The Black Keys: Shine A Little Light

Matt Inman on October 31, 2019
The Black Keys: Shine A Little Light

photo by Alysse Gafkjen

After an extended break marked by side-projects and studio sessions, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney regroup for the first Black Keys album in just over five years.

On the evening of Nov. 1, 2018, at Nashville’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, Edmund Zagorski became the first Tennessee inmate to be executed by electric chair in over a decade, after he chose the method over lethal injection. Despite serving 35 years for killing two men, and despite losing multiple appeals for a stay of execution—an Eighth Amendment-invoking endeavor that reached the Supreme Court—Zagorski, according to witnesses, was smiling up until the moment the guards placed the hood over his face. His last words: “Let’s rock.”

Just up the Cumberland River, situated closer to the heart of Nashville at Easy Eye Sound studios, guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney were in the early stages of writing and recording their first album as The Black Keys in five years. Auerbach, who owns the studio along with its related record label, came across a copy of The Tennesseean that reported on Zagorski’s unique sign-off and, when it came time to name the Keys’ ninth LP, their message was clear and they had their album title: “Let’s Rock”.

Almost two months earlier, when Auerbach picked up his guitar in the same studio room where Carney was seated behind his drum kit, it was the first time the collaborators had shared the same recording space in half a decade, when they were making their previous Black Keys effort, 2014’s Turn Blue. The two musicians remained impressively busy in the interim, both professionally (producing other artists, writing and recording with side-projects) as well as personally (both got married and had a kid), but the call to reunite the Keys eventually became too strong to ignore. However, the hiatus, in the words of Carney, was “long overdue.”

“We never really discussed it,” the drummer says, calling from his home in Nashville “It was just like, ‘We’re not gonna book any more shows for a while,’ and neither one of us really knew what that meant.”

That was circa 2015, when Auerbach was busy with his new band The Arcs and Carney was recovering from a shoulder injury suffered early that year, causing the band to cancel a handful of tour dates. Carney explains that their separation helped illuminate the fact that he and Auerbach were wearing thin under the grind of the never-ending album/tour cycle, which started for them back in the early 2000s.

“Then, after doing it for like eight years, we accidentally had a hit record,” Carney continues. “Brothers [released in 2010] kind of spun us out a little bit. We felt successful and were really happy with our music career, but then Brothers hits and, all of a sudden, there’s this whole other level that we didn’t quite understand. And we had all these opportunities that weren’t there before. It’s not just, ‘They want you to play Lollapalooza again.’ It’s like, ‘They want you to headline the whole thing.’ And we had to say yes to all of that stuff. We had to say yes to the Spike TV Video Game Awards. We had to say yes to the MTV Movie Awards. We had to say yes because we’ve always operated under the idea of ‘Don’t knock it till you try it.’ Eventually, we kind of burned out, I guess. We needed to take a break.”

Finally, after Auerbach released his second solo album and he and Carney completed countless other projects, the rock-duo itch returned. Auerbach’s shift in focus was partially inspired by a life-affirming studio session that the guitarist hosted at Easy Eye Sound when he was working with longtime Eagle Joe Walsh. Auerbach, phoning in from his own home base in Music City, explains that the two musicians got to talking about their early inspirations, landing on common ground in the form of their shared guitar hero, Glenn Schwartz, a loose-cannon, evangelist blues-rocker from Cleveland and the original guitarist for the James Gang (before Walsh took over prior to the band’s 1969 debut album and led them to hits like the classic-rock staple “Funk #49”).

“When I was 17 years old, I saw this guy in Cleveland play guitar, and he blew my mind,” Auerbach raves. “I used to go see Glenn religiously. Every week, he’d play at this place called [Major] Hoopples up in Cleveland, and he was just wild, man. He played out of two [Fender] Quad Reverb [amplifiers] on a homemade guitar that he’d built himself. All his songs were religious, and it sounded like Cream playing live at this little bar. It was really out-there shit, and I loved it so much.”

Auerbach brought in Walsh and members of The Arcs to help Schwartz record several of his old tunes, and the trio of guitarists made appearances at both the tiny Nashville club Robert’s Western World as well as Coachella in 2016.

“Playing those old songs reminded me how much I had borrowed from Glenn when I was making the first Black Keys records with Pat,” Auerbach remembers. “The first two or three records have Glenn Schwartz’s DNA all over them. I didn’t even realize it until I had Glenn come in. And Joe Walsh just worships Glenn, in the same way that I did. It was crazy seeing this multigenerational thing, where Glenn was the elder statesman. It was a big nostalgia trip, and it felt amazing. He’d meant so much to my growth and development when we were starting, and it put me right back there—it made me want to create a loud rock-and-roll record. And then, I was like, ‘Shit, I’m in a band; I can do that!’ As soon as I wrapped up that record, I texted Pat: ‘Let’s book some days in the studio.’”

Around that time, however, Carney wasn’t quite ready to jump back into the Keys, having recently lost his uncle, multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney, along with receiving the news that he and his now-wife, Michelle Branch, were expecting their first child. Yet, by the time fall 2018 rolled around, the hiatus had run its course, and Auerbach and Carney entered the studio to create what would become “Let’s Rock”.

“The older I get, the more I realize that things will either happen or they won’t,” Auerbach reflects. He’s talking specifically about the success that The Black Keys have experienced over their nearly two decades in the business, but he could just as easily be laying out the duo’s collective mindset going into the studio sessions for the new record. “You can’t just force shit. If it’s meant to be, then it’ll happen.”

“We’ve never been that band that pulls our hair out worrying about one take or one song,” Carney says, before adding, “Well, occasionally, we’ve been that band, for a day, but not typically. We make it, we mix it, then we forget about it. We put it out and we move on. That’s really the only way you can be if you want to make a record at a reasonable rate.”

Though the duo hadn’t played together for years, and in spite of the fact that Carney had become a father and quit smoking cigarettes after almost two decades—both within a month of the “Let’s Rock” sessions—the musicians’ longtime rapport immediately returned with the first note they played, which happened to be the beginning of an initial jam that turned into album track “Breaking Down.”

After utilizing the instrument constantly while writing and recording an album with vocalist Jessy Wilson earlier in 2018, Carney, much like Auerbach, was in a guitar mood. It was a perfect storm of axe worship, and The Black Keys started revisiting the sound and ethos of early albums like 2003’s Thickfreakness and 2004’s Rubber Factory. Those records were made without much outside input, a format that changed when the band teamed up with uber-producer Danger Mouse for 2008’s Attack & Release. But “Let’s Rock” was truly the Auerbach and Carney show. (However, they did enlist help from some of the Easy Eye crew as well as backing vocalists Leisa Hans and Ashley Wilcoxson). The duo even kept their return to the studio relatively quiet, refraining from telling their manager until late in the album-creation process.

“I wasn’t thinking about it at all, in any way; I didn’t want to think about it in any way, except for making the record and having a good time,” Auerbach says. “Pat and I didn’t talk about it at all. There was no preproduction, and we didn’t write anything [before the sessions].”

The resulting LP is a collection of true guitar-rock tunes—the duo realized halfway through the recording process that they hadn’t yet used a keyboard and almost unconsciously agreed to keep it that way throughout. They lean heavily on the kind of riff-based composition that defined their pre-Danger Mouse era, maybe most prevalent in tracks like “Eagle Birds” and the beginning of opening cut “Shine a Little Light.” When discussing the Easy Eye sessions, Auerbach frequently returns to one concise description: “It was fun as hell.”

“What Pat and I do is pretty primal. All we really need is an electric guitar and some drums—that’s the foundation of every single song,” the guitarist says. “We were just goofing on each other and making music that we thought sounded cool. That was our whole goal for the day. All our records are different, in so many ways, but this might be the first time that we’ve been so laid-back in such a nice studio.”

“It’s a weird process for us, because we don’t really discuss it,” Carney says of their studio approach. “As we’re working through [the music], we’re also talking about current events or making fun of each other. It’s very light; it’s always been like that with me and Dan. We work best when we’re on the same page and it’s us against the world. I know that if there were one or two other members of our band, it would not have worked. We wouldn’t have gotten through these last couple of years.”

As Auerbach and Carney prepared for their fall tour in support of “Let’s Rock”—which kicked off in late September and will take the band around North America with dates stretching until Thanksgiving—they landed on a new live format that actually nods to an approach they’ve embraced since their first album. For the first time, the Keys’ onstage configuration will feature three guitars, a bass and a drum set, replicating Auerbach’s in-studio tendency to double-track or triple-track his guitar riffs to add a signature heft.

“It’s the most Black Keys-sounding it’s ever been onstage,” Auerbach says excitedly. “When we’re playing those old songs and there are three fucking guitars doing the thing like it was done on the record, it feels cool as hell. There’s a lot of power; I love it so much. It was crazy—once we started playing and rehearsing, it was like, ‘Fuck! Why haven’t we done it like this before?’”

To achieve that effect, Auerbach and Carney brought in the duo of Andy and Zach Gabbard of Cincinnati’s Buffalo Killers—playing guitar and bass, respectively—along with Steve Marion, who is best known as Delicate Steve. Carney notes that, in addition to his guitar prowess, Marion can handle the keyboard parts that any song might require. Also making an appearance on tour will be Carney’s newest family addition, his toddler son, who will climb aboard the tour bus for two weeks. (“He’s going on a tour of zoos; I’m going on a tour of playing concerts,” Carney observes with a laugh.)

The Black Keys’ hiatus after Turn Blue may have been just as necessary as it was unexpected, but Auerbach and Carney were always destined to come together again to make an album like “Let’s Rock”—their history runs too deep and, more importantly, their connection is far too undeniable.

“I’ve had some amazing times in the past few years, I can’t lie. I’ve gotten to work on so many fun things,” Auerbach reflects. “But the thing that’s special about this is that it’s been going on for 20 years. That’s a unique relationship that I’m never gonna be able to have with anybody else. Pat and I have always had this musical connection—this unspoken thing—ever since we were 16. The very first things that we did sounded like music; it sounded good, like some awesome mixture of all kinds of weird music that I like. It was just instant like that.”

“We’re tight, very much like brothers,” Carney agrees. “But I’m not the first person Dan calls if he wants to grab a drink—I’m probably the last person he would call for that. But when shit hits the fan—or something good happens—we call each other. If Dan’s stressed out, I think I’m one of the only people who can talk him off the fucking cliff. I’ve played drums with other people, but when it comes to being really free onstage with that instrument, I feel the most capable when I’m playing with Dan. It’s hard to describe. It’s almost like I’m not playing the drums. It’s like Dan and I try to create one instrument out of two.”

This article originally appears in the October/November 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe below.