Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach on Dylan, Lana Del Rey, New Psych-Soul Project

Blues-rocker sounds off on latest venture the Arcs and why he hates cats, loves hip-hop

"These guys are so crazy-capable," says Dan Auerbach of his Arcs bandmates. Credit: Matthew Baker/Getty

In the past few years, whenever he hasn't been busy selling out arenas with Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, Dan Auerbach has booked informal jam sessions with a loose group of friends including Menahan Street Band saxophonist Leon Michels. "These guys are my oldest musical buddies besides Pat," says the singer-guitarist. "We just record shit for fun and sock it away." This year, Auerbach and Michels combed through those tracks to assemble Yours, Dreamily — out September 4th — the debut of the band they dubbed the Arcs. Auerbach, 36, says he's looking forward to their first tour this fall: "With these guys, we can try absolutely anything. Honestly, I have no idea how it's going to go, but I'm so excited."

The Arcs album sounds like some lost psychedelic LP that you might find buried in a used-records bin. Are you a big crate-digger?
That's really what we are: record nerds. The last real job I had was at a record store, Quonset Hut in Akron, Ohio. I was maybe 20. I had graduated high school and completely immersed myself in blues music, but I was exposed to things there that I never would have heard otherwise. I remember this Frank Black and the Catholics album came out, and I fucking loved it. It was really fun. We had a whole section that was for throwing darts — dart nerds would come in and get custom wings. We also sold a lot of Deadhead merchandise.

Did this album let you tap into your own Deadhead side?
Yeah, definitely. The Arcs scratch that itch for me — and when we play live, it's going to be magnified. These guys are so crazy-capable. We all got together and played recently, and it was so fucking exciting. There was a lot of improvisation, which is new for me.

Did you watch any of the Dead's farewell shows this summer?
I didn't, but I was happy for 'em. It's crazy in this day and age, with album sales in the shitter, to see their staying power. That's really cool. I wonder if 20, 30, 40 years from now, anybody is going to be able to touch that many people.

The Black Keys are one of the last big rock & roll bands left. How do you like being the keepers of that flame?
When we tell people that we can't believe we're headlining Coachella or whatever, we mean it. We are not the people that you would normally associate with being at the top of a pop food chain — generally to do that, you've got to have some star charisma. And we're, again, literally two record-store nerds. Pat worked at Quonset Hut too. It was a different location, though.

"When we tell people that we can't believe we're headlining Coachella or whatever, we mean it."

You had to cancel some Keys dates recently when Pat hurt his shoulder. Is he better now?
He's doing great. We played some shows, and he hasn't had any pain the next morning or anything. He can't raise his arm above a certain level, but he doesn't actually need to, the way he plays.

Speaking of injuries, you probably saw the throne Dave Grohl had built so he could play with a broken leg. On a frontman-to-frontman level, are you jealous of Dave's throne?
No! I'm not jealous. I'm happy that he's in it — he fucking deserves it. Listen, man. I don't need to see a rock star running all over the goddamn stage. My favorite rock & roll footage of all time is Hound Dog Taylor at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival [in the early Seventies]. He's playing in front of thousands of white kids — and he's just sitting on a folding chair. That's my idea of the coolest.

How do you keep life on the road fun when you've toured as much as you have?
You don't. It's like Groundhog Day. Every arena backstage looks exactly the same. It's mind-numbing.

What's the worst experience you've ever had on the road?
We had a winter tour in Europe around [2004's] Rubber Factory. It was terrible. But sometimes those are the ones that you remember the best — it's certainly the one we talk about the most. It was ice all across Europe, and we were in this little van. It was terrible. Oh, my God. That was our boot camp. It creates a bond.

I heard that you're into boxing. Do you spar backstage on tour?
I brought a punching bag, boxing gloves and my jump-rope, and I try to work out in the afternoon. But not before shows. It's not like I get pumped up like I'm a WWF wrestler — like, oil my body and do a bunch of pushups before I run onstage.

Bob Dylan likes boxing too. Ever talked to him about that?
Never. I'd be curious. I know he's a fan of Manny Pacquiao, and there's a bunch of stuff that's come out recently about Pacquiao and performance-enhancing drugs. I'd love to hear his thoughts on that. Or anything, really.

Who would win if you and Dylan got in the ring?
I would win [laughs]. But if we got in the songwriting ring, he would win.

You produced most of Lana Del Rey's last album. What was that like?
It was stressful, but at the end of the day, it was really enjoyable. She's such a force, and it was cool to go into her world for a little while. "Brooklyn Baby" — fuck, I love how that song sounds.

Do you think she gets the respect she deserves as an artist?
No, I don't think she does. But you know that. I don't need to tell you that. I'm not worried about her, because the people that love her are fucking obsessed.

"I'm into the Vince Staples record. I was taken by surprise by how good it is. And I really love Future's new album. It's tough as nails."

What's the last great record you discovered?
I'm into the Vince Staples record. I was taken by surprise by how good it is. And I really love Future's new album. It's tough as nails. It's crazy to listen to these guys — if you really pay attention to their phrasing and flow, there's so much attention to detail. There's just a fucking drum beat and maybe a minimal synth line, so the vocals have to be so perfect. That's unbelievably hard to do. Those are the things that make me try harder — I put my headphones on, and it trips me out.

On one Arcs song, you sing, "Man's best friend will bite you in the end." I take it you're not a dog person?
No, fuck, I love dogs! It's man that I don't like. I hate cats, though — mostly because all the awful girlfriends I ever had were into cats.