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Foo Fighters Bring ‘Sonic Highways’ to the L.A. Freeways

Mike Lawrie, Getty Images

“This is your episode,” Dave Grohl tells L.A.’s Foo Fighter, Pat Smear. It’s a nod to Smear’s native Angeleno status, and he gets some good screen time — but this isn’t his episode. It isn’t even L.A.’s episode. Grohl almost immediately moves the action to Joshua Tree, located in the desert outside of Los Angeles.

“All you have to do is wipe away one layer of the glamor and the fame and you’re in the dirt,” Grohl says.

This is the birthplace of stoner rock, home to bands like Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age. It’s home to Rancho de la Luna, too, an old house in the middle of the desert. It’s the studio that’s not a studio, a mecca for bands and the recording location for this week’s song. Arctic Monkeys lead singer Alex Turner calls the joint “a whole other dimension.”

“If you were to take a book on home studio dos and don’ts, Rancho literally has all the don’ts,” Josh Homme says. There’s no soundproofing, no separation — tight, cluttered — and everybody loves it.

The Rancho was founded by co-owners Dave Catching and Fred Drake, the latter of whom is the real star of this episode. Drake was an L.A. studio sound engineer who escaped the chaos of the city for the peace of the desert.

He’s talked about throughout the episode in near mystical terms: an eccentric, a brilliant musician, an even more talented engineer, great friend, a strong man. Over the course of the episode Drake grows to almost mythical proportions, a Marlboro Man with a soundboard.

Back in L.A., we meet Rodney Bingenheimer — Rodney on the ROQ, the Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Bingenheimer’s club was the epicenter of the glam rock scene in Los Angeles, a glittery counterpoint to the laid back, country rock vibe of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.  This is where Joan Jett and her first band, the Runaways, got both their influence and their start.

Pat Smear connected with Joan Jett as a teenager, as a self-professed groupie hitting all of the Runaways shows. Smear and his buddies had their own band going at the time, the Germs, whom he calls a joke band and the worst band in L.A. Jett eventually produced the band’s first album; Duff McKagan calls the record the thing that made him want to play music.

Germs lead singer Darby Crash is the episode’s other mythical figure. A central character in L.A’s early punk scene, Crash was a charismatic frontman who “wanted to be the ruler of the world,” according to Smear. He was also a heroin addict who grew obsessed with the notion of artistic immortality through suicide. Eventually he did kill himself with a drug overdose, but Crash’s death was back page news: John Lennon‘s murder happened the following day.

We visit the whole rise of the desert scene, the generator parties and the rise of Kyuss. Grohl recalls seeing the band play in Seattle in ’92 and then buying anyone who’d listen a copy of their record. He inserts a great clip from a Nirvana interview with all three members — an infant Frances Bean on Kurt Cobain’s lap — in which Grohl tells the camera that Kyuss is the future of grunge.

Grohl visits with mega-producer Daniel Lanois, he of U2 ‘Joshua Tree’ and Peter Gabriel ‘So’ fame. Lanois advocates for recording with all musicians playing together in a small circle so that they can self regulate. Grohl notes that this is similar to what happens naturally out at the Rancho, and then we find that Lanois actually knew Fred Drake.

In fact, Lanois made a deal with Drake to lend Rancho his studio equipment for a year. When Lanois wasn’t recording there, Drake and the rest of the desert community were welcome to use it.

This brings us back to Drake, who was known to ride his horse, Kashmir, right up onto the patio of the Rancho while people were recording. Homme and Catching share anecdotes about Drake’s long battle with HIV, an illness that apparently rarely slowed him down. Catching recalls Drake dragging his IV stand around the Rancho while engineering for one of Lanois’ recording sessions.

When Drake eventually passed, Catching took over the Rancho. It’s still there, welcoming tourists to its gates and musicians to its funky insides.

All of this rolls up into this week’s song, ‘Outside,’ recorded at the Rancho and featuring a badass guitar solo from Joe Walsh:

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