What would a multiple Grammy Award-winning, multi-platinum record-selling band do to mark its 20th year in the music business? Well, put out a new album of course.
But if that band is the Foo Fighters, the concept was to create it in an entirely different way. Yes, it involved taking a road trip — not to tour in front of sellout crowds, but to discover the heart and soul of America’s musical identity by exploring eight cities across the country, each with a unique cultural environment, social and musical history and artistic legacy.
Those elements, in turn, inspire songs for the band’s eighth studio album that are written and recorded in each of the cities at recording studios that have been integral to each place’s musical identity and character, past and present.
The journey is documented in an eight-part HBO series, “Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways,” directed by the band’s frontman, Dave Grohl, on the heels of his acclaimed feature film documentary “Sound City.”
As the band hits the road in the opening scenes, Grohl narrates in a voiceover. “We’ve been all over the world, but never in one place long enough to really see it. For our 20th anniversary we wanted to make the creative process new, to do something we’ve never done before. We wanted to find out what inspires studio owners, musicians and producers. This is a musical map of America.”
First stop: Chicago, midway philosophically between the coasts and a mecca for music going back decades to the heyday of Muddy Waters, the blues musician who was a magnet attracting and inspiring other talented musicians.
That eclectic list of artists who got their start or made their home in Chicago includes Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, the group Chicago, Wilco, Cheap Trick, Naked Raygun, Smashing Pumpkins, Herbie Hancock and Kanye West.
Guy, the legendary blues guitarist and singer, is interviewed extensively about the city’s musical history. “I was looking for a dime, I found a quarter,” he said about moving there from the South in 1957. Those lines are later incorporated into the lyrics of a new Foo Fighters song, “Something From Nothing,” which is performed at the end of the episode.
Guy reminisces about making instruments from buttons and strings in his early days of abject poverty. Then, footage is shown of him receiving an award at the Kennedy Center Honors two years ago, one of multiple honors, including six Grammy Awards, that he has received in a career that stretches more than 50 years.
“We’ve all made something from nothing,” Grohl remarks in the documentary. “The inspiration for the first song is coming from all these people.”
It’s thrilling to watch the creative journey fueled by the stories of other musicians as Grohl and bandmates Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear along with longtime Foo Fighters (and Nirvana) producer Butch Vig set up shop at the Windy City’s legendary Electrical Audio studio. The studio’s owner, producer Steve Albini, is also there, and a key part of the Chicago story.
Grohl has close ties to him, and bittersweet memories. Albini produced Nirvana’s third and final studio album, “In Utero,” released in 1993. The episode features clips from several Nirvana music videos, with Grohl on drums, bassist Krist Novoselic and the late Kurt Cobain front and center.
As with 2013’s “Sound City,” Grohl’s passion for music and the inspiration for its creation fuels honest and trusting exchanges amongst the people in the studio, where local legends become part of the creative process and some of whom participate in the recordings.
The journey continues with upcoming stops along the sonic highway in Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
(“Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways” premieres on HBO Friday, Oct. 17, at 11 p.m. PT/ET with seven additional episodes slated for subsequent Fridays in the same time slot. The “Sonic Highways” album drops November 10 on RCA Records.)