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Subterranean: Robert Lang Studios, the Foo Fighters, and the Seattle Sound

by Zach Varnell
music & audio

foo fighters sonic highways robert lang seattle

“I’m not really a religious person, don’t get me wrong. I’m spiritual…but good things do happen. And he (Dave Grohl) put the lyrics ‘God in the stone’ in the song, and that was being revealed while we did the song here.”

In 1974, Robert Lang quit his job at Boeing as a hydrofoil TIG welder and bought some microphones to record his friends’ band, Cheeseburger Deluxe at The Aquarius, a venue in Seattle, WA. What began as a hobby became an obsessive passion spanning four decades, playing a central role in Seattle’s thriving music scene, and shaping the way studios were designed around the world.

For decades, studios were built as acoustically dead spaces. As Robert began to dig into the hillside behind his Shoreline home to build the studio, he treated the interior with marble and stone creating a reflective and ambient live drum room. It was the sound of that drum room that attracted drummer Matt Cameron from Soundgarden, producer Michael Beinhorn (Ozzy Osbourne, Korn, RHCP) and drum builder Greg Keplinger. Robert’s studio became one of the most sought after studios on the West Coast, recording many of the Seattle bands that came out of the 1990’s from the Foo Fighters and Alice in Chains to Dave Matthews.

Lang’s studio is home to a massive collection of analog outboard gear, guitar amps and vintage mixing desks, all tucked away underground in the hillside below his home. Seattle has a funny obsession with the underground. Much of Seattle’s waterfront cityscape is literally built on top of old Seattle. Visitors can even take underground tours of old speakeasies and shops, forty feet below the street.

In the 1980’s, Bruce Pavitt started a fanzine called Subterraenan Pop that he later turned into the Seattle record label Sub pop with Jonathan Poneman, putting out records for Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, The Postal Service and Fleet Foxes. Many of these records were done at Robert Lang’s, just below his living room floor. It’s almost as if Seattle has a subterranean mentality to its art form; digging deep underneath to discover what was there before and sometimes building on top of what failed to work in the past.

Bobby (as those who know him well affectionately call him) explains that studios are changing. Most of the major record labels (Time Warner, UMG and Sony) bought up the largest of the commercial studios in LA, Nashville and New York. What were left behind are struggling to book the time to keep the rent paid. Many studios in Nashville, for example, have completely closed up to the public and are re-opening as recording schools. It’s definitely ironic that at a time when there has never been more interest in the art of recording, so many studios can no longer make it as a viable business. Studios are now bedrooms, basements and garages.

This transition has not come without reflection, nor has there been a lack of many of the music industry’s heroes trying to revive it. At the forefront of this movement is Dave Grohl, who recorded his first album with his band Foo Fighters at Bobby’s studio back in October of 1994. “He was living right up the street. That was a shoe in.” After playing drums in Nirvana, leading the Foo Fighters through six highly acclaimed studio albums and dozens of side projects, Grohl produced and directed a 2013 full-length documentary about one of LA’s most cherished studios, Sound City. After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, the documentary has become a representation of the fact that many studios all over the country are struggling to survive.

For the seventh full-length album, Grohl decided to record each song on the album at a different studio in a different city, and he brought along a film crew. The band chose each studio based on its history of bands that have recorded there, and spent considerable time digging into the roots of the local music scene and how that scene impacted not just them as young musicians, but how the recordings made in those cities became known and cherished around the world.

The Foos spent time in Austin on the set of Austin City Limits, in New Orleans at Preservation Hall and at Washington DC’s famed Inner Ear Studios, where bands like Fugazi and Bad Brains recorded. When it came time to head to Seattle, they landed at Lang’s. The series is called Sonic Highways and it is airing every Friday night on HBO.

“That whole session went down unbelievably. It was much more of a spiritual experience.”

Bobby has a fascinating story about a rock. When he got the advance for Superunknown, he bought a slab of marble to put on the floor in the drum room. As he was cutting the stone, a flash of light exploded from the rock revealing what Bobby refers to as a prophecy. As he looked down, etched into the marble was a representation of a saint holding a lantern in the darkness.

He keeps this piece of marble in a frame on the studio wall, and it even made its way into the lyrics that Dave Grohl wrote while recording at Lang’s for Sonic Highways. “God in the stone” is the line, and, as Lang explains, was an expression of not just the prophecy he witnessed two decades earlier, but also was an artistic tool that Grohl used to write about a lot of the pain of loss from his time in Seattle, including the death of Kurt Cobain.

The song is even called “Subterranean,” echoing the depths that Seattle’s music scene has endured and sometimes even sought out.

So what’s next for Bobby? His newest passion is education. The studio has started a non-profit to bring in students from all over the world to learn about recording. In addition, Lang is working on a private studio in Punta Mita, Mexico right on the beach. After purchasing the property two years ago, Bobby sought out some investors and is working on creating a destination for audio education, much in the same vein as the popular Mix With the Masters series at Studios La Fabrique in France.

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Zach Varnell

Zach began recording in his parents basement in Denver with a two track reel-to-reel and a mixer from radioshack. In the summer of 2014, Zach went back to education, working with CreativeLive as a content producer for the audio channel.