Strike a Chord
The Black Keys bring new sounds into the Muscle Shoals Studio
Story by Alyson Sheppard / Photography by Mick Rock
Deep in the swamplands of northern Alabama remains a relic from the time when rock and roll was Rock ‘N’ Roll. The Stones, Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Boz Scaggs and Willie Nelson all laid down tracks at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio here, and it’s that legend that drew the duo behind the blues-rock band The Black Keys to record most of their new album from the same place. Not that singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach thinks the change of scenery affected what they produced.
“It would be nice to romanticize it, but it’s just not true,” Auerbach says. “I really feel like we realized that we can do this anywhere we go; it doesn’t matter where we are.”
“This” would be Brothers, their highly anticipated album released in May. It was immediately embraced by critics as having the most depth, emotion and control than any album this band has ever recorded. Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney produced the ballad-heavy record themselves, and it was mixed by the prolific Tchad Blake, who’s worked with artists from Al Green to Phish.
Since releasing their last album Attack & Release in the spring of 2008, Auerbach and Carney have worked on solo projects and collaborated on a hip hop album with the likes of Ludacris and Mos Def. Some cite the time apart as a welcoming growth period for the band. Auerbach says their change in sound is harder to pinpoint.
“We’ve grown as people, as musicians,” Auerbach says, “but it’s just been sort of a gradual thing for us. Our career — and I can actually say it’s a career at this point — has been so long. This is our sixth record together, so people have actually gotten to grow with us and see us evolve. I think that’s a pretty cool thing.”
The title of the album is a reference to the pair’s relationship with each other and with their own actual brothers. The track “Unknown Brother” is dedicated to the memory of Auerbach’s brother-in-law. Auerbach says he and Carney have always been close, but now they are closer than ever, and it shows in their work.
“When Pat and I record together, it’s like we have horse blinders on,” Auerbach says. “Literally, it’s just us in there all day. We go into a building in the morning and don’t see the light of day until…well, we don’t see the light of day. We’d go home around midnight, 1 a.m., and that’s how we operate.”
They did the no-light-of-day thing for 10 days straight in the Muscle Shoals studio, rarely even going outside. The band also recorded a portion of the album at The Bunker in Williamsburg and at Auerbach’s home studio in Akron, Ohio. But Auerbach said the location didn’t matter. So why even record in different places?
“I like old studios, and that’s really it,” Auerbach says. “I don’t know that Pat really cares that much, but I really love ’50s, early ’60s studios, American studios. I think the sound quality of the recordings at that time was just top notch.”
They considered some other archaic studios in Memphis and Texas for Brothers, but ultimately chose Muscle Shoals because they were given free reign at that location. Unfortunately, they had never worked in Muscle Shoals before, and were surprised by what they found.
“We’d heard from different sources that it wasn’t up to snuff in terms of it being a good studio,” Auerbach says. “And it wasn’t. It wasn’t anything really like what it used to be in terms of sound treatment and equipment. The room sounds different, there’s no original equipment and pretty much everything there was not working. It’s literally just a cinderblock building in Muscle Shoals with no windows.”
So they loaded in all of their own gear — from the recording equipment to the instruments — like they would have if they were recording a concert. They have no plans to go back.
The band has been on the road since June, and will continue their worldwide tour until next year. Auerbach says it is still too early to know what will come next, another Black Keys album, more solo projects or another collaboration. He is currently producing for other bluegrass artists including the band Cadillac Sky and the singer Jessica Lea Mayfield, and meanwhile absorbing ideas for upcoming work.
“We’re influenced by a lot of different things,” Auerbach says. “Whatever we get into and listen to and get turned on by, I’m sure we’ll incorporate it into what we do.”
For now, Auerbach says he is playing a lot of Gucci Mane (the “Lemonade” single), Freeway & Jake One, The Stooges’ “No Fun” reissue and so on. It seems like whatever music The Black Keys develop next will be another blend of the unique and classic sounds that they adore.