Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach talks life in Nashville and using his label to unearth talent

Dan Auerbach
Photo by Ryan Johnson

Dan Auerbach hit the road with his first solo record in eight years. His new record ‘Waiting on A song’ includes an all-star cast of musical legends from Mark Knopfler to John Prine and an illustrious team of some of Nashville’s finest. Vancouver Weekly had the good fortune to be able to chat with Dan about his life in Nashville, some of the musicians that he was able to get on the record and write with, what the music business is like nowadays, and finally, the beauty behind being able to strip down a record and be free from restraints when performing live.

A lot has changed in the last eight years – a whole lot has changed. The thing about Nashville is that it has such a rich musical history and there are still so many people here with so much to say – I can’t get enough.

I didn’t know any musicians in Ohio really. When I was growing up, nobody in my fucking high school listened to bluegrass records or blues. It was a lonely musical existence before I met Pat. And even Pat and I looked for another person to fill out the band but we really couldn’t find anybody – that’s why we’re just a two piece.

I don’t really know much about the Nashville scene though. I’ve never been to a label session. I’ve never been in a country session. I’ve honestly played in my own universe here. I’m either at my studio or at my house. I drive up and down Music Row every single day – by RCA studio B where they cut all the beautiful records. I’m pretty insulated here.  

The beautiful thing about Nashville is that there are so many great musicians that came here because they could make a living, not because they necessarily liked the music.

I think there are some gems of musicians here in Nashville that haven’t had a chance to really show off yet.

A day in the life 

I’m at the studio every day at about nine o’clock and don’t leave till dinner. The band is made up of about five people. Gene Chrisman on drums, Bobby Wood on Keys, Dave Roe on bass, and Russ Pahl on guitar.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

We don’t really jam out much. We save it for when we’re recording. I’m either doing a writing session where I’m with somebody, one or two people, an acoustic guitar or piano – I guess it just depends. I write with Bobby Wood a bunch and he uses a Wurlitzer.

When we track, there are at least six people all cutting at once. And we’ll cut about four to six songs a day. Minus the strings, horns, background vocals and stuff. The basics. The last album we cut here, we did in three days. It was more like a rock and roll record.  That’s why I feel like it’s such a nice place at the moment.  

Living legends 

I didn’t actually meet Mark Knopfler. I just sent him a song. Although I feel that if the song (Shine on me) had sucked, he would have said ‘no’. He’s never met me and he doesn’t owe me anything. But that’s why I get to work early every day, I don’t want to miss a thing.  

Photo by Ryan Johnson

There are so many incredible people. John Prine is just the tip of the iceberg. John Prine moved to Nashville for the same reason I did – he could be around all these great people.  

But, you can’t just go to the store and find these people. It’s taken me years just to meet some of these guys. I didn’t meet Bobby Wood until about two years ago and I’ve been here for eight. You got to know where to look and who to talk to. My buddy Dave Ferguson who is a producer in town and of my best friends introduced me to a bunch of these guys.

The challenge

The biggest challenge has always been to be away from family. The other thing about being on the road is that you don’t get to write the music, you’re just playing it.

Playing shows is fun but there is something about getting really deep in the studio and searching for sounds that does it for me.

That’s how I know I’m truly addicted to it. I love being around the studio, making music, songs, and records.

I used to just think of a project I wanted to do, work on the project and then find a home for it. This time, I’m just putting it out myself. I’ve got a really nice deal for the label with distribution and it’s just a really good situation. I didn’t want to have a label if I wasn’t actually going to be able to help people – these artists that I genuinely know that I can help.

The business

All I know is what I’ve done. I didn’t follow any rulebook, just my gut. I got in a band and toured when I wasn’t making any money for years. But never stopped having my mind open to new sounds and such.

It’s a brutal business. I’ve seen so many bands and artists come and go. I don’t know.

I’ve got a couple of kids and people will ask me if I think my kids are going to be musicians and I’m like ‘I fucking hope not’. I want them to have a happy life.

And honestly, it’s impossible in this day and age when it’s getting so thin and music has become so disposable.  

So many of these amazing records happened because there was an industry supporting it. And if that industry disappeared, shit… I don’t know. 

The Live Tour 

On the last Black Keys tour, we had these giant screens and all kinds of shit going on. In order to do a show for 10,12, 15,000 people, it all has to be synced up. It’s impossible to just improvise and change on the fly. So, when you’re just starting out, you can just meander on stage and kind of go anywhere. I’ve been through all of it, all phases of it.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

That’s the band that has been working in the studio with me for the last few years on stuff I’m producing here on my record label. 

For this one, we’re just going to play the songs and not try to recreate the record at all. The record has strings and horns. We’re just going to play a stripped-down version of it and it’ll be a different kind of thing. And we’ll see if the songs still hold up. 

As told to Ricardo Khayatte exclusively for Vancouver Weekly.

Ricardo Khayatte

Ricardo Khayatte