SQUARE (WELL, ACTUALLY, HIP…) PEGS The Black Keys

Thwarting
expectations on album and in concert – of the latter, adding bass/keyboards to
the mix – ain’t no big thing for the Akron
duo.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

The Black Keys were always more than the traditional
garage-y blues rock, guitar/drums duo they’ve been pegged as. If their output
over the last two years hasn’t proved that, nothing will. 2008’s tour de force,
Attack and Release, found the band
partnering with Danger Mouse and using the studio as an instrument for the
first time. After that came Blackroc,
a collaboration with rappers like RZA, Mos Def and Q-Tip. Their latest, Brothers, was recorded at Alabama’s legendary
Muscle Shoals studio, and if the band was hoping to soak up the classic soul
and R&B that’s in the ether there, they succeeded.

 

We talked with singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach about the album
and the state of his long-running combo.

 

***

 

BLURT: The
first thing people will notice about Brothers is that it has much less guitar and much more of an R&B feel. What made you
want to go in that direction?

AUERBACH: I don’t know. I think the album is a broad mix
that doesn’t stick to one particular style. There is some heavy stuff, like
“Howlin’ for You” and “She’s Long Gone.” But we’re capable of doing other
things. We don’t have meetings about what we’re going to do. We just do it.

 

But
there must have come a point when you realized you were going down a different
path.

We knew we were doing things we’d never done before. We knew
we had songs that were just real heavy grooves without fuzz guitar. I knew I
was singing in falsetto for the first time as a lead vocal. But you just do it.
At the time, I was listening to more soul music from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s
– like The Invincibles, Lou Johnson, and The Impressions. It must have had an
impact.

 

Were
you worried about throwing your fans a curveball?

Not at all. I’ve seen a couple of reviews. Some say it’s
totally different; others say “more of the same from The Black Keys.” (laughs). You can’t think about what
other people think.

 

With
all the different sounds on this album, how will you play the songs live?

We can play some of the songs already as a two piece. We’re
going to bring musicians out to play Farfisa and bass on some of the stuff.
Most of the show will be guitar and drums, but we’ll bring them out for a few
songs

 

Was it
a hard decision to add musicians to the band?

We did realize that we’ve been playing for 10 years as a
duo. But just like with reviews, we can’t pay attention to what anyone else
thinks. We just do what seems like fun to us. There’s a time and a place for
everything.

 

You and
drummer Patrick Carney each recently did solo projects. What did you learn from
yours that you brought to the band?

I’m always making music and producing records or recording
them. The solo album was another one. I learn some tricks every time I work
with other people. It keeps things exciting.

 

What
was a recent trick you learned?  

On the solo tour, we used the Farfisa a bunch and I ended up
using it on the Black Keys record. I also started to open up more in my songwriting.
I started writing story songs. I never did that before. I started having fun
lyrically. I never did that before either.  

 

What do
you mean by having fun lyrically?

I mean be ridiculous, tell stories or maybe just not make
sense. The same thing we do with our instruments. We started when we were kids.
Back then, I had no idea how to construct a song. Now, I’m finally starting to
think about it differently. It never dawned on me before that there are no
rules when it comes to songwriting.

 

How did
working with rappers like RZA and Mos Def affect you?

The thing that impressed me most was how they change when
they get on the mic. They jump into character. I got to see them come in and
take control of the mic and really sell themselves in way I never saw. Rock ‘n’
roll people tend to be timid and insecure. Rap dudes know who they are. They
have their own personas and let it all hang out. I’m not sure I would have sung
falsetto if I hadn’t just gotten done with Blackroc.
It gave me the courage to explore what I was capable of doing vocally.

 

Did you
always like hip-hop or was it something you grew to love recently?

That’s why Patrick and I got together. We loved Wu-Tang and
wanted to make mixtapes that sounded like RZA’s productions. The demo we sent
to labels had a bunch of samples on it. Only later did we realize that RZA was
sampling old soul and rock ‘n’ roll and blues stuff.

 

So,
your original goal was to make a hip-hop record but with live instruments
instead of samples?

We wanted to make a rock ‘n’ roll record with the
sensibility of RZA.  We got signed to
Alive Records, and the head of the label was a real MC5, rock ‘n’ roll kind of
guy. He made us take the samples off.

 

Why didn’t
you use samples on your next album when you moved to another label?

When we made the second record, we were starting to play
live and wanted to make something we could easily do onstage. We recorded it in
one day. Twelve songs in one day in the basement.  We never thought we’d do hip-hop onstage. When
we made our first record, we had never played a show.

 

What
did you learn from working with Danger Mouse?

Danger Mouse has a great ear for melody. He showed us how to
have fun in a proper studio. When I was talking about letting loose with
writing and vocals, he showed us how to do that with arrangements. His attitude
is throw anything on there you think will make song sound better. Give it a go.
If it doesn’t work, you can always peel it off.

 

Seeing
you play live, I’m amazed at how you and Patrick seem to have a sort of
telepathy where you instinctively know what the other will do. What is that
like?

I just turned 31. I started playing with Patrick when I was
16. That’s a long time. We’ve seen bands come and go; we’ve just maintained. We’ve
toured more than most bands will ever tour. That combined with the fact that we
have a natural connection. One of things I learned working with other musicians
is that when Pat and I work together, it’s completely effortless. You can take
that for granted. If we didn’t work with other people, we wouldn’t know how
good we have it.

 

Between
touring with bands like Pearl Jam and Kings of Leon and appearing on the Twilight soundtrack, it seems like
you’re setting out to reach a larger audience. Do you see this as your moment
to break through?

I don’t know, but it feels good. Most bands get really big
on their first or second record. This is our sixth or seventh record [depending
on whether you count Blackroc].  We have a fan base that goes to see us play. It’s
exciting because of that. When we started, we did a tour with Beck all over the
States; we played with Pearl Jam in Europe. It
does feel different this time, but we haven’t really changed anything.

 

What
are you most proud of when you look back?

I’m proud of how hard we’ve worked. We’ve worked harder than
any band. We’re just driven people. We’re in love with music and are driven to
be as good at it as we can be.

 

 

 

 

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