Foo Fighters' Six Grammy Nominations Put Analog Recording Back on the Map

The Butch Vig-produced, ProTools-free "Wasting Light," which was recorded in frontman Dave Grohl's garage, will go up against Adele and Lady Gaga for Album of the Year.

By this point in the Foo Fighters’ career -- 17 years and counting -- the Grammy Awards must feel a little like Groundhog Day. After all, the band has been nominated 25 times and won half a dozen gold-plated phonographs already. This year, the Foos are up for six including the prestigious Album of the Year, Best Rock Song for “Walk” and Best Long Form Video for the documentary Back and Forth. But what makes this round of nominations even more impressive, besides the sheer volume of them, is that the Foos’ 2011 album Wasting Light was an all-analog production made in frontman Dave Grohl’s garage.

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While recording to tape is not an unheard of practice today, sort of like shooting a movie on film versus a digital camera, it has become a rare if somewhat noble act in the age of ProTools where hundreds of sounds are at the producer’s fingertips -- literally. The Foos may not be the only Grammy nominees to go so old school, either. The Civil Wars, who are up for two awards including Best Folk Album, recorded Barton Hollow in a 100-year-old church and at least part of it involved two-inch tape. Tony Bennett, who put together a super-slick collection of duets that also saw two nods, spent a good amount of his studio time in the basement of Capitol Records, where some of the best analog gear lives. But neither compare to the organic homespun sound of Wasting Light, the gusher of undeniable rock that it is.

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The Foo Fighters sessions began in September 2010. Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind album, was tasked with, among other things, stitching together the best takes of the 11 songs that made the album. Among them: the hard-driving “White Limo,” radio-ready rockers like “Walk,” “Rope” (a remix of the song by Deadmau5 was also nominated), “Back and Forth” and the anthemic “These Days,” and “Dear Rosemary,” featuring one of Grohl’s idols, Bob Mould of Husker Du and later Sugar fame. The band documented their progress by posting Twitpics of their DryErase song chart (see photo).

If ever there was an album that sounded like it had been safely stowed in a time capsule buried sometime in 1996, it’s Wasting Light, which required not only magical performances to be captured on tape, sometimes in as few as three takes, but endless patience, vision and skilled anticipation in editing multiple tracks to sound like the Foos were just jamming in “Dave’s garage.”

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To prove that ProTools never invaded the recording space and not a single plug-in was used, the band, which includes Nate Mendel (bass), Taylor Hawkins (drums), Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett (guitars), inserted tiny strips of the master tape into the packaging of every CD bought (once the disc was manufactured, ‘natch) -- Grohl’s idea and a brilliant one at that.

“We probably wound up with 20 to 30 reels of tapes,” Grohl explained to LA Weekly in April. “Master reels with all the takes on them, reels with alternate takes. At the end of the session I thought it would be an extraordinary move to destroy all the masters and give the pieces of the tapes to the fans.” They also filmed Back and Forth, a documentary to chronicle the making of the album.

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And when it came time to test drive the tunes in February, the Foos opted for the untraditional route again, playing the album from start to finish (followed by a couple dozen of their greatest hits) in a series of secret shows at tiny clubs like L.A.’s Spaceland and Dragonfly.

Ten months and many concerts later, the Foos come full circle with the recognition of their peers and of the general public, but where the rock genre is concerned, they’re all but lone crusaders in a time of chirping synths, beeps and beats. Will the Foos have enough might to unseat pop superstars Adele, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars or Rihanna for the Grammys’ top prize? It will be a difficult campaign, even with Grohl’s “nicest guy in rock” rep, but that’s never stopped the Foo Fighters from trying.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin