Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys
Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Dan Auerbach Talks Rebooting The Black Keys On New Album 'Let's Rock'
The Black Keys are almost innovators in reverse; they redefine familiar rock phrases like "stripped-down" and “back to basics." Case in point: Their ninth album (and first since 2014) is titled Let’s Rock, which makes ZZ Top's Eliminator sound like a downright Zen koan. There isn't going to be a more on-the-nose title this year unless Lil Pump surfaces with Let's Do Drugs or Luke Bryan unleashes Let’s Wear Jeans. The blues-damaged Ohio rock duo has risen from indie scraps to festival headliners with a clutch of radio hits in the early 2010s, which, under the tutelage of unofficial Third Black Key Danger Mouse, have come to incorporate lush-soul strings, buzzing synths and horny glam falsetto. (They also won four GRAMMY awards.)
Even though the duo was inactive for nearly half the decade, to hear singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach tell it, the band flicked back on like a light switch with no apparent loss of anything. According to the him, it was all gains: In the interim, he and drummer Patrick Carney both got married and had kids. The Recording Academy spoke to Auerbach about reigniting the band, his near-psychic connection to drummer Carney and their devout allegiance to touring.
The last time you guys released an album, you were going through a divorce. You and Patrick didn't release an album until you were both married again and raising new kids. Does the inspiration for new Black Keys music depend on what’s happening in your personal lives?
Not really. I’ve been playing in the Black Keys since I was 16… I was playing with the Black Keys before I was ever in any serious relationships. This is the longest relationship I’ve ever been in with one person.
Would you say this the happiest the Black Keys have ever been as a band?
It’s all relative. We’re definitely in a great place, a really musical place. I’m really excited about it.
I think there’s more songs in a major key on here than any of your other records.
I don't know, man.
A song like "Shine a Little Light," addresses death a little but also has this uplifting, gospel feel, like a Spiritualized song.
Well, I love gospel music. I collect gospel records, I’m a big fan. I know what you’re talking about.
So what’s it like trying to write blues-based songs about happiness?
Mmm… well, I sort of feel like everything's blues-based, any kind of genre. We just make 'em up. This record especially, we were just flying by the seat of our pants. The whole time we were just throwing ideas out, seeing if they stuck, and if they did, we just kept rolling with them. I was even doing that as I was writing lyrics. We would just do the music and then I would make up the vocal melodies afterwards. It could be a little strange but I had a lot of fun doing it.
"Eagle Birds" seems to be a lament for people who won't find a love like yours. That’s an interesting workaround, like you're singing someone else’s blues.
A lot of it was just unconscious. Having ideas and not being afraid to just sing what’s supposed to be there. Sometimes the lyrics can be really simplistic. But they’re supposed to be, you know? I’m thinking about how everything feels mixed together, the big picture. All the vowels and the sounds. Going by feel.
So what did the big picture end up being?
Maybe a Jackson Pollock. [Laughs.]
You didn’t plan for it to have no keyboards and be titled Let’s Rock.
I think we had six songs in a place that we liked ‘em, and none of them had anything but guitar, bass, and drums on them. And we were just like, "Man, let’s just keep doing them like this." That was all we ever really talked about it. The "let’s rock" thing, that only came later when we were thinking about a title.
They were the last words of a convicted murderer, right?
We were in the studio in Nashville, and it was the headline in the paper, in the same city, the day before we were recording. Months later, when we were thinking about a title, I remembered it, let’s put it that way.
Did you and Patrick work on music throughout the hiatus?
Pat and I didn’t talk a word about the session. We just showed up on the day in the calendar, didn’t talk about anything ahead of time. We didn’t even really talk about a direction before it happened, just let it unfold in front of us.
I love the simplicity of that.
Making music for us has never been the hard part. I love making music with Pat, it’s always so much fun. It was really great having that time off to work on so much stuff, and it made it that much more enjoyable when Pat and I got back together. We’ve always had a natural connection, ever since we were 16. In a roundabout way, we both want the same thing. We’re very different people, we hung out in different crowds. But the very first idea we had when we sat down, after four years, getting back together, the very first idea when we had, made the record, that song "Breaking Down."
So how did you decide it was time to make an album?
A year and a half ago, I was in the studio with Glenn Schwartz, the original guitar player from the James Gang; he was Joe Walsh's guitar hero, and he was mine, too. I used to go see him when I was a teenager and I loved his guitar and the amp he played. So when I started the Black Keys, that’s the type of guitar I tried to get and the amp I got. We were recording all his songs with Joe at the studio here in Nashville. It just brought back so many great memories that I just texted Pat, "Let’s make a Black Keys record." It was that loud electric guitar that drove the whole thing from the beginning.
Turn Blue seemed like you maybe went as far as away from your usual sound as you could.
We were out in California, hanging out in the Hollywood hills for a month. When you’re in sunshine every day, synthesizers make a lot more sense. [Laughs.] But when you’re stuck in Ohio in the winter, there’s something about a loud electric guitar that can warm you up.
Was the band reluctant to let in keyboards and other instruments in the first place, a decade ago?
We basically learned how to play our instruments and we learned how to record together. We didn’t know anything, and we made five records. Just experimenting on our own, never stepping foot into a real studio. It was a slow process for us, we didn’t have a lot of money so we couldn’t afford keyboards, let alone know how to actually work synthesizers. We had never really seen anybody do that. But when we decided to work with an outside producer and work in a studio for that first time, it was really eye-opening for us and we realized it didn’t have to be such a big deal to incorporate other instruments. It was nice to know that we could do that. But the heart of what we are is drums and guitar. And it felt so good to go back to just that. It felt cleansing, you know what I mean?
Honestly, I look at it all as part of the same fabric, just different threads. People like Dr. John opened my eyes to that, when I would listen to his records and hear all these different styles. We’d listen to lots of Captain Beefheart and he’d be all over the place, but it made lots of sense to me somehow. I look at the music I’ve done with Bombino or Lana as all coming from the same place.
You produced Dr. John's GRAMMY-winning Locked Down in 2012, his next-to-final release. What was your relationship like with him?
There was just a lot of love. Every time we spoke it felt good; he was still on a high from having the successful record and the resurgence [of popularity]. That meant a lot to him and [the sales] helped his family.
You poke fun at such rumors in the new video for "Go," but was there ever a moment when you honestly weren't sure if the Black Keys would return?
No, not at all. We just knew that we can’t just put out a record. We would put out a record twice a year if we could. But every time you put out a record, you’ve got to do, like, two years’ worth of touring. That was the holdup, basically. It just goes with it.
The band made a point of not "bundling" this record with things like ticket sales to get a higher chart debut. What bothers you and Patrick about the bundling strategy?
Pat’s the better person to talk to about that. I mean, ultimately, the artist ends up paying for the extra sales in the bundling, just to get higher chart numbers.
When the Black Keys pulled out of Woodstock 50, were you worried it was looking like a Fyre Festival situation?
We didn’t know anything about it, to be honest. Us dropping out was completely unrelated, we just wanted it to be before tickets went on sale. And it was weeks later that they announced the festival was having problems.
Did you ever consider becoming a studio band like the latter-day Beatles and shunning the touring aspect?
No, we didn’t want to do that. It’s afforded us great lives and we’re able to invest it back into musicians that we believe in. It’s just finding that right balance, because I need to be able to make records and feel fulfilled in that way, too. We don’t take the road for granted.