During my recent discussion with Dan Auerbach, there was heavy construction underway in the unit above mine: the refrain of hammering, drill work, and boot steps were like a Greek chorus constantly trying to get a word in. Annoying as this was, it was also quite appropriate. After all, it would be difficult to name a more workmanlike artist in today’s music scene than Auerbach. In less than one calendar year, he has delivered the latest Black Keys album Attack and Release, a concert DVD Live at the Crystal Ballroom, and his first solo album, Keep It Hid. In addition, and in keeping with the manufacturing metaphor, he recently completed his own studio, Akron Analog.
“The great moments in music always seem to revolve around a certain scene; there were a handful of studios where musicians would create together,” he remarks, when asked to elaborate on what drove him to construct a studio in his hometown. Clearly, he is intrigued by the idea of establishing an environment that encourages the sort of inspiration that commonly accompanies like-minded musicians coming together. Auerbach is consciously invoking the impetus behind some of the more fruitful collaborations, what might be called happy accidents, in rock history. Virtually all the stories involving Abbey Road, or Electric Lady Studios and, of course, Muscle Shoals, involve interaction amongst the assembled musicians. Sometimes the solidarity was a simple matter of proximity: one thinks of Led Zeppelin IV being recorded in the same building while Jethro Tull were assembling Aqualung, or the baby-faced members of Pink Floyd (working on their debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn) sneaking peaks at the fab four as they concocted Sgt. Pepper, or, of course, Steve Winwood and Jack Casady (among many others) getting involved during the marathon late-night sessions that led to Jimi Hendrix’s masterpiece Electric Ladyland.
“Too often, it seems that in today’s scene, people can use computers and multiple studios, and we kind of lose the human connection,” Auerbach says. “I wanted that human element to be part of Keep It Hid.” He is not bemoaning the positive aspects of technology that have democratized the process — even, in some cases the basic ability — of recording; rather, he is interested (some might say obsessed) with the idea of authenticity. Working live in the studio, without the safety net of overdubs and production tricks, is one of the hallmarks of the distinct niche he’s carved out, along with Patrick Carney, in the Black Keys.
“This originality is the aspect of older music I like the best: it’s timeless and pure. Just musicians in a room, interacting.” Indeed, his first solo album is very much a collaboration (for more details about the various artists involved and the process of recording, a detailed review of Keep It Hid can be found here). “Listen, I love The Black Keys, and this album is not a step away from that band. I just feel it’s necessary for Patrick and I to explore, and learn, and grow as much as we can.” (For any fans understandably concerned that, in accordance with one of rock music’s more unfortunate clichés, just after the band released what is arguably their best album in Attack and Release, Auerbach is now breaking off to do his own thing, be comforted by Dan’s insistence that a new Keys album is already in the works.)
Asked to expound upon his quest to learn and grow, Auerbach is quick to praise the individuals he has worked with lately. “I’ve learned a whole lot. Working with Danger Mouse (who produced Attack and Release) was great. Really, I learn something new each time I work with anyone.” He has particular praise for the band he discovered and whose album he produced, Hacienda. “Watching them working out harmonies in the studio helped me realize there is a sort of science to it. It was like watching someone who had the code: I tapped into it, and I learned as I went, incorporating that into my own songwriting.” Hacienda is currently backing Auerbach on his American tour, proof positive that the association has been mutually beneficial, and rewarding.
Another epiphany that was a crucial component of Auerbach’s ongoing evolution as a songwriter was the experience of making Attack and Release. The somewhat mythical story is that this album was written for Ike Turner and, after his abrupt death, it became, by default, a Black Keys album. The reality is at once simpler and more complicated. Dan was indeed asked to write songs for Turner, but only a handful of those tracks were actually recorded. The process was taking longer than Auerbach (and Carney) were accustomed to, so they let the Turner project simmer on the back burner while they continued to create and record new songs. It was those subsequent tunes that comprise the bulk of Attack and Release.
Nevertheless, the process of writing songs for another individual was an illuminating experience. “I was writing in the third person, for the first time; it was more like writing stories than songs in a way.” He found this challenging, but ultimately liberating. “I felt like I was unlocking a door, and it was a whole new way to approach the idea of how a song is crafted.” Some of those songs, like “Oceans and Streams”, “So He Won’t Break”, and “All You Ever Wanted” wound up being particularly strong cuts on Attack and Release. The concept of storytelling within a song carried over to the Keep It Hid sessions. Songs like “The Prowl” and “Keep It Hid” were approached in a similar fashion. “I feel better about the songs,” he says. “When I first started out, I had no idea, really, how to write a song. We were just having fun!” The process of figuring it out is the history of The Black Keys, and the growth is measurable, in terms of craftsmanship and scope, with each successive effort. Progress, of course, is positive. “I’m not a kid in a basement anymore,” he says, laughing.
Discussion eventually and inevitably turns to the late Junior Kimbrough. It certainly makes all the sense in the world, with Auerbach’s proclivity for genuine sound, stripped-down recording and honest approach to songcraft, that Kimbrough has loomed large as a role model and inspiration. “He embodied so many parts of music, but only ever sounded like himself. I never like when people call his music “blues”; that is lazy, because he is so much more than that.” To say that Junior Kimbrough is his own paradigm, while accurate, does not account for what he represents — and what we are losing, as the older (mostly obscure and already forgotten) generation of southern Delta musicians pass on. Kimbrough, as much as any late-20th century musician (many of whom are lovingly represented by the heroic efforts of Matthew Johnson and his cohorts at Fat Possum Records, operating out of Oxford, Mississippi), represents a history of American music, but also something deeper and less definable. “It’s like hypnotic dance music,” Auerbach says. “You hear soul, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, even rockabilly, but also a kind of weird African thing.” That weird African thing is, of course, the undercurrent informing the earliest American blues. Filtered through acoustic, primitive folk and, later, amplified blues-rock, this is the type of “dark Americana” featured on Fat Possum. “Matthew is right in the middle of it; if it wasn’t for him no one would be listening to Junior, or R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford.”
Asked to assess how he feels about the present and, more importantly, the future, Auerbach is typically humble, but positive. “I’m in a good place,” he says. “I feel better about songs and how to write them.” Days later, I caught Dan’s gig in D.C, which happened to be the opening show for his solo tour: he was in fine form; full of energy and enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, he uncorked a brand new tune (the not-quite-believably brilliant “Money and Trouble”) which bodes well for that forthcoming material. Hopefully, he’ll remain locked into a zone where nothing can slow him down. In addition to the aforementioned next Black Keys project, there is a steady stream of touring and recording already planned. “I’ve got my shows coming up, and then playing some festivals, solo and with Patrick. It’s going to be another busy year, and we’ll see if I end up taking a vacation.” The word vacation does not seem to be in Auerbach’s vocabulary, but then, it is abundantly clear his day job provides him more joy than most folks can conceive.
“The music is more about who I am than about what I’m trying to do,” he explains. In other words, the experimentation, the confluence of disparate source material, the superhuman productivity are all part of what makes him tick. “No matter how the work was received, I’d still be playing this music.” Not that he is indifferent to acclaim and acceptance. “Of course I want my albums to be successful, but ultimately I don’t care too much what anyone thinks. I mean, I’m going to sound this way, no matter what.” That is the essence of Auerbach’s sensibility, which combines a restless quest to grow with an eye (and ear) keenly attuned to tradition and the best music that’s already been made. An important distinction Auerbach himself is at pains to point out is that while the old music speaks to him in a special way, he is not attempting to be “retro”; he is looking to tap into that organic vibe that is too easily, if correctly, called timeless. This simultaneous invocation of the masters with the cultivation of a distinctive style is one way to describe the trajectory of Auerbach’s career: the relentless search for authentic sounds.