When the Black Keys’ 2014 album "Turn Blue" topped the charts in its first week of release, it marked the culmination of a slow-and-steady build that began when Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney started jamming together in the basement as teenagers in Akron, Ohio. The tour in support of that album turned out to be their last for several years. Auerbach and Carney, who moved to Nashville around a decade ago, both shifted their focus largely to producing other artists, separate from each other.
But 2019 has brought them back together. "Let’s Rock," their ninth album, came out in June after several singles primed the pump, including the rock chart-topper "Lo/Hi." They picked up right where they left off, playing arenas on a tour that stops Nov. 13 at Austin’s Erwin Center with co-headliner Modest Mouse and opening act Shannon & the Clams.
We talked by phone recently with Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album "Waiting on a Song" landed him an "Austin City Limits" TV taping two years ago. Like the Black Keys’ new one, it came out on Easy Eye Sound, a record label Auerbach launched in conjunction with his Nashville studio of the same name that has produced impressive records lately from artists including British singer Yola and soul-blues singer-songwriter Robert Finley.
American-Statesman: So how has the tour been going? You’ve been at it for much of the year at this point.
Dan Auerbach: Honestly, this tour’s been incredible. It’s been really fun; the crowds have been great. We’ve gotten to play a bunch of old songs that we haven’t played in a long time, and for the first time, we’ve got two guitar players backing us up, and a bass player. So the sound is just massive. And it almost sounds more like the Black Keys records than ever before. Because I always would double my guitar parts and overdub solos, and now I’m hearing that for the first time onstage.
The lineup includes guys who hadn’t previously toured with you: Steve Marion and Zach and Andy Gabbard.
Zach and Andy Gabbard used to play in a band called the Shams. And the Shams played on the bill on the Black Keys’ very first CD release show, 20 years ago. So we’ve known them for so long and toured with them for so long — they’re brothers, and they feel like brothers to us because we’ve known them for so long. They’re Ohio boys; it’s got that good Ohio rock ’n’ roll connection onstage. And Steve is an incredible guitar player; he’s friends with Pat, that’s how we met him. He’s just been incredible to have out.
LISTEN — full audio of our interview with Dan Auerbach:
You’re touring with Modest Mouse. Are they a band you’ve known and had a mutual respect for, for a long time?
When we first started, Pat (Carney) was obsessed with them. He loved Modest Mouse. He would listen to them on tour … back when it was just he and I in the van. I used to love listening to their early EPs. Pat would play those for me when we would drive through the desert of West Texas or something. Pat saw them when he was 18. It’s been really cool to have them on the tour, and they’re great. I love them.
And then you have Shannon & the Clams opening. I know they’re one of the bands you’ve produced for your Easy Eye Sound label. How far do you go back with them?
They’re Bay Area legends. I had been a fan of theirs for years. I heard them for the first time when I was in Shangri-La Record Shop in Memphis, Tenn. And I bought all the records. I reached out to Shannon to see if she wanted to come to Nashville and try to write some music. We ended up making a Shannon Shaw solo record, "Shannon in Nashville." After that, she introduced me to the Clams and we made a Clams record, and we put that one out. They have been incredible to work with. They’re an amazing live band, and they’ve had a great couple of years. We’ve seen their audience sometimes double in places.
Did all of the production work you’ve been doing the past few years inform or influence the way that you and Patrick did this new Black Keys record?
The work that I’ve gotten to do in the last four years has changed my life. The incredible musicians and writers I’ve gotten to work with, and amazing bands, it’s just expanded my mind. It couldn’t help but affect me when we made the Black Keys record. I couldn’t tell you how in particular, but I definitely learned lots of things, and I wasn’t afraid to try them.
I understand that Joe Walsh and Glenn Schwartz from the James Gang provided a spark in getting the new record started.
Absolutely. Yeah, that’s another Easy Eye project. When I first started playing electric guitar, I would go up to Cleveland and see this guy play, his name was Glenn Schwartz, the guy from the James Gang. He was Joe Walsh’s guitar hero, and he built his own guitar, and it had 10 strings on it, and just blew my 16-year-old mind to shreds. I took everything that I saw Glenn do, and I went down into the basement with Pat, after just woodshedding on blues records for years, and then we made the Black Keys music. It was directly influenced by Glenn.
So a couple of years ago, I invited Glenn to come to Nashville to record some of his old songs, the songs that I’d seen him playing when I was a kid. I invited Joe, and Joe flew right in. He plugged in his own pedal board and set up his guitar, and we recorded Glenn’s songs. We had, like, a Glenn Schwartz celebration with Glenn in the studio for a few days. It was amazing.
Having to actually learn Glenn’s songs and play them with him made me realize how much I’d been influenced by him. And it just made me want to call Pat and make a record. So that was the thing that did it for us. We ended up dedicating the new album to Glenn, because Glenn sadly, of course, passed away. (Schwartz died Nov. 2, 2018, at age 78.)
Being on tour with the Black Keys again for much of this year, are you finding yourself looking forward to immersing yourself in the studio again soon?
Yeah, I mean, I was just in the studio last night (laughs). We just left for tour because we were home for a couple of weeks, and I was in the studio every day. I had a session all the way up till I had to leave. The bus was just waiting for me at the studio. I walked out of the studio, into the bus to Florida. It’s a big part of my life. It never stops, even when I’m on tour. There’s plenty of things to be done with the label, and artwork, or just planning and dreaming.