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21 Years In, The Black Keys Are Still Boogieing

Dan Auerbach breaks down the group's eleventh album: "It's a kind of record you can put on start to finish"

the black keys interview
The Black Keys, photo by Jim Herrington/Illustration by Steven Fiche
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    Few bands comprised of only two members have managed to achieve the unity and spirit that Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have championed as The Black Keys. Now in the 21st year of their lengthy careers in the rock world, Auerbach and Carney have laid an impressive foundation for their band: festival headliners, Grammy winners, radio and sync specialists, and so many more accolades are associated with The Black Keys in 2022.

    And when Auerbach and Carney reunite to create music, it’s remarkably easy for them to pick up where they left off. “I feel like Pat and I’s relationship might be better than it’s ever been right now,” says Auerbach ahead of the release of The Black Keys’ eleventh(!) studio album, Dropout Boogie (out Friday, May 13th). “I think the longer that we get to make music together, the more we know how special it is.”

    Indeed, the chemistry between the two is undeniable, both in the studio and onstage. Since their early days jamming blues covers in Akron, Ohio, Auerbach and Carney have applied their work ethic, improved their overall musicianship, and narrowed down exactly what it means to be The Black Keys. But on Dropout Boogie, there is definitely a sense of throwing all that out the window to channel a pure rock and roll ethos without trying too hard.

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    This sort of organic creation mindset has always been a part of the band, but last year’s Delta Kream, an album of Hill Country Blues covers, helped cement the process for Dropout Boogie. The Black Keys recruited some classic blues musicians to round out the process, incorporating new elements to songs that they had never played in full before. “It was all these new experiences wrapped up in some sort of familiar sound,” says Auerbach of recording both Delta Kream and Dropout Boogie, “it’s been really good momentum since then.”

    Dropout Boogie’s announcement in March came along with “Wild Child,” which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart in April and is shaping up to be The Black Keys’ biggest single yet. It’s easy to see why — “Wild Child” has all the positive traits that characterize many of their previous hits, but with an increased emphasis on the band’s ability to take a simple song and make it genuinely electrifying.

    “Wild Child” also arrived paired with a wonderful music video, which showed Auerbach and Carney as high school faculty members seeming completely out of touch with the nuance of today’s youth. And yet, it’s all done with a wink and a nudge; an implicit pledge to not take themselves too seriously. Throughout their lengthy career, this has always been an aspect to their ethos, regardless of the collective hours, days, and weeks they’ve spent in the studio writing music. And with each record — especially Dropout Boogie — that attitude is proudly on display, channeled through fuzzy guitar solos and unpolished drum beats.

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    When all is said and done, The Black Keys will remain a staple of American rock music in the 21st century, but to Auerbach and Carney, none of that matters. They just want to get together and play.

    Ahead of the release of Dropout BoogieConsequence chatted with Dan Auerbach about the making of the album, having the LP released a day before the 20th anniversary of their debut album, and what it means to be in The Black Keys in 2022.


    Dropout Boogie is about to be released, and you’ve got a couple singles from the album, “Wild Child” and “It Ain’t Over,” out now. How’s everything feeling?

    It feels really good so far. I mean, the first song, “Wild Child,” is doing really, really well. Like, really well. Like, better than any single we’ve ever had. It’s beating “Lonely Boy.” They just told me yesterday. So, yeah… it’s weird! But it’s great.

    I feel like Pat and I’s relationship might be better than it’s ever been right now, to be honest. I don’t know what it is, just like, the time off or… definitely making Delta Kream, that really helped. It’s been really good momentum since then.

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    “Wild Child” came with a fun music music video where you and Pat were high school faculty members. How did that video come to be? Any fun stories about making it?

    Well, Pat and I have always been the kind of band where we just don’t like to lip sync a song to perform it. So, we’d rather kind of make fun of ourselves and make fun of somebody while we make a video. That being said, we got this treatment from Brian, the director, Brian Shlam, and he’s just a hilarious person.

    And… yeah, it was fun as hell. We shot it at Springfield High School, just north of Nashville. We were there for a couple of days and everybody always asks if we were allowed to drive the Rolls Royces, what it was like to drive them… Man, they had two dudes in suits, tuxedo suits watching over them. And they wouldn’t let us fucking drive at all [laughs].

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    Bummer!

    The only thing we could do was shoot us walking to it and stepping into it, and that was as far as we could take it.

    Going back to 2021’s Delta Kream and formulating those blues covers in such an organic way, what was the thread between recording those songs and the new originals for Dropout Boogie?

    Well, to be honest, they were covers, but they were songs that, for the most part, we’d never played. There were a couple of them that Pat and I had played before, but we’d never played with Kenny Brown before, we’d never recorded with a bass player, we’d never recorded or played with a percussionist before. So, it was all these new experiences wrapped up in some sort of familiar sound.

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    Then it came down to just the natural chemistry. I think the longer that we get to make music together, the more we know how special it is, this gift that we were given, Pat and I. It’s been the same ever since we were like 16-17, we could just make music together. And it just felt good, and you didn’t have to think about it too hard. And, I think it helped cement it. And just really put us in the right headspace coming into the new record.

    There are some fantastic vocal moments on your end in Dropout Boogie. How do you feel that you’ve changed as a vocalist over the years?

    I don’t know. I mean… I think I’m still insecure about singing. I don’t really love speaking in public. I don’t know what it is. I’m not afraid to mess up. I’m not afraid to try a vocal thing that I haven’t done before. I think that it makes it more interesting. But, I’m not really sure, I don’t know.

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    For this album, there are different ways we went about making songs. And they tend to change how the vocal gets approached, sometimes. A song like “How Long” is just all about that drum groove. And I’m just trying to lay in the pocket the best I can. I’m just trying to make my voice another instrument instead of this big melody on top. Just lay in there. And then there are a couple songs on this record that are first takes. There are just improvised vocal parts on there, where I’m just going for it.

    You guys have been living and working Nashville for the last few years. How has living in that environment — specifically the musical environment of Nashville — changed the way you write and thought about music?

    Well, it’s all about teamwork in Nashville. It’s all about opening yourself up to all these talented people and what they have to offer. And getting to be a part of the music community here, working with all of these different people… I learn something new every time I work with someone. It just opens my mind up. I think when we started, we were these insecure kids and we didn’t want to let anyone into our world because we didn’t want to sell out. And we were just stupid.

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    But now we know that collaborations can just bring out the best in everyone sometimes, if it’s right. Someone like Greg Cartwright, I brought him in to write with different artists that I’ve worked with on my label. And I knew that it would work with Pat and I. So when Pat and I were in the studio, I called Greg and had him come in. Same thing with Angelo [Petraglia]. I’d worked with Angelo a few times before I really got along with him. So we gave it a shot.

    In Delta Kream, we brought in a bass player and a percussion player and just did it live and tried something new. We tried something new on this one too, and I felt like it was fun, kind of effortless. I don’t think it took away from anything. If anything, it made it more fun.

    Were there any inspiration points behind the lyrics on Dropout Boogie?

    I mean, sometimes I’m just trying to tell a story. Out of thin air. Sometimes I improvise a line here or there, and then it turns into the root of the song, you know, like “It Ain’t Over.” I think we were just jamming and playing and I started singing that just like it is. So the chorus just popped out of nowhere. We just sort of worked backwards. But then there’re other songs we started just on an acoustic guitar.

    We’ve never done that before, sat around a table, Greg had Angelo just playing an acoustic and working on the songs before we recorded. We’d never done that. I loved being able to do that, but I also like mixing it into a record, a record that has these raw, one take moments, paired with songs that we worked on a little bit more, like “Wild Child” or something.

    Was there anything about Dropout Boogie‘s process that made it feel like a new era of The Black Keys?

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    I work with different artists almost every week. It’s like, everything is absolutely new. But the thing that Pat and I have is like, we don’t actually have to go searching to change and to reinvent ourselves because what we do is like natural. We don’t have to think about it. There’s no thought involved. And that’s the rare part. Getting to work with all these different artists every day, it makes me appreciate the connection I have with Pat that much more.

    Dropout Boogie comes out the day before the 20th anniversary of your debut LP, The Big Come Up. How does it feel to have that milestone come at the same time as your 11th studio album?

    It seems insane, man. It’s totally insane. This record, I mean, we are a couple of dropouts. We dropped out, and we got in the van, and we started at absolute zero, less than zero. We drove all the way from Akron to Seattle to play in front of nobody. I’m proud of our younger selves for hanging in there, getting it done. But at the same time, I just feel very blessed that I get to do this and I love hanging out with Pat. He’s still like the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life. And it’s like the fact that we still get along and get to make music. It’s like nothing else really matters, to be honest.

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    You and Pat have a huge tour coming up this summer. What are you looking forward to most about getting back on the road?

    Well, I can’t wait to play. I mean, it’s been three years since we’ve been on a real tour. We’re going to bring Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton with us this time. So that’ll be fun as hell. And we got the Ohio boys with us, the Gabbert Brothers, um, they were in a band called The Shams. They played the very first show with The Black Keys at the Beachland Tavern, Cleveland. And they’ve been playing with us for a long time. So yeah, I’m excited to get out there and do it.

    We’ve also got The Velveteers, Ceramic Animal, and Early James from my record label, all coming out with us on different portions. I’m super excited to introduce those bands to our fans and to have Band of Horses as well. I can’t wait.

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    Now that you have 11 studio albums, what’s it going to be like formulating the setlist every night?

    Once we kind of get a rough set for tour, that’s when we start adding some variations. Every tour changes up a bit. There certain songs that we have to play, and then we’re going to do some Delta Kream songs, which are really long. The set’s going to be longer probably than we’ve ever played, just by the nature of the songs.

    Sounds like it’ll have a bit of “jam band” energy.

    I mean, we’re playing outdoor amphitheaters, man. We’re playing at a place called Blossom Music Center and I used to work there when I was 16, I was the dude in the parking lot with the flag.

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    What was it like having ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons play on the new album?

    Well, Billy is always running around. He’s like in and out of the city, but I heard that he was in town, so I texted him. I said, Pat and I are in the studio. Stop by if you’ve got a free minute or two. And he just popped in, texted me and told me he was. He brought a bottle of red wine, I handed him a guitar. And we just jam, the three of us, and it was really fun. We didn’t talk about it or anything. We just were playing. And by the time the bottle was done, he took off.

    And then we got “Good Love” out of that, which was mostly improvised. But yeah, he’s so special, such a special character, to be rooted in playing blues music, but at the same time, he’s so recognizable and able to write such catchy songs. He’s always been a hero.

    Are there any other musicians that you’ve just been dying to collaborate with?

    I made a record with Hank [Williams] Jr. And that fulfills the absolute fantasy of a record for me. Being in Nashville now for 11 years, the lineage of Hank Williams… he’s just an icon. And especially in this town, and the fact that he came over here and made a record with us, I don’t know. It makes me feel really good.

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    Lastly, what are you hoping people take away from Dropout Boogie?

    I just hope they enjoy it right now. I feel like it’s a kind of record you can put on, start to finish. That’s like a really good mixtape. So that’s how we tried to assemble it.

    Catch The Black Keys on tour; tickets are available via Ticketmaster.

    Dropout Boogie Artwork:

     21 Years In, The Black Keys Are Still Boogieing

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