- 17 Jul 19
Back In Black: The Black Keys Have Just Released Their First Album In Five Years, Let's Rock. "We Always Felt Like Outliers," Dan Auerbach Tells Pat Carty.
It’s not rocket science. Turn up the guitars and hit the drums. Hard. Seems straight forward enough, so how come so many bands can’t get it right? No such problems with The Black Keys and their new album Let’s Rock. The clue is there in the title. Drummer Patrick Carney has expressed his admiration for “big and dumb” songs although vocalist/guitarist/studio hero Dan Auerbach has a slightly different view. “I would say it's more about a raw quality. I think that's what Pat and I are always attracted to in music, a raw undercurrent that pulls you in. Simplicity is always our goal, try not to make them too damn smart. If we end up thinking about a song too much, it's generally because it's not working.”
The songs on Let’s Rock most definitely are working. It’s a brighter sounding animal than 2014’s slightly downbeat Turn Blue. “The songs have live guitar and drums takes underneath, and we would overdub on top of that,” Auerbach explains. “We tried to get it on the first couple of takes, almost every single guitar solo is the live one. Those songs were very fresh to us.”
It might be five years since the band’s last release but Auerbach hasn’t exactly sat around scratching his arse. His Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville has hosted acts as varied as The Pretenders (“She’s such a bad ass!”) and Yola (“She's incredible. She wrote herself a great record.”), and Dan got to work with some of his heroes too. He produced the late Dr. John’s Grammy-winning Locked Down back in 2012. “He was Dr John all the time, it was cool to be involved with the record, a great learning experience, it was also a dream come true because I was such a fan, an incredible poet and an incredible musician.” And it was another of Auerbach’s idols that lead him back to his own band. “A year and a half ago I did a record with Glenn Schwartz, the original guitar player with The James Gang in North Eastern Ohio - he was Joe Walsh's guitar hero! I used to go see him on Thursday nights back in Cleveland. He was a huge influence on me and the songs on our first records. I was so inspired by that session, it made me want to make another Black Keys album.”
The break came about initially because, as Auerbach says himself, “we just toured ourselves too hard, and we were ready for a little stretch of being at home.” But it was that hard work that allowed them the luxury. “It's only because we had worked so hard that we were able to do it,” he explains. “We toured for years straight. We've done great, we're playing arenas everywhere and it seemed insane to just stop and turn down all the money because we'd worked so long and so hard to get there. But we had to.”
One might assume there was encouragement from extraneous influences to keep the money train rolling but that apparently wasn’t the case. “There was mostly pressure from ourselves because we worked so long to get there. We're just two guys from the Midwest who started in a van getting paid nothing to drive nine hours to a gig. It's hard to turn down paycheques. We still sort of feel like those guys.”
Auerbach dismisses the notion that there was any animosity between himself and Carney over the break and indeed the band’s genuinely funny video for recent single ‘Go’ pokes fun at the idea by sending the band on a retreat to patch things up, although the punch that Dan lands on Pat’s face looks satisfying. “No!” he exclaims with a laugh. “Actually, it did feel pretty good, I can't lie!” Once the pair got back into the studio they quickly fell into a regular routine. “We'd do three or four song ideas a day, in fact the very first idea we had turned into the song ‘Breaking Down’. As soon as we got back together we were doing stuff that sounded like music,” he remembers. “We've played together for so long, so we keep it moving forward. We would get the songs together but they didn't have any words or melodies! It's weird, it's like writing songs in reverse. We improvised instrumental parts we liked, and I would do the same thing with my voice - try to find melodies, and sentences and phrases would pop out, to build the songs around. A lot of it has to do with feel, going after what felt good.”
You can hear various influences on the record, everything from T. Rex to Creedence. “I love the way the T. Rex records sound. It was Pat who introduced me to them. Creedence are one of our biggest influences, when we were making our first record in 2002, we would drink coffee on the front porch and listen to Bayou Country. I love Fogerty's song writing, its simplicity, it feels right.” That being said, Auerbach insists the band were doing their own thing. “We never listen to music while we record. I think Pat played 'Surfing Bird', that might have been the only song!”
Contrary to what has become common practise, the album was released as is, not bundled with ticket sales in order to help it out of the traps. “We’re not bundling it to try and get big first week numbers. We're less concerned with having a big SoundScan number and more concerned with actually selling real records. I think the downloading thing can be so deceiving. People have a lot of downloads but they can't tour, they can't fill theatres or arenas. Those numbers are kind of deceptive.”
That might make it sound like Auerbach favours touring over recording, but that’s not the case. “It's all important,” he says, “but if you're a musician, I don’t know if you can really expect to make a living from record sales alone. It's got to the point where the album is just promotion for you to go and make a living on the road.”
Mind you, touring is a different story now for the band than it was back in the day. “It's way better, we used to tour in a four-door Buick century. We had the guitars in the back seat so you couldn't recline and we were driving like nine hours a day - it was stupid. There's no way in hell I could do that now.” He doesn’t miss it so? “I don't miss that kind of touring, but I look back on it fondly!”
The commercial standing of The Black Keys does separates them from a lot of other rock n’ roll bands out there, but Auerbach insists that he and Carney have always felt like a band apart. “We always felt like outliers, we were always underdogs, we always kind of felt like we were on an island. We were from Akron, Ohio. Akron’s got a great history of bands, but when we were there, there were none. We felt very much on our own and I guess we feel that way today. I mean, we decided to make a record with no keyboards, that's probably the opposite of the decision we should be making.”
If ever an album had an appropriate title then it’s this one but the real story is surprisingly dark. “I read a headline in the local paper, they had executed a prisoner in Nashville. They asked him if he had any last words and he said "Let's rock!" It just seemed right.” Heavy. Listeners can of course put that to one side and just enjoy a great record that celebrates the eternal joy of rocking out. “I think that's a big part of who we are, we started on independent labels with absolutely no budgets. We had to think for ourselves and search for the creativity to make the records. We always really loved recording and making records. We had fun making this.”
You can tell.