Published Nov 28, 2011With their 2010 album, Brothers, the Black Keys did everything right in ambitiously expanding their sound without sacrificing any soul. It was a career-defining work, and the Akron, OH duo of singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney were rightly rewarded for it in the marketplace. But while some artists might use such a milestone as an opportunity for further artistic reassessment, the Black Keys have stormed back in what seems a scant 18 months with El Camino, a crisp 11-track collection that displays a band that have constructed a grand home upon a simple foundation, but for now are content to rearrange the furniture. This is most evident in Carney's drumming; for the first time, he no longer sounds self-taught and El Camino's tightness is its biggest surprise. But after the opening salvo of "Lonely Boy," "Dead and Gone" and "Gold on the Ceiling," all of which could have been 1960s AM radio hits, Auerbach throws a curve with riff-fest "Little Black Submarines," although it's a rare concession to the band's new arena audience. The rest of El Camino shifts gears effortlessly from the Hound Dog Taylor-esque boogie of "Run Right Back" to the vintage R&B of "Stop Stop." The latter bears the sonic stamp of producer Danger Mouse and his return to the fold after a minimal contribution to Brothers is another indication of Auerbach and Carney's current desire for familiarity. Like the battered mini-van on the album cover, El Camino won't attract the same gawkers that its souped-up predecessor did, but it's reliable enough to get long-time fans where they want to go.
I understand that this record was made earlier this year and it's been done for some time. True?
Auerbach: Yeah, but that's how it generally goes for us. We'll finish a record and it'll take something like four months for it to come out.
Were you guys still itching to do something after finishing the tour for Brothers?
We actually hadn't finished touring when we started this record. It took 40 days to make, but it was off-and-on because we had to leave for shows, come back and leave for shows again.
Did you have a plan in place with Danger Mouse?
We really love hanging out with Brian and respect him as a record maker and I think he feels the same about us, so there really wasn't much to talk about. We agreed to do it, set up some dates and started working. That's pretty much it; we didn't talk much about what we were going to do ahead of time and we didn't do any demos. There were no rehearsals; we had nothing when we went into the studio. We started from scratch every day.
You hadn't written any songs?
No. No lyrics, nothing.
That makes sense, since my first impression of the record was just how tight and punchy it is. All of your records are raw to various degrees, but was your intention to do something really spontaneous?
Well, like I said, we didn't really talk about it; we had no goal. But we were certainly listening to a lot of three-minute songs on 45s, old rockabilly records ― the Johnny Burnette Trio, the Sweet, the Cramps, the Clash, the Cars. We were just listening to stuff that was sort of compact. I guess subconsciously we got told what to do.
What stood out for me most was Pat's drumming, which sounds so much different than how he's played before. Tight is really the only word to describe it.
Yeah, there are parts that are super-tight. I think he was trying more stuff on this one than he has on any of our other albums, which is really cool.
As you said, you made the record while you were still on tour, so is it fair to say that all of the time you'd spent on the road played a role in how it turned out?
I definitely think it did. We'd become so used to playing the more up-tempo songs from Brothers; we didn't really play the quiet ones. I wouldn't say that our set is aggro, but it's pretty rockin', so that was our general mindset in the studio each day. Along with all of that music we were listening to that I already mentioned, it all just sort of happened without too much discussion. One thing I can say is that after we finished the fifth or sixth song we realized that we were getting into this real up-tempo groove, so we just let it be and didn't really worry about it too much. Some of our records have had a lot of variation on them, in terms of tempos and a mix of loud and quiet songs, but we just let this one be what it was going to be.
It is notable that there aren't any ballads.
Yeah, I guess the closest thing is the beginning of "Little Black Submarines," but that goes away pretty quickly. I mean, we didn't feel like we had to do a ballad. I think people know by now that we can play quietly if we want to, judging by our other records.
Since you mention "Little Black Submarines," that really is the song that stands out from the rest. You must have had a good time doing that one, with the big riff and the guitar solo.
Yeah, that was my jock-rock moment. We actually did that song in two versions, an acoustic one and an electric one and spliced them together. I think that the electric half of that song is the closest representation of our live show than anything we've done before, and that's more of the way Pat drums.
I also appreciated how you stuck to your R&B roots in songs like "Run Right Back." I guess that will never leave you guys?
I don't think so; it's kind of ingrained in our brains. That's what originally got us together: a mutual love of Stax Records, and hip-hop that was sampling Stax Records. That's our foundation and I'm not sure we could shake that even if we tried.
I picked up on possibly a few Phil Spector-ish things too, or was that more Brian's input?
I wasn't listening to any Phil Spector, but I can say that I was listening to Duane Eddy and other kinds of '50s stuff with that heavy reverb, which I guess is kind of Spector-ish.
The first single, "Lonely Boy," is already all over radio in Canada, and I think that speaks to how much people here embraced you with Brothers.
Yeah, Canada was where it first really blew up.
It led to the extensive cross-country tour you did here earlier this year. What was that like for you?
A lot of miles and a lot of poutine. Seriously, it was amazing. The crowds were so much fun. A lot of times you'll play in a big city and people will just stand around. That always seems to be the thing. You'll go to L.A. or NYC and people will just stand there. You have to go to, like, Middle America to find people who want to go crazy. But it seemed it was like that in every place we played in Canada. There was such a great energy in every audience and that makes it so much more fun for us. It was basically show after show of that feeling.
From the first time I heard Brothers, there was something special about it, and I was really happy that it became as popular as it did. Did you have any sense while you were making it that that was the case?
I think it was a surprise; we didn't go into it trying to make a commercial success. It didn't necessarily sound like anything on the radio. It just sort of connected with people and there was no way we could have predicted that, to be honest. But I have to say that it is a beautiful thing to have had the success we've had and still be in complete control of every artistic step of the process. Ever since day one, we've made every call, not just musically, but with the artwork and the videos, everything. So whether it turned out to be a win or a loss, it was always on our shoulders.
I suppose that explains why El Camino is coming out in what seems like such a short time after the biggest record you've had so far. Most bands or labels nowadays would want to take at least two or three years to follow up an album like that.
Yeah, we don't get that. We've been doing things our own way for ten years now, to the point where, honestly, we don't relate to other bands. We didn't start using a producer until our fifth record, or even record in a proper studio. We're completely self-taught ― our whole idea of what it means to be a band is different from everybody else's. I think being from the Midwest, we knew that we really had to work for it if we wanted it, you know? We didn't even have a club to play when we started; we had to drive an hour north to Cleveland to play shows. I'd say it's the work ethic we have, combined with good luck and timing that's made it happen for us.
You expanded the band with Brothers without tampering with that foundation of you and Patrick. Are you planning on going further with that when you hit the road for El Camino?
Definitely. The new songs are, for the most part, based around a quartet concept ― guitar, bass, drums and keyboard ― and I don't think I'd feel right playing them without having those parts there from the record. (Nonesuch/Warner)