Suma Studios in rural northeast Ohio has an amazing history: In its 1970s heyday, it was the birthplace of both Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” and Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing. More recently, Akron locals the Black Keys settled down there with Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse – the first outside producer that the avant-blues duo has ever worked with.
In the cavernous main room, Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney plunks away at a bass while singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach vamps on an electric piano. As the pair lock into an awkward waltz-time figure, Danger Mouse (real name Brian Burton) watches from the control room. “Keep playing it slow, then we’ll reverse it and speed it up,” Danger calls through the control-room microphone. The thus-twisted track is played back; Auerbach bellows, “When you work the streets, darlin’/Make sure your sneaker laces, they get tied” – and suddenly a song appears from what seemed like drowsy noodling.
In early 2007, Danger Mouse began work on a comeback album by rock & roll pioneer Ike Turner. Danger enticed the Keys (“One of my favorite bands,” he says) to write some songs for the project. The Keys turned in demos for Turner to learn, but when sessions bogged down, the project was temporarily shelved. The band eventually decided to make the tunes the heart of its fifth album, and Danger Mouse was the natural choice as producer. “Even when we gave the songs to Ike, they felt like Black Keys songs,” Auerbach says.
The result is the first Black Keys record that rewards headphone scrutiny, with enfolded layers of bass guitar, Moog fizz, bongos and female vocal harmonies (from Jessica Lea Mayfield, a local teenage singer discovered by Auerbach). Danger Mouse’s dusted arrangements and electronic touches are deftly incorporated, while Carney’s drumming sounds awesomely like Ringo Starr. “Same Old Thing” rides a woozy, Wu-Tang-y groove and features flute and bass harmonica from former Tom Waits sideman Ralph Carney, Patrick’s uncle. “Lies,” a song the Keys originally gave to Turner, is a fearsome slow blues perfectly suited to Auerbach’s woolly howl and Carney’s animal-like kit-hashing. “We wanted to make an album whose sounds are as varied as our musical tastes,” says Patrick Carney, whose tour-bus mixtapes run from early Cypress Hill to post-rock pals Six Parts Seven. “We used to record an entire album in fourteen hours,” says Auerbach. “This time we’d spend fourteen hours on one song.”
The finished album plays as an oddball tribute to its inspiration, Turner, who passed away in December. Danger Mouse remains philosophical about how it all turned out. “Hopefully people will get to hear a song or two that was finished from the sessions with Ike,” he says. “But it’s for the best that these songs became Black Keys songs. That’s what they were meant to be.”
This story is from the March 6th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.