Dan Auerbach (right) wields his ancient three-pickup Supro (note the six on/off switches) while he and drummer Patrick Carney lay down tracks for the new Black Keys LP, Brothers.
Since they began brewing their funky, wicked stew of blues, garage punk, and soul in Akron, Ohio, in 2001, the Black Keys—guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney—have been steadfast in their commitment to feel, instinct, and the magic of a killer tune. They also work tirelessly. Through 2008, they toured behind six LP releases—including gigs opening for Radiohead, Beck, and Pearl Jam—and crisscrossed America and Europe on their own.
The last two years have been more prolific still, even by the Keys’ own lofty standards. Auerbach released an impressive solo slab of swampy, gorgeous rock and soul balladry called Keep It Hid and built a studio in his Akron home, where he continues to produce up-and-coming bands like Radio Moscow and the Buffalo Killers. He and Carney also decamped for two weeks to New York to help produce and serve as a backing band on Blakroc, a deeply funky collaboration between the Keys, producer Damon Dash, and hip-hop heavies such as Mos Def, RZA, Q-Tip, and Raekwon that may be the most realized, organic, and promising synthesis of rock and hip-hop ever attempted.
This past May also saw the release of Brothers, the Keys’ seventh and most colorful and varied release. Reflecting the experiences of Keep It Hid and Blakroc, it features less of the savage garage riffery that defined their last half-dozen releases. But it’s bursting with hooks, delicious riffs, economical rhythm work, and some of the gnarliest, most stinging fuzz leads this side of “Satisfaction.” Brothers was mixed by famed engineer Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt, Latin Playboys, Phish, Tracy Chapman) and it marks Auerbach’s maturation into one of the most versatile guitar-playing songsmiths in the business. He weaves his expressive, rough-and-tender voice around licks and lines that evoke everyone from Steve Cropper, Jimmy Page, and Cream-era Clapton to Ethiopian jazz great Mulatu Astatke, Ernest Ranglin, and Curtis Mayfield in songs that are fresh, infectious, funky, and timeless.
On the day of the new album’s release, Auerbach very generously took time to talk to Premier Guitar about oddball gear, production, influences, why simplicity and economy rule, and why the song is always king—no matter how hot the player.
The new Brothers cover reminds me of This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album (the psychedelically tinged late-’60s album that Wolf himself despised), and the sound reflects that period where psychedelic, soul, and blues were all colliding. Did that LP or Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud influence this record?
Oh yeah. We love that stuff. But those records didn’t necessarily change my guitar sound or playing. How those bands play as an ensemble was more important to us. We’re more into the arrangements as a whole and how the guitar fits in that mix.
The guitars almost take a backseat on some songs, but they seem much more varied in terms of texture. Did the songs call for that, or were you working from new influences?
Actually, I just started to worry about guitar a lot less and just concentrated on playing. I was less concerned about the perfect guitar or pedal for a song. I’ve realized that when I play guitar, it just sounds like me. But the songs were really what affected the way I played more than a specific guitar or pedal. They were built around heavy bass and keyboard lines, and it wouldn’t have been right to jump in there with a super bassy, heavy fuzz-tone guitar like I do a lot of the time. That would’ve been kind of stupid in the context of these songs. So it was fun to play the kind of thin, buzzy lead tones that were coming out of my Supro when I plugged it in.
The record also sounds influenced by more obscure late-’60s and early-’70s funk and soul. Did you discover any new players from that period that moved you?
Auerbach and his Bigsby-equipped, three-pickup Harmony H77 onstage with drummer Patrick Carney.
A lot of the guitar parts on the new album sound like horn lines.
Well, I was thinking much more like a team player than a soloist this time around. I really started thinking about what was better for the song. So sometimes I would be playing fuzz bass like a trombone. [Laughs.]
And the shot of you with the Rickenbacker 4001 on the gatefold reinforces the idea that fuzz bass was an important part of what was going on.
Well, there’s a ton of clean bass, too. But yeah, we worked from a lot of bass grooves. I was playing all those bass parts through a little silverface Fender Musicmaster Bass amp with a 12" speaker. There’s just a volume and a tone knob on the thing. I used it a lot for both guitar and bass.
It’s cool to see you using Rickenbacker guitars outside their typical context.
Rickenbackers are the unsung heroes of rock ’n’ roll. They’re still made exactly the same way they always have been. They’re built just great, and they’re one of the only companies that only builds stuff here in the States anymore. And they play so well—so much better than most new guitars I check out that it’s just sick. They’re so smooth. A lot more early rock ’n’ roll records than you might think were made with Ricks. The idea that they’re just for jangling is pure nonsense. Those single-coils are fantastic and have a lot of character. They may not be quite as hot as DeArmonds, but they’re hot enough. You can do anything you want with a Rickenbacker—anything.
What other guitars made it onto this record?
I used my white-and-black Supro a lot. It’s got two DeArmond single-coils that look like humbuckers, and it’s got a weird bridge pickup that’s supposed to sound almost like an acoustic pickup—it just sounds so weird. I used that for the solo on “Howlin’ for You.”
That solo buzzes like a mosquito. I couldn’t figure out how you got that tone.
It’s just that weird Supro pickup through a little Magnatone with a 10" speaker. You put that sound on top of a big Rickenbacker bass and a fuzz bass, along with some organ—all holding down the bottom end—perfect! It’s heavy without being too much, y’know? There’s still some space in the mix, but it’s really heavy!