Cold Steel in the Midnight Hour: An Interview with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys

The Black Keys have been busy, releasing three albums and touring relentlessly since their 2002 debut. The work has paid off: drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach have crafted a sound that is hauntingly soulful, bruisingly rocking, and odorifically funky, often at the same time. Yet, it is surprising that the two are only in their mid-20s, refreshing that they carry a natural nonchalance about their success, and encouraging that they will be appearing on a tribute album to one of the most unique artists to arise from Mississippi, Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough (released by Fat Possum Records on 11 January 2005 in the US, 7 February 2005 in the UK). Fresh off a tour of Europe, Auerbach spoke with PopMatters over the phone about Junior, the Keys, and — what else? — music.

The Black Keys are hardly strangers to the music of Kimbrough. “[Junior] was a huge influence on me and the way I play guitar, especially when I first started,” Auerbach says emphatically. “I first heard All Night Long [Kimbrough’s debut album, recorded when he was 62 years old], possibly as a freshman in college… It didn’t strike me as something I liked at first … After I put it down for a while, all of a sudden I kinda got hooked on it… Eventually, I was driving down to Mississippi to see the guy play (laughs).” Auerbach never saw Kimbrough perform, but he still cultivated a distinct insight into the man’s music. “It’s not as obvious… It’s not blues music”, Auerbach says, “I definitely don’t like to call it that. He didn’t sound like anyone else. It was just this weird kind of soul music that was Junior Kimbrough.”

This keen observation explains why the Keys have already ably covered Kimbrough, shuffling away on “Do the Rump” on their debut The Big Come Up and digging up cold bones on “Everywhere I Go” on 2003’s Thickfreakness. Their contribution to Sunday Nights (a reference to the weekly sessions held at Junior’s home-turned-juke-joint), “My Mind is Rambling”, resonates personally for Auerbach. “I just love that song, it’s one of my favorites. That record, Sad Days and Lonely Nights, is my favorite. We were just lucky that no one else had taken it.”

The Keys approach their performance with a commanding respect for Kimbrough, capturing the legend’s hypnotic performance style by slowing the tempo, and distorting and stretching out Junior’s original signature riff. “[We] didn’t want to drastically change it, just wanted to do it as naturally as we could… That’s the cool thing about his music, it’s completely him and comfortable,” Auerbach notes. The result is one of the most outstanding documents in their recorded catalog, a mesmerizing testament that could only come from a group with a profound understanding of their source material. “I’ve listened to him so much, it’s just how I hear it… I studied him so much… Getting F’s in college, when I should’ve been studying, I was listening to Junior Kimbrough’s music instead,” Auerbach laughs. Such is the spirit of the Black Keys: a band as equally driven to listen as they are to perform.

This enthusiasm, while not exhibited in an obvious manner, manifests itself clearly through the Keys’ devoted hustle. Hailing from Akron, Ohio (about 30 miles south of Cleveland), a mid-sized town of 200,000, Carney and Auerbach credit their home for their sense of determination. “The character [of Akron] is the whole underdog mentality,” Auerbach points out. “That’s why we do everything on our own. We’re not really friends with a whole group of musicians; there’s not like a giant scene that we’re part of, it’s just a do-it-yourself kinda thing here.” Embracing this independent spirit, he merits its advantages, “It’s easier to not get influenced by outside things, like every other musician on the block. It’s better to be isolated. You come up with something on your own.”

Commenting on the variety of listeners the Keys have attracted, Auerbach muses, “It’s weird, for a blues crowd we’re too rock ‘n’ roll; for some punk crowds, we’re too blues… We’re somewhere in the middle.”

The Keys’ unique sound is in fact informed by a number of influences, yet distinctly filtered through their minds. Auerbach cites a range of inspirations: “When I first started playing, I was listening to blues. I had never heard of garage rock… I wasn’t interested in indie rock or anything like that, but Pat’s a big fan of that kind of stuff, so last year I heard Pavement for the first time, really. [Last year] I kinda got into different kinds of ethnic music. But I really just love music, so I’m pretty obsessed about it.” Ultimately, the Keys appreciate like minds, as Auerbach concedes, “We tend to really appreciate music that is made and recorded by musicians more often than not. We’ve definitely been into that do-it-yourself thing.” Subsequently, they caught the attention of Burbank, California-based Alive Records, and on the strength of their demo alone (the duo had not even played a proper gig yet) the label agreed to release the Black Keys’ first full-length.

As can be expected, the band had its rocky moments in the beginning. “We played a horrible show at the Satyricon in Portland [Oregon]. There was nobody there. It was carpet and there was cake ground into it from the punk rock wrestling the night before. There were people selling crack out front… So, we played with this band… and for some reason, they were from Portland, but they forgot their fucking snare, and Pat let them use his. They proceeded to pound a hole through it. And they just said, ‘Oops, sorry, dude,'” Auerbach recalls with a laugh. Nevertheless, positive reviews of their first album led to another deal with Fat Possum, another record, more touring, and more highjinks.

The band flew to Japan for a brief promotional jaunt, “spending more time in the airplane than in the country”, only to discover that the album they were promoting, Thickfreakness, had been tampered with. “They had this writing over our CD,” Auerbach begins. “And I asked our translator what it meant, and it was something like, ‘Thunder Rocking Blues.’ I thought that was kinda awesome (laughs)… But it was weird. They re-titled our record without even asking us. Our record wasn’t called Thickfreakness; it was called ‘Thunder Rocking Blues.’ It was fucking totally ridiculous.” When informed that the Anglo “th” sound is replaced by a soft “s” sound in Japanese, and that the resulting title would have sounded roughly like, “Sick-freak-ness”, Auerbach laughs, “That’s awesome! I would rather they done that. I mean, if people who speak English aren’t supposed to understand the title, Japan shouldn’t either.” While this easygoing manner characterizes their approach to life, the Keys’ music reflects more of the intense, personal connection developed between two men over the years.

The Keys follow the same one-two combo on their latest release, Rubber Factory, while exhibiting a burgeoning depth in their compositions. “We changed a bit, just over time… but for this record, we definitely had more time than we did on the last one [Thickfreakness]. we took a day to record it. For this, we took a couple months off just to set up the new practice and recording space, to work on the songs a little bit longer,” Auerbach notes. The time was well spent, the songs ranging from the plaintive, slide-driven “The Lengths”, which Auerbach cites as his favorite to record, to the traditional-inspired tale in “Stack Shot Billy”. “It’s the story of Stagga Lee and Billy Lyons,” Auerbach notes about the latter. “I had Mississippi John Hurt’s version and a bunch of other people’s versions, and I thought, ‘These guys all wrote their own versions of this song; why couldn’t I do my own version?'” This open abandon contributes to the Keys’ diversifying sound, marking a continuing maturation for the band.

After three solid years of movement, the Keys are settling in for a couple months of rest. Reflecting back, they have been humbled by the opportunities afforded. “We got to tour with Beck and that was real cool, and we got to tour with Sleater-Kinney and that was a lot of fun,” Auerbach says. A tour of Australia and New Zealand in March, along with stateside festivals in May, and further touring of the States and Europe will give the Keys more opportunities to spread their music. However, Auerbach’s introverted side is revealed again when he adds, “Touring is tough. I’d rather go see a band play, y’know. I’d rather go see them and maybe go backstage and meet them and say hello.”

Ultimately, this understated approach informs the band’s outlook, never taking outside comments too seriously, and focusing instead on what’s important. Commenting on the variety of listeners the Keys have attracted, Auerbach muses, “It’s weird, for a blues crowd we’re too rock ‘n’ roll; for some punk crowds, we’re too blues… We’re somewhere in the middle.” Auerbach recognizes the difficulties listeners and critics may have in listening to the Keys’ music, but he also deemphasizes it: “I don’t even worry about it… It’s meaningless to think about it. Cos even if people get it, most of the time they don’t really get it. Like when they write positively about you sometimes, they are writing positively about something you don’t want to be associated with (laughs). ‘These guys are excellent! They nailed blues right on the tape!’ (laughs). We’ll get stuff like that a lot of the times. Or, ‘These guys are the best garage rock band around!’ And it’s, like, I don’t know, man, we didn’t listen to garage rock and we didn’t know about any of those bands when we were recording our records. So, it’s kind of odd to be lumped in with anybody.”

The Keys’ duo status has also met frequent befuddlement, seen often as overly minimalist. Auerbach calmly deflects the notion of more being better, “I think we feel the complete opposite. Songs can change at any moment without having to worry about anything. I don’t have to be in tune with anybody, as far as notes go, y’know? (laughs, then becomes serious) I can change key whenever I want. I can stop playing whenever I want. My voice knows when my hand is going to play… We’ve played with other people just a couple of times and it does feel confining because it’s so uncomfortable… I play with my fingers, not with a pick, and I play bass notes with my thumb and high notes with my pointer finger. So, it gets in the way when there’s someone else filling up the space. It feels cluttered… And we’ve been playing together almost 10 years now, we’re so comfortable playing with each other. It’s like we kinda know what’s gonna happen when we get to it.” Therein is the essence of the Black Keys: two musicians in symbiosis, making music that rocks.