In a small back room of a Radisson Hotel in Appleton, Wisconsin, Chuck Auerbach is offering me a piece of gum. He’s just finished his first-ever live performance in conjunction with the city’s annual Mile Of Music festival, and I’ve been peppering him with questions about his forthcoming debut album. After our 30-minute conversation, which was punctuated by a singular Midwest dad reticence, I’m pleased he feels comfortable enough to extend me this small token of hospitality.
Talking with Auerbach feels just like talking to a dad from any small town in America; he’s obsessed with music from decades ago, extremely proud of what his son has been accomplishing, and reluctant to have much attention focused on himself. Chuck would much rather talk about his admiration for his son — Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys — than field any compliments about the nine original bluesy-folk songs that he just played live for the first time.
Though he’s been a songwriter for years, Auerbach was wheedled into his giving this first actual performance by Cory Chisel, the founder and wily mastermind behind Appleton’s Mile Of Music Festival. Now we’re all three tucked away in the wings of the hotel, listening to Chisel speak on his vision for throwing the event in his hometown.
“Our festival is really about having the experience Chuck just had,” Chisel says. “We’re trying to survive in an age where all festivals are becoming homogenized reiterations of one another. What our festival really seeks to do is have as many firsts and high points that are meaningful for the artists themselves. Our town that doesn’t need to hear the song they’ve heard a thousand times — they’re ready to hear something that’s brand new.”
At 66, Auerbach is also ready for something brand new. Even 15 years ago, when he “caught the bug” for songwriting from his son Dan, Chuck never envisioned himself as a performer. After hearing Chisel’s music at a chance meeting in Nashville, Auerbach approached him about working together on some of his songs. Chisel agreed to take a look, and infamously left their initial meeting with a pile of 55 songs to look over. As the two began writing and working together, Chisel assured Auerbach he was the one to sing the tunes, and thus began the long journey toward his debut album. Aside from finally roping him into performing at the fourth iteration of Appleton’s Mile of Music Festival (Mile 4), Chisel had quite a hand in producing and arranging the nine tracks that will appear on Auerbach’s yet-to-be-titled debut.
The other person who had a hand in that recording process was, of course, Chuck’s son, who ended up producing, recording, and playing all over the record. As the machinations of the music industry are whirring to get Chuck’s album, which was recorded in 2014, out into the world, he has continued to do what he’s always been interested in doing: writing songs. Luckily, he didn’t mind taking the time before heading back home to Akron, Ohio to have a conversation with me about what got him up on that Wisconsin stage last weekend and what it’s like to have a superstar musician for a son.
STEREOGUM: So how do you feel now that your first show is over?
AUERBACH: Relieved is a good word. Happy that it went smoothly. It went smoothly didn’t it?
STEREOGUM: Yes, I thought it was really good!
AUERBACH: It was our best no-Chuckie-screwed-up session yet. I hesitated on one line. I was kind of wondering if I was concentrating so hard on getting the lines and the cues right that I didn’t express the words as well as I should have.
STEREOGUM: You and Cory were telling a story onstage about the enormous stack of songs you initially brought to him. Is that how things got started for you musically?
AUERBACH: Obviously, you know who my son is.
STEREOGUM: Heard of him.
AUERBACH: When we urged Dan to start writing original material, he’d been doing a lot of old blues covers, a lot of North Mississippi stuff. When he started writing, he kind of sounded like his influences. Too much like his influences. So we talked about it and pretty soon he got the hang of sounding like Dan rather than sounding like Junior Kimbrough or Robert Johnson.
STEREOGUM: When was this was conversation in the grand scheme of things?
AUERBACH: 2001? 2002? Before The Big Come Up came out. He was playing in bars around town in Akron [Ohio], and doing well. But we knew a lot of successful bar musicians… and after a while it just becomes a trap. You have to start playing all the things that people expect you to play, all the covers, and you’re stuck. I knew he was — I would say “better than that” but I don’t want to diss any of the musicians who played in those bars. So we urged him to start writing, and I think he became a wonderful writer, especially on Thickfreakness. But then I got the bug! My helping him do it got me the bug. In fact, it was a Gillian Welch tune that I wrote new lyrics to — I don’t even remember the song. At that point, I just kept going.
STEREOGUM: So you had been writing from like 2001?
AUERBACH: Yes, approximately. I did open mics singing a capella because I don’t play myself, and tried to entice local musicians to work with me. I got a few. Some great Ohio bands — Hey Mavis, Shivering Timbers — they do great jobs with my songs. Then, we started spending more time in Nashville. We went to see Cory play a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood out there and I loved the way Cory put a song together. He has this wonderful ability to — and I’m not disparaging my tunes — but he has the ability to make a greater sum of the parts than anyone else would be able to. I ran into him the next day the local supermarket, told him how much I enjoyed his concert, and asked him if he’d come over and look at some lyrics. I have a firm belief that I write lyrics more than I write songs. I write to a melody, but the melody isn’t always original enough, and I’ve always been looking for a solid musician to work with. So Cory came over the next day, and I think he was expecting that I was going to have two lyric sheets to show him, he went home with 55 of them. He looked at about a hundred, but we narrowed it down.
So between Cory and Kenny Vaughan — Kenny is a great Nashville guitar player — they both urged me to record. Now, to both of them I said: “Who are we going to get to be the vocalist?” And they both said me!
STEREOGUM: You don’t like your voice? When you guys began tonight, the first thing I noticed and loved was your voice.
AUERBACH: I do not like listening to my voice. I’m OK enough with it now that I’ll say thank you. Originally, I actually hired Dan’s engineer and studio for an afternoon to record me singing 11 songs to see if I would ruin them if I was the voice. My determination was I wouldn’t ruin them. I wouldn’t help them, but I wouldn’t ruin them, so I would go ahead and trust Cory and Kenny.
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] So what did Dan think of all of this?
AUERBACH: Well, every story brings on another story. A friend of ours, Dave Ferguson, Fergie, runs John Prine’s old studio, the Butcher Shoppe in Nashville. He always said that if we ever wanted, we could use his studio to record. So I contacted him, told him what my plans were, and then Kenny Vaughn helped me put a band together, great Nashville players, Dave Roe, who was Johnny Cash’s bass player, Bobby Emmett, who was out with Sturgill Simpson, and a few others. So we got set up and recorded one song and in walks Dan. Now, I hadn’t invited Dan to this because I know how busy he is. He’s like the busiest, most hard-working guy in show business, and I didn’t want to add to his — there’s a Yiddish word called tsuris — I didn’t want to add to his troubles.
So, Dan walks in anyway after one song and says, “Let’s hear it.” We play it for him. He thought about it for a moment and said “All right, let’s try it this way.” He went on to produce the whole thing and came up with the music on the spot. Everything was just a little bit different than what I’d originally come up with. Enough so that I was sweating bullets to keep up with the vocals, because he changed it enough and I was editing on the fly, and it wasn’t working and I was getting really frustrated. Until he told me listen, those are scratch vocals. We don’t record the real vocals until later on. Which was supposed to give me a sense of relief? But all it did was make me angry — why didn’t someone tell me this in the beginning! It was amateur hour for me, just the whole experience.
So we recorded the vocals a month later at Dan’s studio, we had all sorts of wonderful backup singers, including Richard Swift from the Shins, also from the Black Keys, who has a wonderful voice. He’s a wonderful guy. Dave Roe, Bobby Emmett both sang back up on one of the songs. Dan sang back up, he also plays guitar. And what song does he play harp [harmonica] on? I never knew Dan played harp, and I’m not sure that he even did until he picked up the harp that morning. He just blasted away and made the song.
STEREOGUM: What’s the album called?
AUERBACH: It doesn’t have a name. It’s like Chinese vegetables, it doesn’t have a name. That’s an old family joke. We’re waiting on Dan. He has a whole group of albums he’s putting out including mine. Until it happens I’m just trying to be patient.
STEREOGUM: Is it going to be this year?
AUERBACH: I thought it was going to be last year!
STEREOGUM: Have you heard of the phrase “dad rock?” It’s the idea of the very traditional classic rock or indie rock, possibly even the Black Keys, that phrase is often used to refer to it now, colloquially. As a dad yourself, I wanted to get your opinion?
AUERBACH: I have no answer for that question.
STEREOGUM: It’s a very dad move, to skip that.
AUERBACH: The great thing about being 66 years old is I got to see and hear all the greats. I basically stopped listening to new music when Dan was born in ‘79. Pretty much from that point on the whole ‘80s is a blur musically. I woke up to music with Nirvana in the ‘90s. I thought, “These guys understand the stuff that I grew up on. It’s still fresh, but it’s real.” Meanwhile, I’ve been filling my head with old blues. Then Dan found Junior Kimbraugh on his own and turned me onto Junior. Maybe in ‘98 or ‘99 — I’m not sure when it was — me and him took a trip down to Chulahoma, Mississippi, to Junior’s Juke Joint, and spent an incredible night listening to music there. I haven’t heard of “dad rock.” I’m very non-contemporary. The first album I ever bought was in 1958, I think it was a Chuck Berry album. Ricky Nelson on The Ozzie And Harriet Show playing blues was pretty great. The Beatles. Motown. Doo-wop. Little Anthony And The Imperials. The Cadillacs. I loved Louis Prima. You ever listen to Louis Prima? Fabulous. Led Zeppelin — who I saw on their first American tour. I saw Pink Floyd on their first American tour. I saw so many great bands that it was impossible not to love music.
STEREOGUM: When it comes to your own songs, personally, I really loved “My Old Man” — the one about your dad. Coming to this album, people are going to be thinking about your son, so to hear another generation of your family referenced was incredibly moving. You said it took you 18 years to finally write about him after his death — what made you finally decide to?
AUERBACH: That’s certainly the most personal. Well, they’re all personal, but that one is certainly the most personal. The whole process of grieving … it takes a while. It’s about having to digest and accept the loss, to not argue with the God who took him away from you, who made him suffer, didn’t relieve his suffering. Just to remember what a wonderful guy he was and how lucky I was to have him as a dad. So that all takes time. You can intellectualize it, but I’m not very bright. It’s got to come out emotionally.
STEREOGUM: I think when it comes to grief no one is very bright. On the other side of things though, your son has risen to a level where he has to combat a lot of negativity, being in the spotlight. Has that been a struggle for you to watch that, as a father?
AUERBACH: Yes. Celebrity is not fun. Celebrity is not fun. The reward for being a successful musician is being allowed the freedom to make more music, and that’s the great thing about success. You know, Dan is, you can say the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. But I could also say Dan is a great role model. Dan loves what he loves and he doesn’t want to do stuff he doesn’t love. That kind of belief in your own taste, your own ability to create it is great. You know, not being able to go out, dealing with dopes — that’s a drag. At any level that’s a drag.
STEREOGUM: What do you think it would be like if you got to that level?
AUERBACH: That’s not going to happen. What if I walk on the moon? I like to deal in possibilities. You know that bucket list thing? That I don’t have, that other people seem to have? If I had one, this would not be on it. I never had the desire to do it. I’ve watched Dan real closely for 16, 17 years now? It’s a really hard life. You don’t come out of this unscathed. So, I’ve been able to see the upside and I’ve been able to see the downside. And, I like my life. I just kind of like it the way it is. So have I escaped your question?