Rock in a Hard Place

Sound City profiles one of rock's most renowned studios

Two years ago when Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl went to purchase the mixing board out of Sound City studios in California, he decided to take a camera crew with him to document the process of extracting the massive console, one of only four that were ever built. So he called up friend Jim Rota to help him with the footage. "We documented the move and the owner brought us this 11-page spreadsheet of all the albums that had been recorded there," says Rota in a phone interview. "Along with the obvious ones like Damn the Torpedoes and Nevermind and After the Gold Rush, there were hundreds and hundreds of other albums that were quintessential releases from the past 30 years. Dave got home that night and told me he wanted to interview some of the people and do a web series. I said, 'Yeah, sure.' By the next morning, he wanted to make a feature. I called John Ramsay who is partner in a production company and that's how we got rolling. "

In the opening moments of the film, which screens at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 31 at the Cedar Lee Theatre, Grohl, who also directed the film, talks about the hopes and aspirations he and his Nirvana bandmates had when they went to record their 1991 album Nevermind at the space. But after they arrived at the space, they were initially let down. As he puts it in the film, "I remember pulling into the parking lot and thinking, 'Really? This is Sound City.'"

Famous for its brown shag carpet on the walls, the studio wasn't the kind of place where you would want to hang out. As one engineer puts it, "You could piss in the corner and no one would care."

And yet, bands did hang out there.

After Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks recorded their self-titled debut at Sound City in 1973, they spent some time just hanging around the studio. That's where they met Mick Fleetwood, who was listening to some of their recordings when Buckingham walked in on him. A segment of the film chronicles the recording of that first Fleetwood Mac album featuring Buckingham and Nicks. From that point, the hits just kept coming: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Foreigner, Rick Springfield and REO Speedwagon all recorded some of their biggest albums there. As Petty says, "Music isn't supposed to sound perfect. It's about people relating to each other." And that's what Sound City enabled.

"A big part of the movie is about how the human element gets lost when there's no performance," says Ramsay. "When you get a bunch of people in the room together, you get their personalities and perspective. They have to come together and figure out a way to work. The four guys — John, Paul, George and Ringo — made up the Beatles. If it had been John, Paul, George and Al, it would be a completely different band. It was the combination of the giant room and the board [at Sound City] that really gave it this signature sound as far as being very lively and very performance capable. I think it was one of those weird things that happened when you combined those two elements together. It's kind of like the Reese's peanut butter cup of recording. You have this room and you have this board, like these two great things that taste great together."

While Sound City went through growing pains in the '80s when studios become more and more luxurious and went digital, it experienced a renaissance of sorts when Nirvana went there to record Nevermind, a hit that came right out of left field. Alt-rock bands like Rage Against the Machine would use the studio in the wake of Nevermind's success.

"The message of the movie is that you can buy a guitar at a garage sale and hook up with your friends and become the biggest band in the world," says Rota. "That what it takes is just rehearsing and practice. If you have this love for music, you should pick up an instrument and make music and make it with other people. It's not about standing in line to get on a game show to get up and sing a song and have a couple of judges tell you that you're not good enough. That's not really the reason you should love and pursue music. It's not just reserved for famous people or superstars. It's in your power to make something happen. You just need to get up and do it."