Taken from Tennessean (June 30, 2019)
Interview: The Black Keys on 'Let's Rock', death row and making friends with Jack White
by Dave Paulson, Nashville Tennessean
The Black Keys: Dan Auerbach (left) and Patrick Carney (right). PhotoCredit: Alysse Gafkjen
No meetings. No "pre-production." No songs written in advance.
When it came time for The Black Keys to finally make a new album, all Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney did was set a date and show up.
Last September, the two halves of the bluesy rock duo started meeting at Auerbach's Nashville recording studio, with the goal to work up new songs from scratch. And they didn't have to wait long for inspiration to strike.
"We were ready to get to it," recalls Auerbach, the group's frontman and multi-instrumentalist.
By the end of the first day, they had "Breaking Down," a funky slab of sitar-laced rock. Things rolled on smoothly from there, through sessions held over the next few months. By January, drummer Carney says, "We realized we had a record."
The finished product hit stores on Friday. The guitar-driven collection is called "Let's Rock," and is the duo's first album in five years.
'We'd been caged up together for so long'
That's a considerable gap for any popular act, but in the Black Keys' world, it's an eternity.
Starting in 2002, they released eight albums in 12 years. In the process, two guys from Akron, Ohio slowly - and surprisingly, to them - grew into one the biggest rock acts around.
Their first album, for example, was recorded in Carney's basement. The last - 2014's "Turn Blue" - debuted at No. 1, besting a new posthumous album from Michael Jackson.
The Black Keys recorded their new album in Dan Auerbach's Nashville studio, Easy Eye Sound. PhotoCredit: Alysse Gafkjen
At the end of that epic journey, a long break was overdue. Auerbach and Carney have known each other since elementary school. When they got off the road for "Turn Blue," Carney says they went at least a year without seeing each other.
"We'd been caged up together for so long," Auerbach adds. "When you're on tour, you're just up in each other's business, 24/7. So it's really healthy to have a little time apart after that kind of cohabitation."
Of course, time apart didn't mean time away from music. Auerbach immediately formed a new band, The Arcs, produced albums for Cage The Elephant and The Pretenders, and churned out tons of projects through his Easy Eye Sound studio and label, including his sophomore solo album, "Waiting On a Song."
Carney, too, is a prolific producer, with a hand in projects by Jessy Wilson, Tennis and pop/rock star Michelle Branch, whom he married earlier this year. He also created the theme song to the Netflix hit "Bojack Horseman" with his late uncle, saxophonist Ralph Carney.
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"Between the two of us, we probably made, like 25 albums in the last four years," he estimates.
"But you know, that's how Pat and I started," Auerbach says. "Pat introduced me to the 4-track (recorder), and I fell in love with it, and the whole idea of making records just became an obsession, I think, for both of us."
'People start to ask questions'
And when they weren't in the studio, the pair kept in touch. There were text messages and occasional dinners, and the next Black Keys album seemed like a matter of "when," not "if."
It didn't always seem that way to the outside world, though.
"I think any time a band is making music regularly, and then stops cold turkey, people start to ask questions. So I think it's just natural, in this TMZ kind of world, for people to talk," Auerbach says.
They embraced the rumors of inter-band turmoil with the album's first music video, for "Go."
The comedic clip opens with the pair sitting on a couch in couples' therapy, refusing to speak to one another. At the behest of their label, they're sent to a spiritual retreat. After they experience a vision (of a mountain of cash), they decide to work things out.
All kidding aside, Auerbach and Carney believe their differences have been crucial to their success.
"In the van, touring, he'd have his CD book, and I'd have mine," Carney says. "On the extreme end, there'd be some acoustic blues stuff, or some Alan Lomax recordings that Dan would bring. And on my extreme end would be some indie rock stuff, or something. But we would listen to each other's music so much."
"We germinated each other's brains while we were on tour," adds Auerbach.
They may not have had to patch things up with each other, but during their time away, The Black Keys did bury the hatchet with fellow Nashville rock star Jack White.
For a couple of years, the two acts had the most heated rivalry in rock music, with White accusing the group of "ripping off sounds of mine," and having a publicized run-in with Carney at New York City bar. It hadn't helped that The Black Keys relocated to Nashville in 2010, after White did the same in 2005.
But earlier this year, when the band revealed their new single, "Lo/Hi," White's label, Third Man Records, sang their praises on social media.
"More evidence that Nashville rock n roll is alive and well. Congrats on the new music, @theblackkeys!"
"I think it was really cool," Carney says. "Dan and I have known (label co-owners) Ben Blackwell and Ben Swank for almost 20 years now, and I've actually gotten to know Jack the last six months, a little bit...This is a big month for rock and roll in Nashville with The Raconteurs record and our record."
Inspiration from death row
Coming from a band like The Black Keys, an album title like "Let's Rock" seems self-explanatory. But the accompanying cover art - of an electric chair, with bolts shooting out of it - has a surprising backstory.
'Let's Rock' is The Black Keys' first album in five years. PhotoCredit: Submitted
The title and cover are inspired by the 2018 execution of Tennessee death row inmate Edmund Zagorski, who was the first person in Tennessee to die by electric chair since 2007. His last words before being executed were, "Let's rock."
During one of the first sessions for the album, Auerbach saw the "Let's Rock" headline on a copy of The Tennessean left in the studio. Months later, when they were deciding on a title and album art, Auerbach says, "I just kept coming back to that story."
"The idea of the electric chair, and 'Let's Rock,' and we'd just made this rock and roll record. I feel like it was sort of meant to be. We were just handed that.'"