Pentatonic for the soul: Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys

That Other Paper talks with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach about analog equipment, digital copyright, and drop-stitch knitting (not really)

That Other Paper For a blues band, how you do attribute your widespread success?

Dan Auerbach By not necessarily playing blues music, I think. I think that’s key. I don’t think anything we do is traditional in any way. We’re kind of forward-thinking, I guess, although we like to keep it raw. Having half of the band not being much of a fan of blues helps to keep it a little bit different, too.

TOP Would that be you or Pat [Carney] who’s not so much of a fan of blues?

DA [Laughs] That’s Pat.

photo / sarae Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys at Lollapalooza 2005 

TOP Many critics have discussed the lo-fi aspect of your recording techniques and how it contributes to the general feel of your music. Do you feel that the lo-fi recording stuff is a deliberate reaction to modern recording technology – like people sort of throwing off the shackles of high-tech production quality? Or is this part of a larger trend in music?

DA I think the invention of the digital multitrack that you can buy anywhere means any kid with a bedroom and a basement can have a recording studio, basically. And all of those recordings are not going to sound studio-quality. I don’t know. I think it’s good for some people, not good for others. I think you gotta really be into it an enjoy it to really do it right. Both me and Pat really love to record and love messing around with that stuff.

TOP So you personally have an affinity for lo-fi equipment and analog stuff?

DA Not lo-fi necessarily, but recording equipment – I really love analog equipment. Pat’s more into the digital stuff. He’s been getting into computer recording and stuff like that.

TOP I had read on Wikipedia – and I just want to verify this with you – that thickfreakness was recorded mostly in its entirely in 14 hours.

DA Yeah. That record was recorded in one day. On a 1/4-inch 8-track Tascam.

TOP Do you primarily use tube amps?

DA I generally use tube amps. I like the way they sound better. Although I have a couple of little weirdo solid-state amps that are kinda cool, too. They have a weird, crystalline sound to them that you can’t get with tube amps.

TOP Your vocal style was the thing that first really turned me on to your band. It’s unique considering where it’s coming from. Is that a style that you cultivated – that sort of grittiness – or did you just start singing like that out of the box?

DA I think I just started singing like that, I guess. I was certainly influenced by lots of music I was listening to and grew up with: soul records, early rock ’n’ roll stuff, lots of the blues.

TOP Is your voice at all colored? Are you a smoker?

DA No, no.

TOP I just assumed that you were. It has that certain gruffness to it that’s really interesting.

DA Yeah, a lot of people say that. But no, I don’t smoke at all. In fact, smoke kinda makes me sick.

TOP Luckily there’s an indoor smoking ban in Austin, so you’ll be right at home. But I digress: Coming from Akron, were there any local influences there, or did you have to turn to a more nationwide scene and history to cultivate your musical tastes?

DA Local influence would be my family. My uncle and my mom’s family all play bluegrass music. I love bluegrass, and I always wanted to play those songs at reunions and stuff like that. And my dad’s record collection would be another one of those big influences when I was a kid. But when I started getting more and more into it in college, I had to start searching outside of the area. Going for drives up to Cleveland, down to Pittsburgh, go on weekend trips to Memphis, New York City – stuff like that.

photo / sarae The Black Keys perform at Lollapalooza 2005 

TOP Where do you see the Black Keys in your next album or in the next couple of years?

DA I don’t know. We’ve aligned ourselves with some really great people. Great record label, great manager, who are all for us having complete control and allowing us to do whatever we want. I think that’s going to be key for us to keep making music that is honest, I guess.

TOP In having complete control, what are your thoughts, then, on digital copyright? How music is spread online and stuff like that.

DA I don’t know. I think it’s kind of obvious that someone filesharing is just kinda stealing. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that. But it’s still an inferior quality, the digital medium. I’ve got an iPod, I love it, and I use iTunes all the time. I buy stuff off there. But the quality’s not as good. You can tell if you really get into it. I’m a real fan of records, and I listen to lots of old records, and it’s just a totally different thing. Newer generations who listen to this stuff don’t even know the difference anymore, so it’s kind of irrelevant to even have that discussion. Big business will start to take over, and those fileshares will become illegal. I think it’ll still be pretty cheap to buy a full album online, although I think it sucks to buy MP3s. I always love having the liner notes to have and hold while I’m listening to it. It would kinda stink to have a whole generation who wouldn’t even know what that was.

TOP Now you have artists like Beck who incentivize people to go out and actually buy the package because they get so much more out the experience by physically playing with the thing – customizing it, making it their own.

DA Clever. Clever idea. Beck’s a clever guy.

TOP Yeah. You got to open for him, right?

DA Yeah, we did a whole tour with him. He’s a super, super cool dude.

TOP You mentioned your iPod earlier. What are some of the bands that are on your iPod right now?

DA I’ve been listening to lots of Sir Douglas Quintet from San Antonio and Dr. Dog. The new Joanna Newsome record’s pretty awesome – sort of a put-your-headphones-on-and-zone-out-for-an-hour kind of record. And I just got this new – well, it’s not new, it was recorded in ’71 – album by Karen Dalton. It was recorded at Bearsville Studios in upstate New York in ’71. Some pretty amazing stuff on there. She was this white folk singer in the Greenwich Village scene, but she looked like a midwestern, caucasian girl, and her voice sounds like Billie Holiday. Unreal.

TOP Are there any local bands or bands that have opened for you that you’d like to give a plug to?

DA There’s actually a band outside of Austin called Hacienda. They’re really cool. It’s a band made up of brothers. They gave us a demo a long time ago, and I really liked it, so they’re going to be opening the show for us in Austin. So come early for Hacienda – they’re cool.

Editors’ note The Black Keys play this Friday, December 8, at La Zona Rosa. Hacienda and Dr. Dog – two of Dan’s favorite new bands – are opening. Details are available at La Zona Rosa’s website


pat boyer's picture

i think the black keys sometimes sound exactly what some of the old blues guys like hound dog taylor or howlin’ wolf would sound like if they were still around. they have that really super true to heart gritty blues style that has inumerous amounts of soul. lets get away from all of this refined john mayer stuff. lets get back to gritty low down fat mama soulful extra buzzing strings and screeching notes that hit you in no way anything else can. and thats why the black keys are one of my favorite bands. they understand what blues has truly always been about.

Anonymous's picture

I agree 100%. The Black Keys have broken free from this mainstream shit and actually done something original and gritty. Love their music, probably my favorite band out there. Check out The Friendly Strangers at

Jesse's picture

The Black Keys are insanely good. Their new album, Attack & Release, is absolutely fantastic - - - - so different, yet they don’t stray too much from their unbelievable blues sound that they started out with that I fell in love with. SO IN LOVE.