Dan Auerbach spent the years between Black Keys’ new album, Let’s Rock, and 2012’s Turn Blue recording album after album in his Nashville studio, most of them far more rootsy, layered and restrained than much of his band’s catalog. But to return to the Black Keys’ sound — and a more primal version of it than they manifested during their lengthy period of collaboration with Danger Mouse, who is absent this time — all it took was Auerbach getting back into a room with drummer Patrick Carney. In a conversation before the album’s release, Auerbach explained how it happened, and more.
With all the other music you’ve been doing, was it hard to get back to the Keys’ mindset?
I think it’s just this magic that happens with Pat and me – it was this same thing that happened when we were 16 and started playing, and magically, it just sounded like music, when we started. It’s the same thing that always happens when we get together. And it was really awesome, having the break and then coming back and just playing with Pat again was really good, it felt great.
Did you come in with a total blank slate?
We didn’t come in with anything written, we didn’t talk about anything, we had no plan, we didn’t even really listen to any music. And we’re making the record. We just sort of went for it. We worked really quickly for the most part.
Obviously no Danger Mouse this time – you guys decided to produce it yourself. What was the thinking there?
Like I said, we didn’t even think about it. Honestly, we wanted to stumble on to “Louie Louie,” if we could. We just wanted to not think about it, not plan it, not talk about it and not overthink anything. That was the idea really, just to have some fun and play music. Just play rock & roll.
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Why is the album called “Let’s Rock”?
Well, I mean, it’s a rock & roll record. The whole record is just guitars and drums and bass. There’s not anything, no synthesizers, no keyboards. So there is that. About a week into the recording session I had a Tennessee newspaper, and it was a big headline the week that we were recording, and it was that they had executed a prisoner in Nashville, for the first time in 16 years. They did it while we were recording, and they asked this particular guy if he had any final words and he said, “Let’s rock.” So the album cover is an electric chair.
That’s pretty dark.
This business is kinda dark. I loved it, loved everything about it.
At the beginning of “Walk Across the Water,” I thought I heard keyboards, those aren’t keyboards?
No. That’s actually the only non-guitar or drum thing in the whole record — it’s a drum machine. And this drum machine has a built in sound with the drum and that’s sort of it. But it is just Pat playing the drum machine and it just happens to have a little sound on it with the drum.
There’s something almost rebellious about making an album like this in 2019.
You know, a couple of years earlier, I made this record in Nashville with this guy named Glenn Schwartz. He was the original guitar player in the James Gang. He was the first rock & roller that Joe Walsh ever saw. Joe Walsh saw him in 1966 at Bowling Green University in Ohio. He had purple bell bottoms on and no shirt and ripping on guitar. He made Joe Walsh want to play rock & roll. Anyway, I used to go see Glenn Schwartz play starting when I was 17; I would go up there with my dad. He played at this little bar, and he just played crazy, reckless rock & roll guitar. It was kinda dark and religious and sounded like Cream, basically. And I had him come to Nashville two years ago, and we cut a record and Joe Walsh came in, and Joe was telling me how influential he was. As soon as we started playing this Glenn song, I realized how much I’d learned from him. How much I’d absorbed.
Having seen Link Wray and Glenn Schwartz when I was 18 pretty much made me who I am. And it’s that weird rock & roll spirit that I can’t ever get away from. Whenever Pat and I get together, it just comes out. Glenn played a homemade 335-style Gibson through a Fender Quad Reverb with an extension. He was playing eight 12-inch speakers! In a bar that held about 75 people! It was like this thunder. When I started the Black Keys, I got a 335-style guitar; I got the Fender Quad Reverb. I set the amp sideways like Link Wray did. It wasn’t ’til I came back to do that record with Joe and Glenn that I realized, “Oh my God, this whole thing, I’ve been so influenced and didn’t even really realize it.”
So rediscovering that core influence helped you refocus?
Yeah. So it all kinda happened together and I made that record with Joe and it was just really raw. We played all of Glenn’s old songs, all these heavy blues songs. And it’s just sort of where I come from and where Pat and I come from: Northeastern Ohio, Cleveland, Detroit, all these cities that just had rock & roll pumping through the airwaves all the time. I tell everybody all the time, I’ve never owned a Tom Petty record, but I know every single Tom Petty song. Rock & roll was everywhere in northeastern Ohio and, the older I get, the more I realize it too, especially being around all these country guys in Nashville. These guys are just naturally country, all the time, there’s a lot of these old guys, ’cause that’s what they were raised around. And I guess I didn’t realize what my natural tendency was until I dipped back into that well. You never think about it. I used to think that was the sound that everybody plays guitar with. I don’t know.
“Lo/Hi” has that nice fuzz sound with a lot of variations in it, some really cool guitar stuff going on in there. What do you remember about that coming together?
Very quickly. I remember that the guitar solo on that is live, it’s the one from the tracking. I just stopped playing rhythm guitar and played the song. And then went back to rhythm. Most of the songs on the record are just live. Before I even knew what the words were. So, we just let it flow really. That was one of those ones where I just remember getting into that groove. And Pat just knows how to wing it like that. It’s so good. He’s such a dance-y drummer. He’s able to be dance-y and heavy at the same time. I think we both felt inspired. We’re both maybe in a good place, you could say. We just weren’t worried about external bullshit, we just came to make music. And do what we do. We weren’t trying to impress anybody; we weren’t trying to think about contextually speaking where this record was gonna sit or anything. I think it’s best when we kinda do our own thing. It always has been.
The opening track, ‘Shine A Little Light’ has a real air-guitar-inspiring power chord part in there.
I think that it started as I playing the Gretsch guitar, I’d never really played a Gretsch in a rock & roll kind of way, and as soon as I plugged it in and start playing I’m like, “Oh shit, no wonder AC/DC always used these fucking things.” And I started playing those rhythm-type chunk chords and that song just popped right out. My favorite part of that song is right in the beginning after the intro before that riff hits in there’s a moment of silence, and you can hear the amps start to swell up almost like when the racers are at the start of a race, and right before the gun goes off everybody raises up, you know what I mean? That’s what I hear in that little moment of silence before that riff hits. And you can just hear the amps, they’re just ready to fucking explode and they start to swell before the note even happens.
Was ‘Fire Walk With Me’ a reference to the movie?
It’s a coincidence. I don’t know, man. I think I just started singing it and that just popped out of my mouth hole. Yeah but no, I hadn’t seen that movie. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.
Tell me about ‘Get Yourself Together’.
That was almost like that little whack-a-doo, like, R.L. Burnside kinda thing on guitar, I remember starting it with that. That’s got open tuning guitar. That’s the same kind of tuning I’d use playing in bars back when I was 17 The same kinda ‘whack-a-boo-boo-whacka’. Realizing that most of R.L. Burnside’s guitaring was in the scraping sound of the guitar, not the actual playing of the notes. When I finally figured that out it was like a revelation for me.
“Breaking Down” has what, for lack of a better term, I keep calling the “Listen to the Flower People” part – a little psychedelic break down, where did that come from?
I have no fucking idea! We just did it. We just stopped right in the middle, and we played that. I don’t know why, but it worked. We hadn’t played together for so long, we kept surprising ourselves.
Was there ever any doubt that there would be this record?
Four years ago I definitely wouldn’t have been in a place where I wanted to make a record. But it was less about making the record and more about… Because we can’t just make a record. We gotta make a record then tour for two years. So there’s a lot more that goes along with just making a record. But I’m glad that we took the time to settle our minds and get away from each other for a while, it was really helpful. It made it all better when we got back.
How did you know it was time to do this again? How was that decided?
I don’t know. Management would bug me every once in a while, and Pat would let me know, but they weren’t pushy. I just felt like I had things that I needed to do. And I really did. I met people, I wrote a lot of songs, I learned a lot about music and musicians and record-making, and as much as Pat and I are a natural thing, I definitely feel like I am a different person then I was four years ago. I’m just so glad that I stuck to my guns and made us take a break. They’d ask and I’d say no, not yet, or I wanna do this first, I got this to do. I pushed it back, but then I just finally put it in the calendar. We just put it in the books and got together. I knew that we weren’t going to have trouble making the record.
You had this routine going with your studio and working almost nine to five and not being on the road. Now you’re about to toss that out the window for a pretty long time. How do you feel about that?
I’m excited to play some shows. I’m excited to play for the fans, I’m excited to play some of the old songs again. I just feel like in this business, especially for us, because we’re so middle class from Ohio, it’s hard for us to turn down money. Hard for us to turn down those jobs. Because we worked so hard to get em. We worked for a decade. We took a four-door car and drove all around America, then we took a minivan to do the same thing. So like, to say no to opportunity was extra hard for us. But it was a necessity. We had to.
How will you gauge the success of this album?
It’s hard to gauge that nowadays because of the way the music business is. But I think that playing the shows, if people come out, I think that’s a sign that they like the record, I guess or like the band, still.
Maybe if people are psyched for the new songs rather than running for the bathrooms, that’s success at this point.
If they’re going to get $10 hot dogs while we’re playing our new songs then we know we’ve done something wrong.