The Black Keys are back. Following a five-year hiatus, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have released Let’s Rock, the first album produced in their home base, Nashville.
Nashville’s Broadway is a country music Disneyland for grown-ups. Bars named Honky Tonk Central and Tequila Cowboy invite you in for the real treat: Varieties of hot chicken, selections of Tennessee Whiskey and, most importantly, live country music, all day long. Even at the smallest venue, musicians in cowboy hats play shifts from noon to midnight. If it’s a good day, they make a big part of their salary in tips; on a bad one, they take home about 50 dollars for four hours of rock ’n’ roll, paid in cash by the venue. It’s not an easy job, but it covers rent and enables the artists to pursue their careers. And is there a better place to try and make it in the music industry than doing it in Nashville, the so-called music city where a melting pot of excellent labels, songwriters, and producers coexist?
Yes and no. The competition is tough and Nashvillian career dreams are regularly flushed down the Cumberland River heading west into rural Tennessee. Yet living and creating in Nashville means pressure as well as inspiration. Those who already have a certain standing with their art, are lucky.
Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound Studio, a former call center that he purchased and renovated about a decade ago, is located just outside of downtown Nashville. From the outside—a dark grey door, a small sign, no big entrance—nothing advertises the magic that happens inside. Vintage guitars, organs, bongos, and countless wires sit next to an old fashioned green leather couch and kitsch table lamps. Easy Eye Studio is laid-back, and invites you to just pick up an instrument, hang out, and play—if you’ve acquired Auerbach’s approval to do so.
Talking to the press about his music isn’t one of Auerbach’s favorite things to do. But today, he’s in a good mood. The intense smell of marijuana that lingers in the air might be one reason, or he might just be happy to be back in business with his bandmate and drummer, Pat Carney, with whom he founded The Black Keys almost 20 years ago, while at high school in Akron, Ohio. Though they weren’t in the same teenage spheres back then—Auerbach was popular and on the sports team; Carney was a nerd with big Buddy Holly glasses—music united them. A love for classic blues rock, deeply earthy and heavy on the outcome. They listened to big riffs, succulent sounds, rooted productions—exactly the kind of music they are renowned for since the release of their debut album in 2002, The Big Come Up.
“This rock star shit is so funny.”
The Black Keys worked their way up album by album, becoming one of the most influential rock bands of our time. After years of producing and touring, Auerbach and Carney needed a break. The result was a five-year hiatus to pursue other projects and focus on their private lives. Knots have been tied, babies have been born. Let’s Rock, their ninth studio album, is their comeback. The title says it all: It’s a straight-up rock album. “It’s an homage to the guitar,” Auerbach explains. “Glenn Schwartz was one of the craziest guitarists the world has ever seen. Someday, I think, he lost his mind and joined a cult or something. After that he started writing Christian music that was still heavy on the guitar. When Pat and I were young and lived in Akron, we would go out to small venues to listen to this legendary musician. A good year ago I invited Schwartz over to my studio. We played all of his songs and then it hit me!” As Auerbach enthuses over the memories, he remembers that they were the reason The Black Keys started making music in the first place.
Rejoining forces after such a long break wasn’t a big deal to them, says Carney: “We just met, started playing, and finished writing after two weeks.” Neither of them enjoy elaborating when it comes to talking about their work. “We basically just want to create good stuff, we don’t care about anything else,” Auerbach and Carney say adamantly. They don’t care about being rock stars, which is interesting, considering the fat-ass rock star attitude they convey through their music. Auerbach laughs: “This rock star shit is so funny. Sure, we like that kind of music, because we feel it, because this is what we have always loved. But it’s about the music, and not the industry or our image.” Carney feels even stronger about that: “The recent charts demonstrate what happens when bands care more about their Instagram followers than about their music. I know I won’t make any friends saying this, but seriously, anything that happened in the charts for the last 30 years is shit. It’s horrible.” So The Black Keys do care about what happens in the industry—they just don’t want to be part of it? “Well, I love Nashville and what happens here. So many good musicians in one place, the vibe and everything. And I profit from that. But other than putting out music, we don’t want to have anything to do with that,” says Carney. That’s it. No bottom line.
The album cover and name of Let’s Rock were chosen by accident, after Auerbach had read about the last words of Edmund Zagorski, the first person to die on the electric chair in Tennessee since 2007. They were straight to the point: “Let’s rock.” The news of a different death, that of guitarist Glenn Schwartz, hit Easy Eye Sound Studio shortly after the work on the album was completed. “We dedicated the album to Glenn,” Auerbach says. It begs the question whether Let’s Rock is a celebration of life in the face of the inevitability of death? Or is it a statement of simplicity in this sometimes overly complicated music industry? Is it a message against hip hop and R&B and a starting point for the much-needed comeback of the rock genre that so many music journalists have been predicting recently? Is it an important career step for The Black Keys? Auerbach and Carney have a weary look on their faces: “Listen, all we want to do, is good music.” It is, in fact, as easy as that.
The American rock band The Black Keys has made music for almost 20 years. This year, following a five-year break, the duo releases its new studio album, Let’s Rock.
Text: Silvia Silko
Photography: Kyle Dean Reinford