Ten years after they pulled up their stakes and moved south to Nashville, leaving their gritty post-industrial hometown of Akron, Ohio, the birth place of rubber companies, waffle cones, oatmeal, and LeBron James; Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach are back, at least metaphorically. On their ninth album “Let’s Rock” the city of Akron is a silent partner, a third member on a recording that returns the duo to the straightforward, primitivism of their early canon, back to those days when Carney worshipped the Stooges, and Auerbach was enamored with Link Wray and the original James Gang guitarist Glenn Schwartz.
“What version of me do you see on this record?” singer, guitarist Dan Auerbach asks rhetorically from Easy Eye Sound Studio. “You see the Dan Auerbach who saw Link Wray when he was eighteen, and who went and saw Glenn Schwartz every week at Hooples [in Akron]. Glenn Schwartz was our own religious version of Link Wray. That was how I got turned on to crazy ass, weird ass rock and roll when I was a kid. That made such an impact on me. And it still does…” he trails off.
So much so, that before Schwartz’s death in November 2018, Auerbach along with Joe Walsh, recorded with Schwartz.
“Joe and I spent a few days in the studio playing Glenn’s songs, all his All Saved Freak Band songs from 1970 and 1971. Before that I didn’t realize how much I’ve been informed by Glenn when we made the earlier Black Keys records. It’s this weird Midwestern rock and roll thing and how this rock and roll is got in my blood. But I can say doing that session with Glenn and Joe primed me for doing a Black Keys record. I made that religious record with Glenn and Joe and I literally went to church, and made the Black Keys record right after.” Explains Auerbach. “It was the perfect thing to get me into this record.”
Inspired by the fiery eccentric guitar of his hero, urged along by Patrick Carney’s impatient intuitive stutter drumming, the duo have turned out what is perhaps their best work, minimalist and no frills in its execution, they’ve created the kind of insistent sounds that makes you want to drive over the speed limit on the Innerbelt as you roll out of town in your Road Dominator in search of big adventure. Or maybe just a little relief from suburban boredom.
After the nuanced, pensive psychedelic melancholy of 2014’s Turn Blue, perhaps the biggest factor in the sound of “Let’s Rock” was that Auerbach and Carney fell back in love with the electric guitar co-producing an unpretentious blues worshipping assault record that reminds you that rock is supposed to be unpredictable, dangerous, and in your face.
“I love big and dumb songs,” admits Carney. “They’re my favorite. I think on this record Dan and I came to a similar place in terms of what we wanted. I was sitting in my studio for the last year just playing electric guitar, and for the first time in a while, Dan was playing a lot of electric guitar. The record is like a homage to electric guitar. It’s all it is. Then, there’s these cool solos and there’s barely any drum fills. We took a simple approach and trimmed all the fat like we used to.”
The title itself came about serendipitously, and Auerbach shares, “we were in the studio, and we saw the news that the first person in Tennessee to die by electric chair in eleven years is about to be executed. They asked him if he had any last words before they pulled the switch, and he said, ‘Let’s Rock.’ I saw it as a sign, so we decided to call the album that, with an electric chair on the cover.
But despite all of the Black Keys’ success over the 20 years they’ve been together–each of their albums surpassing the next: 2010’s Brothers debuted at No. 3, then 2011’s El Camino went straight to No. 2, and 2016’s Turn Blue debuted at No. 1–they earned 10 Grammy nominations, four Grammys and four multi-platinum records, they haven’t changed that sharply honed Midwestern edge. And why would they want to?
“Now we’re basically like a prison shank turned into a ginsu blade,” laughs Auerbach.
You can hear it from the first unhinged yowl that opens up “Lo/Hi,” a fretful portent about the claustrophobic dangers of modern isolation, sets a formidable pace. The disembodied, swampy chorus on “Tell Me Lies”; the eccentric “Walk Across Water,” which rivals the lyricism of Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” or Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary”; the raw prickly threat of “Under the Gun,” recalling great underground rock bands like Question Mark & the Mysterians, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the 13th Floor Elevators, and, especially, Cleveland, Ohio’s James Gang—they all make you realize this isn’t music for the faint of heart. It’s a call to action, a cautionary tale, a breakdown that leads to breakthrough, and mostly a record that was itching to be made.
No matter that it took five years to get it done. No wonder, either—a relentless touring and recording schedule had sapped their energy.
“After Turn Blue I was totally burned out, one hundred percent,” admits Auerbach. “I had lived in Nashville for seven years and I hadn’t spent any time there. I had a studio and I would make sporadic records here and there, and I just knew that I needed to take some time. I stopped cold turkey, told everybody I’d cleared the schedule completely. I needed some time to create. Playing arenas felt like some kind of a distant dream. But having said that, I think before every great Keys record, we take time off.”
Carney concurs, “It was three years basically from the time we played our last show to the time we started this record. The break was, at times, very frustrating for me, but at the same time ultimately it was the right thing to do, right to walk away from that at that time and just live life, basically. “I really liked laying back,” Auerbach says, although the term is hardly appropriate to a period in which he formed the Easy Eye Sound record label in 2017, named after his studio, which has become home to a wide range of artists including Yola, Shannon & The Clams, Dee White, Shannon Shaw, Sonny Smith, Robert Finley, and The Gibson Brothers; it also has released the posthumous album by Leo Bud Welch as well as previously unreleased material by Link Wray. During this time Auerbach also produced a records for The Pretenders as well as Cage The Elephant’s Tell Me I’m Pretty, which won a Grammy for Best Rock Album, and collaborated with the likes of The Memphis Boys, and A$AP Rocky. His time was thoroughly occupied.
As was Carney’s, producing records for Calvin Johnson, Michelle Branch, Damns of the West, Tobias Jesso Jr., Jessy Wilson, Tennis, repeat repeat, Wild Belle, Sad Planets, Turbo Fruits, and more. He also created the theme music for the Netflix show BoJack Horseman with his late uncle, Ralph Carney.
“Dan and I ended up making a lot of music with a lot of other people. It wasn’t like we were never going to play together, [but] it was like we were at the stage of ‘what’s the point of making another record and then doing the same tour over and over again,’” says Carney.
Instead they developed a new appreciation for each other’s gifts.
“That period really cleared my mind, and it made it so much more enjoyable when I got back together with Pat, because we’d had all that time off,” confesses Auerbach. “We’d been onstage doing this over and over and over and over again. But when Pat played with me in Nashville last year at the Easy Eye Revue with Robert Finley, I was like, ‘Oh, shit, what a cool-ass drummer Pat is.’ When we got back together it felt very fresh, and that would have been impossible if we hadn’t taken that time off. I feel like the record is a testament to that feeling.”
And without much folderol or ceremony, they started fresh.
“It was so easy, like riding a bike, really,” says Auerbach. “We didn’t listen to anything before; our batteries were just charged.”
“The way we did it was almost like the same way I quit smoking cigarettes a few months earlier. We just set a date and showed up,” explains Carney.
The band stuck to a more “adult” schedule than they had kept for their earlier albums, for instance, when sessions for Brothers went long into the night. They tracked drums and guitar for a week and a half, broke for a month while Dan worked on lyrics, and then worked again for a week in October, a week in November, and a final three days in January. They planned to begin every day at 9am and they’d break at 5pm.
“We’d meet there, have coffee, bullshit, make fun of each other. We laughed a shitload making this record. We hadn’t really spent much time together—we’d gone out to lunch a couple times, to dinner a couple times. I was a little bit apprehensive about how it was going to be, just because we hadn’t worked together at all in years. But instantly we’re in there joking around.”
No matter what they do individually, in the studio both Auerbach and Carney produce.
“We’ve always been equals in the producing part,” explains Auerbach. “From the very first record we made in Pat’s basement until now.”
“We went in with no material,” Carney says. “We wrote a song a day, basically, and then it got to the point where there were fifteen songs, some finished, some pretty basic. Then we took a break so Dan could start working on lyrics. We went back in for two or three more weeks over the next three months and ended up writing like twenty-five songs.”
“Yup, Pat’s right. We wrote ‘em all on the spot,” says Auerbach. “I didn’t bring anything in, and I didn’t want to overthink it. I wanted it to feel spontaneous. I wanted to be able to record something not dissimilar to ‘Louie Louie’ and be perfectly happy with it. I was looking for the Troggs.”
“Funny, I was looking for [the Stooges] ‘Down on the Street,’” laughs Carney.
“Mostly, I would just start playing and singing, and the words that would come out of my mouth were the words that were meant to be there, and I would build upon that,” says Auerbach. “But every single song started with a live take.”
“I’d probably written 300 songs before we got down to work on this one with all these different songwriters in town, people like John Prine, Pat McLaughlin, Roger Cook, all these amazing people. I’ve gone all over the place with songs, and I have no fear going anywhere. But for the first time, I have no fear of being vulnerable.”
“But really, the whole record was just meant to be.
And even it was, this is the twosome who could resurrect it. “Without Dan’s drive and ambition I would probably be playing the Grogg Shop [in Akron]. He pushes me and tells me not to overthink, and it works,” confesses Carney. “And you have to admit it really works. That’s the magic in this band. We’re like complimentary colors.”
“Pat and I are the Black Keys when we’re together, and we’re not the Black Keys any other time at all,” Auerbach agrees. “But when we’re together we are the Black Keys, that’s where that real magic is.”