Why You Should Be Watching HBO’s ‘Sonic Highways’

By Daniel Ford

“It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about sounding absolutely correct, it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here (pointing to his heart) and what goes on in here (pointing to his head).”

I’ve been a fan of Dave Grohl’s ever since he spoke those words at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards in 2012. He confirmed everything I believe about music and writing by taking his industry to task for shitting out over-produced and under-written marketing plans in the guise of hits.

The Foo Fighter’s front man wasn’t being a contrarian just to sell albums or gain a few thousand fans on Twitter. You may not be a fan of his music, but no one can deny Grohl’s sincerity when talking about music. It emanates from him like a thundering drum solo or hard rock guitar lick.

Luckily for fans that enjoy a more analog musical experience, Grohl has been on a documentary kick of late that is nothing short of inspiring. He produced and directed 2013’s “Sound City,” which featured a recording studio in Los Angeles frequented by artists such as Neil Young, Tom Petty, Rick Springfield (who I have a new appreciation for), Fleetwood Mac, and Nirvana (Grohl was the lead drummer for the Kurt Cobain-fronted band) from 1969 until the studio closed in 2011. Whenever a writer’s favorite coffee shop or bar closes down, you don’t expect him or her to purchase a table or stool to keep its memory alive. Well, in addition to making the documentary, Grohl bought the legendary Rupert Neve sound board and installed it in his house. His house.     

I finished “Sound City” and immediately reached for my Moleskin notebook. Watching how influential, experimental, and imperfect art is produced never fails to inspire me to create new worlds in which to torture my main characters. I also went on a music documentary bender that included Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and “The History of The Eagles.”

I couldn’t have been happier when essayist Dave Pezza informed me that Grohl was taking his documentary skills on the road in HBO’s “Sonic Highways.” The series documents the recording process Grohl and the Foo Fighters embarked on for the band’s eighth studio album. One song was written and recorded in eight recording studios across the United States (four of the songs are currently available on iTunes).

What I love most about the show is that the themes Grohl touched on in his Grammys speech and “Studio City”—the importance of retaining the human element in your work and the art of imperfection—are ingrained in each episode. He doesn’t Grohl doesn’t necessarily focus on the more well-known artists of each city. In particular, the Washington D.C. episode featured an underground punk music scene that I had absolutely no idea existed, which once again proves that society’s good stuff is rarely found on the surface. If you’re a writer who wants to accurately form a believable world in your fiction, you have to know how people around you are reacting to media, music, and information.

In the series’ premiere set in Chicago, Grohl talked to Buddy Guy about his journey to the city and friendship with Muddy Waters. You know what Guy said when they told him to change his name? “Fuck you.” Because that’s what badass writers and musicians do when facing authority. Guy was also so poor at one point; he made music with buttons and string.

Try not getting chills listening to this extended interview with Guy:    

Writing, at its core, is a solitary act. At each stop, Grohl locked himself in a room to hammer out lyrics. However, each city’s stories and characters influenced the words he finally put on the page. You hear Guy’s struggle in Chicago’s white world in “Something From Nothing,” the punk angst of D.C.’s youth in “The Feast and the Famine,” and Nashville’s country music influence in “Congregation.” However, none of these songs are transcendent rock tunes, which proves errant notes, misguided lyrics, and unpolished production all have value in making music listener’s might actually want to hear and share.

I was utterly blown away by the inspirational power of the series’ third installment because I grew up on country music. And I mean real country music, not what Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys called “pop music with a twang.” My mother made sure I had a steady diet of Ronnie Milsap, George Strait Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash, Rodney Crowell, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Charlie Pride, and Vince Gill as a kid and I believe their storytelling influenced my decision to become a writer. I had chills learning more about Nashville’s history and some of its lesser known acts. Tommy Joe White (who I’d like to narrate my life from now on) delivered a soliloquy on writing and creatively that is one of the best things I’ve heard come out of an artist’s mouth in quite some time:     

“So if you’ve got something in your heart, put it out, ‘cause nobody on this planet has put those words or played that lick before. No matter if it’s bad or good or it sells or don’t sell. You wrote it and you did it. Write what’s in your heart. And if you don’t have something there, maybe you should go back to the cotton fields.”

So, watch the upcoming episode of “Sonic Highways” airing tonight at 11 p.m. on HBO, sit your ass down with your preferred writing instruments, and get to work.