By: Dennis Cook
Keep It Hid (released February 10 on Nonesuch), the solo debut from The Black Keys' guitarist-singer Dan Auerbach carries great grumbling echoes of older rock 'n' roll – pre-60s rock, '50s stuff still filthy with its country and ghetto roots – transmuted into a personal, immediate, thoroughly non-musty sound that initially engenders an emotional response more than an intellectual one – a good sign one's onto the real deal.
"Just don't start crying [laughs]. That [music period] is it for me. That's my pinnacle, man, the late-50s Memphis sound. No matter what I do, no matter where I go, that's going to be a part of me because that's what I listened to when I was learning how to play. So, it's sort of my foundation," says Auerbach. "What attracted me to the sound of early electric Memphis is how primal it was, how raw it was and how sort of simple it was, but deceptively so. It's totally unlike Chicago or Mississippi blues; it's its own thing. It was a mixture of all those rockabilly guys, R&B guys and gospel musicians, all electrified, and often electrified improperly. It's a beautiful thing."
"Like I said, it's so deceptively simple. You have to have a good guitar and a little guitar amp that's turned up a bit too loud. Everybody wants to mimic that sound using computers or plug-ins but it's totally unnecessary and sort of can't be done that way," continues Auerbach, who fully gets how pushing things into the red can produce a hellaciously satisfying noise. "For anything I listen to I like it to have a bit of that feeling in it, whether it's jazz or soul or country music; a little bit of that really makes it for me."
Keep It Hid steadfastly refuses the gussied up sound prevalent today. There's dirt in the gears and hellhounds at the studio door, grime on the tape heads and ghosts in the machinery.
"Certainly with computers it's SO easy for people to get lost in the details, where they start to mic up every fucking instrument and it ruins everything, for me anyway. I try to use as few mics as possible and I try to use the right microphones and good musicians," laughs Auerbach, a man who understands the importance of nailing fundamentals. "You can't do better than the basics. It's never unsatisfying. No amount of Pro-Tools edits will ever be as satisfying as a good band being recorded in a room altogether. That energy is the heart and soul of any kind of good music."
"I've always recorded like this, in one form or another. With Pat [Carney, his drummer partner in crime in The Black Keys] and I, we've always been in the same room. We might put the guitar amp in another room but he and I are playing as live as we can," continues Auerbach, who recorded his solo album in his new home recording facility. "It's a studio I had built from the ground up. So, a big part of the sound of the record is the room. Like any kind of classic record, the room has a lot to do with it. One of the tricks of a lot of great old albums is they didn't necessarily mic the drums. The drums bled through the vocal and guitar mics, a room drum sound, and there's a lot of that going on in this album. I was listening to so much Norman Petty recordings while we were making the record that it's crazy. He's a genius. He was making records on the most rudimentary equipment, and the shit he recorded in the '60s sounds right up there with Abbey Road and the best studios in the world, all done at his little fuckin' studio in Clovis, New Mexico."
|Dan Auerbach by Veronica Vaillancourt|
"I built the studio and I needed to get a recording console, and I figured I'd get this new console built in this old school manner but it's got a lot of bells & whistles people would expect from a modern console. If somebody brings their Pro-Tools files, we can mix on it like that. Then, I had it for a couple months and I thought, 'This sucks! This is not what I want to do. The records I love were never made on this console or anything like it.' So, I sold it and stripped it down so it's now bare bones, and I think it's better off, way better off," says Auerbach. "It's not able to accommodate the demands of modern production but I don't want anything that ever comes out of my studio to sound like the shit that's on the radio nowadays. And it's not because I want things to sound old – I want them to sound timeless."
Albums like Buddy Holly's That'll Be The Day, Ike & Tina's Workin' Together and Otis Redding's Pain In My Heart (all identifiable ancestors to Keep It Hid) don't wear out over the years. Some core indestructibility keeps them fresh for future generations, and there's a kindred feel to what Auerbach is laying down. It's long been there in the backdrop of The Black Keys but one hears it more fully realized on his solo set.
"If you listen to a Hollies record or The Zombies, you don't necessarily think, 'This sounds like the sixties.' I think, 'Listen to how awesome his voice sounds! Listen to how amazing these guys sound!' There was a time in the late-60s where they got into all that psychedelic stuff but just before that they recorded bands in a really pure way, and I think it's just completely the most beautiful, timeless sound ever," observes Auerbach. "A lot of it had to do with the idea of being a band being in a room playing together live. For the most part, those records, with the exception of some overdubs, are the bands playing together. You get that good feel, and the people in charge of recording have a classically trained ear and mind. So, they aren't trying to make things sound far out. They make things sound really good and really true, so you can get that good depth. I could nerd out on this stuff all day."
Continue reading for more on Dan Auerbach...
You can't do better than the basics. It's never unsatisfying. No amount of Pro-Tools edits will ever be as satisfying as a good band being recorded in a room altogether. That energy is the heart and soul of any kind of good music.
Deciding one's limits for themselves has real creative mojo. Necessity and conscious parameters can fuel real ingenuity in the studio. It's a cornerstone of The Black Keys' duo-philosophy that's carried into Auerbach's work outside that band.
"I never felt Pat and I were ever limited when we went into the studio. In fact, a lot of times we'd have too many ideas and have to tone it down," says Auerbach. "It helps to take some stuff off, let it breathe."
So, what prompted the solo album? What made these tunes something he wanted to steer on his own outside of his partnership with Carney?
"The thing most people don't realize is I've been recording on my own on the side forever, since before I met Pat, and the people on this record I've been playing with longer than I've been playing with Pat," offers Auerbach. "My uncle [Charles Auerbach] is the guy who taught me how to sing and play guitar. I've been playing music with him since I was 14. So, this is new to everyone else but it's just normal to me. I've just never had the opportunity to release anything."
"What's really new to me is touring behind something like this and having six people on stage playing music. That's the new thing," continues Auerbach. "The album is pretty fleshed up and we get to do all the stuff live – the percussion, the keyboards, the harmonies, rhythm guitar, it's all there. This tour has been pretty overwhelming. It's been amazing to play with these guys. They're so great. Having two drummers and keyboards is so much fun. And I think we're doing things in an understated way; we're not just bashing away. They only play two kits at the same time on two songs. The rest of the time one plays drums and the other does percussion. It's cool."
'Cool' isn't a temperature setting in much of Auerbach's songwriting, which often throbs with uncivilized carnality, real man/woman stuff that presses skin on skin. "Mean Monsoon" and "Street Walkin'" on Keep It Hid have real hips and juicy immediacy.
Put a dollar in the jukebox
But don't you play our favorite song
'Cause seeing you dance to that
Is only gonna bring me to ruin
"Well, I don't know, things just kind of happen in the studio," offers Auerbach with a verbal shrug at odds with the ass hound lurking in his music. "I felt really great about the lyrics on both those songs. I felt I was in a really good place of writing when I was putting this album together, the last half of the album anyway. Both those songs were pretty much in the studio live. On 'Mean Monsoon' I had a loose idea of what I wanted, and my uncle was there and he's a big fan of Cuban musician Arsenio Rodriguez, so I told him I sort of wanted that feel on the rhythm guitar. He goes to Cuba and the Dominican a lot and he just started playing that [begins mouthing a loping, sensual Latin guitar stroll]. That was the idea and we built around that. And I told Bob [Cesare, drums] that I wanted the beat to stop and start. We threw it together and it just flowed. Both those songs are SUCH fun to play live!"
Auerbach seems to draw from the same well that gave us "Not Fade Away" and "Rock Around The Clock," the original spring that fed this beast that became rock 'n' roll.
"I've never really listened to The Rolling Stones or any of the British stuff. When I was young I sought out the stuff those guys had listened to. Obviously, I knew who the Stones are but the song I knew the most was 'Paint It Black.' And the same thing holds true for the guys I'm playing with, too. That's why I knew it would work so well. They love that music. They know as much or more than me about who was playing in Muscle Shoals or at Stax Records or Motown, or who was playing on the sessions for Pet Sounds. They know all about that stuff."
"It's all about the maracas. I'm fucking serious. Maracas are the unsung hero of rock 'n' roll. And having the ability on this tour to have a dedicated maraca player is so incredible," asserts Auerbach, who offers a clue to his mania by making the first photo in the CD booklet a shot of hand painted maracas. "Patrick [Hallahan, MMJ drummer on tour with Auerbach's band] can fit six maracas in his hands – three in one hand and three in the other. It's so amazing! You get that primal drumbeat and those maracas going and I could just go wild and listen to that all night."
See JamBase's review of Keep It Hid here and a review of the touring band's recent performance in S.F. here.
Auerbach and his merry men are currently on tour in Australia and hit Europe in May. See dates here. And The Black Keys hit the road again in the U.S. for a handful of dates in April before summer festival season kicks off. Find the full itinerary here.
The title cut live in San Francisco
Covering Grand Funk Railroad in S.F.
JamBase | Raw
Go See Live Music!