Dan Auerbach on Bands Old and New
In advance of their appearance at Lollapalooza in Chicago, Auerbach talked old bands, new bands, and the production work he does in his increasingly fleeting spare time.
Singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach’s main band, the Ohio-born duo Black Keys, are on a hiatus of indefinite duration. This freed him up to form the Arcs, a sprawling, nostalgic garage-soul band that dropped its debut album, “Yours, Dreamily,” last September.
The Arcs are a nominal five-piece whose numbers sometimes swell with the addition of all-female group Mariachi Flor de Toloache (“I couldn’t really shake them if I tried,” Auerbach says fondly), who sing on the album.
In advance of their appearance at Lollapalooza in Chicago, Auerbach talked old bands, new bands, and the production work he does in his increasingly fleeting spare time. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation:
Is it an adjustment to go from being one of two guys onstage to being an old-school sort of bandleader?
It is completely different, it’s just a different way of thinking from what I’ve always kind of done, which is weird to be doing, you know what I mean? Years after I started playing music, to have a whole different job.
There are songs on the new album that go back half a decade, right?
There weren’t so many old songs on this record, it’s just that the friendships were old. The relationship with these guys goes back years. We’ve been working on different records for years, and other people’s albums. It was less about having old songs, and more about realizing that we work really well together, we have a lot of fun working together, so why not try to put together a little (group) of songs? And that’s what we did, all of us for the first time together, all of us making music sort of for ourselves, instead of making an album for someone else.
Who first broached the idea of being a band?
It was me and (producer-instrumentalist Leon Michels). It was more when we realized how much output we had, how many songs were sitting on a hard drive, never to be heard by anyone. It just seemed like a total waste. It just felt like it would be foolish not to figure out how to try to share some music.
When you first start writing a song, do you know whether it’s going to be for the Arcs or the Black Keys? Can a song start for one band, and wind up on another one’s album?
Yeah, of course. Songs aren’t owned by anyone. For me, it can happen all different ways. When I’m writing with just an acoustic guitar, it can be for anyone. Patrick and I, when we’re writing in the studio, it’s for us, but when I’m writing with someone else, all bets are off.
People who’ve seen you play on the Arcs tour vs the last Black Keys tour say that you seemed a lot happier with the Arcs. Was there burnout with the Black Keys?
I don’t think there was a burnout. I definitely worked my a— off. It’s like anything. You do anything for 10 years, it takes on different shapes. I’m sure you feel differently about writing than you did when you first started. When you get older and your brain changes, you have to figure out how your job fits into your life as it changes, you know what I mean? I guess everybody goes through that stuff, and I’m no exception, always trying to figure out what I’m doing with music.
When you’re doing production work, what makes you decide what project to take?
I just have to hear something that I like about the artist, or know them personally, maybe, and know they’ve got some kind of potential I can bring out.
I was kind of surprised at how well the Lana Del Rey album (you produced) turned out.
That was my first experience dealing with any sort of label interaction while I’m working on an album. They were putting a lot of pressure on her, and she was very stressed out, and in turn kind of stressing everyone else out. But I don’t think it was abnormal, I just think it was the first time I’d worked with anyone on a major label. I just don’t work in that world, I don’t work in the pop world. Fortunately, because I make a living with the Black Keys, things I produce I sort of handpick, I don’t have to do it because I have to make a living, so I’ve been able to avoid working with labels.
Do you look at it as, I tour with the Black Keys, and that’s how I make my living, and the rest of the things I do are just kind of fun stuff?
It’s definitely how I make my living, there’s no doubt about that. I don’t make my living making records. Maybe someday I will. It’s unfair to compare the two, because they’re just so different. Playing in a band like the Black Keys, it’s such a big production. It’s hard to be spontaneous when you have 40 people in your crew, and you’re playing to 16,000 people every night, and there’s giant lighting rigs, it’s hard to change direction on a dime. But in the studio, that’s what it’s all about. You walk in in the morning and you have no idea what’s going to happen that day, and you find out, and that’s totally exciting. I love that. I’m totally addicted to that feeling of creative possibilities.