Interview: Guitarist Dan Auerbach Discusses Gear, Influences and the Latest Black Keys Album, 'El Camino'
After expanding the Black Keys’ sound so much on Attack & Release and Brothers, why go back to the roots of classic American pop-rock for El Camino?
Patrick and Brian and I were listening a lot to the Clash, Jonathan Richman, the Cars and the Johnny Burnette trio -- music from different decades that was all influenced by Fifties rock and roll. We got inspired by it and went into the studio with absolutely nothing. We hadn’t rehearsed; there were no demos and no lyrics except for “Little Black Submarines,” which Brian and I had written.
We’d never done it like this before. We also wanted to make an album that would translate to the stage. Brothers was very difficult to play live because it had a lot of open spaces. We added a bass player and keyboard player for touring, which I love, because otherwise the songs felt compromised, which bummed me out. When we went into the studio for Brothers I’d written the lyrics, the chord changes and all the verses and choruses. We just had to work on grooves so the music fit the lyrics. This time all the music was done first.
When I recorded my solo album, Keep It Hid, in 2008 I’d gotten more interested in songwriting, inspired by reading Charles Bukowski and connecting with unfancy, interesting language. But El Camino is focused on melody and groove. A lot of the lyrics are absolute throwaways, but you want to sing along because the melody is so strong. Next time I’ll try to make the lyrics as memorable as the melodies. The bottom line is that, for us, the groove has always been king. And I have to keep my eyes and ears open because Patrick fluctuates in tempo a lot. That’s how we play live, and you can hear it on the records. Pat never plays a normal drumbeat, which is why he’s so awesome.
There’s a pitch shifter on “Lonely Boy,” a talk box on “Money Maker” and vibrato and wahwah effects elsewhere. How important are stomp boxes to you?
My core tone just comes from my amps. For El Camino, I used a Magnatone and an Ampeg V-92 with a JBL D-130 speaker. I blew the speaker, and in three or four songs you can hear it rattle, like at the beginning of “Lonely Boy.” I use fuzz pedals, but I’ve never used a distortion or overdrive pedal -- just boost pedals. The Shin-ei Companion Fuzz and the Marshall Supa Fuzz are my favorites. Before the sessions, Dunlop sent me a box full of effects, including a talk box.
I was listening to Pete Drake a bunch. He was a pedal steel player from Nashville who invented the talk box. He has this song called “Forever” that’s amazing. So Pat and I tried to set it up and it wouldn’t work. “How does this work? How do you plug this in?” Then our engineer said, “It goes like this, dumbasses,” and just plugged it in, and we started playing with it, laughing the whole time. I cut the solo in two takes, and then I put it in a box and haven’t seen it since. I like pedals, but they have to be easy. I want instant gratification.
Did you use any workhorse guitars for El Camino?
I got a ’53 Les Paul while I was on tour. It looks like it was attacked by a shark. I used that a bunch, plus a Danelectro and an early Harmony Stratotone. I had the Stratotone before the Black Keys, and I’ve used it on every one of our albums. When Ribot walked into the studio for Attack & Release, he brought a Tele and one of those.
How has your growth as a singer -- even to the point of having a beautiful falsetto on “Stop Stop” -- brought depth to the Black Keys’ sound?
My voice is like my guitar playing. I listen to records, like Curtis Mayfield’s and Marvin Gaye’s, and get inspired. I’ve always sung falsetto and sang the high harmonies playing bluegrass with my family. But I never thought to do it as a lead vocal on a Black Keys album until Brothers, and I loved it. You have to build your confidence to sing lead in a high register. Put that kind of vocal up against really fuzzy guitars and you get a really interesting contrast. There’s always got to be contrast. If the guitar is fuzzy, the bass is going to be clean; if the bass is fuzzy, the guitar is going to be clean. I like to focus on that kind of stuff. That comes from owning a studio and being able to mess around while making records. You start to understand how elements are going to work in a mix.
There’s a lot of sweet gear in Easy Eye, from analog synths to vintage board modules to stacks of amps and guitars covering nearly every inch of the place. Did you have all of this in your home studio in Akron?
All of this stuff was at my house. [laughs] It’s not healthy to have your workplace be your home. I am obsessive and would never leave. If I leave here, I’m gone.
Is Easy Eye a commercial enterprise?
Well, I have other bands that I know and like and can trust with all my stuff. Most of it’s irreplaceable if it’s broken, so I can’t just let anybody in. I have a couple engineers I work with now, so if a band I like wants to use the studio I can let them come do that. I just produced a Dr. John album. I assembled the band, and we were here 10 days. We cut everything live. It was so fucking cool.
I did albums here with the Growlers and the Reigning Sound. I just finished working with Hacienda and mixed a record for a guy from Cincinnati named Brian Olive. We’ve been doing some super-cool stuff. You get to be around these people and feed off their energy. I’ve made a lot of records with different people, and every time I’ve learned something, and I bring it to the table when we make a Black Keys record.
Photo: Joseph Anthony Baker