IN Tennessee, they call the electric chair Old Smokey.
It’s a particularly gruesome way to go but, after 34 years languishing on death row, double killer Edmund Zagorski decided it was for him.
The Black Keys new album ‘Let’s Rock’ was released on June 28[/caption]
On November 1, last year, at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, the 63-year-old was strapped into the dreaded hot seat.
As he waited for the lethal current, he uttered defiant last words: “Let’s rock.”
His parting shot did not go unnoticed by The Black Keys, the raucous blues duo of Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney, who record in the Tennessee capital.
The unrepentant killer of two drug dealers had unwittingly given them the perfect title for their first album in five years.
In the first week of recording, I read a local front page story about a prisoner being executed by electric chair
Ninth studio effort ‘Let’s Rock’ is an, er, electrifying return to the uncluttered guitar and drums interplay that defined their early work while still finding room for airy pop and subtle soul textures.
Bearded singer/guitarist Auerbach says: “In the first week of recording, I read a local front page story about a prisoner being executed by electric chair, which is really rare.
“His last words, ‘Let’s rock,’ stuck in my mind. Fast forward a few months and we were trying to think of an album title concept . . . always so annoying and tedious.
“But those words kept coming back to me, how absurd they were and how right on the money they were.
The album title was inspired by the last words of killer Edmund Zagorski[/caption]
“We’d just made this rock ’n’ roll record and it felt right, like it was given to us, like we were supposed to use it.”
Despite the title’s harrowing origin, Auerbach is thrilled with the album cover, a fizzing electric chair bathed in a pink glow on a black background with Zagorski’s final two words emblazoned under the band’s name.
“It fills my heart with so much joy that we got something so simple,” he says. “Talk about simplicity . . . it’s everything to us and we love it.”
He’s also glad to be back making music with old mucker Carney after they spent so much time apart.
We both absolutely needed that break but it has made us appreciate this magic thing we have
“We both absolutely needed that break but it has made us appreciate this magic thing we have,” he admits.
“It’s magic because the whole thing makes no goddam sense, right from when we got into a van with no air-conditioning and criss-crossed America, not even getting paid for our shows.
“Why did we do all that? How did we do all that? I couldn’t do any of that right now.”
Comparisons between ‘Let’s Rock’ and distant triumphs like Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory are obvious even if the 2019 sound is a little more polished.
Dan Auerbach says he is glad to be making music again with his partner Pat Carney after they spent time apart[/caption]
Loaded with stadium pleasers like Shine A Little Light and Eagle Birds complete with tasty guitar licks, it’s a lean and direct album, the 12 tracks all over in just 37 ideal-for-vinyl minutes.
Auerbach says: “We’re not trying to recreate something old but it’s the same process. We’re older now but we still have the natural chemistry we’ve always had. It’s like when we were 16.
“Without talking about it or any preproduction, Pat and I have always been able to sit down and make s**t up that sounds like music.
“Thirty minutes after Pat walked into the studio, the very first idea turned into the song Breaking Down.
There’s real power when we get together in a room and I felt that spirit. It was undeniable
“There’s real power when we get together in a room and I felt that spirit. It was undeniable.”
The studio is Auerbach’s most natural habitat, as he explains: “Pat and I started as a recording project and we didn’t really want to be a band.
“We don’t love the spotlight . . . maybe Pat likes it more than me . . . but I wouldn’t say we were natural entertainers.”
Their reunion comes after a hectic few years in which he formed a new band, The Arcs, recorded his second solo album and produced numerous acts at his retro-styled Easy Eye Sound label and studio in Nashville.
The Black Keys head to their Superjam performance during the 2011 Bonnaroo Festival[/caption]
He’s also found more time to spend with his two kids instead of relentless touring with The Black Keys, which he believes gave him and Pat a form of “PTSD”.
“We were still touring constantly up until four years ago,” he says. “We’d never really left the road.
“But recently, it’s been amazing to get home to see my kids every day instead of the inside of a hotel room. That’s a new experience for me.”
He’s taking that thought into future plans for The Black Keys despite huge popularity, revealing that, “We’re not going to play as many shows as we used to.
I love playing shows but I want to make it so that I love them all the time
“I would suggest to fans that if we’re coming close but NOT to your city, you should try to come and see us anyway.
“I love playing shows but I want to make it so that I love them all the time, that they never get tedious. I don’t want to do that to people.”
So why was the time right to get back with Pat?
“All these incredible things I’ve done have depleted my bank account . . . I’m just kidding,” he laughs. Auerbach actually credits one of his guitar heroes with getting the ball rolling again . . . the recently deceased Glenn Schwartz.
‘Let’s Rock’ is a twelve track album and lasts 37 minutes[/caption]
“So, I cut this record with Glenn,” he says, launching into the story with typical gusto. He’s from North-Eastern Ohio, where I’m from, and he was the original guitar player in the James Gang.
“When I was like 17, 18, I would go and play at this little bar in Cleveland and he was just a huge influence on me. It carried on when I was making the first Black Keys records.”
Wind forward to 18 months ago and Auerbach invited Schwartz to his studio.
“We started jamming to Glenn’s old songs and I was hearing all these licks that I had borrowed for the first Black Keys records.
Auerbach says that he is in love with making albums[/caption]
“It was just so much fun and inspiring being around his energy. He was close to 80 but he was still on fire.”
During the session, another of Schwartz’s disciples turned up to join the mayhem . . . Eagles legend Joe Walsh, who, in 1967, had taken his place in the James Gang.
Auerbach continues: “Joe came in here and spent 45 minutes on his knees wiring up all his pedals because he’s still f***ing in love with the electric guitar and he still worships Glenn Schwartz.”
‘I’M IN LOVE WITH MAKING ALBUMS’
For The Black Keys man “it was like going back to church.
“Right afterwards, I called Pat and we put The Black Keys in the books for recording. That was the little nudge I needed.”
His love affair with the guitar rekindled, Auerbach approached the new album with a clear vision, enabling the creative process to flow fast and freely.
And though he claims he’s “not too flashy or showy”, there’s a wealth of immense power chords and engrossing solos.
He also reaffirms his admiration for his musical partner: “Pat’s always an awesome drummer, completely self-taught and super insecure about his abilities because he doesn’t do all that techy stuff.
“The thing is, he sounds really good. All the best drummers provide the heartbeat of a record.”
We cut about half a dozen new songs and realised we hadn’t done any keyboards
The back-to-basics feel of ‘Let’s Rock’ is in stark contrast to the more layered soundscapes of the Keys’ four albums produced by Danger Mouse, including El Camino and Turn Blue.
“We cut about half a dozen new songs and realised we hadn’t done any keyboards,” says Auerbach.
“We didn’t talk about it . . . there wasn’t a plan. Then I said, ‘Let’s just not put any keyboards on at all’ and Pat said, ‘OK’, and that was it.”
I ask him if he fears for the future of guitar rock with charts dominated by rappers and solo artists like Ed Sheeran, Adele and Justin Bieber.
The studio is Auerbach’s most natural habitat[/caption]
“We all know it will come back around,” he answers instantly, before describing the enduring blues heritage of a band like The Black Keys.
“We’re a product of our environment. America created this crazy s**t that came up through New Orleans.
“That melting pot gave us incredible music and we’re just part of the whole stream.” One of Auerbach’s abiding inspirations is Robert Johnson, the Mississippi Delta legend who performed Kind Hearted Woman Blues, Cross Road Blues and Love In Vain.
“Thanks to my dad, I listened to him when I was a kid,” he says. “I knew every single Robert Johnson song before I ever played guitar and all the Son House songs.”
Auerbach performs on the Obelisk Arena stage at Latitude Festival[/caption]
His “hippie” father loved The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Otis Redding and psychedelic records, all music to the young Dan’s ears.
“I would hear Magic Carpet Ride (Steppenwolf) and Spirit In The Sky (Norman Greenbaum) and The Beatles. I got to hear Revolution on vinyl and it sounded so f***ing awesome.”
The inspiration also came from his mother. “My mom’s whole family played bluegrass. The first live music I ever saw was my family singing and playing songs based on white gospel with beautiful harmonies and soulful singing.”
All this explains why Easy Eye Sound is the perfect vehicle for Auerbach to produce a mixture of upcoming (Dee White, Yola) blues and soul stars as well as wonderful old timers such as Robert Finley from his base in Nashville.
My hero Dr John
DAN Auerbach produced and played on the late, great Dr John’s acclaimed 2012 album Locked Down. He salutes the singular star who died last month.
“I loved Dr John. We made a record together here at Easy Eye. He was amazing, one of a kind, and it changed my life hanging out with him. Talk about a product of his environment…he was like New Orleans stew. And that stew was so thick.
“He started playing the keyboard and he made it sound like a character from a Star Wars movie. It was like talking in an alien language.
“He was such a character and he grew up around witch doctors and voodoo ladies.
“He lived next door to a graveyard and when he was a little kid, he and his friends would go into it and steal bones.
“He said he built a human skeleton underneath his bed. He didn’t know which bones went where, so he did it by imagination. Then his house burned down. Police found 600 different people’s bones and were wondering what the f**k went on there!
“Dr John had a cane with trinkets hanging from it, some made of little bones. He would walk real slow and my dog would walk right 7 next to him licking her lips.”
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“It’s changed my life,” he enthuses about his burgeoning enterprise.
“Being in Nashville, you might meet a different person every day who changed the course of musical history. I’m in the city addicted to recording and I’m in love with making albums.”
That, of course, includes the high-voltage ‘Let’s Rock’ . . . even if Old Smokey is still smouldering in another part of town.
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