The blues-rock group The Black Keys is one of the biggest bands in the world. But the project originated from humble beginnings in small Akron, Ohio, some 20 years ago.
Today, The Black Keys, which is comprised of frontman Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, have more awards and accolades than can fit in the trunk of a pink Cadillac. But the band’s story, as you can see here below, first begins on a school bus.
Below, American Songwriter caught up with Auerbach to ask him about his early days falling in love with music, how he and Carney got together, and the genesis of the band’s new rollicking 10-song LP, Dropout Boogie, which is out Friday (May 13).
Auerbach also tells us about one of the group’s trophies coming to them with another band’s name on it—thanks MTV!
American Songwriter: When did you first find music and why did you decide to invest in it personally?
Dan Auerbach: Well, I had a lot of music around me when I was a kid growing up. My dad had a really great record collection and was playing vinyl all the time. You know, Allman Brothers, lots of early blues records. He had the Robert Johnson collection. He would play Stax records, Otis, Booker T. So, I would hear that stuff all the time. And then my mom, she played piano. And her entire family—she had kind of a big family—they all played bluegrass.
So, when we’d get together at my grandma’s house, they’d have acoustic guitars, mandolins, harmonicas, [and] upright bass. And they would sing these, you know, like, Stanley Brothers songs and stuff. So, I just had music all around me, you know? It was just sort of a part of life, I guess. And what made me want to play music first was seeing my uncles play guitar and sing. Singing harmonies and stuff. I just really loved it. I just felt such a connection to that music. And just wanted to be a part of it, you know?
AS: That sounds really fun. The most music I got when I was a kid was from my dad, who was a French professor, and he’d play Gregorian Chant. So, the idea of hearing all these uncles and dads and family playing sounds so fun.
DA: Wow. It was fun. I really looked forward to it!
AS: As you progressed in your appreciation and education in music, what also was your friendship like with [The Black Keys’ co-founder] Patrick Carney, and how did that lead to collaborating together?
DA: Well, we knew each other as neighborhood kids. You know, we were neighbors. We grew up half a block from each other. But we were in different grades. So, you know how when you’re in different grades it’s like being in a whole different universe? So, we didn’t really have the same friends or anything like that. But we knew each other, we rode the same bus. Stuff like that. But our brothers were in the same class and they were friends, our younger brothers. Jeff and Michael. And one day Jeff told me, my brother, “Hey, you should go make music with Michael’s brother, Pat. He’s got a drum kit.” Because I had an electric guitar.
So, they got us together for the first time. And we were pretty much doing exactly what we do now! I just brought my amp over and my guitar and we just started messing around. It was real instantaneous, we had an instant connection. We were able to make music together. He had a four-track, that was the first time I’d ever seen a cassette four-track. And we made recordings and, man, we just had a lot of fun.
We didn’t know anything about songs or songwriting. I knew traditional songs, I knew blues songs I was trying to learn. I knew all these bluegrass songs, you know? We were being influenced by all kinds of things. But we really didn’t know a whole lot about anything. We were learning as we were going along. It was sort of like exploration in recording—that’s a huge part of who we are.
AS: Just quickly, was there any sense when you were on the bus of any chemistry together, even before you started to play together?
DA: No, not at all. Not at all. We just didn’t know anything about each other, you know?
AS: How did and how does Akron, Ohio, influence you? It’s been the home of other big names like NBA stars Steph Curry and LeBron James. I know you started doing basement recordings there as young guys—you made my favorite of your album, Thickfreakness, there. But how does your hometown influence your creativity?
DA: Well, I mean, it’s a huge part of who we are, you know? I think it’s kind of a strange little town. It’s got all these ghosts of the past lurking around every corner, these giant buildings, old mansions everywhere. Empty factory buildings. Turn of the century Akron was just poppin’ like crazy. Some of the richest people in North America were living there and had mansions. And then all of that went away! So, we’re left in this kind of strange post-industrial, you know, place. And it was like we didn’t really have any place we could go play, necessarily.
If we wanted to play a real show, we had to drive an hour north to Cleveland to go play a show. So, we’re very isolated. But it’s like, you know, there were some bands that were from there. Lux Interior from The Cramps, Devo’s from there, Chrissie Hynde is from there. You know, it’s like, we knew it was possible. But we were totally isolated. This is before cell phones and everything. You kind of had to make it all up on your own.
[In] each one of our records, you can hear us progressing a few steps at a time, learning new things. But I really think that that isolation helped us. And being from a small town I think really helps. It made us feel like underdogs because we probably were. But I think it really helped us.
AS: You’ve worked with the producer Danger Mouse on a number of records. Can you talk about your chemistry with him a little bit?
DA: You know, Pat describes him as like he’s the older brother we never had. We loved hanging out with him. We have a lot of the same interests, musically and otherwise. And it was very easy to work with him. But he also really taught us so much about recordings and songwriting and about trusting our instincts and experimenting, you know? Yeah, we learned a lot working with Brian [Burton] and we had a great time doing it.
AS: What was the genesis of the new album? How did you land on the 10 songs? How do you and Patrick write together—do you write 100 songs and pair it down to 10?
DA: You know, there [are] different types of songs on this record. There are songs that are more off the cuff, improvised. There [are] like three songs that are just, like, first takes of us messing around. And that’s a part of who we are and a part of how we learned how to become who we are. And when we first started what we were doing, messing around, making songs, taking pieces from here and there, and just trying to make something. We always had a real connection and I think that, you know, having those songs on there is a testament to that. But other songs, maybe we worked a little bit harder on it, a little bit longer on it. Songs like “Wild Child” [were] something where we heard it we were like, “Ah, this is really jumping out of the speakers! Maybe we should, like, step back and take a minute on this one.” You know what I mean?
Knowing when to do that, I think, is nice, being able to include both those types of songs. But yeah we called in some songwriter friends of ours, Greg Cartwright and Angelo. This was the first time we’d ever worked with songwriters, so we gave it a shot. I’d worked with these guys a few times for some different artists that I’d put out on my label. And so I knew that I liked them. I figured Pat would have a good time, so we gave it a shot. It was really fun. And I think it added a lot to what we did without taking away, you know, what it is that makes us special.
AS: That might dovetail well into my next question, which is: how does Nashville influence you as an artist? I believe you live there and you work from there. I know you’ve also worked with a number of burgeoning bands lately. So, how does Nashville influence you?
DA: I mean, ever since I saw the cassette four-track over at Pat’s house, I’ve been completely hooked on making records and making music. It’s my favorite thing to do. So, when I decided to move out of Akron, this is where I moved. Eleven years ago. It’s the only other place I’ve lived besides Akron, is Nashville. So, I’ve been here 11 years and I’ve had my studio here. The town is so rich with musicians and history and writers and all different types of stuff and people coming through town and working here. It’s just an amazing one-of-a-kind city to be in if you love making records. And I love being in this town, you know? Every week, I can get into something different, you know?
AS: Is that the entirety of it, meaning is your time spent working with other artists just about making new music? Do you enjoy a sense of generosity? Or what else might you like to say about it all?
DA: I really like making records and I like working with different artists. It is, you know, one of my favorite things to do. So, I’m just lucky in the fact that I get to be in The Black Keys, so I can afford to do it! [Laughs]. But, you know, it really is—I don’t know, it’s taken on a life of its own now. And with the record label, when Easy Eye Sound happened, we’re doing like 12 different records a year, all kinds of stuff.
We’re putting out a Hank Jr. record, we’ve got young rock and roll bands, old blues musicians, you know? And everything in between and I really like that. I like being able to do that. It helps me—I don’t know, it’s like every week I’m working on something new. It just—I always have something to be excited about musically. And it carries over. I think it’s the reason why we’ve made so many Black Keys records recently. Because they all are connected.
AS: There are a lot of milestones lately for The Black Keys. I believe it’s the 20th anniversary of the band this year. You had a 10-year anniversary for El Comino in 2021. How do you think about or conceptualize these milestones today?
DA: I mean, I think it’s pretty wild. I don’t know many bands that have lasted this long. I don’t know many relationships period that have lasted this long [laughs]. But every year that goes by I feel more and more lucky that I get to make music with Pat. It’s definitely something I don’t take lightly. It’s a real gift that we were given, being able to do this and have it still be so much fun. So, I don’t know. I just feel very blessed.
AS: What do you love most about music?
DA: Oh, I don’t know—it’d be hard to put into words, you know what I mean? It’s almost like a subconscious feeling. It’s like you can—for me, some of my favorite music is the music where you turn off that part of your brain where you’re, like, analyzing things and you turn off that part of your brain. And you turn on the part of your brain where it’s all feeling and emotion and you don’t even have to think about it. When you get to that place with songs, it’s so uplifting and so addictive at the same time. It’s like a hit, you know? You’re getting a hit, you know?
AS: Literally and figuratively.
AS: Well, Dan. Thank you for making the time. It’s a pleasure to speak with you. You know, my wife is in a band here in Seattle, a blues-rock band with her twin brother, called The Black Tones. So, people often confuse her name with yours. But we love what you do and thanks again!
DA: [Laughs] Well, you know, we got an MTV video award and they had “The Black-Eyed Peas” on it.
AS: Oh wow! Okay!
DA: They put it on our award statue. For the song “Tighten Up,” it said, “Video of the Year ‘Tighten Up’ by The Black-Eyed Peas.” On the statue [laughs].
AS: Oh my gosh, I hope you still have it! And thanks again!
DA: Awesome, thank you so much!
Photo by Jim Herrington/Courtesy GrandstandHg