Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys Finds Joy in the Deceptive Simplicities

The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach is a different person from who he was four years ago. But he still plays with the band, who will be in Fort Worth on Thursday, Nov. 14.
The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach is a different person from who he was four years ago. But he still plays with the band, who will be in Fort Worth on Thursday, Nov. 14. Alysse Gafkjen

Embarking on arena tours and playing to thousands of adoring fans every night might seem glamorous and enticing on the surface, but the grating minutiae of this routine can take its toll on an artist.

Meet-and-greets, for example, are unanimously considered a chore in the music industry, but just like the chores you do at home, they have to be done. Even then, being on the road and sleeping in hotels every night can have a psychological effect so subversive, it will actually make you eager to do chores at home.

And yeah, we know what you’re thinking: “Oh, you get free catering from Live Nation every night and get paid thousands of dollars doing what millions of people wish they could do? The horror!” But the simple pleasure of being home with your family and sleeping in the same bed every night is mentally edifying. You may take that for granted, but touring artists of this caliber don’t.

The simplicities of life are not often afforded when you’re constantly on tour, and for this reason, Dan Auerbach felt relieved and reinvigorated when his band, The Black Keys, went on hiatus in 2015. Amid this dormant period, the singer focused on his side project, The Arcs, and his record label, Easy Eye Sound, and — interestingly enough — this hiatus actually made Auerbach appreciate The Black Keys even more.

When The Black Keys ended their hiatus, Auerbach wanted to extend the benefit of simplicity to his music, so the Ohio rock duo took on a back-to-basics approach with their ninth full-length Let’s Rock.

The Black Keys are currently on tour with Modest Mouse in support of this record, and in anticipation for the band’s Fort Worth show on Nov. 14, we spoke with Auerbach on the phone and discussed these simplicities, his humble beginnings and his ability to enjoy music on his own terms.

What can you tell us about Mustard Seed Market?

Well, Mustard Seed Market was before Whole Foods existed. Mustard Seed Market is in Akron, it was owned by the Nabors family. My brother went to school with Abe Nabers. They had a brunch there that was really good, and I used to go play acoustic [shows] once a month at the brunch for tips.

And [Black Keys drummer] Patrick [Carney] worked there too, no?

My brother worked there, but he was best friends with the owner’s son, so you got away with fucking murder.

But yeah, Pat worked there as a dishwasher. I brought Pat to play the brunch with me one time when the Black Keys were just starting. When we needed some money, we would go play some of my gigs that I’ve had set up for the last few years that I was playing. I’d bring Pat along, and they would just tell us all morning to turn it down. [Laughs] I was a fan of playing the electric guitar acoustically.

So basically, you played matinees once a month?
It was the brunch, dude. I don’t even think it’s considered matinee, it’s fucking brunch. That’s before matinee. [Laughs].

So about Let’s Rock, how different would it be if, instead of self-producing it, Danger Mouse was yet again involved with the production?

I have no idea, man. Such a hypothetical. We’ve made very different records with Danger Mouse. So, who knows? I mean, El Camino was different from Attack & Release, and those are very different from Turn Blue, so who the hell knows?

I look at Turn Blue as your Blood On the Tracks [a 1975 album by Bob Dylan], because it did come from a place of heartbreak. Let’s Rock seems to take on a more back-to-basics approach. I’ve heard some say this is an artistic regression on your part, and I obviously disagree with that, but between that and the brief hiatus between, it begs the question: what progress was made in your personal life that is reflected in Let’s Rock, if any at all?
Well, I would say that I’m just a completely different person than I was even just four years ago. I think the last time we were in the studio was 4½ years ago, so it’s very different. I think there are things on this new record that are maybe deceptively simple ... lots of layers of simple little melodies I’ve learned over the past few years. But also, just the idea of making a record with guitar and drums and bass, and nothing else. … I made a record about a year and a half ago with this guy named Glenn Schwartz, who I used to go see when I was 15, 17. [He is from] Cleveland, and he was the original guitarist in James Gang. Anyway, I headed to Nashville to make a record, and it just reminded me of being a kid and watching him, then going to Pat’s basement to record a song and make music. You know what I mean? He was like, 80 years old, and as inspirational to me as he was when I was fucking 16.

"I’ve been a morning person since I was a kid. When you’re on the road, every night is late. But it is what it is. It’s a really good problem to have." — Dan Auerbach

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It made me realize the thing that makes Pat and I special is so simple that it’s so impossible to find nowadays. Growing up in Ohio, being in that rock 'n’ roll culture, we took things in, and they seeped into our pores. We didn’t even realize it. The magical connection that we have, after years of making records with incredible artists and getting to do all these different types of music, like Robert Finley, Yola and Shannon & the Clams … Anything that I’ve worked on. They’re all kind of different and weird, but it makes me appreciate the Black Keys and the relationship that I have with Pat even more. I think this record is a testament to that.

You were kind of burnt out by the end of the Turn Blue era, from what I understand. During the hiatus, did you find any creative freedom or relief when you focused your energy on the Arcs and Easy Eye Sound?

Oh my God, yes! It felt so good, and I needed it so bad. When you’re on tour, you never get to create; you’re just playing your old songs. I don’t sit around and listen to my old songs. I like to make new stuff, and being able to finally take a break from touring and focus on the studio, which is something I’ve loved ever since Pat Carney introduced me to a four-track. I’ve been addicted to recording.

Yeah, being able to settle in and focus on making records, it’s such a subtle art form, you know what I mean? When you’re on tour, and you’re always on the go, your mind doesn’t settle. You cannot settle when you’re never in the same bed, night after night. You aren’t able to make a deep enough record.

Black Keys are on tour now, but it’s not going to be anything like it used to be with the amount of touring. Pat understands how important it is that I have to be in the studio.

This sounds kind of cynical, but at that time, how did touring become a chore?

Well, you never get to see the ones you love, and if you have kids like I [do], you never get to see them. It’s just disruptive to your personal life. And if you’re not the type of person who craves the attention of an audience, there’s very little to love about being on the road.

It’s nice to go to a cool restaurant in a cool city, but you get pretty sick of it after a while. I’d rather be able to just fry an egg in my house. [Laughs] I’m also a morning person. I’ve been a morning person since I was a kid. When you’re on the road, every night is late. But it is what it is. It’s a really good problem to have.

You mentioned Shannon and the Clams earlier. How did you stumble upon them, and how did your relationship with them form?
I’ve just been a fan of their records. I heard them when I was in this record shop in Memphis called Shangri-La, which has always been my favorite record shop. They were playing one of the records, and I loved it, so I bought all the records and was listening to them a bunch.

I reached out to [vocalist] Shannon [Shaw] to see if she’d be interested in [doing] something, so we ended up making the Shannon in Nashville album together. The idea of producing a Clams record happened, and I was stoked to get a chance to do it.

Three essential punk bands from Cleveland: Pere Ubu, Rocket From the Tombs and Dead Boys. One has to go. Which band will disappear into the ether?

Well, shoot, I don’t know. I don’t want to see any of those guys disappear into the ether. That’s just unfair. But you knew that, you son of a bitch. [laughs]

Well yeah, but I just wanted to get your take on those bands, but in a more creative way.

We recorded in a studio called Suma, which is east of Cleveland. Recording geniuses — this guy named Ken Hamann and his son — ran the studio. Pere Ubu made their records there; that’s why they always sounded so fucking amazing. Grand Funk Railroad made their records there … Listen to Grand Funk Railroad records, and listen to Pere Ubu records. You can hear similar tones.

The Black Keys plays Dickies Arena in Fort Worth on Thursday, Nov. 14.
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Garrett Gravley was born and grew up in Dallas. He mostly writes about music, but veers into arts and culture, local news and politics. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and has written for the Dallas Observer since October 2018.