‘You can only see so many people from the stage with the lights in your face’
‘El Camino’ introduced The Black Keys to the world of arenas. With their new album, says Dan Auerbach, one half of the Nashville-based duo, it was a case of keep calm and change nothing
Black and blue: Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach
How do you follow up an album that has sold millions, won Grammys, taken you into arenas and given you seemingly overnight success a decade on from your debut release? In the case of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, the Nashville-based duo from Akron, Ohio, who make up The Black Keys, and their blockbusting El Camino album, you do it all over again.
“We definitely did not have a direction in mind,” says Auerbach. “We went into the studio just to see what would happen. We’ve always operated that way. We don’t talk about it ahead of time, we don’t wonder what if, we don’t have a grand plan. It all just comes together over a period of time in the studio.”
The guitarist and vocalist is talking about Turn Blue, the duo’s eighth album. It has some big boots to fill, considering the success of its predecessor, and it does so with aplomb. The greasy blues that have served them so well are still intact, but you’ll also find touches of psychedelia, washes of slow-burning soul, and big infectious hooks at every turn.
There was never really going to be a huge change in the template. The Black Keys have been a study in the steady build since those raw early records, such as The Big Come Up (2002) and Thickfreakness (2003). What has changed over the years is that more and more people have come around to their way of thinking, especially since 2010’s Brothers. That album’s Tighten Up made them a radio-friendly proposition, a trick repeated with Lonely Boy and El Camino and again with Fever, from the new album.
“Since I started playing music and making records, it’s always been about making records to live up to what influenced me when I was starting out,” says Auerbach. “It’s a never-ending cycle. I hear something I like, and it sets me off and gets me excited to make music.”
Auerbach is laconic about moving up a gear since the last album. “Once you start playing in big rooms, in front of 1,000 people or more, nothing really changes that much from there on in, because you can only see so many people from the stage with the lights in your face. We still set up the same distance apart as we did in little clubs. Our onstage footprint makes it seem normal to us.”
Moving up the rankings
Offstage there’s now a team around the band, a significant change for the duo, though Auerbach this is inevitable when you move up the rankings. “Back in the day we did everything ourselves and were wary of anyone getting in our space. We were definitely a DIY and a stay-out-of-our-business kind of band when we started. That’s why it took us so long to even go record in a professional studio. We were never in a real studio until we made our sixth record.
“But now it’s different. We let our radio people and record people pick the singles. As regards what goes on the record, from the artwork to the running order, we have 110 per cent say over that, but we leave the radio stuff to professionals. We don’t listen to the radio, so we’ve no idea what song will play well with radio. When we started we never had any singles, so it wasn’t a problem.”
Giving up some control was part of growing up, says Auerbach. “You come to a point where [you realise you] actually don’t know everything. Insecurities can really hold you back sometimes, so I’m glad we’ve worked them out. We have learned how to communicate what we want in-studio.”
That communication process has stood to Auerbach as a producer for hire. He has worked on standout albums for Dr John (Locked Down), Bombino (Nomad), Hanni El Khatib (Head In the Dirt) and Lana Del Rey (the forthcoming Ultraviolence). “Every time you come across someone you learn something,” he says. “There are little tricks you pick up on, these small things that no one else notices, but you do. It’s all about finding these little quirks or differences and bringing them back to use again.”
Auerbach gets many requests for his services, so he can be selective. “What attracted me to Dr John was that I loved and was such a fan of his first few records and that sound. I thought that would be something really supercool for me to do. I flew down to New Orleans and hooked up with him, and we talked, and he was prepared to go along with me and what I wanted to do. That was really special.”
Turn Blue is released on Friday