The Black Keys: ‘It’s All About The Dancefloor’

4 April 2024 | 1:21 pm | Steve Bell

After more than 20 years exploring different facets of the blues-rock realms, The Black Keys have spread their wings on their 12th album, ‘Ohio Players’.

The Black Keys

The Black Keys (Credit: Larry Niehues)

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After more than 20 years exploring different facets of the blues-rock realms, Ohioan duo The Black Keys – frontman Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney – have spread their wings on their 12th album, Ohio Players.

A true melting pot of styles and influences – both in terms of how the songs came together and in how they were presented in the studio – the album found the normally insular duo reaching out to a talented array of friends and contemporaries in order to best fulfil their distinct vision for the collection.

Old Friends

The most tangible of these collaborations – and the one that ultimately set the wheels in motion for more creative pairings – occurred at the very outset when the band joined forces with celebrated LA singer-songwriter Beck.

A union that had been on the cards since The Black Keys toured as his support band at the very start of their career, Beck co-wrote and appears on over half of the album’s tracks and his trademark euphoric vibe is a tangible aspect of Ohio Players’ feelgood aesthetic.

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Importantly, once that partnership proved so obviously fruitful The Black Keys were emboldened to reach out to more contributors, and after a lengthy stint (by their standards) in various studios throughout the States (and further afield) they’ve emerged with their most collaborative – and one of their most fun and free-spirited – albums to date.

“It was exciting to get in the studio,” Carney enthuses. “When we finished [predecessor] Dropout Boogie we just kept recording. We finished that in fall of 2021 and we just stayed in the studio and kept working. By April – before that album had even come out [in May of 2022] – we’d recorded about 15 or 20 ideas, and I think it was the best thing for us. When we got out we’d exhausted every idea that we had – and some of them just weren’t that good – so we were able to get rid of all the ideas which were just coming off-the-cuff and it forced us to really dig deeper.

“In that process we started to talk about wanting to invite people – well at the start it was just Beck really – but to invite him into the studio to try and write with him and see how that would go, and it was like instantly successful. The minute he came in the studio we had a couple of song ideas that we showed him and he dusted off his notebook and found some lyrics, and within two or three days we had a song.

“Then we had to go on tour, and the touring took up the rest of that year. By the fall of 2022 we reconvened in the studio, and this time the name of the game was collaborating. On every song we made we’d bring someone in to help, whether to help produce or to help write lyrics or whatever.

“For Dan and I it became a real challenge to make these songs with other people but make them genuinely connected and leave our own print on them so that the album was cohesive. It was fun, but it required a lot of work. We spent probably 150 days in the studio overall. We worked harder on this album than if you put all the studio time together for Brothers [2010] and El Camino [2011] and Turn Blue [2014] – this took longer than them combined!

“We ended up finishing 29 songs to get to the 14 on the finished product. At one stage we were just pulling songs off that didn’t fit, like songs which were too sad. Some of them were really good it’s just that the vibe didn’t work with what we were trying to do.

“Essentially we had to overshoot by making a whole other album – for a while we thought it was going to be a double album because we had so many songs, but after a while we got to a point where we started whittling them back. This is an impressive amount of work and the songs are good, but I don’t know if they all play well together.”

Outside of their creative partnership with noted musician and producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) – who as well as producing El Camino and Turn Blue contributed to the writing process on both albums – The Black Keys hadn’t required much creative assistance in the past, but according to Carney the pair took to spreading the workload like ducks to water.

“We’ve worked very closely with Danger Mouse and that was in a co-writing capacity, but aside from that we haven’t at all, except for on Dropout Boogie when we worked on a couple of songs with Angelo Patraglia and Greg Cartwright,” he explains. “But that’s what drove this, we had a couple of songs on the last record which were not quite done but were almost there and we had a couple of days in the studio and called up those guys and asked them to go through them with us to see how that would go, and that worked really well, We were stoked on it.

“Those guys helped on a couple of songs on the new album as well but then we called up Beck. We’ve been talking about working with him since we met him in 2003 but we never really had the time, but it seemed like we’d finally gotten to a place where it would make sense and we were maybe more capable of understanding how to do that collaboration and have it be successful.”

New Friends

And while their partnership with Beck may have been brewing on the back-burner for a long time, some of the other high-profile collaborations on Ohio Players were of far more recent origins.

“Working with Noel Gallagher was a real trip,” Carney grins. “He was like the second guy that we reached out to, and we kept hearing, ‘Noel doesn’t really do that kind of thing and collaborate like that’. But my neighbour down the street here in Nashville was the Oasis booking agent for about 15 years and I was golfing with him one day and said, ‘We’re trying to reach Noel’ and he said, ‘Well, I could drop him a line’. A couple of days later we heard back from Noel that he’d give it a try if we came to London.

“So we booked tickets and went to London and arranged to meet him at Toe Rag Studios – we picked that studio because we were fans of Liam Watson who owns it and we wanted a studio that was low-tech so we wouldn’t get distracted by computers and overdubs – we just wanted to sit in a room with him and write a song.

“We’d met Noel a couple of times but we didn’t really know him well at all – so it was pretty ballsy of us to reach out to him at all,” the drummer laughs. “But we got on really well creatively, it was seamless working with him. He’s an expert at what he does, and it was great to sit there and watch him construct the chord progressions and select the chords he wants to use and find the grooves together and arrange it.

“We got a song on the first day and we got a song on the second day and we got a song on the third day – not just writing the songs but a whole take. Everything but lyrics was kind of there. Some overdubs were added in Nashville for sure, but the drums that you hear on the recording and the rhythm guitars and piano – it’s all from the live takes we got on those days in London.

“Then on the fourth day we just went into the studio and just kinda fucked around with Noel, we didn’t want to push it. We already had so much great shit, if we ended it with a bad song it was just going to ruin the experience. Noel told us that he’d never worked like that either, he said, ‘I’ve never written a song with other people in the studio’ so we popped his cherry in that regard.

“That was surprising to me that he hadn’t done that – it’s pretty much how we make most of out music, but Noel would usually write the chords and the lyrics himself and then bring it to the band and do it like that. I always make it up on the spot.”

Party Vibes

One novel conceit that The Black Keys employed to colour the tone of Ohio Players were the ‘record hangs’ that the pair would conduct whilst out on the road, using their burgeoning collections of seven-inch singles to explore first-hand what music was getting butts shaking on modern-day dance floors.

“It’s pretty simple but it’s strange that it doesn’t happen more,” Carney tells of the hangs. “The idea is that you’re on the road or you’re in a different city recording – what is there to do after that shit’s done? There’s really not much to do, so we started thinking about throwing these parties. We’d just play our 45 collections, and we’d play very specific styles – not so much by genre, but definitely all music pre-1980 and post-1960.

“What we’re trying to do is play songs that most people don’t know but they should know – songs that should be hits but weren’t hits. Rare stuff where it’s unbelievable that it’s not known well. We’ve been scouring record shops and Discogs and YouTube playlists to find loads on these songs and then buying them, so we’ve amassed a hefty collection of 45s.

“But it’s really fun. The idea is to turn the place into a dance party. The hardest thing is having to figure out how to pull it off so that you fill the room but you don’t just fill it with fans who are just standing there. It’s all about the dancefloor.

“So the whole making of this album was surrounded by this dancing, and we really wanted to mix it up. For the longest time we’d just go to the studio until five o’clock and then go home and put our kids to bed or whatever, but for this album we decided that we can do some of that – it’s fine – but when it comes to actually the creative part of putting the songs together wouldn’t it be fun to get the fuck out of town, and do it up how you’d like your favourite rock’n’roll band to do.

“So we did that – we went to LA for three different trips of a week each and stayed at the Chateau Marmont and recorded until ten o’clock and then partying until four o’clock – doing the classic thing that you should be doing, only we’re doing it in our mid-40s when most bands are doing it in their mid-20s. But I think the energy definitely comes through in the album that we were having a lot of fun.

“It was a pretty hefty creative endeavour to take on, when we had so many songs flowing and so many collaborations, so when it finally came time to put it to bed and get it wrapped up, we had our last trip to LA and go home from that in like May and then we had three weeks to finish the album including the mixing before we went on a European tour, so it was a very hectic 25 days at the end of the album to get it all done. We were doing eight-hour sessions every single day and cutting songs off the record – it was pretty crazy but we got there, I think.

“It’s funny, we finished the album and got the mix and turned it in in September and now we’ve got to stay on top of all the videos and stuff, and right now we’re only just finishing a music video tomorrow – no matter what you do it always comes down to the wire.”

Lost Soul

Amongst the stylistic turns on Ohio Players is a beautiful cover of the William Bell and Booker T. Jones soul standard I Forgot To Be Your Lover, showcasing in the process that The Black Keys are well versed in much more music than merely the blues.

“We grew up listening to that stuff,” Carney offers. “Our fathers were really into it. My dad got to go and see Otis Redding just a couple of weeks before he died, so I grew up with all that stuff and it just seemed like everyone must have grown up with that.

“Then when we got into Wu-Tang Clan when we were 13 and 14 we recognised all the samples – not all of them but a lot of them – and that was a huge moment for us, just realising that all this music that we’d grown up with how heavy some of those grooves are and stuff like that.

“So that song was put onto the record, just because it was a song I was listening to at the time and I just thought that if we captured it right it could be useful for the album. And then when we were sequencing the record it just seemed to work as the ‘penny dropper calm down moment’ of the album.

“A lot of our favourite records have a change-up like that – like the Captain Beefheart album Safe As Milk (1967) has this one song called I’m Glad which is this mellow, beautiful love song right in the middle of the record, but then it’s followed by the most crazy psychedelic song Electricity. So I think giving people a break in the middle of the album is good.”

The pair’s teenage love of rap and hip hop also manifests on a couple of the new tracks, another change-up which slots seamlessly into the album’s cruisy flow.

“While we were in LA we’d just be driving around listening to a lot of this mid-‘90s underground Memphis rap that doesn’t really exist on Spotify, it’s all on YouTube playlists,” Carney remembers. “There’s this one guy called Lil Noid and he had an album that came out in 1994 on cassette called Paranoid Funk – it’s a famous underground classic. We were listening to it so much that I was, like, ‘We’ve got to try and do a song with Lil Noid’.

“We had a song called Candy And Her Friends which was just two minutes long and didn’t really feel like it was finished, so we got into Dan’s studio and played around with making a transition into Memphis grime, then we reached out to Lil Noid and asked if he wanted to be part if it. He’s still living in Memphis and he’s 50-something now, but he drove to Nashville – it’s just a couple of hours drive – and within an hour of being in the studio he had his verses written, it just worked.

“Then we thought it might be a bit too gimmicky to do it just one time so we decided to do it twice, because that music was part of the inspiration for the album. So we were trying to figure out which rapper to call – it had to be a Memphis guy – and we were trying to get this guy Tommy Wright III, but in classic rapper style he was impossible to pin down.

“My boy Dante Ross got us connected with Juicy J from the Three 6 Mafia and he did an amazing job on the track Paper Crown. And the crazy thing is that Juicy J was the one who discovered Little Noid in the first place.”

On The Road

Amongst all of the musical change-ups the overt strengths of The Black Keys still shine through, such as Carney’s propulsive drumming on the rollicking Please Me (Till I’m Satisfied). “That’s a first take,” he smiles. “We had the tape going and we were just fucking around and jamming on an idea, and then we went back and cut it down and saved the two minutes where I didn’t fuck up.

“But we actually started playing these songs live for the first time the other day and I realised that it was the first time since Brothers where we’ve made a record where all of the tempos aren’t like I was trying to play faster, I was just keeping it right in the threshold of where I like to play. They’re all really fun to play. We’re just trying to figure out a way to tour just enough where we don’t lose money and we don’t lose our families.”

Excitingly for The Black Keys’ many Aussie fans, it seems like the touring cycle for Ohio Players is scheduled to find them returning Down Under for the first time in over a decade. “We kept it pretty tame by our standards,” Carney offers of the tour schedule. “When we used to put records out like El Camino and Turn Blue and Brothers – those three albums in particular – the minute they came out we just went to work non-stop for a year. We’re trying to get a bit more balance this time, so hopefully it won’t be so hectic.

“We’re going to go to Europe in early-May and then we’re going to take most of the summer off before doing a US tour in the fall. And I think we’ll hopefully get to Australia around New Years or maybe March/April of next year.”

Carney admits that it’s been a long time between drinks for the perviously regular visitors. “I know, there was a minute there when we were coming twice a year, but we haven[’t been back since the fall of 2012 – we need to get back,” he states emphatically. “It was the first place where we could go and play to a thousand people, you guys adopted us really early.

“I honestly can’t even tell you why we haven’t been back, I don’t really know. We were supposed to come down in 2015 and then I broke my bloody shoulder bodysurfing and we had to cancel, and I think we were supposed to come back in 2020 but the pandemic interfered. It’s time.”

Ohio Players is out April 5 via Easy Eye Sound and Nonesuch Records.