SONIC HIGHWAYS
The class we all wished we took in college.

written by Jessica Elliott
For the past two months, I’ve helped myself to an extra cup of coffee on Fridays in an effort to keep my sleep-depravity at bay (a direct link to raising a 15-month-old) so I can stay awake to watch the latest episode of Sonic Highways. Even then, I made sure the DVR was set to record (God help me if there are technical issues!) and calmed even further knowing the latest episode would be available on On Demand. Why the sense of urgency? I blame the premiere of the series set in Chicago. At the end of that episode, I knew I was in for a musical education and it was exactly what my Friday nights needed but more importantly, it reinvigorated my love and interest in the musical culture and community which, until now, had exponentially waned - I’m looking at you Taylor Swift.

Sonic Highways follows the Foo Fighters as they visit eight cities across the U.S. with the purpose of showcasing how the community and surroundings influence the creation and recording of an album. At the end of each episode, they perform a song inspired by the interviews, people and history of that city. Each song is written by Dave Grohl and comprises their eighth album, also named Sonic Highways.
I signed on and showed up for Music 101: Sonic Highways on Friday nights, waiting for those first few notes of the opening sequence song and title track, “Something from Nothing.” I had NO idea how deliciously layered the show would be – and inspirational! Holy shit. I’m not even a musician but it makes me want to fucking pull out some blank paper, draw a music staff and start writing some songs. But because I’m a graphic designer, I’d probably end up designing some obnoxious treble and base clef with ornate details that have no place on the sheet music and by the end of it, be so exhausted by my stubborn unrealistic expectation that I’d claim “writing music was beneath me.” But that’s neither here nor there. Each episode would leave you hungry for more. You immediately realize that Grohl has some serious pull with legit and iconic musicians as they agreed to be interviewed and share their experience for the series.  Top that with a rich history of eight U.S. cities and must-know-landmarks for anyone who considers himself or herself a for real musician. And to top it all off, you learn more about the Foo Fighters, their dynamic, and that after 20 years, they still want to make music together. Can this be real life? I assure you – it very much is.

It’s interesting how television shows are created. I say this because as the series was coming to a close, Grohl reveals the purpose of this series thru his interview to Magic Shop (a recording studio in NY) owner, Steve Rosenthal. Although this interview was in the last episode of the series, it was the first interview he did and it completely set the tone for the message of Sonic Highways: “We wound up talking about America and how we used to take care of each other. I looked at my interview with Steve like the message of this entire project. We’re all connected by something. Maybe it’s a river that runs underground… that conversation became my goal. I want to talk about these people. I want to talk about music. But I want to get to this. I want this to be the exclamation point.” Grohl certainly succeeds in highlighting that connection, support and nurture found within the musical communities and how it affects a city, a country, and history. Sonic Highways can also be seen as more of a personal project because much of Grohl’s influences are noted and his personal connection to the music scene of a specific city is explored, as well. It gives the show another layer of depth – Grohl is sharing his love for music along with the viewer and it makes us connect with him and that particular music scene. That nostalgic factor definitely cranks up to an 11 many a times. 
Let me quickly explain how the show works: Foo Fighters, along with their crew, are in each city for a week or less. This is the amount of time they have to interview their guests, write lyrics and the music for the song inspired by the city and then perform said song. A week. 7 days. Tops. IN. FUCKING. SANE.  I’m not claiming Foo Fighters’ songs are prolific or life changing in any way (although Everlong is pretty wonderful), but to have less than a week to produce a polished piece of music is incredibly impressive. It really gives insight into what a well-oiled machine the Foo Fighters are and how each role in the process is defined. The interviewing is handled a little differently, with Grohl focusing on a few key people in the music scene or history, with handfuls of musicians providing additional stories (all of whom are totally overqualified to fill the role of “supporting cast”). The words of these interviews literally serve as the lyrics for the songs on Sonic Highways. It gives the album a unique listening experience. Without knowing the context, it sounds random and meaningless. Once you watch the episode, hear the words spoken and then Grohl singing them, a totally different meaning emerges, making the songs equally as important as the show itself.

I could go thru each episode and give you a rundown of what was so important about this interview, that person, this influence, etc., but, that’s not the takeaway you remember once the episode ends. Grohl reminded me how music used to be made and the struggles it went thru just to be preserved so the likes of you and I could listen to it today. It made me believe that there are genuinely good people out there who want to support and nurture the creative spirit. Grohl, on a number or occasions, showed how loving and appreciative he is of his fan base, showing a family the inside of The Magic Shop, offering to play drums for RDGLDGRN just because he had the time to do it, and greeting all people willing to talk to him with a genuine reverence and happiness for their contributed time. It was just a fucking eye opener of a show. And each member of the Foo Fighters, not just Grohl, was a music fan. They didn’t think they were above it all – they were just, fans, like you and I.

The biggest kicker? I found myself wanting to listen to music I could care less for. Country? Forget it. After the Nashville episode, though, I was convinced otherwise. I’ve all of a sudden become a big supporter of Zac Brown band and want to make a Dolly Parton Spotify playlist. David Grohl, WTF?! I was most excited for the second episode set in Washington, D.C., my backyard, aka the birth place of go-go. I grew up without room in my heart for go-go because that was reserved for punk and ska. But after the D.C. episode, Grohl had me second-guess whether I should’ve paid more attention to the musical roots of the nation’s capitol. And this, my friends, is the magic of the show. It is directed so well and the information is relayed so effortlessly, you don’t even know you’re in fucking school and learning. Grohl is an inception genius in that way. 

Each city Foo Fighters visited surprised me with its depth and history. The eight episodes had some surprising factor, whether it was a specific interview, the recording studio they performed in, or the city environment itself. Seattle's episode though, as cool of a place I think it is, just didn’t impress me all that much. The episode wasn't as interesting as I had hoped, with the exception of when Grohl takes a few minutes to talk about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. I also think I was expecting (maybe unfairly), a bit more contribution from females in the grunge scene but I have to keep reminding myself that the interviews conducted were probably on availability and also who Grohl felt had an influence on him or Foo Fighters a bit more readily.
I didn’t know much about the personalities of the band members but I’m walking away with a deep appreciation for Dave Grohl, his work ethic, and believing in the power of old school rocking. MVP, though, is Taylor Hawkins. I wanted to sum up what a comic relief and genuine music fan he was during the series but Grantland beat me to it, animated gifs and all! He really showed the most personality outside of Grohl, and carried a vibe with him that was just chiiiillll, super stoked about the icons they were working with and just downright silly. Perhaps one of the outright coolest musical collaborations was when Grohl and Hawkins worked together on a cymbal separation so they could get the sound for the drums exactly the way they wanted. It was awesome because 1. how great it was to see Hawkins excited to work on cymbal separations with Grohl and 2. of how fucking astounding it was to see the amount of work that goes into getting your craft just right. These guys care about their music and want to enjoy playing it just as much as we enjoy listening to it. 

Sonic Highways was an experience, in every sense of the word. It captures moments in a history we’ve long forgotten in an age of YouTube discoveries and American Idols. It’s refreshing. It’s eye-opening. It’s remarkable. Dave Grohl has created a must-share series with the musician in your life, especially the young, to remind them that support, love and dedication is not overrated. Grohl makes it cool to not care about that stuff when our culture tells us otherwise. Although a Season 2 has not been confirmed, something tells me that even lack of sleep won’t keep me from staying awake, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. 

Read, watch and listen to Grohl and company talk more about the creation of Sonic Highways here.
 


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