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Black Keys - Interview

  by Sarah Mwangi

published: 22 / 3 / 2008

Black Keys - Interview


Akron-based duo the Black Keys have been attracting much acclaim for their garage blues rock. Sarah Mwangi speaks to singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach about their just released fifth album, 'Attack & Release', which has found them recording in a studio for the first time

I walked past Wilton’s Music Hall a couple times before I realised that the boarded up windows and doors played on the venue’s rustic charm. As the world’s oldest music venue, it current decor is due to it being derelict for 80 years. And while now fighting to stay open, it is holding various shows that stay true to its theatrical and musical heritage, one of which was a performance by the Black Keys. This unsuspecting music hall fits the Black Keys’ personality like a worn-out glove. Derelict buildings are the duo’s forte and since their 2002 first album, 'The Come Up', vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have created music in their native Akron, Ohio’s forgotten spaces. For their new album, 'Attack & Release', the boys moved ever so slightly away from their natural habitat to a studio due to working with one half of Gnarls Barkley, producer Brian Burton. Not, however, as much thought went into their change of scenery as one would think, “(Brian) assumed that we were going to record in a studio because that’s his thing, he records. So we figured, 'We’ve never really done it. Why don’t we just do it ?'”, says Dan Auerbach, talking to Pennyblackmusic before the Wilton's Music Hall gig. Maybe they were swayed into a quick decision as they chose an unconventional studio with the character of their previous trademark environment. “We don’t do anything conventional. Nobody wants to do anything conventional,” Dan says, explaining their attraction to their home city's Suma Studios. “It’s strange, it’s off the beaten path for sure, it’s an amazing old studio founded in the 50's and still has the old 50's equipment (vibes going on.” Another factor that played its part on the band’s decision to keep the recording in Akron was money. Insistent touring and five albums down the line doesn’t draw in the big bucks you would think it does. “We don’t like to spend money,” Dan explains as he shifts in his chair revealing an enormous tear in his over-worn jacket. “We realised earlier on that we could record our own records and be pretty much successful at it and it would only cost us like, whatever it costs to buy a pizza for lunch. We don’t like to waste money.” As he speaks, it is hard to try not to draw comparisons of him to Wilton’s Music Hall. Much like the building, Dan’s unkempt appearance could fall victim of rash judgements similar to those given to the wandering homeless. A closer inspection, however, would reveal a soft spoken, gentle man who demands respect with the slight of his hand across his guitar and the sound of his voice through the speakers. Music redeems these two lost souls. Respect again is gained during the Keys sound check, as Dan and Patrick take charge of their sound. In a simplistic but fully functioning bar off the main entrance, Dan explains to me how they came about this authoritative presence. “We were born out of this sense of DIY mentality. We like to do things for ourselves. We don’t like being told what to do.” But with such a defiant stance on their music, why did they bring an influential outside figure like Brian, one who is bound to shake up their duo dynamic ? “It’s just a different time period for us. It’s not like we’re pushing ourselves to do anything different,” he reflects. “Everything that’s different on the record is a natural progression. It happened in an organic way. We were never pushed to do anything. That’s why it still sounds like us.” However sure he is of himself, there are certain factors that question that last statement. One of which is Ike Turner. Brian had first approached the Keys with the opportunity to write a couple of songs for the legendary, late Ike Turner. And during the months of work on the project, Dan and Patrick began laying tracks for their own album. “He came to us first for the Ike Turner things and then we told him that we needed to do our own record, cos the Ike thing was taking too long. He said something like 'If you guys are asking me to produce your record, I’ll say yes,' something like that. We had gotten to know him over the two month period that we worked with him, so we liked him and we thought we could give it a shot. “He seems to be a real studio person. He creates stuff in his own little world. You know, his brain churns and we knew that he was going to be creative in a studio and we really like that.” So with the combined influence of Brian and Ike Turner, there are noticeable changes in the twosomes’ sound and, for example, in their harmony and vocals. “From song to song there are little touches that probably wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for having Brian around, either pushing us to do more or telling us that he liked our ideas and we should keep it on there.” As well as that, songs that were written for Ike Turner are a salute to rock ‘n’ roll royalty with an undeniable 60's swagger, which altered Dan’s writing for the better. “I only know how to write in one way really, but it was just sort of interesting to step back. ‘Cause you set boundaries on yourself, to try and convey what you are about as a person when you write a song. And those are all gone when you are writing for somebody else. So it was interesting to step back and ignore the rules and do whatever I wanted to. I never experienced that before so it was kind of cool.” This only reiterates the progression that Dan and Patrick have made as musicians since their previous album from 2006, 'Magic Potion'. “Every time we go into the studio, it’s a new process and a new beginning for a record. Also, if we recorded these songs, a month later or a month before they’d sound completely different. It’s sort of like every record we make is a snapshot of those one or two weeks in life really. That’s how we look at it.” Since 'Magic Potion', the Black Keys have had a variety of different projects they have been working on, collectively and individually. They both record up and coming artists in their own recording studios. Dan worked on Brimstone Howl’s debut album for Alive Records last year as well as Buffalo Killers, the Black Type Heavies and Jessica Lea Mayfield who duets with Dan in ‘Things Ain't Like They Used To Be’ on 'Attack & Release'. Patrick on the other hand with Audio Eagle Records has released albums for a number of Ohioan bands, such as Beaten Awake and Houseguest. As a duo , they have also appeared in the Bob Dylan soundtrack for the movie, 'I’m Not There', transforming Dylan’s ‘Wicked Messenger’ to lo-fi brilliance. Surely with their recent exposure in adverts, soundtracks and collaborations with popular figures, (a possible Rod Stewart collaboration is in the works “We told him we’re down we hasn’t got in touch with us.”) it’s only a matter of time before the Black Keys become a household name. “We want to be mainstream. Hell yeah,” Dan exclaims with a wry smile on his face. “No, just as long as we don’t have to change anything that we do, you know. Lots of bands become mainstream by conforming to the rules. We wanto to avoid all of that.” But for now, Dan and Patrick are holding out for a long life playing music, “We’ll play music till we die. It is our only job skill, we haven’t found any other job skills yet that we we’re anywhere near good at.”

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Black Keys - Interview

Black Keys - Interview

Black Keys - Interview

Black Keys - Interview

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live reviews

Shepherds Bush Empire, 27/2/2007
Black Keys - Shepherds Bush Empire, 27/2/2007
At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, new writer Sarah Mwangi finds much of American blues duo the Black Keys' passion stolen by their insistent touring schedule
Scala, London, 23/5/2006


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Experimental fifth album from Akron-based garage rock duo Black Keys which fnds them working with synthesisers, banjos and an organ and a producer, Gnarls Barkley's Danger Mouse, all for the first time to mixed results
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