Years before Dan Auerbach formed the Black Keys with drummer Patrick Carney, he was hypnotized by the grimy trance country blues of Mississippi guitarists T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.
“I totally loved T-Model and had gone down to Greenville [Mississippi] to meet him,” Auerbach says. “I hung out with him and spent the night in his trailer with my buddy after we played at a juke all night. It was fun as hell.”
Two decades later, the blues master’s influence still colors Auerbach’s greasy, fuzzed-out guitar jams. On Let’s Rock (Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch), the Black Keys’ first album in five years, Auerbach and Carney return to that hard-riffing style, imbuing it with a refined sense of dynamics and songcraft. “On songs like ‘Eagle Birds’ and ’Go,’ the sound, the basic rhythm guitar, is a T-Model thing,” Auerbach says. “If you stripped it back to the guitar and drums, it would sound just like that.”
Coming off a marathon two-year tour for 2014’s notably subdued Turn Blue, Auerbach needed to decompress and retreated home to Nashville. "Home" is a relative term. Although he’d lived there for seven years, he’d hardly spent any time in town. As he and Carney drifted into separate projects, the Keys’ layover turned into a full, schedule-clearing stop. “At the end of that touring cycle, we were totally fried,” Auerbach says. “We just went back home. I spent time working, making records, buying guitars.”
He also put his energy into starting Easy Eye Sound, a label named after the studio he founded near Nashville’s Music Row, and collaborating with artists like soul singer Yola. His work with rediscovered bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch, who passed in 2017, resulted in the posthumous album The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name.
The laid-back vibe at Easy Eye facilitated regular songwriting sessions with Nashville outsider-turned-statesman John Prine, along with Nashville songwriters like Pat McLaughlin and Roger Cook. Several of the 300-plus songs Auerbach co-wrote ended up on his acoustic-leaning 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song. More importantly, he was curating a sound and a scene that recalled the recording venues he admired from the 1960s and ’70s, like Muscle Shoals, Stax and Royal Studios, complete with a house band.
But it took a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration with an early guitar hero to rekindle his fire for amped-up rock and roll. In 2016, Auerbach jammed with former James Gang guitarist Glenn Schwartz. Auerbach, who calls Schwartz “my biggest rock and roll inspiration,” used to watch him perform his regular gig at a local Cleveland bar. When Schwartz came to Easy Eye to record in 2017, he was joined by Joe Walsh, who had taken his place in the James Gang in 1968. Backed by the studio’s band, they cut new versions of Schwartz’s 1970s solo work.
“It was right after I finished that record that I texted Pat and said, ‘Let’s put a session on the books,’” Auerbach recalls.
After some overdue R&R and creative exploration, the duo were back in action creating Let’s Rock, a call to arms made without any preparation. As on early Black Keys albums Rubber Factory and Brothers, Auerbach and Carney started fresh every day, cranking the amps and making that glorious, window-rattling noise. As Carney notes, “I was sitting in my studio for the last year just playing electric guitar, and for the first time in a while Dan was playing a lot of electric guitar. The record is like a homage to electric guitar. It’s all it is. We took a simple approach and trimmed all the fat, like we used to.”
Auerbach spoke with us about the Black Keys’ new outlook, his collaborations with his guitar heroes, and why his recording studio is “the world’s greatest pawnshop.”
Patrick said this record marks a sort of return to the electric guitar for you after a run of outside projects. Did the band’s hiatus reinvigorate your interest in playing guitar?
About a year and a half ago, I did this record with Glenn Schwartz. He was the original guitar player in the James Gang. Lived in Cleveland, Ohio. When I was a teenager, I used to go see him. He played every Thursday night at this place called Hoopples. He was a wild guitar player. Played a Fender Quad Reverb with an extension 4x12 cabinet. He was playing eight 12s in this tiny little bar! It sounded like Cream. This was Joe Walsh’s guitar hero, too. This is the guy that made Joe Walsh want to play electric guitar.
Anyway, I invited him down [to Easy Eye Sound] to do a recording session and record some of those songs that I used to go see him play. Joe came in and played too. The whole session was just like… All those memories flooded back of being 17, hanging out at that bar, watching Glenn Schwartz play, hearing all of the things that I borrowed for the Black Keys that I totally got from Glenn. To see Joe there worshiping Glenn just like I was made me want to make a loud rock and roll record.
You branched out during that downtime, too, working with John Prine and earning a Grammy for producing Cage the Elephant. Did you bring anything from those collaborations back to the Black Keys when it came time to make Let’s Rock?
Oh yeah. I’m just a completely different person than I was three years ago. All these records, and all this time spent with these different musicians every single day, day in and day out, and these crazy writers like Pat McLaughlin, Roger Cook... I feel like I went to school, but some sort of dream school. And to get to play with guitar players like Billy Sanford, who wrote the guitar riff for “Pretty Woman” for Roy Orbison!
What was your most memorable session with those guys?
They’re all memorable. Every single one of them. That’s why it’s so addictive, because you never know what’s going to happen. We get all those creative people under one roof, and you can get something really special going.
Do you think you’ll go back to that kind of work sometime?
I work with these guys all the time. I’m mixing stuff today that I recorded with some of the same guys. We record with the same house band. We’re just always working.
What songs are you especially proud of being involved in during that time? Did any help you reshape your creative process?
Songs like Yola’s “Faraway Look.” Writing with those kinds of changes, melodies and the kind of layering and dynamic shift in those kind of songs was inspiring. [Shannon Shaw’s] Shannon in Nashville is another one. For the Night Beats’ record that we did [2019’s Myth of a Man], we had three electric guitars playing at the same time. That was fun as hell. Definitely inspired me. The Leo “Bud” Welch recording “I Come to Praise His Name,” that was just as raw as it gets. It’s just a riff with a Les Paul solo through a little amp turned all the way up.
You’ve always gravitated to rawer, more obscure blues artists. Welch didn’t even record until 2015, when he was 81. How did you discover him?
Bruce [Watson] from Fat Possum, who recorded that record, said, “You should work with Leo,” so we got in touch with him and invited him up. We spent two days in the studio and jammed with him. We recorded a bunch of songs and just had fun. It was cool. He just played the songs that he knew, and then we would adapt to him. We would let him set the foundation. His timing was really rock solid.
That reminds me of what Dick Waterman said [in his book A Life in Blues] about guys like “Mississippi” John Hurt and Son House. When they found new audiences in the ’60s and started playing again, they still played their same set, no matter where they were. They played what they had.
I just did a record with [Bentonia, Mississippi bluesman] Jimmy “Duck” Holmes [Cypress Grove, out October 18], and it was a similar thing. We had him up here, and he played songs he knew. We tried to get him to play some really old ones that he’d learned from people like Skip James, and he did, and it was cool. But most of it was just his repertoire.
After those experiences, what approach did you and Patrick take for the songs on Let’s Rock?
We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t go in with anything. We just started from scratch every time we sat down. We’ve been doing it this way since we were 16.
There’s a lot under the surface of these songs, though. They’re well crafted. How long did you spend on the record?
We did a couple of little spurts. We recorded for the first time for two weeks, and then we took a month off and I sorted through the instrumentals, started working on coming up with vocal ideas. Started to hone in on which ones were working and which ones weren’t, and which ones I needed to add guitar parts to or start arranging. Then Pat and I got back together and we recorded some more stuff for about a week and a half. I was working on different things and then going back to them later, trying to get fresh ears on the songs. But it was fairly quick.
Having Easy Eye Sound must make that process easier. What’s the recording aesthetic like?
It’s based on the old classic American studios of the South, like Muscle Shoals, American Sound, Stax and Hi [Royal Studios, the home of Hi Records]. It’s an intimate studio. It has lots of instruments and a bunch of different stations for multiple guitar players, so we can record with three keyboard players, three electric guitar players and bass, percussion and drums, all at the same time. And then we can record acoustic instruments and vocals and not mess anything up. It’s made for capturing that live feel, but it’s a totally modern studio. We use Pro Tools, and we have tape machines too. We have a beautiful old 1969 Spectra Sonics console. That is an American classic.
Given your love of vintage gear, I picture Easy Eye being like the greatest pawnshop on Earth.
[laughs] That’s pretty much what it is. That’s what we try to make the Black Keys stage look like, the world’s greatest pawnshop.
Did you have a go-to guitar set up for this record?
Yeah. I use my little red Flot-A-Tone amp that I’ve had for years, and a silverface [Fender] Deluxe Reverb and a little Gibson Skylark. I’ve used that for years too. And I played my Tele, which I use all the time, and a little Harmony Stratotone. I got Hound Dog Taylor’s old guitar from [Alligator Records founder] Bruce Iglauer, and I played that on the record quite a bit.
Was that a recent acquisition for you?
Yeah. It’s his old Teisco [Kingston SD-40] that he made his records with. It’s crazy sounding. It’s really big, a huge hunk of wood, so it’s heavy and resonant. It doesn’t squeal like a lot of those old Japanese pickups but kind of sings. It’s weird. I used it on “Breaking Down” and a bunch of songs. I used my Gretsch Country Gentlemen too. I never knew about big Gretsch rock and roll chords. I was late to the party.
How creative do you get with your gear setups?
My stuff’s pretty much set up, and I don’t mess around at all. I don’t want to waste any time messing around with cables and stuff . At the studio, I’ve got this little pedalboard set up with a bunch of different things I can try just at the click of a button - a bunch of different multiple pathways, with multiple amps - and everything’s all set up and ready to go. It made it fun, and it’s quick to jump around and try out different sounds.
Is that also what you’re using live?
No, I’m using a GigRig switcher. The thing is so amazing, man. It’s just so easy to use. I’ve got two of them, and I’ve got a rack of pedals and effects, and pedals on the floor. I’ve got, like, 24 totally different sounds that I can jump around to and mess with. I really went overboard with it, but it’s been fun. That’s going into the Gibson and the Flot-A-Tone, and there’s an Ampeg amp over there, a Gemini I that I always use. But yeah, I’ve got it running into all those amps, and I can quickly jump to each one.
There’s so much guitar happening on this record between your main tracks, the doubled tracks and the melodic lines that weave in and out. How are you filling out that sound live?
On this tour, it’s going to be three guitars, bass and drums. We’ve got Andy [Gabbard, guitar] and Zach [Gabbard, bass], our old friends from the Buffalo Killers from Cincinnati, Ohio. Then we’ve got our friend Delicate Steve, who also plays guitar. We just started doing some rehearsals, and it was really fun. It was kind of crazy, because I’ve always double-tracked my guitar on records, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard it happen live, and it’s really satisfying. I really like it.
It must be pretty liberating to have that wall of sound to work with.
We gave those guys the songs, and they went through and learned the parts. Steve actually plays guitar and he uses pedals to get all the synthy sounds. He can even get the organ sounds, which is crazy. We’re up there playing “Tighten Up” [from 2010’s Brothers] with three electric guitars, and you hear a Hammond organ coming from his amp. It’s really wild.