This episode of Sonic Highways is extremely close to my heart, as it is to the rest of Foo Fighters. The band traveled to the city in which they were conceived, Seattle. They headed to Robert Lang Studios to record the track ‘Subterranean’, the studio in which Grohl recorded the debut Foo Fighters record back in 1995.
There is an overhanging sense of emotional weight to this episode, which is obviously from the ties that Grohl and Smear have to the city, in terms of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Grohl describes Seattle – rather fittingly – as his phantom limb. He’s cursed with good and bad memories of the city, as is Smear, who states that he “aches a little bit when (he) comes to Seattle”. You get the sense that everyone is still dealing with the loss of Cobain. It’s something that’s never gone away or is ever going to go away. So coming back to Seattle to record this song acts as not so much a sense of closure, but an acknowledgment that this band that Grohl formed as a way to deal with the loss managed to be the best thing that ever happened to him.
Robert Lang Studios was a rather fitting studio for Grohl to record in back in 1995, and even more so in 2014. It doesn’t follow any of the rules of a normal studio. When Lang first found the place, it was a singular garage. So he took the task of making that garage into a studio, building (or rather digging) into the side of a hill. The surfaces within the studio are all uneven, there are no parallel walls, it’s made from stone – it’s subterranean. The studio also happens to be the last place Nirvana recorded in before Cobain’s death, with their single ‘You Know You’re Right’. Grohl decided to use this recording studio as the place to record the first Foo Fighters record as it was down the street from his house, and he also felt that it was a way of starting over. So in a way he’s come full circle, which really gives this song such an emotional and meaningful bearing.
The studio also saw it’s fare share of the Grunge explosion of the early 1990s, with bands such as Alice in Chains and Soundgarden recording there. The Grunge explosion took Seattle – and the World – by storm. But before that revolution, Seattle didn’t really have that much of a music scene. Other than legendary musicians such as Heart, Jimi Hendrix, and The Sonics (who are deemed to be the founders of Grunge), the kids of Seattle didn’t really have anything in terms of an active music scene. The Underground Seattle scene that began to arise in the mid-80s was mainly due to the fact that no other bands would ever come up to Seattle, as it was too far and out of the way to bother stopping at on tour. So bands arose from kids playing music out of it being a hobby – which is how bands such as Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, The Melvins and Mudhoney formed.
As did the record label of Sub Pop. The founders and employees of that record company had no formal business training when they started out, they instead learned by turning up and learning from their mistakes. And from that, they became the forefront of the Grunge movement, being one of the main record labels holding all the influential bands of the time. And even being so influential that they have a Sub Pop store in Sea-Tac Airport. Of which I am still kicking myself over for either not noticing it was there or walking straight past it when I went to Seattle.
‘Subterranean’ is the stand out track of the record. Which it was purposely meant to be, with the Foo’s making sure the song sounded completely different to everything else on the album, focusing more on it being trippy and atmospheric to help it really ooze the emotion that Grohl is bearing through the lyrics. They even went so far as implementing a cymbal separation technique, which allows you to manage the sound of the drums and manipulate them without the bleed of the cymbals. So Grohl would play the cymbals whilst Hawkins played drums.
And as I deemed from the Los Angeles and Chicago songs and episodes, it really does help if you’ve visited the cities that the songs are being written about. It helps you really truly understand the vibe and feel of the songs, which is what the band set out to do in the first place. I can honestly say that whenever I listen to this song, I can close my eyes and I’m immediately transported back to Seattle, driving along the I-5 in the pouring rain and realising that I was actually in the place were all my musical heroes are from.
Words by Sophie McEvoy.