The Black Keys: Brothers In Arms

For the past month or two, Danger Mouse has been calling Auerbach, saying that some of the lyrics on El Camino need to be revised. “We’re all perfectionists,” Auerbach admits, “but Brian is still trying to get me to change those words. I’m like, ‘DUDE, come on! I’m over it. Let’s just go make another record or something.’”

Auerbach has been making more records, albeit for other people. When we drive back to the studio after eating our tacos, Greg Cartwright waves us into the parking lot. Although he claims to be the parking attendant, he’s actually the frontman of The Oblivions. His more recent projects include Reigning Sound and The Parting Gifts, whose 2010 debut album featured a guest appearance by Auerbach. Cartwright waves to us, wraps up a quick smoke break and heads back inside to work on new material.

There are other artists on the studio schedule, too. Auerbach hasn’t started prepping for next week’s session with Dr. John, but he doesn’t seem concerned. “If you surround yourself with people who’re as talented as Dr. John – people with amazing taste who can play their instruments really well – you feel like it’ll sorta take care of itself,” he justifies. Growlers, a self-described “beach goth” group from Costa Mesa, have booked some time in the studio, too, and Memphis-based songwriter Valerie June needs to come back and wrap up the album she started earlier this year. Other projects have already been completed, like the new Hacienda record that Auerbach helped write and record, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped talking about them. “Those guys are great!” he says, turning up one of their new songs and playing air piano. Like all good producers, he’s obviously a fan of his clients.

The first Hacienda song ends and another one begins, this one sounding a bit more like the swaggering soul music that filled Brothers. I ask Auerbach if that’s intentional. He shakes his head empathetically.

“I don’t work with anyone who comes into the studio wanting to sound exactly like The Black Keys. When I work with someone, it’s because I like their sound. What The Black Keys do is just one part of who I am, so when I’m making a record with someone else, I get to reference all kinds of things and draw inspiration from different types of music: Ethiopian stuff, Turkish psych music, classical music, hillbilly music, bluegrass, gospel, whatever. And that’s fun to do, because even when people try to flat-out copy a song, it doesn’t sound like that song. It winds up sounding like them. We tried to copy that Jerry Butler song on Brothers – as best we could, at least – and then we played it back and were like, ‘Shit, it doesn’t sound anything like Jerry Butler.’”

Back at the Carney household, Pat plays a few of the new Tennis songs and ignores the phone calls that make his cell vibrate across the table. If the callers don’t hang up, they’ll get to hear his voicemail greeting, which is a snippet of Dan Auerbach saying “Leave-me-a-mess-age” through the talkbox guitar. It sounds like a robotic Peter Frampton, and it’s one of several signs that the guys are trying to keep things lighthearted. After all, El Camino will be released to the band’s largest audience to date, and the pressure’s on whether they like it or not.

“Rock and roll doesn’t sell like it used to,” Carney acknowledges. “I was at the VMAs this year, just sitting there while they announced the nominees for the rock category, and the reaction for those bands was so minimal compared to the applause that the all the hip hop acts got. When we made Brothers, we had hopes it would sell 250,000 copies. That was our big goal. But now that Brothers has done so well, there are expectations of what this one will do. My own expectations are modest. It was only a year ago that we’d never crossed the 300,000 threshold. So if we can sell 500,000 of this one in a year, I’ll be very happy.”

Right now, though, Auerbach and Carney are enjoying a little distance from El Camino. They love the songs but can’t listen to them without hearing the process, the month and a half of work that went into the album. While recording Brothers at Muscle Shoals, the guys didn’t even have a fully functioning playback system to hear what they were doing, so listening to the final mixes was like hearing the songs for the first time. El Camino was different. The Black Keys lived inside this music for six weeks and hung out during the mixing process, too, making it their longest, most involved project to date.

Would they change anything?

“Definitely not,” Carney says. “I’m the kind of person who likes the document as it exists. I remember having the masters for the first record, and wondering if I should save them or not. I trashed them. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I felt like the record was done and wouldn’t ever need to be changed. So now, every time I hear that record, I instantly remember what was going on at the time. I remember the excitement of making an album, the feeling of being really stoked and not knowing if anyone would actually listen to it. I don’t think we’ll ever have that kind of feeling again … so I’m glad we have the record instead.”

The same can be said for El Camino, the record that will either continue The Black Keys’ upward trajectory or send them back to the rock and roll underground. Either way, it’ll be a document of the busiest time in the band’s career.

“It will always remind me of the Grammys, Saturday Night Live, the momentum pushing forward and us trying to pull back,” Carney muses, wrapping things up. “There’s a great deal of tension associated with this album, but it’s not an intra-band thing. It’s just the tension between wanting to pull things into our comfort zone, but also being pushed out of it. I guess that’s not too bad of a place to be.”



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