Foo Fighters continued their musical tour of the United States into May 2014, with their penultimate stop being New Orleans, Louisiana. With such a rich musical history visiting The Big Easy was an obvious choice to feature in the documentary side of the project but unlike some of the other cities the band visited during the recording of their eighth album, this wasn’t one any of the band members had a strong connection with. Whilst they had all passed through many times over the years or tour, nobody had ever had a chance to stay around and really take it all in.
With New Orleans making the final shortlist it was then up to Grohl to once again select a suitable recording location in the city. With music flowing through the blood of so many residents and such a long history of making music, it was no surprise that he would be inundated with choice. Esplanade Studios, for example, is a large modern studio built inside an old church in the city whilst The Parlor is a similarly impressive bespoke facility which even houses a vintage Neve 8078 recording console.
What Grohl had in mind though was something rather different. Originally built as a tavern The Preservation Hall is a historic venue within the heart of the world-famous French Quarter in the city which since 1961 has hosted thousands of Jazz shows and events, bringing joy to locals and tourists alike. The venue has long been seen as a cornerstone of New Orleans music and culture but there is one thing it wasn’t – a professional recording studio. For Grohl though, it made perfect sense. “When I think of New Orleans, I don’t think of recording studios” he explained. “I just think of hundreds of years of music. Preservation Hall really took hold after the Hurricane [Katrina, 2005], when people realized that there was something to lose.”
Usually open every night for performances, the hall was uncharacteristically closed to the public for an entire week in May 2014 to allow one of the biggest rock bands in the world record a song for their eighth studio album. Recording in such an unconventional building was naturally going to be a challenge but it’s one that the band and crew were up for. “It was a little tricky because [the hall] is not used to a blaring rock band,” said producer Butch Vig. “We moved the drums across the room from traditionally where they play, which opened up the sound a bit. Then we moved their amps and just baffled them enough, so it wasn’t completely collapsing the room with volume.”
As the hall was meant for performance and not recording there was little to no sound damping, with people walking by and other ambient noises outside the venue heard loud and clear inside. “Our microphones capture miscellaneous noises and that’s part of the charm,” said Vig of what other producers might’ve considered a serious problem. Likewise, people walking by outside could hear a Foo Fighters recording session, something of a rarity for members of the public. Despite several ceiling fans spinning at full strength the heat in the venue was another issue – if the band was going to record, they were going to have to suffer a little.
Once the historic venue-cum-studio was fully kitted out tape started rolling and the band got to work following their regular process, running through live instrumental takes of the song Dave Grohl had designated for the city. With the preferred take selected, work then got underway re-doing the different parts of the song, starting as usual with Hawkins’ drums. “I had a blast doing the drum track,” said Hawkins. “I did it quick, and it’s exciting, and it pops”.
Guitar tracks were then piled on by the three guitarists, followed by bass and finally organ and piano tracks from Rami Jaffee. Whilst the track was already very busy at this stage, guests were once again invited along to the studio to contribute.
For almost its entire history the Preservation Hall has been home to a house band of sorts, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Many local musicians had played in the band over a 50-year period and were still going strong when Foo Fighters arrived in 2014. For Grohl, including the band on the song they were recording was something of a must, having learned about their history and prestige.
Foo Fighters sat patiently and taught the song to the members of the band and practically sat in awe as they watched the musicians on piano, saxophone, tuba, and trombone interpret the track. As they quickly burst into full-on performance engineer James Brown rushed to the console to hit record and capture the huge group of musicians in free flow. Taken by the moment, Dave Grohl suggested they open the doors of the venue and allow the public to hear and see what they were doing. Before they knew it, the huge swathe of rock and jazz musicians were out on the streets of New Orleans, playing and dancing down the road in an impromptu march the city was so famous for.
After heading back to the hall and once again closing the doors it was back to work, fleshing out the arrangement with all of the added instrumentation. The Jazz Band were not the only guests on the song, with local musician Troy Andrews, more known by his stage name of Trombone Shorty, also invited to participate after being interviewed for the documentary side of the visit.
Naturally, it was with the Trombone that he performed, giving the song an even stronger jazzy style. The final act of recording was for Dave to construct his inspired lyrics and add them to the track. A few vocal takes and overdubs later, and ‘In The Clear’ was complete. Owing to their less than private location and excursions out onto the streets of New Orleans Foo Fighters presence in the city was not secretive, as had been the case for the previous sessions. Locals were well aware of who was in town and thanks to an official press release in the middle of the week, they then knew why. Following several weeks of media and fan speculation, HBO announced the official details of the project, detailing the eight cities they had visited (or were set to visit) and revealing It was set to be both a documentary series and their eighth studio album.
Having had so much fun playing with the Jazz band out on the streets of New Orleans earlier in the week on the penultimate night of their stay at Preservation Hall, with recording complete, Grohl had hatched another plan – playing a live show that night at the venue. As the hall itself could only hold around 100 people at a push the band instead elected to open the doors and windows of the venue and play out into the street. A large crowd soon amassed leading to the road itself being closed temporarily for everyone’s safety. The band played a ninety-minute set which naturally included cameos from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Trombone Shorty.
The final day in the city for the band was a day of leisure with everyone joining the regular Sunday parades through the streets of the city. Foo Fighters week in New Orleans had been a fun one, with each band member speaking positively of their time in the city and their experiences. “You go to New Orleans and you make 150 best friends in the first ten minutes,” said Taylor Hawkins, whilst for Pat Smear it was “the only place I was sad to leave”.
Nate Mendel later revealed it was also his favorite of the eight locations - “Because it's such a unique town and we just had fun there really, is what it came down to.”
‘In The Clear’ was featured as track six on the ‘Sonic Highways’ album.