Interview: Guitarist Dan Auerbach Discusses Gear, Influences and the Latest Black Keys Album, 'El Camino'
His Nashville studio is full of sweet vintage gear, but Dan Auerbach isn't just a retro-obsessed guitar hound. The Black Keys guitarist gets his motor running for an in-depth discussion about his group's latest album, El Camino.
“I’m not too picky about guitars,” says Dan Auerbach, who’s known for manhandling a motley assortment of electric instruments with brand names like Teisco Del Ray, Harmony, Supro, Silvertone and National onstage with the Black Keys.
“I love to collect them, mostly oddballs, but I’m not married to any brand or model. Whatever guitar has the best character for the song is the one I want to use, because if you’ve got a style, you’re going to sound like yourself no matter what guitar you play.”
Thus, while it might seem out of character for Auerbach to use a 1953 Les Paul as his go-to six-string for the Black Keys’ new El Camino, the album still sounds like classic Keys. It’s driving, melodic, brash and bristling with unbridled rock and roll energy.
Actually, it’s even more “classic” than usual, weaving in a vocabulary of rock filigrees from the Fifties and Sixties -- from handclaps and vocal harmonies to swirling Leslie speakers, big melodies and even bigger hooks. The result is a garagepop masterpiece that’s likely to ratchet Auerbach and his drumming compadre Patrick Carney a few steps closer to rock’s Olympus.
However, Auerbach is picky -- and proud and protective -- about his new Easy Eye Studio in the band’s recently adopted hometown, Nashville, Tennessee. It’s where he and Carney produced El Camino with Brian Burton, the musical auteur who goes by the name Danger Mouse. Burton helmed the Black Keys’ 2008 sonic breakthrough, Attack & Release, and the single “Tighten Up” on 2010’s commercial door buster Brothers.
“We don’t know any other producer we’d like to work with,” Auerbach explains, sitting on a worn brown leatherette sofa in Easy Eye, a comfortable, big black box just outside of downtown. Immediately to his right is a towering Moog modular synthesizer topped with a photo of a dapper, pomaded Muddy Waters from his days as a Chess Records artist.
And within the surrounding 20 feet are many of the keys to his sonic kingdom: a recording console from the Sixties, a rack of well-worn guitars, amps with tattered grills, a Vako Orchestron (an early sample player that played back sound recorded on optical discs), a vintage Scully eight-track tape machine ... and the list goes on.
It’s gear that Auerbach has been collecting since before the Black Keys recorded their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up, in Carney’s basement back in Akron, Ohio, under the influence of dirty three-chord rock and the haunting psychedelic echoes of North Mississippi trance bluesmen Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, artists who still remain the cornerstones of the Black Keys’ music.
“Having a place that’s tailor-made for you is a real luxury,” Auerbach says. “Everything here works. These keyboards ... all you need to do is pull up a fader on the console to start recording. You see a lot of studio websites and think they’ve got cool shit. Then when you show up, half of it’s not working. If it doesn’t work in my studio, it doesn’t stay on the floor.”
Despite his retro passions, Auerbach also believes in evolution. El Camino was recorded on Easy Eye’s Pro Tools rig, and there’s a pitch-shifted yelping in its first single, the riffpumped “Lonely Boy.” So that’s where our conversation begins.
GUITAR WORLD: Listening to the Black Keys’ seven albums in sequence, it’s striking to see your evolution from chord cruncher to sonic explorer. Where did it all begin?
I started playing bluegrass with my family, so there were the G, C and D chords. I was playing a Martin acoustic because that’s what Carter Stanley of the Stanley Brothers played. Then I got into the really raw blues of Hound Dog Taylor and started on electric guitar.
My mom bought me a white Strat, but that wasn’t what I wanted, so I went to a guitar store in Cleveland and -- the guy told me it was a really good deal -- made an even swap for a blue Teisco Del Ray. I loved that guitar and used it a bunch. I got into open D tuning, like Hound Dog. Since then I’ve gotten into other people’s styles, but I’ve never tried to master them.
Despite your bluegrass roots, you seem more interested in sound and texture than notes.
Definitely. That’s something I got from Junior Kimbrough. Junior changed everything for me. When I heard his album All Night Long, I dropped out of college and started playing seriously. His shit is weird North Mississippi dance music. He came up with his own style, influenced by local folks. He had the bravery to try something different.
Speaking of something different, the wideopen sound of Attack & Release seemed to radically expand your universe as a guitarist. Did working with Brian Burton and Marc Ribot help open you up?
I was inspired by a lot of Turkish, Japanese and South American psychedelic records at the time. They turn the guitar into a canvas that you can put sounds on top of, instead of using it as a lead instrument. Now I try to incorporate that into whatever I’m doing. Patrick and I learned from Brian, but he learned from us too.
We brought a lot of the same music -- like hip-hop, psychedelia and Ennio Morricone -- to the sessions for inspiration. We have fun when we work together, and we are competitive, so we’re always trying to one-up each other with cool music that we’re into and wild ideas in the studio. And Marc is one of my all-time favorites.
The first thing Ribot started doing when he began recording guitar solos was scraping the strings with his car keys. He was almost frothing at the mouth sitting in his chair playing his guitar overdubs. I first heard him on his Los Cubanos Postizos album. [Ribot’s homage to Cuban composer Arsenio Rodriguez, who played the tres, a Cuban guitar.] I’ve never tried to play along to a Jimi Hendrix or Cream record. That was the first album I played along to. [He sings a Latin-sounding guitar phrase.] That shit is so amazing. Then I got one of Rodriguez’s albums and got into the tres, which sounds like Big Joe Williams’ homemade nine-string guitar. I love that weird shit.
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