The Black Keys had become a burden.
Blues-rock duo Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have known each other since elementary school in Akron, Ohio.
By the time of “Turn Blue” in 2014, the guitar band had been grinding for eight albums. Catching fire at the start of this decade with catchy hits like “Tighten Up,” “Lonely Boy,” and “Gold on the Ceiling,” they became one of the rare non-baby-boomer rock acts to attain arena and festival headlining status.
But after a dozen years on the road, Auerbach and Carney needed to take a time out. The divide between them is satirized in the video for “Go,” a single from “Let’s Rock,” the album they released this spring.
“I hear they hate each other,” an Akron rock jock is heard to say as the pair are sent off to heal at a Happy Trails spiritual retreat. “When you’re working with someone every single day,” the DJ’s partner replies, “you’d do just about anything to never see their stupid face again.”
In the clip, Auerbach and Carney take every opportunity to flip the bird at each other. But they come to appreciate togetherness by remembering their music’s special power: to make money fall from the sky.
Auerbach said the “Go” clip is intentionally exaggerated. But the burnout was real.
“We weren’t giving each other the finger,” said the singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer, studio owner, and head of Easy Eye Sound label. “But we were both going through a bunch of [stuff]. And the constant touring wasn’t helping at all.”
“ … It wasn’t like we hated each other. It was just like with anybody you were trapped on a tour bus with for 10 years, you’re going to kind of get sick of doing the same thing over and over. The break was a necessity.”
Auerbach, 40, made productive use of his time away. When the duo first got together in high school, Carney was more technologically advanced and in possession of a four-track tape recorder. “Neither of us knew anything,” Auerbach recalled. “But he knew more of nothing than I did.”
After both moved to Nashville in 2010, however, it was Auerbach who established himself as an in-demand producer.
The number of records that Auerbach has worked on is staggering. To name a few: Dr. John’s “Locked Down” in 2012, African guitarist Bombino’s “Nomad” in 2013, Lana Del Rey’s “Ultraviolence” in 2014, the Pretenders’ “Alone” in 2016. In 2013, he even took home a producer of the year Grammy.
During the hiatus, Auerbach’s band the Arcs, with players including the late Richard Swift, released “Yours, Dreamily” in 2015.
And in 2017, Auerbach launched Easy Eye Sound with a solo album, “Waiting on a Song.” He’s gone to school on the methods of execs like Motown’s Berry Gordy and Hi Records’ Willie Mitchell.
His team includes Philadelphia artist Perry Shall, who does all of the label’s vintage-looking album art. This year, Easy Eye has released albums by black British country singer Yola, Alabama singer Dee White, and late guitarist Leo “Bud” Welch. Country songwriter Kendell Marvel and bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes have new ones coming this month.
Auerbach works fast. With preproduction, he said, “three days is plenty of time to make a record. I’m working on multiple albums every day. I’ve got a Robert Finley album that needs strings. And there’s a John Prine track that we need steel guitar for.”
The label owner got turned on to Shall when the Philly artist was working with Nashville band Jeff the Brotherhood in 2012.
Auerbach, who is the son of a Jewish antiques dealer (and second cousin to late Lou Reed guitarist Robert Quine) calls Shall “a fine young Hebrew man who makes his living doing art. We just have a similar aesthetic. … Perry is the man. I don’t know anybody more Philadelphia than Perry.”
Shall, 34, has done artwork for Philly bands like Mannequin Pussy and his group, Hound. He said he and Auerbach “have this weird, unspoken psychic connection. … Dan is always working, and we’re just sending each other ideas, texting each other all the time.”
Auerbach tragically lost two collaborators in Swift, who died as a result of alcoholism last year, and David Berman, the Purple Mountains songwriter who committed suicide over the summer.
“Me and Richard were best buds. … We met doing a Valerie June record. I loved him and I really do miss him.” He paused. “He was better at everything than anybody. Better drummer, better piano player, better person, funnier joke teller.”
The last song on “Purple Mountains,” Berman’s mordant final album, is called “Maybe I’m the Only One For Me.” Auerbach co-wrote it.
“When I met Berman, he wasn’t making any music at all. I think I got him out of his house, and I definitely got him around some musicians. … He’s just a fantastic guy when he’s on your side. A very good friend. Funny.”
The good news for Berman fans is Auerbach said he has several Arcs songs that Berman helped with the lyrics. Those songs will “definitely” see the light of day. “I got to get a couple of things out of the way first.”
While immersed in all his recording activity, Auerbach said he didn’t know if the Black Keys were going to get back together. “I had no idea. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just kind of following my instincts. It wasn’t until I made a record with this guy Glenn Schwartz that I even thought of making a Black Keys record.”
Schwartz — not be confused with WCAU-TV meteorologist Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz — was the original guitarist in the James Gang, and idol of Joe Walsh. When the Black Keys were beginning, they would go see Schwartz at a Cleveland club called Hooples.
“All the early Black Keys stuff was so influenced by Glenn. His DNA is all over it,” he said.
In 2018, Auerbach brought Schwartz to Nashville. “It was just me and Joe and Glenn in the studio. I hadn’t thought about electric guitar like that since I was making those early records with Pat, going to see Glenn. It just inspired me to pick up the electric guitar. As soon as I finished that album, I called Pat and said, ‘Let’s make a record.’ ”
That resulting Black Keys album is dedicated to Schwartz, who died last year. (Schwartz’s own album is due in 2020.) And Auerbach’s rekindled enthusiasm is reflected on the keyboard-free “Let’s Rock.”
The amped-up attack is thus far yielding deeply satisfying results on the road, said Auerbach, with guitars played by himself and road band members Andy Gabbard and Steve Marion. (Gabbard’s brother Zach plays bass.)
“It’s very, very guitar-centric,” he said. “We’ve never actually toured with this many guitars. All the records I do, I’m usually layering the guitars, right? So now for the first time, I’m hearing all these different layers onstage. It sounds more like the Black Keys albums than it ever has.”
Auerbach said that the time away allowed him to create “what I always wanted Nashville to be. I got to work with amazing studio musicians and songwriters and singers every single day.”
But it’s also made him appreciate the Black Keys.
“It definitely solidifies in my mind the connection that Pat and I have always had,” he said. “Working with all these great musicians makes me really see that when Pat and I get together there’s just some special magic there. It’s undeniable.”
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