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The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach on working with 'the best musicians in the world'

Dan Auerbach, left, and Robert Finley, one of the artists on Auerbach's label, Easy Eye Sound.
Dan Auerbach, left, and Robert Finley, one of the artists on Auerbach's label, Easy Eye Sound.
Dan Auerbach, left, and Robert Finley, one of the artists on Auerbach's label, Easy Eye Sound.
Musician Dan Auerbach.
Dan Auerbach, left, and Robert Finley, one of the artists on Auerbach's label, Easy Eye Sound.
The Frame's John Horn and Dan Auerbach.

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Dan Auerbach is a guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer who first came on the scene as half of the garage blues duo, The Black Keys, along with drummer Patrick Carney.

Together, the pair has put out eight albums and won five Grammys, including best rock performance and rock song for "Lonely Boy" and best alternative album for "Brothers."

But back in 2009, Auerbach went out on his own with a solo album.  Now, he’s back with his second solo effort, called "Waiting On A Song."

When Auerbach spoke with The Frame's John Horn, he was in Los Angeles for a show with Prairie Home Companion on Oct. 28 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Auerbach talked about his new album and making music in Nashville.


I was listening to your record and I have to say, even though there's some kind of dark material in it, it's a very happy album. How do you write songs that are about sad things that are so upbeat?

Those are the best songs. Melancholy dance songs. Those are my favorites always.

I kept listening to "Stand by My Girl." Here's a lyric: I'm going to stand by my girl ... because she'll kill me if I don't.

I mean that song is a little more literal. Definitely trying to kill the guy. It's more mafia related.

I want to talk to you a little bit about Nashville. You've called it home for eight years now. So how do you go from Akron, Ohio to Nashville?

You take the 75 South and then you take a right at Cincinnati. [laughs]

Why was that a good place to live?

Well, I grew up around lots of music and I always loved music and bluegrass especially. It's what my family played. And having played the Station Inn and Bluebird Cafe and all these great musicians in town definitely drew me there. I'd been going there since I was a kid. My dad was an antiques dealer and he would do a show there once a year and I would always go with him and we'd spend time in lower Broadway and then we'd go to Memphis and check out music and go into Mississippi and check out music. And so I've always kind of been drawn to that region, I guess.

This album has been called your "love letter" to Nashville. It took a while to write the letter didn't it?

Well, yeah, I mean I wasn't really in Nashville much. I was on the road quite a bit. You know Pat [Carney, of the Black Keys] and I toured around the world a bunch of times. People ask me if I've been [to a particular place] and I said, Maybe, I don't know. It's possible. But, yeah, I made a decision to settle down and not tour for a bit and see what that did for me. And immediately, for the very first time after having lived in Nashville for seven years, I got to be a part of it. And some of those relationships that I just only started when in-between tours, I got to settle in with. And it's just been really fruitful for me. Just a lot of great, amazing people in Nashville.

That is less understood by a lot of people who, when they think of Nashville, they think about this commercial, industrial country music scene.

Well, there is that. And that's the driving force behind most everything you see right on the surface. But when you look a little deeper and you start to think about all the records that really mattered in your life, more often than not there's like four or five crews that made all of the greatest records in American history. And a lot of those guys still live in Nashville. They came from Memphis, they came from Louisiana, but they're in Nashville because that's we can make a dollar playing session work. So I'm surrounded by these people who wrote the book on everything I love about music. And so that's what I do everyday is just be around those guys and work with them or write with them and create.

It's kind of like a neighborhood potluck, isn't it? Everybody's bringing something to the table and you have all these great chefs who are collaborating with you.

Some of these people they work with like Bobby Wood or Gene Chrisman, they've been making hard-to-define pop, like Top 10 records, for decades — since the '50s. These are the guys that are the best musicians in the world. The first time I ever really had this experience was when I was around Dr. John, where I saw someone sit an instrument made out of plastic and metal and all of a sudden it was living. Now imagine being in a room with seven people who do that with their instruments. That's what I get to be with. These guys have only ever done this. They've only ever made records. They're they're not even guys that toured. So they wouldn't get attached to material. They're creative people that were coming up with new stuff every week. Bobby Wood told me one time they had 13 or 14 songs in the top 20. And he said he was working 12 hours a day and he never listened to the radio. He didn't need to. He was the radio.

I'm thinking back to your 2009 record, "Keep It Hid." There are songs from that record that easily could have been Black Keys songs, and I would say the opposite is true on your new record. Do you think that's a fair assumption — that what you wrote and performed on this record sounds totally different from what you've been doing over the last couple of years?

Well, I would say that there are definitely songs on my first record that sound like they could also fit right on the new album — acoustic songs. There's songs that we do now [from "Keep It Hid"] mixed in with the new songs that feel right from the same well— "Trouble Weighs a Ton," "Going Home." I think that I always kind of had that in me, the ability to do whatever it is I'm doing now, but I just was focused with Pat and we got into a thing and we just never stopped, you know. So this is the first time I've gotten back to exploring that side.

I want to ask you about some key collaborators you worked with. One is John Prine. Could you talk about working with him, how you guys met and what he meant as an artist to work with?

I knew of John Prine growing up, but I never really got into his records so I'd only known him in passing. And then my friend [David Ferguson] brought me to the Station Inn one night. And here's Prine playing and then I understood. That's all it took. And Fergie introduced me to him and shortly thereafter we got together and wrote and it went great and so we just kept doing it. And so last summer, we got together a few times and wrote a few songs.

And what about some of the guitarists you play with [on the record] — Duane Eddy and Mark Knopfler. How did that come about?

The Mark Knopfler thing was kind of strange because the whole album was made altogether with the same musicians. The only one that we recorded remotely was Knopfler and it was just because the song was finished, but I just felt like he could add something to it. I just felt like his guitar playing would be really appropriate. He did exactly what it needed. And two days later he sent it back and I still haven't even met him face-to-face. I just got a very strong feeling and it was right on the money. He did say, But in the third chorus, you might want to check one of the guitars on the left side. It's a little out of tune.

And what about Duane Eddy?

Duane was another person that Fergie introduced me to, and we just started getting together in studio. I had him on some sessions and he's just great. I mean he just sounds like Duane Eddy every time he plays guitar. Just like all these other guys, he grew up in the studio. His sound was created in the studio because he was a studio guy. And when he was in L.A. and working on all these sessions — he has a mind for the studio, so he fit right in with the rest of the people. Duane would just come in every week, he'd come over, bring his guitars. He'd bring his baritone guitar that Gretsch made for him custom. It's a full octave down, his signature Gretsch. And he always brings his amp— always. He's the only musician who has to bring his gear to the studio, everybody else just uses my stuff. But that's his sound, his voice. You can't just use any old thing.

One of the things that's noticeable about this record is it's on your own label, Easy Eye Sound. Why did you want to start a record label, and was it always driven by your work and then you would find other artists to put on it?

I don't know. I guess I've always thought this is all I've ever really done [is] to make records. And I just thought it would be nice to put them all [these artists] together because I think that even though they are very different, the records that I make, they're all connected in some way. And I think that if they were together, I think it would just be nice. People like one record, they'd probably be inclined to like one of the others.

And what about Robert Finley? How did you find him?

My friend Bruce Watson, who works at Fat Possum Records, sent me some music of Robert's. His buddy found Robert from a video on YouTube that somebody took of Robert playing on the street at a festival. Robert just kind of retired, I think, and he decided to go sing on the street for change at this festival. Somebody took video, put it on YouTube, someone saw it, sent it to Bruce, Bruce made some music with him and then sent him my way and I knew that I loved him. I didn't know exactly what to do. Then I got this call from my friend who was doing a graphic novel called "Murder Ballads" and he needed a soundtrack. Every chapter was to have a song, six chapters. And the main character was this guy from Louisiana who sang in juke joints and I said, I got the guy.

So we got Robert singing [John] Prine songs and all these songs that I just had in the stockpile, but that he just made his own. And I had the best band in the world and that's sort of how it happened.

When you were thinking about what you're going to do on Prairie Home Companion, do you think about songs? Do you think about the artists that you want to bring along?

I basically brought my crew who I've been making all these records with. The old guys like Gene and Bob are going to be with me, they're like in their mid 70s. They just want to make music. So, yeah, we've got the whole Easy Eye crew on stage with us. I can't wait. It should be really fun.

To listen to John Horn's full conversation with Dan Auerbach, click on the player above.

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