Thursday, 1 May 2014

Sound City

If you're a film or music buff, chances are you've come across the stunning Sound City documentary. The film is Dave Grohl's love letter to a studio which nearly went to the wall, a building which has played host to some of the most famous musicians in history. Fleetwood Mac, Rick Springfield, Buckingham Nicks, Nine Inch Nails, REO Speedwagon, Tom Petty and, of course, Nirvana have all graced the studio.

As we were planning a trip to LA, one of our party (thanks, Kirri!) decided to get in touch with the original owners to see if we could visit and take a look around. All we were told was to turn up before mid-day.

So we did.

They've kept the famous painted sign which welcomes you to the studios. Driving beneath it, you feel a sense of calm and anticipation. How many people have driven through that driveway? How many of them are the same people you now see screaming around a stage in front of 80,000 people? How did they feel when they first arrived? Were they excited? Nervous? Inspired?

We chose to drive up the ramp and onto the parking lot on top of the building, before we realised that actually, we probably should have parked right outside the studio. Oh well...

First port of call was to knock on the door of Fairfax Recordings. The building, unlike the rest of them, is now blue (The others have retained their famous cream colouring). The door was answered by a nervous looking young man who had no idea who we were looking for but kindly allowed us to use the bathroom and clear a few bottles of water from the fridge. Finally, we discovered that Sandy, our contact, hadn't yet arrived on the site.

It was just before 11am. We were closing in on our deadline of mid-day so we decided to take a walk. We found a Denny's a short way up the road and debated what to do. We were hot, tired, and jet lagged. We'd driven for 4 hours. If we didn't get in we'd at least been on the property. We'd driven, and walked, beneath the famous sign and we'd seen a wall of records from many of the artists who'd worked there.

But... There's always a but. What if we didn't try again? We'd regret it for the rest of our lives.

We made the decision to go back and try again. Besides, there was no harm, right? So we trudged back and took another stab at the door. This time it was answered by the wonderful Sandy and we were welcomed in like long lost friends! Suddenly we were standing in the offices and looking around in awe. There were photographs mounted on wooden plaques (what people would be given before the invention of the gold record) and too many other things to take in. Much to our delight, Tom, the founder and owner, was around. Again, there was another big welcome and any nerves we'd been feeling melted away. We were happy and excited. We'd travelled half way around the world for this moment and it felt like every crazy dream you've ever had was coming true.

It was time and, with fluttering hearts, we made our way back to the blue building. The film gives you the sense that the offices and studios are in one building. They're not. You drive under the sign and find yourself in a parking lot with buildings on three sides. The front buildings house the offices while the ones in the back contain the studios. Facing the U-shaped building, the part with the drum room is to your left, while the ones straight ahead and to the right are now leased to other companies (Sandy made the comment that they've gone from leasing studios to leasing property).

We went back through the large, frosted glass door and met the young man we'd originally spoken to. Gone are the brown, carpeted walls. A few of the non-supporting walls have been knocked down to open the space up. You find yourself in a large, white area with a kitchen to your right and a snug, containing books, records, and couches, straight ahead. To your left is a large door.

You're taken to the door and let in. Your head snaps back and your jaw hits the floor. This is the room you've heard so much about. This is the room which is famed for recording drums in (bands, most notably Metallica, have done “blind tests” on such rooms. A piece of drum sound is recorded and sent back to the band. They then choose where to records based on that sound. Metallica recorded “Death Magnetic” at Sound City based purely on the snippet they heard).

And it's not changed. From the black and white photos you've seen, to the film, to actually standing in it, not one inch of it has been altered. No one knows exactly why the room sounds like it does. Some attribute it the building once having been used for making amplification. Others say it's because of whatever was used in the brickwork. Whatever it is, the room has a presence.

The door's closed behind you and a pressure closes around you. Your ears pop. Part of it is to do with it being a studio and it needing to be somewhat soundproof. The rest of it I can only place on the people who have passed though it. Their essence, their blood, sweat, and tears have soaked into the walls and left behind an undeniable presence. You can feel them in the air and see their ghostly images wandering back and forth. As my brother said, rooms like that have a personality all of their own. It's an inspiring place and I'm not sorry to say that I cried while I was there. I could have spent many days just sitting in that room and soaking up the atmosphere. I feel that some of my best work would have come from just being there and I'm desperately trying to cling on to the feelings and emotions which barreled through me.

Typical f-ing drummer. Just stands around and lets everyone else set up for them!

The control room, compared to many, feels basic. It was refreshing, a beautiful break from the constant glare of computers. Again, it's remained the same as it's always been. The famous Neve desk is no longer there, having been bought by Grohl when the studio was closing down. They do have another analogue desk and, much to my excitement, a two inch tape machine. I hadn't seen one of those since my early film-making days and I stared at it like a long lost friend. 

We were blessed to be witnesses to a hundred different stories of the people who've been through the studio. We learned a lot and I'm forever grateful to Sandy and Tom for letting us invade their space for an hour. Tom returned to see us off and handed out hugs and smiles like they were candy. It was an experience which I hope, one day, to relive. Fingers crossed, our musical family will wind up there one day. Until then, I'll hold on to my photos, my Sound City shirt (Thanks, Sandy!), my DVD, and my precious memories. Next time, I hope to be working there, with the people who feel like a home away from home. A family, bonded together by their love of music.

In 2011, Sound City ceased commercial operations. Thanks to the film, and the resurgence in interest, the studios are now operated by Fairfax Recordings. The famous drum room is still there. It's still analogue (but they do have a ProTools rig). The Neve desk, which features so heavily in the documentary it's pretty much the main character, is now owned by Grohl. So you'll have to go and knock on his front door if you want to use that.

If you haven't seen the film, go and watch it. It really is a love letter, not just to the studio, but to music in general.

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