We’ve Got A File On You: Dan Auerbach

Jim Herrington

We’ve Got A File On You: Dan Auerbach

Jim Herrington

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

The Black Keys are back in their prolific streak mode. For years, the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney churned albums out, constantly intermingled with side projects. Then, there was a big five-year gap between Turn Blue and ‘Let’s Rock’. Since then, the engine’s been back up and running. A little under two years after ‘Let’s Rock’, the Black Keys returned with the covers album Delta Kream. That collection was made in a day, and spurred them on to keep working, resulting in their latest album, Dropout Boogie.

There’s been a bit of a thread in these recent projects, with Auerbach and Carney tapping back into the raw immediacy of their earlier days. A lot of Dropout Boogie has a lived-in, dusty quality to it — songs where you can feel them jamming it out and letting them breathe rather than weighing them down with too much thought or ornamentation. That being said, singles “Wild Child” and “It Ain’t Over” still give you that pop side of Black Keys, the blend of warm rock grooves and massive hooks that first propelled them from an indie blues-rock duo to arena rockers a little over a decade ago. For longtime Black Keys fans, the album strikes a nice balance.

On a recent stint in Nashville, I stopped by Auerbach’s studio Easy Eye. It’s a nondescript little building you’d totally miss when driving by, but inside is full of records, a bunch of cool antique-looking furniture, a well-stocked bar, and a studio crammed with all manner of vintage guitars and organs and keyboards. A lot of studios I’ve been to are either basic and to the point or sort of cobbled together, but Easy Eye has the kind of dark-room bohemian vibe people like to imagine in those spaces. It was a hot and bright morning in Nashville, and when I got inside Auerbach — soft-spoken but welcoming — was smoking a cigar in the kitchen with the lights off. Once we got settled, we talked about Dropout Boogie, his production and co-writing work, and all sorts of odds and ends from his unique career.

Dropout Boogie (2022)

Coming out of Delta Kream, it seems like you felt a lot of momentum. You had done that in a day, and the impulse was there to just get back in there and play.

DAN AUERBACH: Pat had never played 75% of those songs on Delta Kream. I hadn’t played some of them ever, really. It was really just going with our gut. It just turned out so good, being carefree and not worrying how many mistakes were on the record or whatever. We really liked it. We wanted to have a similar feeling. Not recreate the thing, but jump in there with a carefree attitude. If a song felt like it was catching, we’d work on it a bit longer. But there are definitely songs on the album that are first takes.

When ‘Let’s Rock’ came out it was the first one in five years, and you’d done this little video spoofing the idea that you two had fallen out. But now, in hindsight, with Delta Kream and Dropout Boogie, it seems like the cobwebs were still sort of getting shaken out with ‘Let’s Rock’ and now you’re dialed in in a different way.

AUERBACH: I feel like we’re closer than ever. I think it’s time. The time apart did us good. We benefitted in that way. We seem to be on the same wavelength at the moment. Things are going really well.

There are some elements of Dropout Boogie that seem to remind people of the earlier days, a scrappiness. At the same time, you brought in these other collaborators.

AUERBACH: I know, it doesn’t make any sense. We went in both directions at the same time. Greg Cartwright is a hero of ours. We love Greg and everything he’s done. I’d worked with him off and on the last few years, and I knew Pat would dig it so I invited him over. Same thing with Angelo [Petraglia]. I’d worked with him for different artists. We wrote a song together for the Velveteers. He’s just a good guy and I thought he would understand what we’re doing in a way that probably most songwriters in Nashville wouldn’t. So we gave it a shot and it was really fun.

I had never sat around a table with Pat and an acoustic guitar and wrote songs. That’s not something we’d ever done. That’s because I’ve been working in Nashville for 11 years and I learned how to work that way, sometimes. So we applied that to me and Pat. It was great. He hopped right in. He picked up a guitar, we were throwing out ideas. It was very much an equal creative situation.

He had this quote I thought was nice about “Good Love,” where he talked about trying to channel your inner ZZ Top — and Billy Gibbons is actually on it. Rick Rubin brought you out to LA years ago to jam with him.

AUERBACH: [Laughs] Dude, he came to one of our first shows, when we were touring Rubber Factory. He came to a show in New Mexico. There were 30 people in the audience. And one of them was Billy Gibbons.

I imagine he’d be particularly noticeable in a crowd of 30 people.

AUERBACH: He didn’t even say hello to us. He came to the show, we were done, and he left. I didn’t see him. Everybody was like, “Man, Billy Gibbons was here!” He told everybody he loved it. So he’s been a supporter for a long time.

I knew he was in town so I sent him a text, very off-the-cuff. I said, “If you’re free later, stop by, Pat and I are in the studio.” He just showed up. He brought a bottle of red wine, no guitars. I handed him a guitar he had never played, and an amp he never played. He plugged it straight in, turned it all the way up, and it sounded exactly like Billy Gibbons. Pat brought that up the other day. Everyone goes on and on about what special gauge strings Billy uses, his holy grail Les Paul. Man, whatever that guy picks up sounds like him. It’s awesome. Dr. John was like that. He could sit down at whatever and it sounded like him. David Hidalgo is like that, too. I worked with him on the Arcs and some other stuff. We wrote here a few times. It’s all in his fingertips.

So much of the story over the last 10 or 12 years was this crazy ascension you guys went on after being underdogs, having these songs that were poppier but still kind of operated on their own wavelength relative to the mainstream. Is there anything conscious about that to you? I feel like Dropout Boogie is sort of happy to chill out a bit more.

AUERBACH: Maybe, I don’t know. We always want to make a record that’s varied, that has a good mix of stuff that’s broke-dick and the stuff that just jumps out of the speakers. I feel like we’re capable of doing both. We like records that do both. You put it together like a mixtape, you know what I mean? We want it to have its ebb and flow. But when we put a track together and it jumps out of the speakers like “Wild Child” did, we know we have to spend a bit more time. A song like “Good Love” or “Burn The Damn Thing Down,” we know if we worked on it anymore than that first take, we’d fuck it all up.

The Big Come Up (2002)

This album is coming out almost 20 years to the day of your debut. There’s other anniversaries that sort of coincide — The Big Come Up would’ve turned 10 not too long after El Camino came out, which is obviously a radically different chapter. Is that history on your mind at all?

AUERBACH: We hadn’t thought of it at all, until after we made the record and we were thinking about release dates and Pat, of course, was like, “Actually… that is the 20th anniversary to the month.” He knows all the dates.

Have you spent any time reflecting back on those days?

AUERBACH: It just seems crazy, all that touring we did in the van just the two of us. It was brutal. I could never do that shit again, if I had to start from scratch. I’m proud we did it.

What about even further back to the Barnburners, or the day you and Pat accidentally played together because your band didn’t show up. Do you remember what vision you had in your head back then relative to what happened? Like, where did you think the Black Keys would go?

AUERBACH: I had no idea, man. I really didn’t know. I think our goalposts got moved every year, because every year things got a little bit bigger. The paychecks got a little bit bigger, the rooms got a little bit bigger. What we were able to do creatively — we could go to a studio if we wanted to. We didn’t have to worry about the cost. It changes over time. I think what’s most important is to not lose sight of that special connection Pat and I have. That unspoken thing, it’s been there since we were 16 or 17. We can’t lose sight of that.

Was that a lesson you had to learn along the way, in terms of knowing when to bring it back to the core essence of you two as a duo?

AUERBACH: It’s a delicate balance. We did go into the studio with a producer one time before Danger Mouse to make some demos. It sounded awful. It was terrible. Then we went into the studio with Danger Mouse and we liked it, it was fun. It was a totally different experience. Getting to a place where you’re just confident to be yourself but at the same time open up to co-conspirators. It can bring out the best in anyone. Just a little sprinkling, a little seasoning of somebody else. Because it is just the two of us. We can bang away and make noise all day and then we get into our cars and listen to records with like, full bands. We don’t want to limit ourselves. But it took us a long time to open up to that.

Producing Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence (2014)

You became very prolific as a producer over the years, and won a Grammy for it in 2013. One of my favorite things you’ve worked on is Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence. It was interesting to go back and read interviews because I kind of forgot how weird that story was at the time. It seemed like you were sort of defending her and the fact that you worked with her.

AUERBACH: Oh, really?

Well, she’d been such a divisive figure. And you were sort of underlining her musicianship, talking about how she was singing live in a room with a full band and how nobody makes pop albums like that anymore.

AUERBACH: She didn’t brag on herself. I wanted to brag on her, and let people know what she was doing. Because I thought it was really fucking cool.

There was also the thing about label pushback and they got Adele’s producer to listen to it and he said not to change a thing.

AUERBACH: [Laughs] I hadn’t worked with anyone in that part of the industry. I hadn’t worked with anyone with any outside opinions at all — except for like, their parents or their siblings. You know what I’m saying? That was a first for me. Maybe it seemed like a big deal to me at the time.

How did that whole thing start to come about?

AUERBACH: We met at Electric Lady in New York City, hung out and just got along. Quickly after that we made plans for her to come down here and try out some of these songs. I don’t think she was totally satisfied with the recording situation. I love that record. I’m glad she decided to do it with me.

Is that a collaboration that felt like a one-off or would you want to work with her again?

AUERBACH: I feel like on any given week I could get into the studio with someone like Lana and make something really cool. She’s so creative. I’m always down to get into the studio with people who are like that. You could feel the tension going on. She was being pulled in a lot of different directions, plus she was around all these musicians she didn’t know. And she fired the drummer on the second day. [Laughs] Or, I had to fire the drummer. But I think it was that tension that got something special. I don’t try to fight any of that stuff. Tension or not, we’re recording. [Nashville engineer] David Ferguson he always says, “ABC, always be fucking recording.”

Producing Yola’s First Two Albums (2019/2021)

AUERBACH: She was coming here for years. She was playing at Americana Fest and being completely ignored. When I first saw a video of her, she was playing on the front porch of Groove Records on the East Side. I immediately heard her voice and was like, “Oh my God, I want to meet her.”

You did two albums with her in quick succession.

AUERBACH: It was electric. We were firing on all cylinders. We were very much in tune with each other musically, I think, and she was ready to explore anything. We brought in some different people to write with. I think they drew a lot of interesting things out of us and ultimately I think we made some amazing records. I’m really pleased with how they turned out. Her voice is just otherworldly. They were easy to make. We cut them both in a week. Less than. We’d be done by the fourth day, end of the third day. We’d done so much writing beforehand, we both knew the songs so inside and out.

Obviously the Black Keys have put out a lot of music and at certain times were working at a fast clip. With production, is it about exercising a different muscle — like with Yola, “I want to try this country thing.”

AUERBACH: Is it really country though? And then what is country? I don’t really know, man. I have no preconceived notion when I get into the studio.

Just someone you think you can click with.

AUERBACH: That’s it. Whether or not we’ve written a song together or not. Like the record I did with the Velveteers recently, they wrote most of the songs. And they were so rehearsed, down to the microsecond.

You’re just there to get their vision.

AUERBACH: Whichever way I can help, that’s what I’m doing. I don’t want to lord over a record and Phil Spector it and make them all sound the same. I want them to have their own life.

Playing Guitar On A$AP Rocky’s “Everyday” (2015), Collaborating With RZA (2010s)

AUERBACH: That’s just from hanging out in New York City. I don’t remember what that was. Maybe hanging out with Mark Ronson in New York. I’ve hung out with Rocky a few different times.

The kind of thing where you go into the studio, give them some stuff, have no idea what’s going to show up in the finished product.

AUERBACH: Yeah, yeah. I think they had to let us know. I was like, “Huh, interesting.”

That’s one of several moments, especially in that 2010-2015 range, where the Black Keys were interacting with the rap world. You also had the Blackroc project, collaborations with RZA. Had you always had that ambition or did opportunities just start coming up during those years?

AUERBACH: I think we just always loved that music so much. But we didn’t want to rap, you know? Lots of the stuff we love samples cool-ass stripped-down raw music. I think it’s just being a child of the ’90s. Rap was everything when we were in middle and high school. It’s what was popular on late night shows, it’s what was popular in our schools.

Back when you went to LA to jam with Billy Gibbons, that’s actually when you ended up playing with RZA instead. So far we got “The Baddest Man Alive” out of that, but there was supposedly like nine songs, right?

AUERBACH: I don’t even remember what they sound like, to be honest. I’m sure they’re there. We worked a bunch with him. It’s hard to do records with a bunch of people, man. It’s a big legal train wreck. It kind of sucks the life out of those types of things. I just did a tribute record for John Anderson. Luke Combs, Eric Church, Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, Ashley McBride, Sierra Ferrell. All these fucking people. John Prine’s on it. But it took half a year just to get the thing legally ready. [Laughs] Two weeks to record and six months to clear.

“Shine On Me” With Mark Knopfler (2017)

AUERBACH: I just sent him the song and he sent me the guitar back like two days later. I think he just happened to be in the studio. I got his phone number and I asked nicely. I’d never met him!

What was it about that song where you were like, “Mark Knopfler’s the guy?”

AUERBACH: I don’t know, it was probably me or somebody doing shitty Mark Knopfler impressions and it was like, “You know what would be cool? If you guys didn’t do that and we got Mark Knopfler.” [Laughs] So, we did. It was perfect for that. It was cool to be able to have his name associated with it. We text a little bit. [On the tribute album] Sturgill does a song that Mark Knopfler did for John Anderson. It was a hit called “When It Comes To You.” It’s a real cool song. Fergie suggested that one. I texted him to let him know we were cutting it and he was excited.

The first solo album was 2009, then another almost 10 years later, and an Arcs album in between. In general, is that stuff room for you to poke at another part of yourself that doesn’t fit in the Black Keys or is it like, you’re working all the time and here’s the window where these songs happened to arrive?

AUERBACH: It’s just the people I’m working with at the time. If I’m going into the studio with Pat, it’s going to be Black Keys. If I go into the studio with my buddies Leon [Michels] and [Richard] Swift, it’s gonna be Arcs stuff. If I’m making music with Ferg, it’s definitely not going to be a Black Keys thing. It just is what it is I guess.

When you’re not touring, are you here in the studio every day?

AUERBACH: We work on shit every day man. There’s stuff to do every day, pretty much. Making records. We do about 12 a year. Writing here also. If I’m not working on mixes or edits or overdubs, we’ll have artists here where we’re working on their songs.

Cameos On Workaholics (2012) And Nashville (2013)

AUERBACH: I don’t remember how they pitched that to us. I think they just sent us the script. It said in it, like, “Pat’s ponytail.” [Laughs] I love those guys, I loved that show. Adam [DeVine] is one of my buddies. We just hung around this courthouse all afternoon wearing this fake heavy-ass wig thing. We haven’t done much of that stuff aside from our music videos. I know we definitely prefer to not be lip-syncing when we do a video. The first time we ever had any money to spend on a video, we hired David Cross to direct. That’s always been the route we’d prefer.

The next year, you cameo’d as yourself on Nashville.

AUERBACH: I’m friends with Callie Khouri, she created the show. She fucking hornswoggled me. [Laughs] I told her I’m not an actor and she said, “Just get your ass over here.” I was just standing in a bar with Vince Gill. [Laughs] It was, you know, super realistic.

Co-Writing Purple Mountains’ “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me” (2019)

Berman had attempts at the Purple Mountains album — one with Dan Bejar, one with Black Mountain, etc. You guys had gotten to know each other and write occasionally, and that’s one of the things that eventually led to this album.

AUERBACH: I met him through Harmony [Korine], who I knew from when I moved here. He introduced me to David and we just hit it off. I was going over his house and hanging out, he was coming over here [to the studio]. He just loved the energy over here, I think. One afternoon I had La Luz over here and they’d all geek out over him.

We were working a bunch on songs. I was working on the Arcs stuff at the time. He really was drawn to it. He loved how creative and open it was. It wasn’t necessarily like normal songs. He started to send me ideas for these Arcs songs he heard, so we just started collaborating. It was really fun. I mean, he was a genius. Very troubled. Very damaged. But he was genuine, all the time.

The stuff you guys were working on together, how different was it from these other iterations of the album, or the version of “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me” that ended up on the album that actually got released?

AUERBACH: Yeah, it was totally different. It was arranged by somebody else, basically. We have a few Arcs songs that we just finished up that we wrote with David. We worked together on lyrics, but yeah, I’m singing David’s lyrics on a few songs. He got really mad at me, because I was heavy doing the Arcs, went on tour, and came back and stopped working for a while. He was pissed off, because he liked the music we were making so much. He was like, “Why aren’t you working on this!? This could be the greatest thing that’s ever happened!? What are you doing?” He was… so mad at me. He would send me wild-ass emails at night trying to persuade me. He was a very sweet guy. He brought me a stack of books that tall [raises hand high above table] trying to get me to go to temple. He wanted me to get in touch with my Jewish roots.

Did it work?

AUERBACH: I was interested. My dad’s side is Jewish. But my grandma, she had her whole family murdered in Poland during the Holocaust. It was just her, we didn’t have a whole lot of relatives. [David] felt like it was something I needed to investigate more.

We’d go hang out in his bedroom and just write. He had all these little notebooks and he’d let me go through them, kind of like Dr. John did. Dr. John had the same thing, handwritten notebooks of lyrics and ideas. But David’s song notebooks were kind of set up like the Unabomber. [Laughs] Lines connecting to other pages and cause and effect and all kinds of stuff.

Writing With John Prine For His Final Album (2018)

You also collaborated with John Prine for The Tree Of Forgiveness, which was his first album of original material in 13 years at the time, and which also ended up being his final album.

AUERBACH: When I hung out with Prine, I was with his old buddies. They knew a lot of shit about him. [Laughs] It was very real. We talked about a lot of stories we could never repeat. It made him open up in a way that I’m not sure he did generally. I know he wouldn’t have. But Fergie could just bring it out. I just feel really lucky that I got to be involved in that kind of stuff. It flowed really nice every time we wrote together. I wish we got to do it more. But yeah he came over to the house. We wrote “Boundless Love” and “Caravan Of Fools.” Swift was in the guest house sneaking vodka.

Something like Lana Del Rey, you were going into a different world.

Also I’d never done any cowrites when I’d worked with Lana. She only worked exclusively with Rick [Nowels], for the most part. It was a different time for me, I guess.

Someone like Prine, he’s this older legendary musician. Was there ever a different kind of intimidation working with someone like him?

AUERBACH: Honestly, I was with Pat McLaughlin and Fergie and Prine. Those are two of my best friends in town. It was so comfortable. Not at all, I wasn’t intimidated. I knew it didn’t matter. We were just having so much fun, it made me not worry. It was like magic, how lines would just pop out of his head. It was so amazing to witness. We had a hot dog roast over here one time, and Prine put a hot dog on a stick and he charred the shit out of it. Black. That’s how he liked his hot dogs. I was like, “What’re you doing?”

Producing An Album For His Dad (2018)

This is an unusual one. You also produced an album for your dad. We interviewed him in 2016 and he talked about how he got the songwriting bug from you.

AUERBACH: It was a little weird. But it was also a lot of fun. I’m always trying to make the absolute best musical thing I can, with someone who wants to dedicate their whole life to music. Here I am working with someone who just decided to start being a songwriter and singing in his seventies. [Laughs] My grandmother would call that chutzpah. We made the record over at the Butcher Shoppe, Ferg’s spot. It was fun, we cut it in a couple of days. Improvised stuff. He still performs. He’s got friends in Akron he plays music with. He loves it, it’s like a hobby for him.

Will he ever end up on a Black Keys song?

AUERBACH: Nope. [Laughs]

Appearing On No Reservations With Anthony Bourdain (2012)

When I did one of these interviews with Pat he made this sound kind of frantic. You had to take a red eye —

AUERBACH: I feel like everything in that era was frantic and red eyes. I remember I brought [Bourdain] a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.

You guys get the credit for introducing him to it.

AUERBACH: Yeah, he’s the one who blew that shit up. Now I can’t afford it. Well, I can, but it drives me crazy. We gave Anthony Bourdain a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 24-year-old. And then like four years later they’re doing highway robberies on trucks to get the bottles. [Laughs] It was like the Old West stickup to get Pappy Van Winkle. It was great. He was the coolest. We got to drink whiskey and have barbecue with him. I had read Kitchen Confidential and watched all his shows. Pat and I both worked in kitchens. We loved him.

Playing SNL Twice In One Year (2011), El Camino Commercial With Bob Odenkirk

This is rare, not a lot of artists can say this.

AUERBACH: Somebody told us we were the only ones to do it.

Those were heady days I guess.

AUERBACH: It’s such a whirlwind, doing this stuff. It’s so awkward. You sit around all day long. You have two dress rehearsals but they keep sending you up to do it over and over again. I wish I was more of a performer. It feels like it sucks the fucking music out of it, doing those things. It’s like, “Let me get you as nervous as I possibly fucking can and put you on national television. What’s the recipe I can put together to make you guys play at your worst?” [Laughs]

Do you not look back on that era so fondly?

AUERBACH: I’m joking. It was all fun. It’s exciting as hell. You just get nervous. It’s really nice to be able to do that to help advertise your shows and stuff like that.

Around that same time, you have an El Camino commercial with Bob Odenkirk.

AUERBACH: We hired him for the “Lonely Boy” video, and we didn’t even use him. We shot him all day. We used Derrick [T. Tuggle] dancing the whole time. [Odenkirk] had a role in the entire video, scenes. Then we ended up using one shot of this one guy dancing because it was like, this is the most entertaining thing that could happen. It was hard to do, because we loved Bob Odenkirk so much, but it ended up being the right thing to do.

Jim Herrington

Dropout Boogie is out 5/13 on Nonesuch.

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