“I wouldn’t trust me – why do you?!” guffaws Dan Auerbach, his loud and throaty cackle ringing down the line from his Nashville home. The Black Keys frontman once said the band’s best albums were made when they’d “had a lot of time off”, and we’ve just asked how that theory sits alongside the fact that new album ‘Delta Kream’ was recorded almost directly off the back of 2019’s ‘Let’s Rock’. Fair play to him for changing his mind.
As his cackle fades away, Auerbach fills in the gaps, explaining that the new album wasn’t actually meant to be an album at all. It was the end of 2019 and the duo had just finished touring their ninth record. Auerbach – who has spent the past decade or so building up an impressive side hustle as one of the most in-demand rock producers around – was in the studio working with blues singer Robert Finley. To back up Finley, he’d called in Mississippi musicians Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton, a pair who’d previously played with blues greats R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. After the 60-something Finley clocked off for the day, a spontaneous jam session started.
“I was just having such a good time making music with those guys that I called Pat [Carney, Black Keys drummer] up to see what he was doing,” explains Auerbach. “He cleared up his day and came over the next afternoon.” Over the course of 10 hours the four musicians set about covering songs by Burnside, Kimbrough and other pioneers of the rough-and-ragged hill country blues sound that had formed the bedrock of The Black Keys’ sonic manifesto when they formed in Akron, Ohio back in 2001. “We were doing all these songs from memory,” adds Auerbach of the intense session. “We just recorded this stuff for fun. We never even thought about it as being an album.”
And that was that – until the world near twisted off its axis in March 2020 and COVID-19 saw industry after industry shutting down for an unforeseeable period of time. As we know only too well, music was one of them. So was lockdown a factor in seeing these off-the-cuff sessions turned into the 10th Black Keys album? “Possibly,” ruminates Auerbach. “We definitely at one point a few months later went back to take a listen. ‘You know, maybe we should have Tchad Blake mix this and see what it sounds like…’ And then it just kind of steamrolled from there”.
With loose plans for the covers bubbling away, Auerbach hunkered down in his Easy Eye Sound studio for most of 2020, working on new projects with everyone from British country soul singer Yola to retro garage rockers Shannon and the Clams. Music became not just his career, but his lifeline. “At the end of this year I just feel very fortunate that I get to do this for a living – make music – because it completely kept me sane and healthy during lockdown,” admits Auerbach. “Having the extra time to be with my family was really nice, too. This is the longest I’ve ever slept in my own bed uninterrupted in my adult life!”
Auerbach and Carney also used the time to take a break from the day-to-day goings on of the Black Keys. Rather than bubbling up, the pair – who live just a 20 minute drive apart – saw relatively little of each other. But that doesn’t mean there was bad blood. Quite the opposite. “We didn’t really see each other too much,” says Auerbach. “But I think, oddly enough, we’ve become closer. This time has really helped us both appreciate what we have and the life that we’re able to live.” After such a lengthy enforced break, the pair are now gagging to get back out on the road. “I can’t wait to see the gang and get the band back together,” says Auerbach with an audible grin.
‘Delta Kream’ is a rugged, endlessly pleasing record that locks into a sweet and timeless groove. It’s the sound of a pair of grown men having fun after two full decades of being a band – a lifetime in rock’n’roll. Did they ever think they’d make it this far? “It really blows my mind, it really truly does,” says Auerbach. “It’s insane. I don’t know anybody else as long as I’ve known Pat, except for my family. And to have support from fans at this point in time feels crazy. It makes the bond stronger and it makes us want to continue.”
It was on the 2002’s ‘The Big Come Up’ that the Black Keys first publicly expressed their love of the artists they pay tribute to on ‘Delta Kream’, with scrappy, vibrant versions of R. L. Burnside’s ‘Busted’ and Junior Kimbrough’s ‘Do The Romp’ opening up their debut album. Kimbrough passed away a few years before but Burnside was still gigging, supporting the likes of the Beastie Boys and playing his last-ever show at Bonnaroo festival in 2005.
“The hill country blues Renaissance in the early 2000s felt like such a revelation” – Dan Auerbach
“In the early 2000s it just felt like such a revelation, because I love old blues records and old rock’n’roll, but it was always just [on] vinyl,” explains Auerbach. “I could never go to a club and see it and then all of a sudden I’m going to see R. L. Burnside, Paul Jones, T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, Robert Cage – all these incredible juke joint, super-raw hill country musicians. We lived through this hill country blues Renaissance in the early 2000s and it kind of went under the radar for some people, but for me it was every bit as important as the one that happened in the ‘60s when they rediscovered Son House and Skip James.”
It was in Cleveland, Ohio that Auerbach first saw Burnside live. To say he lost his mind would be an understatement. “Still to this day it was one of the best rock’n’roll shows I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It was totally sold-out, packed wall-to-wall, completely sweaty and they were just a shit-hot band. R. L. just had all the charisma in the world. As soon as he stepped on the stage, the audience was in the palm of his hand.”
‘Delta Kream’’s artwork is the perfect match for such a classic sound, taking its imagery as well as its name from an early 1970s William Eggleston shot of a muscle car at a Mississippi gas station. “Initially, everybody thought it was gonna be way too expensive,” says Auerbach of their plans to use an image by one of the 20th century’s photography greats. “But we reached out to them and we told them that the project was honouring these musicians from northern Mississippi, a place that Eggleston loved. So they let us use the photo for free.”
A tribute to the artists that made the Black Keys who they are is all well and good, but diehard fans might be wondering if and when the band will be cranking out some new material rather than a covers album. So, are the duo writing any new Black Keys songs right now? “No – we haven’t been planning anything,” says Auerbach abruptly. But don’t assume that means we won’t be hearing anything new from them soon. “Maybe that’s how we’re gonna make the next record – just kind of stumble on it, like we did with this one…”