A classic motorcycle enthusiast, habitual wearer of artfully broken-in leather jackets and with a face that hints at Ryan Gosling after a big night on the dirty Martinis, Dan Auerbach is an unreconstructed rock’n’roller in the vintage mould
While his Black Keys bandmate Patrick Carney seems most content when Bieber-baiting on social media, Dan shies away from Twitter – he doesn’t have a personal account – and is miles removed from the easily accessible pop star who’s constantly having to drag their foot out of their own mouth. This has long been his modus operandi; keeping schtum and looking cool. Even when Jack White lambasted him in 2013, accusing him of copycatism in a series of leaked emails to his ex-wife Karen Elson, Dan never publically retaliated.
In a world where every word can be twisted, shrewd stars keep their thoughts to themselves, which includes keeping well clear of social media. “I don’t like any of that stuff,” this last of his dying breed says when we meet him in a fittingly old school hotel in Covent Garden, London. “There are too many weirdoes in the world…”
NME meets Dan solo, ahead of the release of ‘Yours, Dreamily,’ – out on September 4 – his first album with new, gritty soul side project The Arcs. In The Black Keys he gets to play the mysterious, silent type; Pat’s the mouth, Dan’s the sensible one. Yet it transpires that Dan’s got just as much to say, albeit in a gentlemanly and often guarded way. Today, he starts with a damning look at the current state of music industry. “The business is totally dwindling on all fronts, not just live music venues,” he sighs, when we ask how he feels about the closure of iconic music venues worldwide. “I mean, it’s the same shit with musicians – they’re not getting paid for music.” What does he think is the answer? “I don’t know if there is anything to really be done about it any more,” he shrugs. “The entire music business has been pillaged.”
One half of the most successful bands in the world, even Dan doesn’t feel entirely secure or even happy with his lot, which includes a shelf bulging under the weight of Grammys, platinum albums and a string of high-end production gigs, from Lana Del Rey to voodoo blues legend Dr John. “I feel fantastically lucky and fantastically heartbroken at the same time,” he explains. “Working towards something your entire life only to see the entire thing that you worked for kind of crumbling around you is a total bummer.”
While other mainstream artists have been aligning themselves with various streaming services, such as Tidal and Spotify, The Black Keys have kept conspicuously quiet. The closest Dan will get to pledging allegiance is to Zane Lowe, who earlier this year jumped ship from BBC Radio 1 to Apple Music. “All I know is people,” states Dan. “I know Zane Lowe, and he’s been a music lover and a good guy for a long time to me and to my band. When I went to LA, I had him hop in my car and we drove up and down Sunset listening to The Arcs record and it was a fun thing to be able to do. His format? I don’t know – it’s totally untested. He certainly believes in it and that’s good to see.”
Though he’s a huge hip hop champion – in 2009 The Black Keys teamed up with a host of guest rappers, including Mos Def, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and Raekwon, as well as Pharoahe Monch and Ludacris, to release the ‘Blacroc’ album – its Dan’s wariness of big business that’s also keeping him away from watching the new NWA biopic, Straight Outta Compton. “I’m a huge NWA fan – that’s kinda why I don’t wanna see it,” he says, before laying into the promotional pandemonium which went along with the film’s launch. “I don’t like the marketing. I don’t like seeing all the ‘Straight Outta Everything’ like ‘We Are The World’ bullshit. It’s Straight Outta Compton, not Straight Outta fucking… Copenhagen,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t like those marketing campaigns. They dilute what was really so fucking ass-kicking to begin with. It’s a turn-off for me, personally. I don’t like that Dre released an album, like, it just so happened, ‘Oh, he’s finally ready with the record!’” Bit of a coincidence… “The only thing that’s not a coincidence is that the dude who did that is, like, a billionaire!”
Where The Black Keys plough the Mississippi Delta and 1930s blues for inspiration, The Arcs see Dan taking pointers from Mexican American culture and Southern Californian Chicano style; lowrider cars, old school soul and John Waters-worthy Cry-Baby camp. New York’s all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache feature throughout the album and joined the band when they recently played their first public show in Boyle Heights, a traditionally Mexican area of Los Angeles. Dan’s interest in the culture was piqued by working with artist Omar Juarez, who has designed the sleeves for The Arcs’ single and album releases, as well as directing the animated video for ‘Put A Flower In Your Pocket’. “I went to LA and we started hanging out. It was more about my relationship with him, but then it kind of became something bigger,” explains Nashville-based Dan of his friendship with Omar.
As an important part of The Arcs’ make-up, it seems fitting to ask Dan for his thoughts on presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s recent, grotesque comments about Mexican immigrants into the US (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”) “A lot of Europeans don’t understand the racism in America,” explains Dan, widening the discussion to the current Black Lives Matter movement, a reaction to recent police shootings of unarmed black men. “It’s so deep-seated and so entrenched that it can be a little overwhelming sometimes for certain people that live in America. These cellphones are capturing horrifying images on a daily basis that have been going on forever in America.”
How does Dan feel about the fact that a man like Trump could be in charge of the country? “I’m not sure that anybody is in charge of the country,” he comments, diplomatically. “Even the people that get voted in, they can’t really do anything: it’s just gridlock. It’s like rush hour in the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City, that’s what our government is like. No-one can change it – unless there’s a giant grassroots movement and a huge change, nothing will ever change. It doesn’t matter if there’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House.”
However, Dan’s mistrust of politics hasn’t stopped him and Patrick making musical plans with Barack Obama. In July, the current President tweeted about listening to The Black Keys’ single ‘Lonely Boy’, leading them to cheekily ask if they could borrow Air Force One for their tour. Obama then asked if they’d play the White House in return. It turns out this wasn’t just casual online flirting. An official email followed up the tweets with a rather more official request. “We were like ‘Wait, don’t respond!’” jokes Dan. “Three days. You gotta to wait three days.” So will a White House gig definitely happen? “We’re working on some stuff now, we’ll see…”
If they do end up playing the president’s gaff, it’ll be one of The Black Keys’ smaller shows of late. The duo have only just finished up their world tour for last year’s ‘Turn Blue’ album, which has seen them selling out arenas and headlining huge festivals for the past year or so – with a few months off after Patrick dislocated his shoulder surfing. Is part of the reason behind The Arcs due to Dan wanting to return to the smaller stages from when The Black Keys first started out? “No!” Dan says with a smirk. “We played a ton of sweaty little clubs that sucked! And the audience sucked! I mean, everybody is nostalgic about the past, but it has less to do with reality and more to do with youth. Usually those things that you thought were so fucking amazing, were just kinda average, but you were young and it was sweaty and… you had abdominal muscles.”
That said, the first Arcs gig was one of the tiniest shows he’s played in quite some time and, he says, one of the best (he calls it “pure magic”). Taking place in a small art gallery in east LA, it was only announced the morning of the show. Almost immediately, kids were lining up down the street and around the block, even though there was only room for 60 heads inside. In the crowd was a glamorous beehived woman called Rosie. A chic, purple-haired, gun-toting version of Rosie features on the single artwork for ‘Outta My Mind’. “She’s just beautiful, like this crazy Latina girl, totally into that old school teen-angel flavour and she was standing front row,” beams Dan. “It was like: ‘The Arcs, this pipe dream, is a reality. Even our artwork has come to life! The band is now real and the art is real and we’re rocking in east LA’ It was insane.” Though the disintegration of the music industry as he knows it is evidently a real worry for Dan Auerbach, for the time being at least, he’s found solace in The Arcs.