When Nirvana pulled into the parking lot of Sound City in May 1991, they couldn’t exactly remember how they had chosen this crumbling recording studio nestled deep in the beige dystopia of Van Nuys, Los Angeles. A couple of things struck them immediately about the former Vox amp factory: one, they’d played in dive bars that looked cleaner; and two, the fumes from the Budweiser brewery down the street made them gag every time they inhaled. But reason prevailed: if it was good enough for Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead and Neil Young, it was good enough for them.
Sixteen days later, the three Seattle punks piled back into their van for the long drive home. They didn’t know it then of course, but within six months the Nevermind sessions would ignite a global youth revolution and go on to sell an estimated 40 million copies. The album would also reverse the fortunes of Sound City, which went from the verge of bankruptcy to being overrun with bands like Rage Against the Machine, Tool and Weezer, each keen to take a sip from the grungy golden chalice.
Three years on, Rick Rubin made the 15-mile drive from his Hollywood chateau to the Sound City stronghold. The Def Jam co-founder was already firmly established as the producer of his generation, thanks to sonic skirmishes with Slayer, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he had never experienced this particular studio’s grimy charms for himself. After conquering his fear of sitting down on the crusty furniture, the 31-year-old bearded guru fired up the vintage Neve 8028 console, gave southern rock royalty Tom Petty the thumbs-up and pressed record. It kickstarted a relationship with the accidental hit-factory that would see him return time and time again to craft jams with titans such as Johnny Cash, Metallica and the Chili Pepper crew.
In 2011, when Sound City’s owners finally surrendered to the Pro Tools revolution, they had no option but to sell off their vintage analogue equipment. Dave Grohl, whose nostalgic emotional attachment to Rupert Neve’s sound desk overrode any professional concerns about the amount of archaic cocaine clogging up its faders, decided to take the console off their hands. More than just a token gesture, it galvanised him to direct Sound City, a feature-length documentary about the studio’s history that in turn inspired Real to Reel, an allstar tribute album featuring Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor, Josh Homme, Lee Ving and other assorted alumni.
A few days before Grohl’s cinematic debut premiered in Hollywood Boulevard, Rick Rubin, one of the film’s most enlightening interviewees, made a rare pilgrimage back up the 405 Freeway to reminisce with the former Nirvana drummer about LA’s unintentional musical mecca. Turning the lights down low in the control room of Grohl’s Studio 606, the two friends sat once more in front of the coveted Neve 8028 and invited Dazed to pull up a pew…
Dazed & Confused: Mick Fleetwood describes Sound City as ‘a church’. How would you both describe it?
Rick Rubin: I spent a lot of time there. I wouldn’t describe it as a church. We had spiritual things happen, but it was really not a nice place to be. It was filthy. It felt like it didn’t have to be that bad. It almost seemed like you had to really be an edgy person to let it be like that. It was like, how do we make it more funky?
Dave Grohl: When Mick Fleetwood first went there it was state of the art… in 1973. They had just built it, and had this new brown carpet and a new couch, so he was like, ‘It was great.’ That’s why they decided to make a record there. The further you go down the line, the more people’s first impressions turned into exactly what we experienced. The owners made a million dollars from producing the Rick Springfield record, but when you watch the film you’re like, ‘Where the fuck did all that money go? What the fuck did you do with that? You didn’t even paint the fucking walls!’ When Nirvana first got there, they were really close to closing down. They had a manager that was dealing drugs and nobody knew what the fuck was going on. It was cheap though.
D&C: Were the owners scared to change anything in case it ruined the sound?
DG: No one was going to re-floor the room, because everyone was afraid that they would lose what was awesome about Sound City. It might also be total neglect.
RR: It looked like neglect. In places where the sound didn’t matter, say the bathrooms, there were 20 sockets for light bulbs. And I don’t remember at any point more than, like, three light bulbs in those 20 sockets. That had nothing to do with the sound in the studio. (laughs)
DG: I always felt like it was a specific type of person that went to Sound City. And because of that, there was something specific that it represented. You wouldn’t go there and find fucking Lady Gaga making a record. You would find a band like Rage Against the Machine. We found a video of them making (their self-titled debut) in there with a bunch of their friends watching them. In the film we go from the audio of the album and fade into the audio from the one mic on the video camera and it’s the same fucking take. That rawness was exactly what Sound City was about.
D&C: Do you think that its griminess also helped to ground the egos of the world’s biggest rock stars?
RR: I think everyone was willing to put up with being at Sound City because of how good it sounded. It’s a hard thing to find, really; where you can set up in a room and have it sound like how you sound. Someone said that it was because it was so poorly built. The studio didn’t add anything to the sound. It was like a barn. It wasn’t built to studio standards. It’s just sort of a big, empty space that was flimsy enough that it didn’t really contain the sound. So it allowed the music to breathe. It wasn’t on purpose.
DG: A block away there’s a Best Western hotel next to a Taco Bell. When Metallica made an album there, James Hetfield stayed at the Best Western. James fucking Hetfield stayed at that fucking shithole hotel so that he could be two blocks away from the best-sounding room in the fucking world, you know. People go to great lengths. My studio, where we are now, might be the only one that’s farther out.
RR: Unless you were going to Sound City you would never go to this place, this area. It’s in the middle of nowhere.
DG: I live nearby, but that’s the only reason I have my studio here. Otherwise you wouldn’t come to the Valley. But there’s something to be said for working in studios that aren’t in the middle of everything. I’ve never made an album in New York City. I can’t even imagine turning off the world and walking into a room knowing that on the other side of that wall is Fifth Avenue. I like to be somewhere where I’m a little bit isolated. I don’t need to go to fucking Hawaii to make a record. That wasn’t one of the things I did like about Sound City: I felt like once I was there I had to work because I couldn’t go take a break. It almost amplified that work ethic because, what are you gonna do? Hang out there all day long? Not really.
I HAVE A LOT OF PATIENCE. WHAT WE’RE LOOKING FOR ISN’T IN ANYONE’S CONTROL. NONE OF US CAN MAKE THIS GREAT THING HAPPEN. WAITING IS KIND OF THE JOB
RR: Absolutely. It was a place to come, do your work and get out as quickly as possible. Another part of it that drew us in was the equipment. As technology continued, in theory, to improve, things kept changing and the changes weren’t always for the better. And it didn’t always suit rock’n’roll, which was more often than not what we were recording. So it was hard to find studios that were more traditional. It wasn’t really production; it was about documenting a moment. Sound City was a really great place to document a moment.
DG: The first song we recorded there was ‘In Bloom’. We set up, tuned up and got big sounds. I’d never heard my drums sound like that before. It was the first time we’d heard Nirvana sound like that. It didn’t sound like Bleach, you know. It didn’t sound like the Peel sessions we’d done. It didn’t sound like any of the demos. It sounded like Nevermind. And when I heard the toms, the kick and the snare on ‘In Bloom’ – it was an instrumental take, I don’t even know if Kurt did a guide vocal – our jaws dropped, because it sounded real, it sounded aggressive, it sounded really powerful. After what first day we knew it was gonna be alright. We blew through everything in 16 days. That made the greatest impression on me.
RR: Sound City had such a limited amount of gear that there wasn’t much opportunity to change the way anything sounded. It was pretty much limited to microphones and this Neve console, which, luckily, doesn’t change stuff much. You don’t really have an option but to sound like what you sound like.
DG: There’s a really great quote from (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist) Benmont Tench in the movie where he says, ‘It’s cruel, because you’d go to the control room and listen to yourself and just think “I suck”, which pushed you to be better’ That was a good thing.
D&C: When you have one of those days when you suck, how do you get over it?
DG: I can’t even imagine your job, Rick! When I go in to record something, I’ll do it until I get it. I have a hard time walking away from things, so if I’m trying to get it, I might want to throw something through a fucking window but I work hard until I get it. I’ll sit there and look at whoever is producing us and I feel so sorry for them ’cause I know they just want to take my hands and make them do what they need to do.
WHEN I GO IN TO RECORD SOMETHING, I’LL DO IT UNTIL I GET IT. I MIGHT WANT TO THROW SOMETHING THROUGH A FUCKING WINDOW BUT I WORK HARD UNTIL I GET IT
RR: I just have a lot of patience. You have to, becausewhat we’re looking for isn’t in anyone’s control. It’s like everyone’s there with the same intention to make this great thing happen but none of us can make that great thing happen. The closest comparison I can make to it would be fishing. When you go fishing you could fish all day and not catch anything, but you have a much better chance of catching fish if you’re fishing all day than if you’re not fishing all day. Some days we’ll play it three times, and it’s all great. Sometimes we’ll play it 100 times and it never gets great. Waiting is kind of the job.
DG: A lot of musicians get red-light fever; they get scared.
RR: It’s anxiety.
DG: You could sit through a song and do a perfect rehearsal, and then hit record and everything changes.
RR: Stage fright.
DG: When we were kids and we knew someone with a studio that had a reel of tape, you couldn’t wait to get over there to record something. You weren’t afraid to hit record when you were 16. It was like, ‘Fuck, we’re gonna record, this is amazing. I get to record a song.’ I still feel the same way.
RR: Usually when I start a new project there’s a fear of the unknown; maybe it’s a band I’ve never been in the studio with before.People are so different. It’s almost like you need to go through the process, discover and unlock what it is that makes that band that band. And a lot of times they don’t know it. More often than not they don’t know it. But over time you start seeing patterns of things that work and don’t work and why. It does seem like the more prepared you are before you go into the studio, the better the experience. If the band really knows what they’re doing, you save a great deal of time. The idea of going into a studio to write an album seems like a bad idea. You’re never focused on getting a great performance because you’re still trying to figure out what you’re going to do.
D&C: On the flipside, someone like Jay-Z has it all in his head. It must be amazing to witness, but as a producer you can’t really prepare for that, can you?
RR: It’s about getting the music right, and then that inspires him to do the vocals. He’ll sit back in the corner and he’ll play the track over and over and over again, probably for a half hour, 45 minutes, an hour – almost to the point where you don’t even realise he’s there. It’s just like this monotonous thing going on, and then all of a sudden he jumps up and he’s like, ‘I got it,’ and he runs in the other room and does a complicated verse. It’s really unbelievable. And then he’ll do it, and then he’ll do it again and it’ll be different. The words will be pretty much the same but the phrasing will be different and the accents will be different. Imagine that you’ve written a solo and then you play it, like, different ways; that’s kind of what he does with his vocals. Unbelievable.
D&C: Rick, you have a stuffed bison in your home studio. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve both encountered in other studios?
RR: This guy called Alan (Dickson) from Grandmaster in Hollywood.
DG: (laughs) I remember walking into a studio at Grandmaster and it had a calendar up on the wall. It said ‘Korn’ on it, and they had just been in the studio for a week. I said, ‘Wow, what did Korn record here?’ And they said, ‘Korn didn’t record here.’ So I replied, ‘What’s this you’ve got on the fucking calendar then?’, and they said, ‘No, that’s “Porn”. We film porn here.’ All of a sudden I didn’t want to touch anything. I saw one of the pornos, it was called Cum Bandits, a parody of Time Bandits. They had a bathtub in the studio which turned into a portal to another dimension. That was a little weird.
D&C: Do you think any babies have been made on this beloved Neve desk of yours?
DG: Dude, when we brought this over here, my poor friend Lou had to spend about a week going through this thing with a toothbrush just to get the cocaine and the fried chicken out of it. Fuck, yeah. It’s funny, I didn’t want to modify the board. All I wanted to do was yank it out of there, plug it back in, and make sure that it was good to go. You get worried that the years of filth might have something to do with the way it sounds. Mike from the Heartbreakers emailed me to say, ‘Oh, by the way, if you find any white powder in that board it’s my medicine. Return it immediately.’ (laughs)
RR: I can’t even imagine how many things I spilled on this board. have sex, drugs and Rock’n’Roll disappeared from today’s studio culture?
RR: Not for The Foo Fighters. (laughs) They fly the flag.
D&C: Rick, were you upset that Dave got his hands on SOUND CITY’s Neve board?
RR: Not at all. I’m glad that he got it and a movie got to be made about Sound City because of it, which never would have happened if I had bought it. I already have a couple of similar boards. I was tempted but then felt like it would be a disservice because, as Dave says in the film, he knew that if he got it, it wouldn’t sit bubble wrapped in storage somewhere, and if I did, it probably would. I have an extra Neve sitting up on its side in my garage, so this would be next to that and it would be doing a disservice to what this is.
DG: It’s one of the funny things about a board; you look at this board and it seems so archaic, considering what people use to make albums now. A lot of people consider it obsolete, but it still fucking works. This thing will probably work longer than I’ll be alive. In 30 or 40 years from now you will probably still be able to make an album on this board. And as much as it might seem impractical and it might seem obsolete, it still does what it’s supposed to do.
RR: And it will probably sound better than anything new that comes out and replaces it.
DG: Things that try to emulate or simulate what this board does, you know, they are more practical and they are more accessible and if you can’t fit one of these into your living room it’s probably the closest thing you’re going to get. But still, what this does is what only this really does.
D&C: Do you think that the fabric of a studio – the building and equipment – hold a sound memory that affects subsequent recordings?
RR: For sure. How formal or how casual the space is can really influence everything. We recorded Johnny Cash in my living room. It couldn’t have been more casual. And I feel like that lack of pressure creates a certain feeling, and the same I’m sure is true with concerts. If you do a concert in the middle of nowhere and that’s one gig, and the next night you’re playing at Madison Square Garden…
DG: It’s different.
RR: …because it’s Madison Square Garden. The Royal Albert Hall is different to playing somewhere in the Midlands. Even if it’s just your perception of it, everything changes. DG: I really believe that the experience of making an album influences the end result. On our second Foo Fighters album I was going through a fucking divorce, I was living in my friend’s back room, getting pissed on at night by his fucking dog, in a sleeping bag, and I would go to the studio and write a song that was so fucking heartbreaking that I can’t even listen to some of that music because it brings me back to how miserable I was. So that experience totally influenced that album.
RR: Plus the fact that it was recorded at Grandmaster (laughs)
DG: (laughs) That definitely influenced a lot of shit in itself. Whether it’s the history of a room, or whether it’s the ghosts in the fucking room, whatever you choose to believe, if you want to capture a moment, something real, then you just have to be open to everything.
D&C: Who’s made you BOTH step up your game in the studio?
DG: It’s hard to top Paul McCartney. When Paul comes in to your studio and he’s brought his Hofner bass, ‘The Bass’, and he’s brought his Les Paul, ‘The Les Paul’, and a guitar made out of a cigar box, and he decides to play the guitar made out of the cigar box, you realise, ‘That’s badass. I have to be badass, too. I can’t just play it like I’m playing with my friends down the street. I have to be great right now.’ I’m lucky, I’ve jammed with some crazy fucking wicked musicians.
RR: I’ve gotten to work with amazing people. I would say usually we get to a point before we get into the studio where there isn’t that sense of anxiety or nervousness of who they are because I don’t think it would be as productive in the studio if that was the case. But maybe meeting someone like Neil Young for the first time made me anxious. But then when you get to hang out with Neil Young it’s all good. We were supposed to record together and then he cut off a piece of his finger and couldn’t play guitar. But he still had the studio booked, so we went in and played this harmonica through his guitar amp…
Read more here: Dave Grohl Vs Rick Rubin | Dazed Digital.
Photos by John Kilar