Location number three on the Foo Fighters tour of American recording studios was New York City, the band selecting The Magic Shop in the SoHo neighborhood of the City as the studio to record the third song for the record.
The studio had a long twenty-four-year history at the time of the bands visit with recording artists such as Lou Reed, the Ramones, Sonic Youth, and Arcade Fire all walking through the door at some point. Most recently prior to the Foo Fighters arrival the studio had been used by David Bowie to record his penultimate album, ‘The Next Day’. “I considered a lot of studios in New York City. But rather than use an iconic studio that most people know about, I found this tiny place in Soho,” said Dave Grohl of his choice. “This place is unlike anywhere else,” he said of the city as a whole. “New York City has it all whether it's talking about inspiration or community or industry or gentrification or creativity or survival or starting over.”
The song selected for New York was something of an epic, the band bringing along a seven-minute instrumental demo which Grohl was going to have to write lyrics for. “Write what you see. It’s a different type of writing for me,” said Grohl of his new approach to lyrics. “I’ve always gone inward, to discover things within myself. This time, it’s more like reporting.”
The studio was equipped with a Neve recording console allowing the band to continue their analog philosophy although as they’d already done in Washington D.C, transferring to digital after the initial recording was not something they were avoiding as they had for the recording of the previous album.
As well as layering several guitar tracks on the song building up to a large crescendo Grohl had also decided it would include a string treatment and towards the end of the session legendary producer and musician Tony Visconti arrived at the studio. Hired to arrange an orchestral accompaniment to the song, Visconti listened to a playback of the track and after just one playthrough told Grohl he already had an arrangement in mind. With the Magic Shop studio being far too small to house any kind of Orchestra the recording of the string section took place in California, at Ocean Way Recording.
The lyrics of the song once again referenced both the city and the stories Grohl had heard from those he interviewed. The first line of the song “There is a Secret. I found a secret behind a SoHo door” was in reference to the studio itself. Unlike many recording studios with grand entrances, or at the very least the name above the door, Magic Shop was located behind a completely unsuspecting grey door, daubed in graffiti. A tiny sticker below the bell the only indication on what was behind the door. “I found a reason, that’s a Lou Reed reference,” said Grohl of another lyric.
Much of the song’s lyrics centered around the idea of a river, both literally and metaphorically. Beneath New York City was the Minetta Creek, a watercourse which used to run across approximately two miles of the city. Although it was filled in and covered over in the 19th century many historians to this day debate whether it still exists, running underneath the modern-day city in some capacity. “This song is mostly about that, this river that runs underground through the city,” explained Grohl, evidently in the camp that believed it was still there.
“I thought it was just beautiful idea that there’s something natural and prehistoric that runs underneath something monolithic and futuristic as New York City and that maybe we’re all connected by something like that.” As Grohl carried out more and more interviews with musicians and important figures that idea of everyone being connected would go on to be a key aspect of the entire album and documentary series. “When I interviewed all these people around the country for this project, I started to realize that everyone’s connected and that it is like one big family tree. Whether it’s Dolly Parton or Chuck D or Joan Jett or Zach Brown, everyone’s kind of connected by something. So, I thought the underground river idea was very cool and turned it into a song,” he explained.
Whilst New York was chronologically the third location the band visited when recording, ‘I Am A River’ was placed as the final track on the album and in turn featured as the last episode of the documentary series, closing out with the entire concept of people being connected by metaphorical rivers and “Sonic Highways”.