Guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach is much more comfortable sharing hot dogs with John Prine than night-crawling around Los Angeles. The Akron native moved to Nashville in 2010, but due to the non-stop touring that accompanied the radio-friendly, Grammy-winning crossover success of the Black Keys, Auerbach had little time to enjoy his new surroundings, let alone mingle with the locals.
On Waiting on a Song, his first solo album in eight years, Auerbach is making up for lost time. Soon after Nashville local legend Dave “Fergie” Ferguson (sound engineer of Johnny Cash fame) took Auerbach under his wing, the city’s oldest and most beloved artists welcomed him into the fold. Informal jam sessions with Prine and surf-rock icon Duane Eddy quickly turned into fruitful partnership. While most of these artists are twice Auerbach’s age, Waiting on a Song brims with energy and the type of authenticity only found in the hands and ears of veteran Nashvillians.
The 10-track collection shies away from the garage-blues immediacy of the Black Keys, content to drift by on golden, Laurel Canyon vibes, jangly Americana, and Delfonics-styled soul. Auerbach’s Nashville studio, Easy Eye Sound, has become the hangout; a melting pot of genres and generations. It may not be the hippest party on the block, but Auerbach has finally found his home.
We spoke with Auerbach about working with his heroes, his hip-hop upbringing, and making albums in the ADD generation.
Did you have a shortlist of artists you wanted to help write and record Waiting On a Song? Or was it a domino effect, in that once someone came in, it turned into a big party?
It was a domino effect. I met David Ferguson, who goes by the name “Fergie.” He introduced me to everyone in town. It was all his buddies, and a bunch of great musicians and songwriters. There was absolutely no pre-planning for this record. I didn’t sit down and come up with some sort of idea about what I wanted to do. It just happened. Me, [singer/songwriter] Pat McLaughlin and Fergie wrote a couple songs the first day we got together. Then we did it the next day. And the next. We didn’t stop, and then Fergie introduced me to John Prine, Duane Eddy, Roger Cook (the Memphis Boys), and Larry Brown. They’re all just a bunch of low-key, creative characters. Every day, getting to be creative and work on doing the thing I love, I was so addicted to it. I really haven’t stopped, and I don’t know if I’m ever gonna stop. I knew I moved to Nashville for a reason, and I finally figured it out, eight years later [laughs].
How many songs did you end up cutting?
Man, I cut a couple hundred. We wrote almost every single day. We’d write a couple songs a day, and record two or three days a week. We did that all year long.
How did you decide what made the final cut? Were you thinking in terms of sequencing?
Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, but I like albums. I like the format of a 35-40 minute record, and want the record to be concise. I think that’s the perfect amount of time to ask someone to focus. I pick a couple songs that I really want to be on the record, and then I pick the rest that go along with those songs. I ended up leaving a bunch of my favorite songs off the album because they didn’t go with the record. I’ve got a lot of stuff to release.
Were the Nashville musicians Black Keys fans?
I don’t think any of them even knew who the Black Keys were. They’re not the type of guys who listen to the radio either. All the people that I wrote with aren’t your typical Nashville songwriters. These aren’t the guys writing country pop hits. These are the guys who every blue moon have a country pop hit. These are very special people who live in the city and I feel so lucky that I get to be around them.
Was it a Laurel Canyon vibe, where you would drink, smoke a joint and just let the songs come naturally?
We never drank, but there might have been some smoke. It was very casual but punctual. We’d start around nine every morning. We all get up early anyway, and we’d start writing at nine. It was early summer in Nashville. The cover photo is me sitting in my yard, and that’s where we wrote a bunch of the songs. Nothing about the record is made up. Everything about it is real. The picture on the back of the record is me and a bunch of the guys that made it, at the place where we made it. There’s a picture of me getting my hair cut in the studio while we were cutting a song. It’s all very real. I don’t know man… I’ve never really created anything like this. It reminded me of playing music with my family. It felt old, in that sense-playing bluegrass songs on acoustic guitars, in a circle, and having a picking party. That was what I was doing all summer long. Instead of playing old songs, we were writing new ones.
Did working with Duane Eddy and Mark Knopfler feel like playing a pick-up game with Michael Jordan?
They fucking invented the thing that they do. Duane Eddy invented that guitar style. He starts playing, and you know it can only be him, out of all the millions of people who play instruments. That is some serious magic. To be able to play guitar and you instantly know it’s Mark Knopfler? He’s not even doing anything weird! It’s not like The Edge, where he goes through a million guitar pedals. He’s finger-picking a Stratocaster through a little amp. No pedals. Nothing special, it’s something anyone can buy. It just blows my mind. All these musicians I played with were like that. They all let their true selves speak through their instruments.
Do you consider yourself an old soul? Growing up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, were you more interested in crate-digging than Top 40?
I was interested in both. I loved rap music. When I was hanging out with my friends, that’s what we were listening to. I do still love a lot of things about hip-hop. Now, I’m working with musicians who were sampled on some of my favorite hip-hop records. It’s all come full circle in some weird-ass way. That’s why I make the records I do. I went it to have a big, low-end that really hits, because I grew up on hip-hop. It’s gotta have that thump. I don’t want something that just sounds thin.
Is this a golden age for hip-hop and not so much rock?
For me, hip-hop seems pretty commercial. I feel like a decade ago, it was way more interesting and cutting edge. It’s sort of normal now.
Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper are exploring past normal boundaries.
Are they though? Are they really? I don’t know.
Does it bug you that Waiting on a Song likely won’t be played in sequence, or that people might never look at the cover art or gatefold?
Yeah, but that’s this whole business. That’s the whole world. Don’t you feel that people are becoming less deeply connected to things, whether it’s albums or books? I see it so vividly now. I would say that it scares me, but that’s me wanting it to be the way I experienced it. Maybe they don’t want it that way anymore. They like having new things everyday on their iPhone. They’d rather have that than something they can grow old with. It’s a weird world. 16-year-olds with cell phones don’t give a shit about that. They don’t really care about anybody’s physical album. I think it’s scary. Black Keys shows get pretty heavily cell-phoned out. When I look out into a 15,000 seat arena, I see lots of screens [laughs].
With the Black Keys, I think when bandmates embark on different projects, there’s a knee-jerk reaction to think the band might be in jeopardy.
We’re good. We’re just enjoying our vacation from each other. The amount that we were touring was pretty insane. It definitely wasn’t healthy, even if you’re doing everything right. For someone like me, who likes to be creative, I can’t do that on the road. It’s long stretches of time where I don’t get to create much. Not to mention being away from home. It can drive you crazy.
Do you take care of yourself on the road? Are there hard-lived nights, or are you pretty mellow in terms of partying now?
I’ve gone through everything. All forms of that. I’ve been on tours where I partied all the time, and tours where I exercised a lot. It all comes down to the fact that you’re never home. I love Nashville. There’s things about Akron I miss, and I have a certain nostalgia for it. But I love where I am, and being able to do all these musical things in this city. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Are there any up-and-coming bands or artists who you feel are truly special?
I gotta be honest, I haven’t really been listening. I’ve been in my own little universe. It’s like I don’t even consider that there’s an outside world. We released the first single, “Shine On Me,” and it’s #1 on the Triple A radio charts. I looked at the charts and had never heard any of the other songs. I love that. They’re all young bands, and my drummer is 80-years-old. I’m living in my own universe, and starting to really like it here.