Press Tour: Dave Grohl writes love letter to America in HBO’s ‘Sonic Highways’

Dave Grohl has no problem sitting down with the President, but when it comes to sitting down with a guitarist from an obscure punk band that was big in the ’80s? 

“That scared the hell out of me,” he tells reporters on Thursday (July 10) at the 2014 summer TCA press tour. “I could sit with the president, he”s cool. I know that guy. But the guitarist of Big Boys? I was freaked out.”

The Foo Fighters front man hosted a panel for “Sonic Highways,” the eight-part, eight-city documentary that follows the Grammy-winning band traveling across the country as they cobble together their eighth album. Each hour-long episode is devoted to a different city (Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C.) and its musical heritage. The finished project — which he also conceptualized and directed — is his self-described love letter to the one thing that”s always been in his blood: music.

“It”s not like anything I”d ever done, and it was so fun,” he said. “I”ll never, ever do it again-it was a pain in the ass.” 

Originally, Grohl envisioned “Sonic Highways” as an international project, in which the band would travel to places like Jakarta or Iceland. Eventually the reality of financial restraints set in though and they settled on the aforementioned cities.

“There are real reasons, cultural influences,” he explained. “There”s a reason jazz is big in New Orleans, or country is in Nashville. I get to interview all these people and talk to them all about that.”

In a unique twist, Grohl reveals that at the end of each session in those cities, he took all of the transcripts and a bottle of wine, and settled in to circle words and unique ideas that he felt encapsulated the time he spent learning about the cultural roots there. Then — and only then — he wrote the lyrics to the songs the band was coming up with; each episode ends with a live performance. 

“It was just a matter of trying to pick out these cities for the connection to the band and for their theme because each episode has a theme,” he says. “That becomes the theme of the song. It”s a complicated process because not only are we sequencing a series but we”re sequencing an album. And we have all these instrumentals but we don”t have lyrics. It”s been two years that we”re doing this and we”re not really done yet. We”re getting there. But it was a challenge. I wish we could do more. I”m so inspired right now by going around the country and talking to all of these people.”

Inspiration is the running theme to Grohl and his ever-changing career. He reveals that the night before the panel he ventured out and played for a cover band just because he couldn”t sleep and felt like playing, and that “Sonic Highways” might actually show a new generation that there”s more to the music dream than lining up for judgement from Simon Cowell. To do that, he”s attempting to strike the perfect balance of celebrity (think Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton or Buddy Guy) and Joe Schmo. 

“The idea is that you tell the stories of the unsung studios and heroes and that”s when people get inspired,” he explains. “That”s when you get a kid in his basement watching a video of Naked Raygun saying you shouldn”t be intimidated by your heroes, you should be inspired by them. The idea is to inspire young people to be inspired the way we were.”

A few more highlights from the press tour panel: 

*** Grohl got into his former Nirvana days, when his father — a classically trained musician — advised him to treat every paycheck like it was his last. “That scared the hell out of me,” he remembers. “That I was 24 years ago. Eventually I realized, wow … I guess this is my real life, this is a reality.”

*** The musician highlighted several of his favorite interviews from the series, but in particular he recalls Parton as a standout. “Man, nobody is cooler than Dolly Parton,” he raves. “Her story is amazing. She didn”t even have running water. She bought her family their first TV from her being on TV!”

*** Musical reality shows are not Grohl”s thing. Although he didn”t want to get too much into it, he made it clear that he wants his kids to know that having a billionaire tell you you”re no good and can”t make a living at something after waiting in a line all day is not the way to go. He also revealed that when his daughter plays the violin it sounds like she”s “strangling a cat.”
*** The series only showcases eight songs total, but there will be more added to the album, which comes out a month after the show debuts. 

*** If Grohl had more time and money, he would have added more cities to the tour, including North Carolina to talk about blue grass, or Miami or Boston. “I started traveling when I was 18 years old,” he muses. “I slept on floors but I got to go to each one of these cities and each city had communities that supported each other. It”s not just what you see here and what you see online. This is happening everywhere.

Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways debuts in October on HBO. The album is currently scheduled to be released in November.