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Punk Rock Guilt

A few notes on the indie vs mainstream debate inspired by a podcast featuring Dave Grohl.

4 Feb, 2013

Arjun S Ravi


Foo Fighters man Dave Grohl is out with a new film called Sound City. The film is a documentary about the legendary Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, where artists like Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and Neil Young recorded material, and which was purchased by Grohl when plans to scrap the Studio were announced. The film will see a limited theatrical release in the US, and fans in India can purchase a digital download here.

Grohl did a lot of PR in the run up to the release of the film, and even appeared on a Nerdist podcast (stream). Apart from reinforcing the fact that he is, in fact, the nicest AND coolest man in rock ‘n’ roll, Grohl shares a lot of stories about shooting the film with people like Paul McCartney and Rick Springfield. He makes no secret about the fact that he is a huge fan of these artists, and you can hear in the podcast his unbridled excitement about working with them (a lot of the artists featured in the film are also touring as the Sound City band and playing limited shows around the US and Europe).

Through the course of the 80 or so-minute podcast, Grohl is questioned not just about the making of the film, but also about his time in Nirvana, the musicians who’ve inspired and influenced him, and what he thinks about the way music today is produced and consumed. Sound City is an ode to a recording console, a machine in an era when making an album required a lot more physical involvement with instruments and equipment, and precision was more a function of skill than algorithms. Today, making music is a set of selections on an iPad app (I recently purchased one called Figure, which does a great job of helping you make a song in under three minutes). Now while the creative merits of music created using a set of pre-programmed loops and samples versus getting into a proper studio are entirely debatable (as with most, if not ALL music, #getoverit), there is today an indie romanticism associated with the “old school” ways of creating music. Grohl talks with great admiration about the “real deal” personas of people like Lemmy (from Motorhead, who else?) and Neil Young; people whose rock ‘n’ roll badassery is stuff of legend. He also talks about his roots as the drummer of punk rock act Scream, and about the DIY ethic that the DC hardcore punk scene represented. What’s interesting to note though is that despite the Foo Fighters being commercially one of the biggest rock bands in the world, Grohl continues to maintain a healthy respect for the alternative, and more importantly, an understanding of the conditions of each, and a respect for each’s creative output.

“It’s too easy to be cynical,” he says of the indie vs mainstream debate. The blurred boundaries of what is or isn’t indie or mainstream have only inflamed the collective discussion, and quite often, in the analysis of distribution models, or the think pieces about the success of Skrillex, it’s easy to undermine the role of the actual music itself. As Grohl mentions, it’s not fair to look at this discussion as a two-sided coin. The aspects of each side are not black and white, and it has to do as much with the bigger picture, as much as it has to do with the smaller, more personal one. The way humankind has evolved has trained us to be more single-mindedly anti-everything when we’re young, and more understanding and consenting as we grow older. From Dave G’s perspective, the question isn’t really about whether indie is better or whether the mainstream has sold out, but about the way in which we consider music itself. You can hear the sense of excitement in his voice as he talks about working with some of his personal heroes. It’s not easy to retain that sense of wonder and passion for music, especially not given the nature of the music business discussion these days, and especially not when you’re the frontman of one of the biggest bands in the world. But it is his fandom, and not his stature, that makes him rock ‘n’ roll’s Mr Nice Guy.

Note: Grohl is asked by one of the Nerdist guys during the podcast why he thinks musicians like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were reluctant to appreciate mainstream success and popularity, and he says, “Punk rock guilt.”

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