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Wrestling restless creativity vs. keeping it simple—The Black Keys Way

When it comes to the creative process, no one can accuse The Black Keys of ever taking a complicated approach to scratching their musical itch.

Black Keys - Jim  Herrington.jpg

Story by Dave Gil de Rubio

Guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have perfected that approach since the duo got together at Akron’s Firestone High School in 1996. Most recently, that unspoken compositional ESP carried the twosome through the pandemic and yielded two albums in as many years—2021’s Grammy-nominated collection of hill country blues songs, “Delta Kream,” and last year’s “Dropout Boogie.”


That innate Buckeye symbiosis led to the former being cut in a day and a half, with the latter being a far strenuous affair, taking around 10 days.  


“We had just come out of that “Delta Kream” record and with us loving how well it turned out, we just kind of took that momentum and went right into this new record,” he explained in a phone interview. “It was great—we didn’t really think about it too much.”


The 10 songs that make up “Dropout Boogie” display a free-wheeling looseness that starts with the irresistible rocking opener “Wild Child” and continues right through closing cut “Didn’t I Love You,” a hypnotic fuzz guitar-soaked blues jam that falls somewhere between Canned Heat and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Elsewhere, the duo dabble in psychedelic soul on “It Ain’t Over” and its stacked wailing harmonies, while Carney’s loose-limbed timekeeping provides a perfect counterpoint to Auerbach’s plaintive vocals on the emotive “How Long?”


And while the Black Keys have historically kept the creative process to within their small circle, save for a few times of working with respected producer Dangermouse, “Dropout Boogie” found the duo inviting in guests Greg Cartwright (Reigning Sound), Angelo Petraglia (Kings of Leon) and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.  


            “We try to keep it simple and not think about [the creative process],” he explained. “But we did try a couple of things on this record differently, like having outside writers like Greg Cartwright and our buddy Angelo come in and do some writing, which is something we’d never done that before. The closest we came to that was working with Dangermouse. It was like that from the beginning probably due in part to insecurity and not being confident enough in ourselves to let other people into our world, which I think probably helped and hurt us equally. We put out five records before anything got played on the radio. The only time anything got played on the radio is when we decided to go into an actual recording studio for the first time and work with somebody else and see what it’s like. We had such a good experience working with Brian [Burton, Dangermouse’s real name] and learned so much.”


Dan Auerbach at Hollywood Casino Amphitheater, Summer 2022. Photo: Cory Weaver

Longtime supporter and friend Gibbons (“He came to see us in New Mexico one time on one of our very first tours where it was just Pat and I in a minivan. He’s been on our team for a long time.”) proved to be a welcome guest at Auerbach’s Nashville-based Easy Eye Sound studio.


             “He showed up with a bottle of red wine and no guitar,” Auerbach recalled. “We poured him a glass, handed him a guitar and he plugged it straight into an amp. We just started improvising for an hour and a half. One of those improvisations was ‘Good Love.’ We didn’t talk about what the hell we were doing because we were just having fun. It was awesome. We sent him the record and texted him and he loved it, man. It was cool. He’s just a big hero of ours.”


            The Black Keys have now released 11 albums since dropping the 2002 debut “The Big Come Up,” with the Dangermouse-produced 2008 album “Attack & Release” providing a commercial breakthrough that paved the way to the platinum-selling success of the next two albums, “Brothers” and “El Camino.”  


            That restless creativity continues for Auerbach, as the Black Keys embark on a summer tour. Fans can expect the Keys to “ some of the hits, of course. We’re also going to play a little bit from all of the catalog start to finish.” In the meantime, the band is keeping it simple while continuing to let the creative juices flow.


            “We never try to reinvent the wheel,” Auerbach said. “I think a lot of modern-day bands, especially bands that have gone to college, they tend to try and reinvent themselves every single record. We’re just fortunate that we’ve had our own thing since we were 16 or 17 and we just lean into that.


            “We’ve been working nonstop on new music and probably have more than half of it done with some special guests coming in and writing with us,” he added. “Not being on the road has really been helpful for Pat and I and our relationship. I just think we feel more creative than ever, I must say.”

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