Last August, singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys moved from Akron, Ohio, the duo's hometown, to Nashville. By October, he had bought a bland-looking one-story building near a freeway overpass and was renovating it into his own studio, Easy Eye Sound. In March, Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, who also settled in Nashville, started work there on a new Black Keys album with Brian Burton, the producer better known as Danger Mouse.
That record – the follow-up to 2010's Brothers, the Keys' first gold album – is almost done, although they probably won't release it until early next year. "We just have vocals to do," Auerbach says on a mid-May afternoon, sitting with Carney on a couch in Easy Eye's lounge. "We have 13 songs done. I think we'll have 11 on the record."
"Every record, we figure out the mood and stick with that," adds Carney. "With Brothers, we were listening to a lot of hip-hop and old R&B and drawing from that." Recently, the Keys have been spinning the Stones, the Cramps and Creedence. "This is the first record we've made where it's all rock & roll," Carney says.
In the control room, Auerbach and Carney preview four songs, still in rough mixes. "Lonely Boy" and "Stop Stop" are brisk and loaded with crusty distortion; there are hand claps and the tingle of a celeste, too, over the latter's clanging rhythm. "Mind Eraser" has the cocky-funk swagger of the Stones circa Some Girls. And "Dead and Gone" has a guitar/drums charge that suggests the garage pop of Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" steeped in the dirty-blues mayhem of the Black Keys' 2002 debut, The Big Come Up.
"It only took us 10 years to figure out how to make our records sound fucked up in the right way," Auerbach says as Carney plays air drums at a vintage 16-track mixing desk. "We also have all this Pro-Tools hocus-pocus, but we're limiting ourselves to the basics: Hammond organ, Farfisa, bass, guitars and drums. We want the instruments to sound classic."
The afternoon's real work begins with the half-blues, half-ballad "Little Black Submarines." Auerbach is putting a new bass overdub on the track. "Do more of what you did on the first chorus in the second one," Burton says, referring to a lick Auerbach played on an earlier take.
But Burton and the Keys start doubting the pace and feel of the rhythm. "It sticks out, because everything else on the album is so fast," Carney says. He joins Auerbach in the live room, and they strip the song to its bare bones for rearranging. Auerbach sings with an acoustic guitar. Carney works on that moody shuffle as Burton sits with them, head down, listening intently.
Asked how the Keys have changed since Burton produced 2008's Attack and Release, the producer replies, "They're better." He smiles. "No, really. They've made a lot of music since then. It shows in what they write and how they play it."
The Keys made their first two albums in Carney's Akron basement, then cut 2004's Rubber Factory in an old tire factory on a mixing board that once belonged to the Eighties band Loverboy. "It was such a piece of shit," Auerbach says, that the Keys left it in the factory when they were done: "We went back a year or two ago, and it was still there."
The Keys feel at home in Nashville. Jack White's Third Man headquarters is a short drive from Easy Eye, but he and Auerbach have never met. Auerbach likes the warm weather and the possibilities. He has produced records for young bands like Hacienda and Cadillac Sky, and foresees doing more of that at Easy Eye. "Although now that I have all my stuff here, it's going to be hard to rent it out to someone, because everything means something to me," Auerbach says, looking around Easy Eye with a smile. "I'm going to have to figure that out."
"This is the first record we've made where it's all rock & roll," Carney says.
This story is from the June 23rd, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.