The Black Keys

The Black Keys recorded their latest album, Brothers, at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama. Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan all made records there, but the band wasn’t specifically drawn to the building because of its history. “Muscle Shoals isn’t the holy grail,” says Black Keys guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach. “No matter where we made this record, we were going to hunker down and focus, but I’m into the old recording studios from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. That was the golden age of music production, when they recorded live bands playing together in one room. Whenever we’re in a town with an old studio, I go and check it out.

“To make this record, we wanted to get away from home and find a place that would inspire us to learn some new tricks. We had a couple of places we were considering, but Muscle Shoals was available and cheap. When we got there, we found out it’s not like it used to be. It had been gutted. None of the old gear was there. It’s just a huge empty cinder block building.”

Auerbach, Keys drummer Pat Carney, and co-producer and engineer Mark Neill all favor a minimal, analogue approach to the process of recording, so the Keys loaded their own equipment into the shell of Muscle Shoals to make Brothers. They recorded using old tube microphones, with the band thrashing out the tunes live. “Because of the cinder block walls, it was not sonically perfect,” Auerbach says. “Most records these days are made using 50 or more tracks of audio. When you mix the record, you spend hours trying to tame all the frequencies. We use maybe four mics. Any musical or technical decisions are made as we go along. None of it was thought out, but we wanted it to sound a little rough. I don’t like music that sounds too clean, as you probably know, if you’ve listened to any of our albums.”

Vocally, Auerbach stepped back from his familiar Howlin’ Wolf growl to sing in a surprisingly warm tenor that almost slips up to falsetto on a few tracks. “I first picked up the guitar because I wanted to play bluegrass with my family,” Auerbach explains. “I wanted to sing and play with them and started on Stanley Brothers songs. I always sang the high harmonies. I also produced a record for Jessica Lea Mayfield, who is an excellent dark and dirty singer/songwriter. I did a lot of falsetto singing on her album. I’d never used that voice with the Black Keys before, but it was a natural, easy thing to do, considering the kinds of songs we were writing.”

Some critics are calling Brothers a soul record, maybe because the album was cut in Muscle Shoals and features Auerbach crooning on a particularly emotional cover of Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” “We’ve been listening to a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s soul lately, but we weren’t thinking about that when we made the demos for this record. We grew up listening to Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield and all the early Stax stuff. I taught myself guitar by playing along with Sam Cooke records. They have easy chords and they’re fun to sing, so the soul influences have been there from the start.”

Auerbach says a more conscious influence on the sound of Brothers came from Keep It Hid, the solo album he made last year. “I learned a lot writing for a band, rather than a two piece. I stepped away from using my in¬yer¬face guitar style and used [my guitar] more as an accompaniment to my vocals.”

The Keys experimented with a few new sounds on Brothers. Using bass, piano and harpsichord on the record allowed them to add a soulful, psychedelic haze to their familiar blues/rock squall. Still, the most surprising track on the album may be “Howlin’ for You.” It’s not the screaming blues number you might imagine from the title, but rather, a bouncy pop song with a Suzi Quatro/Gary Glitter backbeat. “When we started working on the song, Pat started playing that beat and I loved it. It’s kind of a dumbed down version of the Bo Diddley rhythm that white people can clap along with in stadiums. Pat had a hard time with it, because it’s so regular. He’s not used to being a timekeeper. He likes flowing in and out of tempos and adding his improvisations and stuff, but we like how it turned out.”

Brothers seems to indicate that The Black Keys are moving away from their bedrock blues/rock sound, but Auerbach isn’t so sure. “I have no idea what [genre] we are, but don’t call Pat a blues guy. We’ve been influenced by too many things to want to be called any one style. He never listened to the blues. I was the one who got into Big Joe Williams and Lightnin’ Hopkins when I started learning guitar. That’s the foundation of everything I do. When people say we’re blues, that’s probably what they hear. Pat was into Devo, Pavement, Modest Mouse and hip-hop. His drumming is influenced by that stuff.”

After seven albums and two EPs that cover a wide musical and stylistic range, many critics still fall back on two overused adjectives to describe the band’s sound: primitive and brutal. The words make Auerbach smile. “Our sound is not primitive. We know too much about the history of music to do anything primitive. To be primitive, you have to live in a cave. Recording in a basement [early albums like Thickfreakness were recorded in drummer Pat Carney’s basement studio] doesn’t count. If there’s hot water and a bathroom to be had, it’s hard to be primitive. It’s more that we apply the idea of minimalism to everything we do. When we had day jobs, we did the minimal amount of labor necessary. We soon found out that minimalism works better in music than real life.”

-J. Poet

photography by John peets