautiful, artistic people who like to get fucking weird.”
Whilst Grohl had long selected the city of Austin as a stop on their recording tour the studio they would use was not locked down initially although he did have one in mind. Studio 6A, located within the University of Texas at Austin, was most well-known as the location for the recording of Austin City Limits, a musical Television show which has aired on public television in the United States for more than thirty years. “I was 7 or 8 the first time I saw it,” said Grohl of the show. “I was just learning how to play guitar and there weren’t too many shows like Austin City Limits back in the day. Here was a show that you could watch an entire live performance of a band – not just one song after Johnny Carson walks off the couch – in front of an intimate audience. Those experiences translate. When I was young, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s music! That’s how it’s done! Now it’s in my living room and it makes me want to do that too.’ You watch these brilliant musicians ripping on that stage week after week and it could only inspire young musicians. Maybe that’s what it was for.”
Intending to cover the studio and TV show in the documentary portion of Sonic Highways irrespective of where they recorded a song he arranged an interview with the current executive producer of the show, Terry Lickona.
That interview took place in December 2013 and one of the topics covered was naturally the studio. Lickona explained to Grohl that whilst the television show had since 2011 been recorded in a new state of the art facility across the city, the old Studio 6A was still active. “Although we’ve moved out of the original studio, it’s completely intact,” he told an excited Grohl. “The stage is still there, the bleachers are there, the skyline is there, and nothing has changed.”
Happy by the news, Grohl asked if it would be possible for the band to use the studio for recording. “It’s totally possible” replied the producer. “The studio is there and even though the show is downtown in our new venue, we still do all of our post [recording processing] back at our old place. So, if you wanted to do everything in there, it’d be a thrill to work with you” he said in making an offer Grohl couldn’t refuse.
The band booked a week at the studio in March 2014 and the session began as the previous four had, the first day spent setting up equipment and the following day setting up mics and finding a good sound for recording. This was a challenge for producer Butch Vig, engineer James Brown and the rest of the crew because despite the studio hosting a music show for thirty years it was never built with acoustics in mind. “James and I were a bit stressed before we came to Austin,” said Vig. “We knew it wasn’t set up like a professional recording studio.” The main room according to Brown was “fairly dry” sounding, with very little in the way of natural ambiance. Once the crew arrived and started setting up, however, their fears were somewhat negated - “Once we got here and set up the mics, it actually sounded really good” revealed Vig.
Whilst the band was warming up on the historic stage proceedings started out like the previous four sessions for the album, working through the arrangement of the instrumental song selected for Austin. Then things got a little crazy. An impromptu jam session broke out among the band members, with Dave and Taylor first busting out the David Bowie track ‘Rebel Rebel’. As the jam fizzled out the drummer said to the rest of the band that he had “lots of ideas for the next record”, flippantly insinuating that what they had just played was an original piece of music. This theme continued, with new Foo Fighters song ideas including Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’, Queen tracks ‘We Will Rock You’ (Which Hawkins joked would “work well live”) and Bohemian Rhapsody’ which was then followed by Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla’, Rami Jaffee leading that track. Dave then told the band he’d been “fooling around with this thing last night” before playing Nirvana song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. “I don’t think that one’s gonna work. B-Side,” said Grohl in jest. Further brief jams on Nirvana songs ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Lithium’ followed, the band enjoying themselves before they had to get down to more serious matters.
Fun shakedown over, the band returned to the song they were there to record. Following their familiar process recording went smoothly, with no major re-writes required as there had been during recording in Tennessee. Once the basic instrumental track was recorded Grohl laid down a guide vocal track, nothing more than phonetic sounds to aid the band whilst recording overdubs. In the meantime, he was out in Austin conducting further interviews which would help shape the real lyrics.
Once the members of the band had done most of their work a guest musician was invited to the studio to add his flair to the song – highly acclaimed local guitarist and performer Gary Clarke Jr. He was given no clear direction on what to play by Dave, producer Vig instead just asking him to listen to the song and play what came to him.
Once Grohl had returned from his interviews and lyrics had been crafted a number of vocal takes rounded out the song.
Unlike the first four sessions where the band focused solely on one song to record for their album in Austin they had another box to tick – recording a cover of the Roky Erickson track ‘Two Headed Dog’ for Austin City Limits’ 40th-anniversary celebrations. With not much time left on the clock the band quickly learned the song and recorded the instrumental for the track almost entirely live out on the Studio 6A stage, with Grohl performing low-key vocals as a guide. A few guitar overdubs and proper vocal takes followed and the song was completed in just a few hours.
‘What Did I Do?/God As My Witness’ was included as the fourth track on the album whilst ‘Two Headed Dog’ got its debut in the 40th anniversary Austin City Limits show which aired on October 3rd, 2014 in the United States. The song was also released in a special flexi-disc format, a thinner type of vinyl record which was commonly used in the 1970s and 1980s to distribute records in magazines and music interest books; owing to their name, the records could bend along with the pages although that did come at the cost of audio fidelity, far worse than a traditional record.