The Black Keys' Muscle Shoals Odyssey

The duo cranks out dark gritty blues in hallowed halls of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, channeling its mystical mojo

Interior of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama.
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Interior of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama.
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The Black Keys assumed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, where the Rolling Stones cut "Wild Horses" and Wilson Pickett made "Don't Knock My Love," would have incredible mojo. "Awesome things happened there in the Sixties and Seventies," says drummer Patrick Carney. "That's the mystique."

But when the Akron, Ohio, garage-blues duo arrived in August, they found a spare, rundown building in a ghost town. These days, the legendary Alabama studio also operates as a poorly maintained museum. "We've seen all those 'making the album' videos where U2 has an outdoor mosque with Indian rugs all over the fucking floor," says singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach. "And here we are walking around with a bag of Funyuns, totally burned out."

Fueled by local dirt weed and vending-machine snacks, the pair banged out 16 songs in 10 days, recording everything with gear that co-producer Mark Neill trucked in from San Diego. The result is an album that's darker and more stripped-down than 2007's Danger Mouse-produced Attack and Release. "We like spooky sounds," says Auerbach. "Not like Tim Burton spooky, but more like Alice Coltrane, where a dark groove is laid down."

The disc – the band's sixth – ranges from love songs like "Everlasting Light" (with Auerbach laying a silky falsetto over a chunky glam-rock groove) to "Next Girl" (a swampy blues Auerbach wrote about an ex). "Ten Cent Pistol," a shadowy, organ-heavy cut, is about a woman who uses homemade acid to scar her cheating man. Auerbach says, "A 'ten-cent pistol' is this low-rent, heinous substance that disfigures you, like homemade napalm."

The album is the fourth the Keys have cut in the past year: There was also Auerbach's solo LP, the first disc from Carney's band, Drummer, and the debut from Blakroc – a collaboration between the Keys and rappers including Raekwon, Mos Def and RZA. That project began when former Roc-a-Fella Records impresario Damon Dash called Auerbach and Carney out of the blue. "He basically said, 'Do whatever you want to do,'" says Auerbach. "We decided to just make a good hip-hop record."

The Keys' prolific output and raw sound are deeply connected. "I heard that Butch Vig once spent three days getting a drum sound right," says Carney. "That should take an hour. I mean, how long does it take to fucking set up a microphone?" For Carney, who recently divorced his wife, it's been a long, intense year. "It's been mentally exhausting, but at the same time, I feel like a new human being," says Carney, who recently moved from Akron to New York. (Auerbach still lives in Akron.) "My shit's all different now, for the better."

This story is from the December 10th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1093: December 10, 2009
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