Following the demise of the Sound City Studio in Van Nuys, California Dave Grohl and friends conceived the idea to record a documentary movie celebrating the studio history and as part of that, would invite musicians who had recorded there in the past to take part with a music soundtrack.
Grohl contacted as many musicians as possible who had recorded at the studio and who he thought might be interested in joining his project. “I got a list of the big albums that were made there and got everyone’s email addresses and started writing emails”. Initially Grohl only planned to tell the story of the board and studio in his movie, before receiving words of wisdom from his mother - “She told me that I shouldn’t start the movie by saying I bought the board - ‘You tell the history of the studio, then you rescue the board and invite everyone back to make an album.’ She’s a writer – Thanks, mom!”
Butch Vig remained in the role of producer for the entire project with James Brown also again on hand to engineer. Grohl’s blue DW Drum kit was set up in the main live room at 606, microphones were strategically placed, everything ready to be played by whoever picked up the drumsticks. A bass cabinet was set up along with four guitar stations, mics connected to the board and ready to be placed in front of an amplifier. Several vocal booths were set up using Shure Beta 58 microphones, with provisions for other instruments such as keyboards also in place.
Naturally, the recording was entirely analog with the keyword for the whole project being “real”, a carryover from the ethos behind recording of the Wasting Light record. “Pro Tools works just as well as tape for capturing those moments, but it also makes it incredibly easy to correct and perfect things,” said engineer Brown. “Working in the analog domain, there’s less temptation to correct idiosyncrasies or human flaws. Tape brings an honesty to the process – to the production side of things, too”.
A plan was devised to invite musicians to the studio and a song would be worked on in a marathon 24-hour session. Many of the songs were conceived from scratch but according to Brown Dave Grohl arrived at each session with a demo or even just a riff, as an “insurance policy” in case what the musicians came up with on the day wasn’t working.
Owing to busy schedules the recording sessions were scattered across several months. Some of the first musicians to arrive for their session were Robert Levon Been and Peter Hayes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. As would be a recurring theme the song they recorded, ‘Heaven and All”, started out life as a loose jam that was then structured into a fully formed song over the course of the day. The final song was recorded as one live take with just a few guitars, tambourine and backing vocal overdubs added afterward. Barring the backing vocals, the song was left as an instrumental during initial recording, with Levon Been returning later in the year to record lead vocals, having written lyrics in the interim.
Corey Taylor of Slipknot arrived at the studio in February 2012. The song he was set to contribute to, ‘From Can To Can’t’, was one of Dave’s old demos and Grohl had already cut a basic track before Taylor arrived at the studio. The Slipknot frontman gave himself a few hours to write lyrics and then in just a few minutes recorded vocal takes for the entire song. Later in the month Cheap Trick’s Rick Neilsen arrived to overdub his trademark guitar work on the song and finally former Kyuss and The Obsessed bass player Scott Reeder was at the studio to record a bass track, completing the song.
Also arriving at the studio in February was Rick Springfield. Pat Smear, Taylor Hawkins and Chris Shiflett were all called upon at 606 to work on the song earmarked for Rick ‘The Man That Never Was’, another old unused demo. Nate Mendel was not present, busy working on his own solo record. This was also the only song Shiflett would feature on, himself busy recording an album of honky-tonk cover songs with his side project The Dead Peasants. The core of the track was played and recorded as a band live in the studio with the rest of the day spent on overdubs and fleshing the track out in a standard manner.
Whilst Grohl and Springfield worked on vocals during the main session only rough scratch takes of the lead vocal were recorded at the studio, Springfield instead electing to go away and work on them more extensively before recording the final takes at his house and sending them in at a later date.
March 2010 saw the arrival of 50% of Rage Against The Machine, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. With Grohl on guitar, the three of them built up the core instrumentation of the song ‘Time Slowing Down’. The following month Masters of Reality frontman Chris Goss was at the studio to perform lead vocals over the track, also adding piano and backward Mellotron.
April saw a slew of big names at Studio 606. First up was Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac fame. When Grohl was digging through old demos and ideas to potentially use for the record there was one that immediately sprang to mind once he knew Nicks had agreed to participate. For the 2005 album ‘In Your Honor’ Grohl had written around forty songs with only twenty making the final cut. One that ultimately didn’t make it was a track which Grohl believed sounded too much like Fleetwood Mac. “The song was just sitting there, so I sent it to her and asked what she thought” recalled Grohl. Nicks liked the track and so he and Taylor Hawkins got to work on recording a new version.
The instrumentation of the song was completed by the time Nicks arrived at the studio, allowing her to get straight to work on adding her vocals. Whilst the song was old, Nicks was asked to write entirely new lyrics, adding her own personal touch. She chose to write lyrics inspired by the life of her godson Glen B. Parrish Jr, son of Stevie’s tour manager in the 1990s. Parrish Jr. died aged just 18 in November 2011 following a drug overdose. Nicks recorded both lead vocals as well as a backing accompaniment and the track was given the new title ‘You Can’t Fix This’.
Next through the doors at 606 were Josh Homme, Alain Johannes, and Chris Goss. Together with Grohl the four first recorded the track ‘Centipede’, the first half of which was another old Grohl demo. The first part of the song was recorded entirely live except for small tambourine and Urdu drum overdubs. The second section of the song was brand new, the four working off the first part to create a heavier section of music, also recorded live with little overdubs. Homme recorded lead vocals later in the evening but did also return at a later date to add further vocal harmonies. Grohl would also record his vocals for the track later in the year.
Whilst Johannes and Homme were at the studio that particular trio also started work on another song for the record, ‘A Trick With No Sleeve’, with Grohl on drums, Johannes playing guitar and Homme on bass guitar. Johannes soon had to leave but would return to the studio periodically to finish the song, as would Grohl.
Homme remained at the studio as the next guest arrived, Nine Inch Nails front-man Trent Reznor. Over the course of a single day the trio recorded the basis of an entirely new song, ‘Mantra’. Born out of a jam which saw Homme switch from guitar to Bass the three laid down the core tracks of the almost eight-minute song, with Grohl on drums and Reznor recording both Wurlitzer piano and guitar tracks. Trent had limited time available at the studio and left the session with a ProTools copy of the basic tracks, electing to further work on it at his own studio. A month later he sent his finished work back to 606, having added further synthesizer and guitar tracks. The track was then finally completed with Grohl and Homme recording vocals, further bass guitar and an additional guitar track over the outro of the epic song.
The final guest at Studio 606 in April was arguably the biggest name so far, Sir Paul McCartney. McCartney had not actually recorded at Sound City and had originally only been invited to the studio to jam with Grohl as he was in town, with no end goal in mind. Not wanting them to miss out, Grohl also invited friends Pat Smear and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic to the studio, an invitation the latter felt he couldn’t turn down. The group got chatting and naturally the conversation turned to what they should play. With the Beatles originals off the table Grohl had considered they might just play some old classics by other artists but McCartney had a different idea. “No no no - let’s write a song!” he told the group. “Let’s write and record a new song in the three hours we have here”.
Tape started rolling with McCartney playing some “mean slide” on his cigar-box guitar. He told the others it was tuned to D and according to Novoselic his “grunge instincts” took over and he tuned the E string on his bass down to D. Paul started playing a riff and the rest soon joined in, a song starting to form. Once the basic instrumental track was laid down attentions then turned to vocals, with Paul and Dave deciding they would share the duties.
The only part of the song not recorded in the initial session was tambourine, added by Grohl at a later date. Whilst the recording session was kept a complete secret the foursome, later dubbed ‘Sirvana’ by the press, gave the song a live debut on December 12th, 2012 during a Hurricane Sandy benefit performance.
Another quick recording session for the album involved Lee Ving, lead singer of the seminal Los Angeles punk rock band Fear. Joining him and Grohl was fellow LA punk pioneer Pat Smear, Alain Johannes and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. The four quickly built up the track, a typically punk-rock up-tempo track and recorded much of the track in one live take with overdubs limited to the vocal harmonies and a few extra guitar parts.
One further session yielded the mellow track ‘If I Were Me’, a recording that James Brown described as “magical”. Prolific session drummer Jim Keltner was invited along, joined by longtime Foo Fighters collaborators Rami Jaffee and Jessy Greene. Along with Grohl, the musicians sat closely together in the live room at 606 to capture all of the energy and nuances of the live performance. “If you listen closely you can hear Rami’s fingers scraping across the Hammond keys during the re-intro” noted Brown, referring to the Hammond B3 Organ Jaffee was playing on the initial live take. Piano was added to the basic take of the song, as well as Omnichord and a second Violin harmony by Greene. Finally, Keltner recorded a strangely emotional overdub with a hand shaker which reduced many of the men in the room to tears, including Brown.
Grohl recorded his vocals for ‘If I Were Me’ on the morning of September 30th, 2012. The night previous Foo Fighters had performed a live show at the Global Citizen Festival in New York and owing to Grohl’s usual screaming performance, Brown believed the “weary, blown-out” quality of his vocals the next morning left a special mark on the song.
All eleven tracks were mixed that same day in September with James Brown taking the lead on all songs except for ‘You Can’t Fix This’, which was overseen by Chris Lord-Alge. Mastering was carried out by Emily Lazar and Joe LaPorta at The Lodge in New York City. The completed soundtrack was released in March 2013, with Dave and many of the performers on the record playing a small number of special shows in the weeks leading up to release as the Sound City Players.