For the Black Keys, Rock Lives. It Just Had to Wait


NASHVILLE — It was hard for the Black Keys to say no. When they finally did, it took them years to decompress from a decade on the road.

The band — Dan Auerbach on guitar and vocals and Patrick Carney on drums — will release its ninth album, “Let’s Rock,” on Friday. It arrives five years after “Turn Blue,” which was their third Top 10 album in a row, and four years since their last concert. Although the duo is starting an arena tour in September, this time they are determined to pace themselves.

The Black Keys story is one of throwback musical instincts and 21st-century possibilities, of the ways rock’s past and future can entangle. It’s an appreciation of fingers bending guitar strings and raunchy effects pedals connected to quirky amplifiers. It’s also a continuing bet that for many listeners, human idiosyncrasies can still compete with machine precision. In an era of blatantly computerized pop, “Let’s Rock” flaunts basics from yesteryear: guitars, drums, vocals.

Although the band uses pop’s digital tools, “We’re never looking for perfection,” Auerbach said in a kitchen-table interview at his Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville. “It’s all about how it feels. We love mistakes — the right mistakes. They can make all the difference.”

Carney had a simple explanation for why the Black Keys put the band on pause at their commercial peak. “We said yes to too many things,” he said. “It’s hard when you’ve played so many shows for a hundred bucks or less, and then you get offers for literally 10,000 times that to play a show — you can’t rationalize saying no. But it pulls you further away from what you actually want to do, which is make music. You start forgetting that you’re actually in control of what you can and can’t do. Which is the whole point of why we wanted to be in a band.”

Auerbach added that touring had come to overshadow the duo’s primary goal, songwriting. “We like creating the songs. And I know you can’t have your cake and eat it too — we’ve got to go perform them,” he said. “But it’s not a good feeling to work so hard to do the thing you love and just not ever be able to get to create. It can be maddening.”

This year, the Black Keys signed on for — and then quickly pulled out of — Woodstock 50, the now-embattled anniversary festival that may take place in mid-August. “We realized that we didn’t want our first show back to be in front of 150,000 people in a field without any control,” Carney said. “We almost gave our agent a heart attack. We hadn’t made any money in almost five years and we got offered, like, $1.5 million. And we told him we don’t want it. We only want to do stuff that actually is going to be enjoyable.”

Auerbach, 40, and Carney, 39, grew up in the same neighborhood in Akron, Ohio, and started experimenting as teenagers with noise rock, punk and psychedelic jams on four-track recorders. They officially formed the Black Keys in 2001, playing basic, stomping blues-rock that they went on to merge with other pre-punk styles: glam, rockabilly, Southern soul, garage rock, hard rock.

“I knew we were going to make another record,” Carney said. “The only thing that freaked me out was that the last show we played was in San Francisco and, man, every band breaks up in San Francisco.” Bands that have played their last full concerts in the city include the Beatles, the Sex Pistols and the Band. But the Black Keys would not join that list.

During the band’s hiatus, both Carney and Auerbach got married and became fathers. They didn’t stop making music. Both of them had moved to Nashville in 2010, and Auerbach built up his Easy Eye Sound label and studio, producing dozens of albums: blues, country, rock, soul, Nigerian music, Dr. John. Carney also did some production and performing, including an album and tour by his wife, the songwriter Michelle Branch.

After Auerbach produced an album for one of the pair’s Ohio guitar heroes — Glenn Schwartz, an original member of the James Gang in the 1960s — the old Ohio connection spurred him to collaborate again with Carney. “It was just that little nudge I needed,” Auerbach said. “Right after that session I called Pat and we put it on the books.”

Easy Eye Sound abuts a Nashville alleyway where people who are homeless camp nearby. Past its razor-wired gate are big plastic painted LP signs from a former Memphis record store. Stepping inside, among the first sights are vintage Ampex and Studer reel-to-reel tape recorders: analog survivors that the studio often uses to record or remix, although Auerbach also uses digital equipment. “We have absolutely no rules,” he said. “We’ll manipulate a song any which way that works.”

Tchad Blake, who has mixed all of the Black Keys albums’ since 2010, said, “They approach the music with a sense of abandon. That’s the key word. They are doing things unusually, because they’re not burdened by too much knowledge of being a professional engineer. They’re not even burdened by good taste. It’s — let’s just go and see what happens.”

Auerbach and Carney worked fast — recording for a few weeks at a time from September 2018 to January 2019, with breaks for Auerbach to complete lyrics — and strove to stay raw. Midway through the sessions, Auerbach and Carney realized they hadn’t used any keyboards yet, and they decided to keep it that way. Nearly every sound on “Let’s Rock” comes from guitars, voices and percussion. “Nothing felt better than just playing electric guitar and making a loud rock ’n’ roll record right now,” said Auerbach.

The band’s only studio collaborators were Leisa Hans and Ashley Wilcoxson, two church-rooted backup singers who will also be touring with them. “Dan allows us to do some trippy parts that are really so fun, that are really like gospelly soul,” Hans said. “He celebrates those weird musical moments that are nonstandard.”



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