As one-half of dusty white blues duo, the Black Keys, fleet-fingered guitarist Dan Auerbach never had to worry about what profession to pursue as an impressionable greenhorn. Growing up in what he describes as “the broke-dick post-Industrial town” of Akron, Ohio, known for its odorous rubber factories and substandard blue collar jobs, he enjoyed listening to his father’s big record collection, learning piano from his mother, whose family played and sang in local blues and bluegrass bands.
It wasn’t long before Auerbach hooked up with lanky skin-basher, Patrick Carney, gaining early local attention as an exciting live band. Though the Black Keys formative roughhewn ’02 entree, The Big Come Up, received only limited notoriety, ‘03s sinewy Thickfreakness, truly put ‘em on the map nationally. Full of overcast buzzing guitar riffs and efficient rudimentary drum patterns, Thickfreakness made these greasy blues-punk scavengers very popular amongst arena rock heads and gritty soul searchers. On these early sessions, Auerbach’s murkily parched vocal snarl barely rises above the blustery din of “Set You Free.” Minor mood, texture, and tempo tweaks provide enough variation to differentiate each scraggly boogie, confessional testimonial, and down ‘n dirty discharge.
Less tentative, more resilient, and clearer production-wise, ‘04s tauter Rubber Factory relied on trashier gut-bucket metal to slightly differentiate it from preceding ventures. “10 A.M. Automatic” really opens up the Black Keys sound, as Auerbach’s axe cranks out louder, sturdier, crisper shards of noise. The intensity level increases twofold on “Girl Is On My Mind” and “Stack Shot Billy,” a few swampy psych-blues threnodies reminiscent, at times, of indie-approved blues septuagenarians, R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, or more specifically, Junior Kimbrough.
On top of its supreme stripped-down Howlin’ Wolf-imbibed Chi-town R & B vibe, ‘06s lethal Magic Potion gives its spare city-folk retrenchments a shinier studio glaze, sharpening any rough or dull edges without sacrificing any raunchy feedback and crude reverb. The finest moment comes with stammered beat-driven rampage, “Your Touch,” which neatly boils down the Black Keys basic elemental design to one extremely infatuating elemental arpeggio groove, striking a rare balance between Bad Company’s ‘70s-based hard rock and the White Stripes economical garage rock.
For Auerbach’s next two revisionist projects, one an unlikely alliance and another a latent solo debut, he proves to be quite malleable, advancing and broadening his musical range. Bass, Moog synthesizer, clarinet, and harmonica add extra dimension to ‘08s tidy Attack & Release, a monumental accord pitting hip-hop studio wizard, Danger Mouse, against Auerbach’s musty 6-string labyrinths and Carney’s rhythmic patter. He’s a rock and roll hustler on the stormy “I Got Mine,” then foresees trouble brewing on skulking urban drama, “Strange Times.” Seasoned session ace Marc Ribot’s dusky fretwork conveys sheer panic in ghostly requiem, “Lies.” Draping well-oiled axes across a booming bass-drum frenzy, “Remember When (Side B)” may be the most rockingest thing the Black Keys have yet attempted. The future looked so bright Auerbach decided to veer off the strict blues-rock trail even further.
Tantalizing solo turnabout, Keep It Hid (Nonesuch Records), explores various new avenues with friends and family. Recorded at Auerbach’s home studio with local Akronite drummer Bob Cesare, rhythm guitarist James Quine (the uncle who taught him six-string), and fellow Rust Belt singer Jessica Lea Mayfield (on plaintive symphonic tranquilizer “When The Night Comes”), it finds our main protagonist handling percussion and keyboards as well as guitar.
After traditional acoustic blues retreat, “Trouble Weighs A Ton,” Keep It Hid empties the floodgates. Fuzzy organ-doused remake, “I Want Some More,” commendably bridges Mississippi Delta voodoo to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’.” “Heartbroken, In Disrepair” works shuttered guitar resonance into an anguished dirge. “Whispered Words (Pretty Lies)” shows off Auerbach’s sensitive side in a languid tear-stained letter written by his father, Charles. Soulful church organ guides emotionally compelling ballad, “Real Desire,” where ‘clouded skies have lifted/ and voices ring out from the choir.’ And that’s just the first half. Hand-clapped stop-start honky tonk rambler “Street Walkin’” verifies the rest best.
Is there any thriving musical scene in Akron?
DAN AUERBACH: I don’t hang out much. There are a lot of bands, but none do the blues. And there is no one particular style or scene.
In your opinion, how have the Black Keys progressed over the years?
Each album is just a snapshot of one period in time. If we’d taken the same songs and recorded them a week before or after, they’d sound totally different. We try to be as spontaneous as we can when entering the studio. It’s a document of that period in time of us recording. Patrick and I have been playing together for over ten years and we’ve been growing while being influenced by different things. The music has changed and progressed and moved around a little bit. There’s all these core elements at the root of what we do because that’s how you learn how to play. It’s like the way you learn how to speak English. I learned how to play bluegrass and blues-based stuff. So that’s at the foundation of what I know how to do.
Which blues artists in particular have a large influence on you?
I was a big fan of awesome one-man-band, Joe Louis Hill, (Memphis rockabilly singer-guitarist) Auburn Pat Hare, Willie Johnson, and Howlin’ Wolf. Any of those people usually recorded at Sam Phillips place in Memphis. That was early, before Chicago Blues was popular. I was really into that raw country stuff – finger-picked electric blues.
On ‘08s Attack & Release, the Black Keys sometimes move away from the expectant primitive blues jams. Much of that has to do with producer Danger Mouse asserting his hip-hop influence. Yet the plainspoken opener, “All You Ever Wanted,” retains a desolate folk-blues feel that’s even more crudely archaic than past endeavors.
It felt right. You can’t always do what’s expected. It helps make the next song even more powerful when it hits in. So we started off with a slow, quiet song to set the mood and get you ready to listen.
“Strange Times” may be the most accessible track the Black Keys stumbled upon. It seems to parallel America’s current hard times.
I wrote that song a couple years ago. I had the lyrics and when we were in the studio we came up with the parts – the guitar line – and added drums. We worked on the arrangement for awhile since it took some time to get down. Like everything we do, we tried to make it as spontaneous as possible. As such, the recording of that song happened during the first day we attempted it together.
“Lies” is a typical depression-bound Black Keys mantra. Is there a search for salvation guiding that song, or for that matter, the entirety of Attack & Release?
I’ve always been influenced by dark tones or any kind of music, humor, or poetry that has a dark side. That’s what attracts me. I don’t really like happy music. I don’t trust happy people. (laughter) Those dark sounds I find uplifting. You know how Gospel music is mournful but the overall affect is to uplift.
Did you get to meet legendary blues man Ike Turner before he died? Rumor has it Attack & Release would’ve been a collaborative effort.
It wasn’t supposed to be a collaboration. That was separate. That was just the way we were introduced to Danger Mouse. It had nothing to do with our album except it was a separate entity that got disrupted by death. We were sending songs to Brian (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) to take to Ike. We never met Ike though. After our record, we were gonna work with Ike. A month later, he passed away.
On your solo debut, Keep It Hid, were the lyrical concerns more personal in tone?
I wrote all the lyrics on the Black Keys albums. So I wasn’t trying to make some kind of grand statement. I just wanted to make a good album. The similarities will be there, but it’s way more personal. I’ve written some story songs, which I never did before.
“When The Night Comes” could’ve fit in snugly on Van Morrison’s subtle nocturnal masterpiece, Astral Weeks. Was that a mellotron being used on that tune?
Definitely. The mellotron is an analog instrument. Each key on it has a piece of tape with prerecorded sounds of string sections. It’s a really weird, arcane instrument that sounds magical and surreal.
“Heartbroken Disrepair” has a tremolo-related psych-blues tone not unlike Cream. Were you a British Blues fan?
I did like Cream. But we’re not as affected by psych-blues as much as old blues. As far as people like John Mayall go, I never was into that stuff.
You’ve chosen to cover country guitarist Wayne Carson Thompson’s hypnotic “I Want Some More.” The results are phenomenal. But why revisit that track?
It’s just a great song. If you listen to the original version Jon & Robin did, there’s fuzz bass on it that punctuates the chorus. I always wanted to do that song.