The Billboard Q&A: The Black Keys & Danger Mouse
The Black Keys have been a model of consistency throughout their first four albums, relying on little more than Dan Auerbach's deep, bluesy vocals and searing guitar licks atop Patrick Carney's thundeThe Black Keys have been a model of consistency throughout their first four albums, relying on little more than Dan Auerbach's deep, bluesy vocals and searing guitar licks atop Patrick Carney's thunderous drumming to build an enthusiastic fan base. No bass, no horn section, and -- up until now -- no producer.
That all changed on "Attack & Release," released April 1 via Nonesuch. The project was produced by Danger Mouse and recorded in a real studio, in contrast to 2004's "Rubber Factory," which was put to tape in a decrepit building once occupied by General Tire in the Keys' hometown of Akron, Ohio.
Danger Mouse (whose real name is Brian Burton) first approached the Keys last year, asking if they'd assist him with an album he was producing for the late Ike Turner. Auerbach and Carney sent several backing tracks Burton loved but, ultimately, only a few songs were completed with Turner before the project was shelved.
Throughout, Burton realized he had something else in mind -- a new Black Keys album that he would help steer. "With any band I'm really a big fan of, I'm always a little skeptical about being involved with them any way musically, as opposed to just listening and waiting for their next record," he says. "But they are one of my favorite current bands. Through the demos it was clear there was a whole other record shaping up."
Suitably convinced of their common tastes, Auerbach, Carney and Burton hunkered down at Suma Studios outside Cleveland last fall and tracked "Attack & Release" in just 11 days. Throughout, Auerbach and Carney let go of any hesitation to incorporate additional instrumentation or experiment with new and unusual song structures.
"We learned a lot from him, especially detaching yourself from whatever preconceived ideas you had about what you were doing," Carney says over coffee in an Akron cafe. "Once Brian got onboard, there were absolutely no rules," Auerbach adds.
The Keys just began an 18-date U.S. tour last weekend. August will bring northeast U.S. shows, followed in September and October by visits to the South and Midwest. In addition, an April 17 appearance on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" is confirmed, as is an Aug. 1 set at Lollapalooza in Chicago.
Below, Billboard chats with Auerbach, Carney and Danger Mouse about seeing "Attack & Release" through to its completion.
What happened to the place you recorded "Rubber Factory?"
Dan Auerbach: It's still there. We were just renting it.
Patrick Carney: That building is getting torn down for the Goodyear redevelopment. It was a Superfund site, really.
DA: The whole second floor was completely abandoned. It was all offices and laboratories. The room next to ours was full of beakers. It was like a haunted house with leaky ceilings.
PC: It smelled like caustic chemicals.
DA: It was too scary for me, actually. I couldn't really be there by myself. I'd be sh*tting my pants every time I went.
All that said, were you happy with what came out of recording there?
PC: It was fun, but we probably could have found a way better place where we could have spent more time. There was a limit to being in there. It felt disgusting.
DA: That's why we ended up taking as much as we could carry on a couple of trips and then leaving a bunch of sh*t, just like the people who were there before. We literally left a $1,000 recording console there (laughs). It used to be owned by Loverboy.
Where did you track this one?
DA: Painesville. The guy who started Cleveland Recording in the '50s, at some point he moved from downtown Cleveland and opened this place. It's an old ranch/mansion, back in the woods. His son now runs it, with all the old equipment from the '50s.
PC: It was in the manor of the guy who invented baby formula. The studio was his laboratory.
I know you guys are often recording, even when you are off the road. What's the trigger point when you know you have enough stuff to form an album?
DA: It's different every time. This time we were fairly prepared. "Thickfreakness," we were completely prepared. We had almost every song we wanted to record. All the other records, we sort of made them up as we were going along.
Walk me through how this morphed from Ike's album into a Black Keys album?
Danger Mouse: They're just so consistent that I kind of knew I was going to get from them for this particular project. That's exactly what I was looking for. But at the same time, my meddling, if you will, was really just inserting Ike into the situation and trying to do something by circumstance, as opposed to getting involved with them sound-wise, initially anyway. I didn't know if they knew me or any of the stuff I've done. I didn't count on that. What I was counting on was that they'd bring their sound to something and I'd try to make something different out of the rest of the elements.
But that was before I met them and we talked music. Once that happened, it was more apparent we were a lot closer than would be uncomfortable to try something completely different. When the Ike stuff was going, there was still a real desire to do an entire record with just the Black Keys as well. It didn't have anything to do with whether Ike worked or not. When I expressed that to them, they expressed a similar view about doing something on our own.
When we started to change paths with the Ike stuff -- some of it was working, but it was much more of an experiment. We had a couple of cool things come out of it, but we were really going to change the direction of what we were going to try and do with that, based on what his voice sounded like, and that the stuff that was being written at the time was really Black Keys stuff. We acknowledged that and went ahead and made the Black Keys record.
By the time you had all agreed to make a Black Keys album, how much material was there?
PC: We had like 12 songs.
So knowing you were going to work with him didn't influence your writing?
DA: No. We had talked about wanting to put a bunch of instrumentation on this record. We were both pretty sure. We'd been listening to so much stuff. We knew we had a ton of songs and all these instruments, just to try anything. We were there 11 days for tracking. We mixed for a week.
Danger Mouse: When we got there, I had a pretty decent idea of which songs I wanted to work on. We went right at it. We were knocking out pretty much a song a day.
Can you think of a tune where Danger Mouse's presence helped shift it into a different direction than what was originally planned?
DA: "Psychotic Girl" had a lot of input from him. We'd recorded it three different ways.
PC: Each one sounded completely different.
DA: Totally different. They're all cool. But that's just one we ended up recording. He gave us a tempo and we just did it from there. Instead of starting with drums and guitar, we started with bass and took it from there.
PC: That and "Strange Times," it was just all of us throwing around ideas. He'd give us some kind of loop as a guide to work around, and then we'd remove the guide and see what was there afterward. It was just a lot of fun.
Danger Mouse: The first song on the album, "All You Ever Wanted," was an experiment toward the end of the record. They had a lot of trust with me, so we decided to just mess around from scratch. We did a lot of weird sh*t to the point where it didn't really seem as though there was anything happening, but I really wanted to keep going. They were totally willing. The next thing you know, it turned into this song. Dan had lyrics ready, and it happened to go with the progression. The big ending was just an idea to kick it into the Black Keys, almost. That's the way I envisioned the whole thing happening. It's really difficult because I can't play guitar or drums like they do, so it was fortunate that we had a lot of time to work together before we did that song. Our communication was really good.
Also, "Remember When." "Part B" was the original demo. And so I said I wanted to try something completely different with it. We broke it down. I thought it was a really beautiful song, but we completely re-approached it, and that turned into "A." I really liked "B" a lot, because they sounded so different from each other. I thought, let's put them both on there. To me, it's almost like... somedays you remember a relationship like, 'How could it ever have ended? It was so perfect!' But other times, it's like, 'Ugh, thank God. How could I have ever done that!' Those two approaches are reflected in the song.
What did you all take away from working together?
PC: There's not one thing about it that was negative. Every single day was exciting. Every day we looked forward to getting in there early. It almost felt like, with only two weeks, on the last two days we were just getting warmed up. We probably could have kept going. Before we left, we were like, 'We should probably get together and work on another record.'
Danger Mouse: I know I wasn't prepared for how well we'd get along. We were instant friends. We figured, 'We'll be doing this for a long time, and the music will just be the fun thing we do when we hang out together.' It never bogged down, and there was never a question of what to do. It was a really fun working environment.