Dan Auerbach
Dan Auerbach “I never stop working,” confesses singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach, “which is a blessing and curse, I guess. I’m pretty obsessed with making music and with recording, I’m always thinking about it. It drives my family crazy. But it’s what I do.”

Keep It Hid, the first solo effort from The Black Keys singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach, is part of a continuum of music making that began the moment Auerbach picked up a guitar as a boy. On his new disc, he references the artists and genres that have long fascinated him, from the soul-stirring bluegrass of the Stanley Brothers to fuzzed-out ‘60s psychedelia, from the doleful side of country to Memphis R&B, with some carnivalesque rock and roll to tie it all together. He doesn’t so much depart from the approach of The Black Keys as explore in a full-on band context ideas that have, to varying degrees, helped shape the duo’s elemental groove. As Auerbach explains, “The one thing I didn’t want to do is to try to sound different from The Black Keys. That would have sounded half-assed and boring. I just wanted to do things I loved.”

His work has always been a first cousin to the blues, and acoustic opening cut “Trouble Weighs a Ton,” with its transfixing world-weary vocal, makes the connection clear. The environment Auerbach creates on the tracks that follow is a dark emotional landscape where hurt and betrayal are the inevitable by-products of love. Brooding arrangements, tersely downcast lyrics, and tormented vocals pushed to a compelling spot front and center in the mix all contribute to the mood. Auerbach admits, with a laugh that suggests his everyday life is surely brighter than the one he conjures up in the studio, “I don’t know what it is, but that’s the kind of music I like—the dark side. Paranoia and pain, that’s what I’m into. Even songs that seem upbeat, like ‘My Last Mistake,’ have the most depressing lyrics. I wanted the album to flow like scenes in a movie. Like ‘When I Left the Room’—it’s a cha-cha about paranoia; ‘The Prowl’ is all about, well, stalking. I like that stuff. All the songs have that kind of lurking thing. I guess I could make a lot more money in music if I sang about happy shit, but that’s not me.”

Constructing his studio, Akron Analog, near his Ohio home also gave Auerbach the impetus to put together Keep It Hid. As the studio name suggests, Auerbach takes a very specific approach to recording: “Most of the equipment is analog. I’ve got tape machines that I use, and my console is custom-made, 1950s tube style. The room was built from the ground up and it’s acoustically correct, you could call it. After I built the studio, I could really record stuff the way I wanted it to sound. And then there was no excuse for me not to turn that stuff into a record. It’s been an ongoing process, for the last couple of years, recording new songs between tours. I think at first I didn’t know I was going to make a record, I was just recording songs like I’d always done and when they started to accumulate—I had hours of material—I just decided, what the hell. I started to think of it less as just songs that I’m doing every once in a while and began to think of it more as working as one complete record. When I finally decided I was going to do it, it came together pretty quickly.”

Along with being front-man and de facto producer, Auerbach took on a multi-instrumentalist role: “I played drums and percussion, sang harmonies, played glockenspiel—everything.” But he didn’t want the album to be a solitary effort or simply mirror The Black Keys’ approach to recording. “It’s more an ensemble kind of thing than the two-man stomp—a full band, playing in a room live, with organs, drums, bass, and guitars.”

Auerbach enlisted friends like Bob Cesare, who worked with Auerbach when he produced such Midwestern bands as Radio Moscow and Buffalo Killers. Cesare, says Auerbach, “plays drums and a bunch of different instruments; he’s really a studio nut like I am.” Engineer Mark Neill not only pitched in on the record, but he assisted Auerbach in configuring the studio. Says Auerbach, “Mark helped drive me in the direction I wanted to go with my studio. I didn’t have a producer for Keep It Hid but it’s always good to have another person, another set of ears that you trust, to help make some decisions. And I chose Mark to help me out and mix the record. He did it completely analog, no digital effects or anything. Any slap-back is a big old tape machine. Any reverb is a giant eight-foot long metal plate. We stayed pretty true to the idea of recording and mixing in an old school way.”

In between Black Keys live dates, Auerbach found some days when he could grab serious studio time with his fellow players. He brought in a double bassist from Cleveland, Cesare as drummer, his uncle, guitarist James Quine (first cousin of the late NYC-based guitarist Robert Quine), and protégé Jessica Lea Mayfield, Auerbach’s vocal duet partner on “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be,” the closing track on The Black Keys’ 2008 Attack and Release. As Auerbach explains, “I always loved singing with my Uncle Jim, he sort of gets where I’m coming from. He understands that traditional music doesn’t have to be so traditional. He’s got a really open mind; he loves the Stanley Brothers and stuff like that. He came up from Florida and spent a week or so working on songs. I love playing with Jessica too, singing with her, so I definitely had to have her on the record, singing on ‘When the Night Comes’.”

Along with his uncle, other members of Auerbach’s family have been an ongoing source of inspiration, even if he couldn’t get them all in the studio for Keep It Hid: “I always really love when we have family reunions. That’s how I learned to play guitar. That’s why I wanted to play music, hearing my mom’s family playing bluegrass songs, soul songs, singing harmonies and stuff. “ His dad doesn’t play an instrument, but he did write “Whispered Words.” Says Auerbach, “He started writing songs a few years ago, and he’s gotten really good. I began to record a few, with ‘Whispered Words’ being among them. “

More than just contributing lyrics, Auerbach’s dad saw early on, says Dan, “that I wanted to play music, so he didn’t let me slack off on it. I think that was one of the best things that ever happened to me, having him there to make me get on stage. I was sort of shy, I never wanted to be the center of attention or anything. He got me up on stage. Before I knew it I was playing in bars four or five nights a week locally, making a living doing that, playing in my three piece, The Barnburners, or playing bass or second guitar for other people. I did that for almost two years, before I went on the road with Patrick and this thing really took a hold on us.”

Auerbach, who’s been planning solo dates with Austin band Hacienda as backing musicians, definitely hasn’t slacked off. As he recounts, “Before I left for our fall Black Keys European tour I was recording, so I’m always doing it, really. I sort of look back on the last two years and I can’t believe the amount of things I’ve gotten to be part of. I think I recorded, like, six albums, the ones I’ve produced plus The Black Keys records and my own record. I need a vacation.” He takes a breath and considers that for a moment “But I don’t think I’ll take one.”

—Michael Hill