The Dark Days Behind the Black Keys' Best Album Yet

Danny Clinch
The Black Keys

At the height of their success, the Black Keys found a new way to hit bottom

This morning, Dan Auerbach dropped his six-year-old daughter off at school, and then went home for a boxing session with his cousin, who is staying above Auerbach's garage. Now it's a clear April afternoon, and he's firing up the black BMW sedan outside his modest bungalow-style home near Nashville's Music Row, heading to one of his favorite spots for Vietnamese Pho noodles, which he eats almost every day. Auerbach cruises past the auto repair shops, laundromats and porn shops of southeast Nashville, blasting some of his recent obsessions: snarly Sixties garage rockers the Groupies, early Van Morrison deep cuts and a Mexican singer named Rigo Tovar. "I Shazam'ed this at a taco truck the other day – Seventies Mexican music with electric guitars," he says. "It blew my fucking mind. What did they record that shit on?!" At one point, Auerbach is so focused on his iTunes library that he drifts into the wrong lane in front of a truck. "Don't worry," he says with a laugh. "I could find this place in my sleep."

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He pulls into a strip mall next to a dollar store. Tanned and wearing a ragged military jacket, he enters a beige, mostly empty restaurant with the Food Network playing on a hanging box TV. He immediately orders a Vietnamese filtered iced coffee; his daughter, Sadie, has been keeping him up more than usual lately. "She'll wake me up at 1 a.m., 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.," he says. "I get up, walk her back and get her in bed. I'm fine with that, but I'm really trying to get her to stay in her own bed."

Auerbach is still adjusting to life as a single dad, which includes buying Sadie her first pair of Doc Martens for school and reading to her class. In August, he finalized his divorce from his wife, Stephanie Gonis, after four years of marriage – and it's been brutal. According to court documents obtained by gossip sites, Auerbach claimed that Gonis attempted suicide in front of Sadie and set their house on fire. (In the same report, Gonis countered that the suicide attempt was a response to "years of abuse" from Auerbach, and the fire was an accident.) Gonis reportedly committed herself to a treatment facility and later received a $5 million divorce settlement; Auerbach now has temporary custody of his daughter. "It was the most difficult year of my life, for sure," he says. "Sadie is the only thing that matters – just making her comfortable and stable."

Auerbach mines the emotional wreckage of the relationship on Turn Blue, the Keys' darkest album yet, recorded at the same time as the divorce proceedings and the group's 130-date El Camino tour. He sounds like a man being pushed to the edge – wondering if his lover is afraid of hell on the slow-burn title track and describing his daughter having nightmares about her missing mother on "10 Lovers." On the spacey "In Our Prime," he sings, "The house, it burned but nothing there was mine/We had it all when we were in our prime."

At one session, drummer Patrick Carney and producer Danger Mouse privately wondered whether Auerbach was fit to be working at all. "Dan was getting frustrated," says Carney. "I had never seen him like that. He's usually almost too prolific. I had never seen everything just stop."

Carney went through a bitter divorce himself, in 2009. "I didn't have a child, and mine was hard, so I can't imagine," he says, but he does see a connection between his and Auerbach's marital problems: "We're dudes from Ohio. We were raised to get a job, have a family. No one prepares you for what it's like to want to hold on to those ideals and balance it with this job. For years, you don't make anything and you're treated like shit. And then it flips. No one can prepare you for that transition, and it causes real problems."

Every day, on his way to his studio, Easy Eye Sound, Auerbach drives past RCA's legendary Studio B, where Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers recorded; he also passes the former home of Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut, where Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Bob Dylan all made music.

"Those are [the sites of] the birth of rock & roll and country and some of the sonically best records ever made – I love it," he says, sitting under an old Rascals gig poster in his studio's lounge.

Easy Eye is an unlabeled gray building, nondescript except for a high-security razor-wire fence out back. The lounge also features two vintage motorcycles next to a wall of biker-gang jackets, a wraparound couch, stuffed animals, shelves of rock & roll books and several Grammys. Last year, Auerbach won the Producer of the Year Grammy for his work with the Black Keys, Hacienda and Dr. John. Auerbach recently wrote songs with his hero John Prine for a possible upcoming record. "It was unbelievable," he says. "Everything he writes is funny and true, but not over anybody's head." Auerbach considers these projects his most fulfilling. "Playing to 50,000 people is cool, but when I have a relationship with my idols, like when RZA says my name, or John Prine says, 'Hey, Dan!' – that's the greatest.

"Everything here is mic'd and ready to go," he says, stepping onto the black-and-white checkerboard studio floor. The live room is loaded with giant xylophones, racks of cheapo Sixties guitars and keyboards. An old Muddy Waters Chess Records promotional shot sits in a corner. "All my favorite records – Jamaican records, early Owen Bradley stuff, Memphis records – were all done in small rooms. And I love that."

He picks up his favorite guitar, a white Japanese Kent he bought near San Francisco for $100. "I bought a 1952 Les Paul Gold Top on the same day – the most expensive guitar I ever bought and the cheapest. I never play the Les Paul, but I always play this. And that's pretty much our entire thing." He points out a "big, dumb" expensive condenser mic under a cover he's used only once; instead he uses $75 dynamic microphones. "Pat and I would read forums about recording all the time when we were starting, about how you needed the most expensive equipment – they were just morons who make terrible-sounding records."

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Auerbach beams while describing his practice of "controlled bleed": strategically placing a mic on one instrument to record another. To demonstrate it, he heads to the control room to play his latest production: Lana Del Rey. He met the singer last year through a mutual friend in New York; she ended up recording her entire second album with Auerbach. "It was amazing," he says. "She's a true eccentric, you know, extremely talented. She has a definite vision of what she wants to be, both musically and visually. She looks at this whole thing as this big art project that she gets to do, which is great."

Standing under a mounted water-buffalo head, he blares several ethereal, soulful ballads with sweeping hooks. "She's singing live here in front of a seven-piece band with a handheld microphone!" Auerbach says, with his biggest grin of the day. "No overdubs, no edits – that's all live!"

Turn Blue was almost an entirely different record. The Black Keys were burned out from touring when they gathered in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in January 2013. At first they recorded a bunch of high-speed riff rockers in the vein of El Camino, an album Auerbach now calls "too manicured." "On El Camino, we said, 'Let's write a record that sounds like all singles,'" says Carney. "[In Michigan] we were still on that singles thing. I wanted him to let the record just breathe, and I think Dan wanted the songs to move along, you know? There were some moments that got a little tense."

After a South American tour, the Keys reunited with Danger Mouse, a.k.a. Brian Burton, for a planned two weeks of sessions in Nashville. They lasted one day, after Auerbach got discouraged recording a vocal part and gave up. "Dan was distressed," says Carney. Adds Auerbach, "I walked in, and I was like, 'I can't do this right now. I don't want to waste our time. It's just too hard for me to focus right now.'" Burton flew home the next day. Auerbach took a rare vacation, riding a 1937 Harley Davidson to North Carolina on a camping trip with friends. The breakthrough came four months later at L.A.'s Sunset Sound studios, when the band recorded "Weight of Love," a searing seven-minute breakup screed made up mostly of Auerbach soloing. "We were just jamming, and it was like, 'Fuck it, we know what a single is, and this is not a single. So why even put in restrictions on what it is?'" says Carney. It gave birth to what Auerbach calls an expansive "dense, liquid sound." ("This is basically our Dark Side," Carney deadpans.)

"It was the first time that I've ever used music therapeutically," says Auerbach. "I've been pretty lucky in life. But this year definitely tested me. It made me realize how lucky I am to have music in my life and to be able to go into the studio, to have all these musicians as friends who can come in and play music with me. It's awesome, you know?"

Carney drags on a cigarette in his driveway while his two Irish wolfhounds, Darla and Charlotte, howl away. "They like to put their head right in your crotch – they both do it and fight for the crotch," Carney says. (He's right.) He's annoyed because he just discovered that a posthumous Michael Jackson album is coming out the same day as theirs, which could draw attention away from Turn Blue. "[It's] some fuckin' bullshit that sucks so bad that it took them three years after he died to make it listenable," Carney says, stepping inside the house. He suspects the album exists only because "L.A. Reid needed a new boat."

Unlike Auerbach's modest neighborhood home, Carney's is a sprawling, almost castlelike stucco structure modeled after a French farmhouse. "It reminds me of Vincent Price hanging out in a velvet smoking jacket," he says.

It was here, in the backyard in the fall of 2012, that Carney married Emily Ward, a sharp-witted, pretty UC Berkeley graduate. Ward was working as a personal assistant for an actress when they met at Carney's favorite bar, the Cabin Down Below in New York's East Village. He wore a white tux at the ceremony, Will Forte officiated, and the 350 guests included Danger Mouse, Lyor Cohen and Shaun White (who wound up in jail that night after pulling a fire alarm at his Nashville hotel, destroying a hotel phone and running into a fence).

The couple tease each other a lot. "You're so gorgeous," Carney tells Emily in the living room, which is full of work by contemporary artists such as his friend Harmony Korine and Michael St. John. "Oh, my God, seriously – stop," she says with a scowl, giving him a giant push. It's an inside joke: Emily recently mentioned in passing that an old boyfriend was "gorgeous," and Carney won't let her forget it. They ran into her ex at a party recently. "You called him a douchebag," Emily says.

"He aggressively challenged me to a game of flip-cup," says Carney, getting worked up. "And I kicked his ass, and he couldn't handle it."

Most nights, after Emily falls asleep, Carney gets restless. He stays up surfing Wikipedia for band discographies and updates his Instagram account with photos of everything from Bruce Jenner to spooky Shriners clowns taken from an old brochure. Lately, he's been posting lots of images of aspic dishes – shrimp, pork and chicken-infused savory gelatin entrees popular in kitschy Fifties cookbooks. "I'm fascinated by it," he says, leaning forward on a couch on his porch overlooking the pool. "You know how people are Instagraming their food constantly? I'm obsessed with the idea of taking pictures of gelatinous, puke-looking shit."

Occasionally, he'll check on the Twitter account of Justin Bieber, "like a 34-year-old pervert." Carney is a familiar face to hardcore Beliebers; on the night the Keys won three Grammys last year, a TMZ cameraman asked Carney outside the Chateau Marmont if Bieber should've felt snubbed by not scoring a nomination. "Grammys are for music, not for the money, and he's making a lot of money," Carney said as Emily urged him to walk away. "He should be happy." The next day, Bieber tweeted, "the Black Keys drummer should be slapped around haha," setting off a wave of hate from Bieber fanatics. ("I really wanna kill you NOW," said one. "You are some one hit wonder. JB has been doing it for YEARS," wrote another. Carney responded: "True.")

Carney fanned the flames by sparring with dozens of Bieber fans over the next few weeks. Most observers thought that Carney got the best of the exchanges. ("My twitter has turned into a virtual Claire's Accessories," he wrote.) But he's not laughing when he looks back: "Justin Bieber is a fucking moron. He sicced 40 million Twitter followers on me because I paid him a compliment he didn't understand. I was saying that he should be grateful that he has a fucking career in music. And he shouldn't be telling his followers to slap me, and then also be doing anti-bullying bullshit.

"Honestly, I don't dislike his music," Carney continues. "But every single person who works with him should fucking be embarrassed."

The situation got Carney thinking about mind control; Korine suggested he watch Michael Rubbo's bizarre 1985 film The Peanut Butter Solution, in which a teacher kidnaps children and uses mind control to force them to make magic paintbrushes. The movie informed the self-hypnotizing wheel on Turn Blue's album cover and a promo video the band announced via Mike Tyson's Twitter account. "I don't think he even knows what he was promoting," Auerbach says with a laugh. "Probably still doesn't."

Carney has been trying to stay away from social media lately ("I'm basically over it"), but he admits he's been watching the fan reaction to the Keys' dance-y new single, "Fever." "People are like, 'What the fuck happened to the Black Keys? There's synth all over this song!' And I'm like, 'There's been synth on the last three singles!'" He takes aim at people who accuse the Keys of selling out, both in their music and for their songs appearing in numerous commercials, including Nissan, Victoria's Secret and Zales. "I subscribe to the punk idea of 1978 – the Sex Pistols' Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," he says. "Getting paid to do what you love? That's fucking killing it. There's nothing wrong with it." Still, are all the corporate gigs – from Coca-Cola to Citibank – really necessary? "Honestly, it's like, fuck it," Carney says. "We're not playing gigs for Qaddafi."

Adding to the drama last year, the band's long-running beef with Jack White escalated. White, who also lives and owns a studio in Nashville, once reportedly blocked Auerbach from entering an event at his studio. In August, a strongly worded private e-mail leaked in which White begged his ex-wife Karen Elson to take his kids out of the same class as Auerbach's daughter. White also accused Auerbach of ripping him off.

"Um, I mean, it's unexpected, strange, you know?" Auerbach said when asked about it, with a puzzled smile. "I don't know him, so it's extra-unexpected, you know what I mean?"

"He obviously sounds like an asshole," says Carney. "I actually feel embarrassed for him. But I don't hold grudges, man. I really don't. We've all said real fucked-up shit in private, and divorce is hard."

Carney's brother-in-law comes out on the porch, placing a health shake on a table next to a pack of Camel Blues. One of the wolfhounds starts pawing away at the screen door. Carney lets her in, and she slurps up some of his shake. He smiles as he brushes her away and takes another sip.

A week from today, the band starts practicing for a six-week European tour beginning in Germany this June. "I'm not looking forward to it," says Carney, joining Auerbach in the noodle restaurant. He and Emily had a disagreement about whether she should come along. "I was like, 'You're totally invited to wake up in an open field in Germany without a shower or toilet for five weeks, but you'll fucking want a divorce after this.'" Europe brings back bad memories, like spending 14 hours in a freezing van in Germany with two roadies Auerbach remembers as "a militant, vegan hippie couple."

"I'm pretty sure they had Legionnaires' disease," says Carney. "They were in the back, sweating. And they both had permanent red wine stains on their lips, smoking hash, bitching, eating corn nuts."

"It was awful," says Auerbach.

There was also the Highfield Festival in Leipzig, Germany, when the band went swimming in 110-degree heat – "just a group of dudes – us, our bodyguards," Auerbach says with a laugh – and a bunch of German guys showed up. "They strip down to nothing and started chicken-fighting, getting on each others' shoulders – dick, balls on neck," says Carney, as Auerbach cracks up. "And after they finally left, these girls came and are literally about to take their tops off, and our fucking bitch bass player jumps out and says, 'Here's a towel. Do you want to change behind a towel?'" (The bassist, who Carney says was actually a sweet guy, is no longer with the band.)

They haven't started thinking about the set list yet. "We have 120 songs, and we only know 20 of them at any given time," says Carney, who has little patience for flamboyant performing. "I'm not a fan of three-and-a-half-hour shows where someone is asking the audience what they want."

Somehow, talk turns to the Keys' brief stints in the Boy Scouts in Akron, Ohio. "I saw a kid dare another kid to put a stick up his butt for $10, and he did it," Carney says. "And you gave him his $10?" Auerbach asks. Carney was kicked out of his troop after pouring maple syrup on a sleeping scout who ratted on a scoutmaster for drinking booze. "I was the worst Boy Scout," he says. "I was really good at lighting firecrackers and fires."

Carney pulls out his phone and shows Auerbach a new app called Spritz that aims to double your typical reading speed by rapidly showing one word at a time. "At this rate, I'll be able to read the average novel in 20 years," says Carney.

"Pat's been working on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest since we started touring," says Auerbach, who credits Charles Bukowski with inspiring a lot of the lyrics on Brothers.

"It's actually pronounced Bukake," says Carney.

"Pat was really into Bukake books."

It's like that all afternoon. After paying the bill, Carney stands outside for a smoke in the strip-mall parking lot. "God, this is depressing," he says, looking out at a closed-down Office Depot and a parking lot full of cab drivers on break.

Talk turns to the Keys' early days, when they recorded loose blues jams for their first album, The Big Come Up, on a four-track in Carney's basement in 2002.

"Dan has always been the best guitar player I've ever known, always open to new ideas," says Carney. "Most of my friends were interested in making noise on the guitar and bullshitting lyrics, posturing. But Dan was really singing."

"We were never buddies – just acquaintances from the same neighborhood," says Auerbach. "But we just had this thing where we got together, and it always sounded like music. And we stuck together."

Auerbach is still amazed that the same band is about to headline its second massive U.S. arena tour. "We never thought we'd get to this level," he says. "We spent years watching so many other bands rise to the top, go right past us in a sports car while we're in a minivan. A year later, their sports car breaks down on the side of the road. And we're still going."

From The Archives Issue 1209: May 22, 2014
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