The Black Keys: Chart-Topping Blues
Photo: John Patrick Gatta
Dan Auerbach's studio is a squat building that you'd be hard-pressed to notice if you weren’t looking for it. There isn’t an address on the outside, and nothing betrays what’s contained behind its gray exterior and high fences studded with razor wire. Located south of downtown Nashville, right past a highway under- pass, Easy Eye Sound hides in plain sight across the street from a leasing company that specializes in trucks, bulldozers and small aircraft, and down the street from a gardening store, uninvitingly called Worm’s Way.
After passing through the locked gate, 12-foot fence and under two cameras mounted over a solid steel door, I enter the inner sanctum. It’s like one of those cartoons, where an unimposing desert tent opens to a sumptuous palatial interior.
There are two vintage motorcycles sitting under a window, and a display of vintage denim vests and jean jackets arranged on a wall, like fine museum pieces, and idiosyncratic folk art in the bathroom. Clearly Auerbach has a strong and eccentric aesthetic, which likely comes from being the son of an antique dealer. It’s how he initially came to Nashville—on buying and selling trips with his dad. They’d set up stalls at Opryland and the Nashville Convention Center to sell the elder Auerbach’s outsider art, quilts, religious signage and carved folk-art artifacts. “Sometimes he’d take me to some place like Robert’s Western
World, and we’d listen to all that music,” Auerbach remembers. “Sometimes I think that’s why I decided to live down here. Because of the good times I had with my dad.”
Afterward, the two would travel further south to Memphis, then head over to Northern Mississippi, where the young Auerbach first heard the Hill Country blues of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and Fred McDowell—music that not only formed his tastes but was also what he tried to reproduce in The Black Keys.
Besides exposing him to the blues, Charles Auerbach could also be held responsible for the uneasy psychedelia and some of the guitar runs on Turn Blue, given that the first concert he ever took his young son to was the Grateful Dead at Richfield Coliseum outside Cleveland. “I was a Grateful Dead fan just because I heard it growing up, and I’m still a fan. I only saw them that one time, and really didn’t have a clue what was happening,” says Auerbach. “I didn’t know anything about the culture. Certainly not the drugs. Or even what a Deadhead was. But I was spellbound the whole time.”
“Yeah, I definitely hear Jerry Garcia in some of Dan’s runs,” says Carney. “Dan really loves the Allman Brothers. I never really listened to the Allman Brothers that much. But I really love Led Zeppelin, and Dan doesn’t listen to Led Zeppelin at all. In a weird way, Dan liking the Allman Brothers and me liking Led Zeppelin, and not vice versa, defines our classic-rock tastes. But we both love The Beatles.”
If you read into what Carney says, it was as simple as following a recipe. And maybe it was. The unlikely duo lived in the same neighborhood but weren’t close friends and couldn’t have been more different: physically, temperamentally or socially. They first played together after Auerbach came over to Carney’s house to record himself and a couple of his friends. The friends didn’t show up, so Carney filled in.
“I think we have a natural musical connection,” Auerbach says, twisting the greenstone ring he wears on the middle finger of his left hand. “There’s some sort of code in our brains that was similar enough that helped us do what we do. When we first got together, it sounded like music right from the get-go.
“I’ve played with some other people, and sometimes it’s really difficult. But when I was with Pat, it [was] just effortless. We both kind of understood a certain dynamic, and we could always do that thing. It’s not something that you could ever really plan or define and recreate, it just happens or it doesn’t.
“We auditioned a couple people when we started, and every time we would add that other person, we would sound smaller and shittier,” he continues. “We always sounded more dynamic and big and exciting when there [were] just two of us. I was listening to lots of music that was just drums and guitar. I was really getting into Fat Possum records at the time, and they were doing tours of two-piece acts: Paul Jones, T-Model Ford, R.L. Burnside, Robert Belfour.”
Turn Blue, released in May and produced by Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse (who has worked with the duo for the last seven years), is a departure from the early primitivism of The Black Keys’ early records, with its sophisticated soundscapes, layered found sounds, ghostly psychedelia and Auerbach’s high- flying falsettos. It’s soul music from the outer edges of the psyche, going where Auerbach never allowed himself to go: inside.
More autobiographical than anything they’ve ever done, it details Auerbach’s annus horribilis. 2012 saw him weather a messy divorce, a house fire and life as a single parent after he was granted custody of Sadie. That’s not even counting Jack White’s unhinged harangues and leaked emails about The Black Keys. (As of press time, White posted a formal apology to the band on his website.)
“I was pretty surprised by anything he said,” Auerbach says. “I hardly knew the guy.”
Oddly, the relentlessly stoic Auerbach is more forthcoming about his personal life than his so-called feud with White.
“People ask me if my divorce affects the way I write lyrics,” Auerbach says from the kitchen in Easy Eye, where he’s making him- self a cup of herbal tea. “I tell them there’s nothing it doesn’t affect.”
They started work on the album last January in a small studio in Benton Harbor, Mich., during a cold snap. The recording process took much longer than anything they’d done before. That’s mainly because Auerbach was still reeling from what had happened in his life.
When they started, he didn’t have any songs written. They went into the studio with Auerbach only having the melody for “Fever” stuck in his head.
Auerbach ended up with a suite of songs that touched on the events that had transpired in his life. There was very little artistic license. Or any filter. It was more an open letter at times.
You don’t really use your autobiography as fodder. What made it OK for you to do it this time?
“I don’t know, really,” says Auerbach, scratching his trimmed blond beard—a beard that has a Facebook page dedicated to it, as well as its own Twitter account. “Maybe I finally had something in my own personal life that grabbed me enough to want to sing about it. It was overwhelming enough, honestly, that I couldn’t really focus on anything else.”
You talked about music healing you now, and you’d never used it for that before.
“I never needed to use it like that before,” he says. “There weren’t any profound deaths in my family that I couldn’t get over. I’d never gone through anything quite so overwhelming, I guess. I was really just feeling my way through the darkness, and I was just trying to get the record done. And all Pat and Brian could do was sit back and let me finish. I think Pat did his best to steer clear and let me figure it out on my own.”
Some of the lyrics were so literal that at one point Carney and Burton tried to talk Auerbach into changing them. But he held fast and refused to.
What made it easier for Auerbach to keep his resolve was Lana Del Rey.
“I was working with Lana when I was trying to finish up lyrics for The Black Keys record,” Auerbach says. “I saw some of my lyrics were making Pat and Brian uncomfortable, and that made me second-guess myself a few times. When I started working with Lana, I noticed that, quite a few times, I would get uncomfortable when she would sing lyrics that I thought were too personal, and I realized that’s where the energy in the song really was. It showed me that I shouldn’t listen to anybody else but myself.
“By the time I was done with the record, I was sick of hearing about it. I was like, ‘I’m done. Sorry, everybody, for what you’re going to have to endure. But I had to get it out there.’”