Foo Fighters: Five reflections from Dave Grohl about visits to Austin

Headlines during this summer’s Foo Fighters tour revolved around Dave Grohl playing on a “throne” while his leg was injured and a Kansas City stunt where the band rickrolled Westboro Baptist Church picketers. But when they roll into Austin this weekend as the top-billed act of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the focus should remain squarely on the music.

Grohl has an extensive history with Austin, a point underscored when he picked the city as one of eight locations for the Foo Fighters’ unusual 2014 album-and-TV-documentary project “Sonic Highways.” When the Austin episode of the HBO series aired last November, the band doubled down on the opportunity, coming to town for a marathon “Austin City Limits” taping at ACL Live. (It later aired as an hourlong episode, but the performance lasted for nearly three hours.)

Grohl also visited the old Studio 6A home of “Austin City Limits” for a conversation with the show’s executive producer, Terry Lickona. He talked with us for a bit as well, shedding light on his long memory of experiences in Austin.

He first came here in 1987 as a drummer in the Washington, D.C., band Scream, and he played Liberty Lunch with both Nirvana in 1991 and the Foo Fighters in ’95. The Foo Fighters also have performed at the Erwin Center, Stubb’s (during South by Southwest 2013, which featured Grohl as keynote speaker) and Austin Music Hall. Their first “Austin City Limits” taping, in 2008 at Studio 6A, coincided with their only previous ACL Fest appearance.

Here are five Grohl reflections about Austin.

1. On his first visit, when he was 18:

“I remember thinking, ‘We better get in and out of Texas pretty quick, because some of us have shaved heads and purple hair, and we look like a bunch of freaky punk rockers. We’re going to get killed driving through that country.’ And we pulled into Austin, and I was like, oh my god, this is cooler than San Francisco. This is the coolest city I’ve ever been to in my life. And I couldn’t believe that this was the Texas I’d read about in my schoolbooks. I had no idea. We had such a blast there. And of course everyone there, artists, musicians, creative types, all were very hospitable. The kindness and the generosity in the city was something that you rarely found in some of the more difficult communities.”

2. On basing the HBO “Sonic Highways” Austin episode at the original “Austin City Limits” Studio 6A, with help from Lickona:

“I’d played ‘Austin City Limits’ before, and I grew up watching it as a kid, but I didn’t know all the history. Not only did he fill me in on the incredible history of the show, but he gave me a lot of insight on Austin and its culture and its tempo and its character. … We were looking for studios in Austin to use. And I thought, man, we should just roll the tape machine in that old room and hit record. So I just had to ask.”

3. On local references in the lyrics of “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness,” the track recorded in Austin for the “Sonic Highways” album:

“There’s tons of little references in there. Like when I say, ‘Your name, urethane,’ that was from a conversation with (the Big Boys’) Tim Kerr about the urethane wheels they used to skate on. ‘Go ahead and flip a coin’ — Tim and the bass player flipped a coin to see who was going to play guitar and who was going to play bass. Or Gary Clark Jr. with the X on his hand as a young man, crossing the river. That’s how I would cut and paste the lyrics for this album — I would sort of pull from these conversations I had and turn it into my own story of the story.”

4. On the “Sonic Highways” cameo by Gary Clark Jr., who conveniently plays right before the Foo Fighters on an adjacent stage Friday at ACL Fest:

“I’d spend a week talking to different musicians, and then I’d kind of decide, hmm, I think this person should play on the song. I’d give them about a day or two notice; I’d say, ‘Just come on in and we’ll record something.’ So he hadn’t heard the song. He didn’t even bring a guitar. He walked into the control room, listened to it, and said, ‘OK, cool.’ (Foo Fighters guitarist) Pat Smear had a brand new SG that he hadn’t even played yet. Gary picks it up, does three or four takes, and jaws hit the floor.”

5. On the push and pull between old and new Austin, a topic explored in the “Sonic Highways” episode:

“I think the problem is that you have people who build these communities as human beings, who are eventually overrun by corporations that wind up erasing the reason why people liked going there in the first place. And it’s hard. Because you’ve got a city like Austin where the character or the personality of that city is rooted in the arts. … You just have to decide what’s important to you. And it’s happening all over the world. It’s happened in Brooklyn, it’s happened in Washington D.C., it’s happening all over America.

“But a city like Austin, there’s a real history there. This is one of the things that I get really upset about, is that in this country we honor certain landmarks but we don’t acknowledge others that I consider just as important. Iconic recording studios, clubs and venues where history has been changed — these places aren’t protected by anyone. And the almighty dollar will always come in and wipe those places out just for the sake of profit. And that really bums me out. … I honestly feel like our country needs to have some appreciation for these places that have changed history. So I think that was kind of the point I was trying to make at the end of the (Austin) episode.”

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