5 Storytelling Lessons From the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways

The traditional gift on your twentieth wedding anniversary is china. But when the Foo Fighters turned 20, the band’s founder, frontman, and lead guitarist Dave Grohl didn’t get his bandmates fancy plates. Instead, he decided to direct and produce Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, an eight-part HBO docu-series that follows the trajectory of the band as they recorded their album of the same name. Each episode culminates with a song that lyrically references a specific American city and its music scene, since each of the album’s songs was recorded in a different studio in a different city.

While the series has received both praise and criticism, its storytelling is undeniably successful. Here are some of the lessons we can learn from Sonic Highways:

1. Have a defined goal

Grohl, the son of a Washington, D.C. reporter told Rolling Stone, “It’s written in my DNA that I like to sit down and talk to people and their experiences.” It makes sense, then, that Grohl had one goal from the start: Tell the story of American music. In order to do this he travelled to Chicago, Washington D.C., Nashville, Austin, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York City. “I believe the history of American music is just as important as anything political because it’s changed generations of people,” he added.

One of Grohl’s first interviews—but one that, paradoxically, comes in the series’ last episode—was with music producer Steve Rosenthal, who offered an emotion-laced view on the state of music and gentrification.

“I looked at my interview with Steve like the message of this entire project—we’re all connected by something,” Grohl said. “Maybe it’s a river that runs underground, maybe it’s Woody Guthrie, maybe it’s Chuck D. That conversation became my goal.”

2. Let experts move the story

When Grohl interviewed Ben Jaffe, creative director of the famous Preservation Hall in New Orleans, he said, “I don’t know shit about jazz, and I don’t know shit about New Orleans. We’re rolling.”

Grohl, obviously enough, is not afraid to admit a lack of knowledge about something. He told Rolling Stone, “I love talking about music and hearing these stories, but I also love not knowing everything. The interviews turned into conversations that turned into lessons.”

This approachable, borderline laissez-faire attitude made his sources feel comfortable. They didn’t have to impress Dave Grohl; they just had to be honest and tell their story. On the show, Grohl’s narration introduces, ties together, and concludes each story, but we—the audience—learn by hearing the producers and musicians interviewed.

3. Think of your audience

When I watch Sonic Highways, I feel like I’m Dave Grohl for a second, as if it’s me who’s having these intimate conversations with Pharrell Williams, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson. This, of course, was Grohl’s intention. “In a lot of these interviews, I imagine myself as the viewer because the intention of the entire project was to inform people,” he explained, “not just tell them something they already knew.”

But how did he put everything together?

4. Find a common structure

When Grohl finished recording, there were over 1,000 hours of footage. How, we wonder, could someone who had never produced a show fit all that into nine hours? American music is obviously the overarching theme of the series, but the genres it covers range from jazz to punk.

What brings consistency to each episode is its structure.

The pattern is as follows: Story of the city by its musicians and producers, history of the studio where they’re recording, Grohl’s affiliation with the city, final thoughts and lessons learned, and bam, a new song for the Sonic Highways album is born. The order is not always the same, but the elements are always present.

5. End with a bang

Introducing the New York episode, Grohl said, “Now, there’s only really one place to go.” It’s important to have an epic conclusion—and, indeed, the last episode does the series justice. Not only do you realize how much amazing and diverse music has been recorded in New York City—from soul in the ’40s to rock in the ’70s to hip-hop in the ’90s—you learn from Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, that her father wrote “This Land Is Your Land” in New York City after a road trip through the U.S.

Grohl ended the series with an interview with President Barack Obama, who talked about Bob Dylan and music in the U.S. “There’s nothing more unifying in this country,” Obama said, “than our music.”

Image by Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways

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