Dan Auerbach

Nashville Collaborative
Photo: Rusty Russell.

One of the first modern alt-rockers to recruit B-list guitars, Dan Auerbach’s fixation on Silvertones and Airlines, Kents, Corals, and Teiscos began when he was a kid and served him well through years grinding along the road to fame in the Black Keys.

The band’s story goes that Auerbach, a burgeoning guitarist/performer from Akron, Ohio, needed a demo to score out-of-town gigs, and asked neighborhood friend Pat Carney – owner of a four-track – to make a tape. But when the guys Auerbach hoped would back him failed to show at Carney’s place, the two were forced to improvise. The would-be engineer/drummer jumped behind his kit, pushed “Record,” and delivered a beat. They pressed a few vinyl copies of the tracks, sent them off, were signed to an indie label in L.A., and the 15 years since have seen them release eight albums heavily dosed with blues, surf, and garage-rock influences supported by tour schedules that pushed them to exhaustion.

In 2010, Auerbach moved from Ohio to Nashville and converted an old call center into Easy Eye Studio. It began life recording Black Keys songs, then, as Auerbach lent himself to outside projects, the favor was returned by recording engineer David Ferguson, who acquainted him with some of Music City’s best musicians, including keyboardist Bobby Wood and drummer Gene Chrisman, who worked with Chips Moman when American Sound Studios recorded more than 120 classic hits in the 1960s and ’70s.

Auerbach has produced projects by Dr. John, Cage the Elephant, Valerie June, Lana Del Rey, and others. In 2013, he won a Grammy for Producer of the Year. In ’15, his other band, The Arcs, released Yours, Dreamily, and in late ’16 he helped the Pretenders make Alone. But, in the sliver of time between a spring tour with The Arcs and the Pretenders project, Auerbach co-wrote and recorded a new solo album, Waiting On A Song (see review below). Sounding nothing like anything he’d done before, it marks the launch of Auerbach’s new label, Easy Eye Sound, which makes full use of the studio he calls “…my own Field of Dreams.”

“Sometimes, it feels like I built it because I must’ve known something was going to happen,” Auerbach said. “I wanted to accommodate musicians playing live. Then the best players in town started to show up, and it was actually happening.”

The only non-Nashvillian to play on the album, Mark Knopfler, contributed guitar parts to “Shine on Me” while another icon, Duane Eddy, riffs on the title track as well as “Livin’ in Sin” and the cinematic “King of a One Horse Town.”

Auerbach played plenty himself, using a ’60s Carvin electric, his late-’60s Tele, and a Gibson Trini Lopez formerly owned by Mississippi Fred McDowell (see sidebar) all running through a ’63 Fender Vibroverb, a ’60s Fender blackface Princeton, or a ’68 Fender “drip edge” Deluxe. His acoustic parts were created using a Guild classical, Gibson Country & Western, or Kent Bonanza 12-string.

The mix of people, places, and instruments have helped make Auerbach the hippest musical entity to roll out of Akron since Devo or Chrissy Hynde.

“There were moments when I was so pleasantly surprised by what people came up with… It was amazing to watch their artistry come out.”

Auerbach at work in his Easy Eye Studio. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

You didn’t have a lot of time between the most recent Black Keys tour and when you started recording the new album. 

Yeah, and I can’t write songs when I’m on tour; Patrick and I were either recording or on tour for what seemed like four years straight.

Still, you had what, a couple hundred songs or ideas by the time it came to record the new album?

Yeah, there was a ton of songs, and we recorded most of them last summer. I haven’t stopped recording or writing since, so I don’t even know how many I have at this point. It’s a lot.

In the process, do thoughts come to mind about a general sound or, in the case of Waiting for a Song, a concept for an album?

No, there was no grand scheme. I just try to make good songs, really. I’ve been collaborating with all these songwriters, then I get into the studio with incredible musicians just to see what happens.

How did you first connect with Dave Ferguson?

He has a studio and I think somebody brought me in to play acoustic on an album he was making. That was probably within the first month I moved here.

Was he one of the first steps in your process of becoming more engaged with Nashville players?

Yeah, I met Fergie when I first got to town and he’s been one of my closest buddies ever since. I met most of the people on the record through him; he gradually introduced me to all of these people he’s known through working with Cowboy Jack Clement.

And it was Fergie who took you to watch John Prine, who helped you write songs for the new album, right?

Yeah, he took me to see John play his Christmas show. I’ve always known John’s songs, but of course listening to them is not the same as seeing him play live. When I saw that, I totally understood it for the first time. And the thing that was weird to me was that I connected so much with what he does because I grew up learning how to play from watching Lightnin’ Hopkins videos, plus, I use two fingers the same way John does, and he plays a Martin just like my family did when we’d play bluegrass songs together. I felt a connection to it immediately. And on top of that, he sings incredibly catchy songs that are so simple, for the every man – not trying to be overly poetic or use big, fancy words. He manages to hit a home run with the barest of essentials. That’s the thing that knocked me over the head when I saw it in person.

Did John come over to write simply because you asked?

Well, I wrote a ton of songs with Mackie – Pat McLaughlin – who tours with him. Then, the three of us got together at my house and wrote a couple more. We did that a few more times, and we’ve written seven or eight songs. Things just… happened, you know? In [Nashville], there’s so many songwriters, but that doesn’t guarantee good songs just emerge from collaborations; you get into the room and if there’s chemistry, there’s chemistry. And when something works, you kind of catch stuff out of mid-air and make something out of nothing.

I’ve sat with so many people where for some reason it doesn’t work, but with these songs we hit it off from the get-go and it was really fun. You can’t have an ego, at all, in these situations. You have to let go of everything, and we were all just so comfortable doing that. As much as I respect John and Mackie, we were all there for the same reasons, all trying to do the same thing. So I didn’t let myself get intimidated and we ended up just having a great time. I think that’s key – the best songwriters always had a good time hanging out with each other, and there’s a flow.

Did roles emerge? Did one person more often come up with lyrics while another did the melodies?

No, it was all pretty even. I think there are a couple songs John may have started with the first couplet, and we started building on them, like Legos. And then there are some I started with a line on guitar. There wasn’t any set way.

Easy Eye Studio is home to vintage amps and effects of all types and sizes including a pile of Echoplex units, more than 30 vintage keyboards, guitars he has staged for years along with a few new additions, and even old-school anatomical charts. Photo: Rusty Russell.

How did Duane Eddy enter the mix?

Well, Fergie introduced me to Duane four years ago, and when I started recording last summer, I invited Duane to come out, just to play. He’s great at coming up with lines and thinking on the fly. And, he’s addicted to being in the studio, just like I am (laughs). He just loved it and was always game to come down and play, so he ended up playing all over the record. I probably cut 100 songs, and he’s on a ton of them, just because he just wanted to hang at my studio every week.

How about Jerry Douglas?

Well, I had a song in mind that I wanted Dobro on, so I invited him down. We tried a couple a tunes, one of which is a Prine song that’s not on the record. I ended up having a few sessions that were mostly acoustic, and Jerry came out and played. He was really fantastic.

And Mark Knopfler?

That was a strange one because I still have yet to meet him (laughs). I cut “Shine On Me” and as we were listening to playback, I was sitting at the console and I said out loud, “This sounds like Mark Knopfler should be playing guitar on it.” So I had my manager reach out and ask him nicely. We sent the track, and two days later he sent back the song and and it was exactly what the song needed. It was amazing. That describes this whole process; when the stars align and things happen between a song and a place… that’s what this whole thing has been like.

His sound is instantly identifiable, no matter the setting.

Yes, and the the same goes for Duane, which is wild because anyone who plays guitar knows how hard it is to have your own, unique sound. To have two people on the record that, without a doubt, the second you hear them you know who it is… It’s just really wild.

Did Duane bring his own guitars and amps, or for the sake of consistency did you have him use a studio setup?

Oh, no… Duane brings his own gear – a custom Gretsch, and they also made him a custom baritone that’s really amazing. So he brings those and his Music Man amps with 15″ JBLs.

There’s some low-end for ya’…

Oh, yeah. He won’t ever play without his own gear, because his sound is everything. He’s an old dude, but he lugs around all that gear no matter what. Might as well be hauling around an old Peavey. I’d always send the interns out to help him carry it in, because it weighs a ton. Even his guitar case is really heavy.

Did you do anything special recording Jerry Douglas’ tracks?

We didn’t do anything special for anybody (laughs). It was just “Stick a mic on them.” That was it. Jerry ended up playing his signature-model resonator guitar made by Paul Beard; he uses old hub caps for the cone. Jerry used that most of the time and got these cool, haunting sounds. Really weird, ringing overtones.

Did Knopfler happen to tell you what he used?

He didn’t, but when I soloed it out, to me it sounded like a Fender tweed amp and there was stereo miking thing where like there was some room sound there, too – a room mic and a close mic they blended together. It wasn’t really crazy – just him with a Fender and a tweed amp, fingerpicking.

From your standpoint as producer, were there quirky moments in terms of getting a sound or a certain part?

We’re talking about some of the greatest musicians who ever walked the earth – Bobby Wood and Gene Chrisman, and Duane. We worked as a team, and since we weren’t doing overdubs it was a real session where everyone was coming up with the arrangement together. So, it has to be right, you know? When it’s wrong, it feels wrong.

I’m not scared to tell people if they’re doing something wrong, or if I want them to try something else. But there was never a moment when somebody was an issue. More often, there were moments when I was so pleasantly surprised by what people came up with, everyone feeding off the energy of being in the room together and creating the arrangement. It was amazing to watch their artistry come out; the beautiful lines Duane would come up with – beautiful, melodic… just blowing my mind.

One of those times you feel blessed to be watching…

I felt blessed to be there, yeah. Everybody did, because it was pure creativity and just felt really, really great. The stars were aligning while we were making the record. We were recording songs that John and others had a hand in crafting, and then you get such amazing musicians to take it to tape… It was really wild (laughs).

Auerbach onstage in 2010. Photo by Kara Murphy/Wikimedia Commons.

Which guitars and amps did you play most?

When I was playing acoustic I’d use my Gibson Country and Western. I also have an old Guild classical I wrote a ton of songs on – I used that quite a bit. And, I have an early-’60s Carvin triple-pickup guitar that ended up being the one I played most when I wanted to do something electric.

Then, we had a bunch of little amps – a little blackface Deluxe, a Vibrolux that I put a 15″ JBL into and Duane still wouldn’t use! He stayed with his Music Man.

Why were you so drawn to the Carvin?

I’ve been playing it a bunch the last few years in the studio. It has a body and a feel sort of like a Stratocaster, but it’s got these weird little homemade pickups, and you can get a nice out-of-phase sound with them. In a mix, it sits on top of a bunch of instruments really well.

How about your Mississippi Fred Gibson?

I used that a bunch, too. Any time I needed a bigger sound, I’d go to that. And any time I played slide. If I wanted to do a darker sound with the neck pickup and an Echoplex, I’d always grab that guitar.

Do you remember particular songs it was used to record?

No, but anything that sounds like a humbucker is that guitar. Anything that sounds weird and thin is the Carvin, and anything in-between is my late-’60 Telecaster with a Bigsby – blond, all beat up; I bought it in Austin years ago and used it on every record I’ve made since – the Lava record and all the Black Keys records. It’s the one that been with me the longest. It’s an awesome guitar.

Special thanks to M. Allen Parker.

Old Souls, New Sounds

by Michael Dregni

For his latest solo album, Dan Auerbach collaborates with some of the best players in Nashville and the result is a love song to his adopted city.
The album grew out of weekly jam sessions and songcrafting parties after which Auerbach distilled some 200 songs down to 10.
With a full band behind him – more than just the austere sound with Black Keys bud Patrick Carney on drums – harmonies are rich and full, and his rhythm section includes bassist Dave Roe (who backed Johnny Cash for 22-odd years), as well as Memphis Boys studio aces Bobby Wood on piano and drummer Gene Chrisman, both of whom recorded as part of the band at American Sound Studios.
Building on their recently founded mutual-admiration society, Auerbach worked with John Prine, who co-authored the title track, which also features 78-year-old guitar hero Duane Eddy with a sizzling lo-fi solo alive with grit and twang. Eddy also lent his guitar to “Livin’ In Sin” and “King Of A One Horse Town.”
Composing “Shine On Me,” Auerbach says he “heard” a Mark-Knopfler-esque guitar on the track, so shot him an e-mail. The result? Knopfler’s signature sound on the rhythm riffs, added from afar. You can’t mistake that fingerpicking.
The rest of the album was cut live and includes magic touches by Dobro master Jerry Douglas – who had earlier recruited Auerbach to play drums on his recent bluegrass album – and guitarist/mandolinist Pat McLaughlin from Prine’s band.
While Auerbach recruited old souls, the music is all new. This is no retro throwback album, just as the Black Keys were never simply a rock band. And in fact, it allows Auerbach to stretch and try his hands at a wider range of styles than his original band, his follow-up Arcs, or even than on his first solo shot, 2009’s Keep It Hid.
The title track is one of several with an old-time country lilt, whereas “Malibu Man” is an homage to Rick Rubin and “Cherrybomb” rides atop a funk-laced R&B line.
Of course, this being Dan Auerbach, the collection remains, at its heart, a guitar album. An unapologetic gear junkie, he rooted in his closets for a variety of tones that will set alight any guitar and bass aficionado.
Waiting On A Song is also available in various limited-edition sets, included colored vinyl plus an 8-track version complete with a vintage 8-track player signed and customized by Auerbach.

Hollowbody Homage

by Ward Meeker   Guitar photos by Rusty Russell

Mississippi Fred McDowell with the Trini. Photo by Val Wilmer.

“It’s no secret that I love Mississippi Fred McDowell,” says Dan Auerbach about one of his personal guitar heroes – and the blues legend’s Gibson Trini Lopez that recently became a particularly personal part of his instrument collection.
“I used to go to the public library in Akron and rent VHS tapes of the Alan Lomax ‘American Patchwork’ series with him playing. I’d take them home, pause and rewind, rewind and pause, watching his hands. They did good close-ups, which helped a lot as I tried to figure out the chord changes.”
Fast-forward to a couple years ago, when, through a friend, Auerbach was contacted by the person in St. Louis who at some point obtained the guitar and was interested in selling it to Auerbach. In the moment, he felt dizzy.
“It was crazy (long pause), because I used to stare at it in those videos. I never forgot the little jewels glued to the headstock and upper bout. It was just wild, ya’ know?
“We had to negotiate a bit, but really, there was no way I was going to let that thing go (laughs). It just meant so much to me. I had to put on such a poker face. I was like… I couldn’t sleep. But the seller was a really nice guy and wanted me to have it.”
What were the first licks he played when it arrived?
“‘Write Me a Few Lines,’” he said. “And you know (laughs), it’s definitely the guitar… but I’m definitely not Fred McDowell (laughs).”
The new solo album, Waiting On a Song, is Auerbach’s first recording with the guitar, and beyond its provenance, Auerbach is overjoyed by the fact it’s a solid player.
“It happens to be a fantastic guitar – a great Trini Lopez with the Bigsby, just like I like,” he said. “It’s perfectly playable, sounds awesome, feels great, and has that beautiful history. It’s perfect, really.”

This article originally appeared in VG August 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.