Talk about a lucky break.
We’re not saying it’s a good thing that Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney had his shoulder dislocated by a rogue wave while holidaying in the Caribbean this January. Still, if there is a silver lining to be found, it’s that the forced hiatus that followed the accident has allowed Dan Auerbach to focus on his long-running side-project The Arcs, and sign off the stockpile of eclectic material they’d accumulated as debut album Yours, Dreamily. “We’ve been playing together for years,” says Auerbach of his loose gang of compadres. “We had, like, 75 songs just sitting there. And it was like, ‘We’ve got to put this out…’”
How much of a fun project is The Arcs, and how much of an escape from The Black Keys?
“I mean, it’s all of that. But, like, good music is always an escape – for me, anyway. When I’m enjoying it, it’s like there’s nothing better. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than in the studio creating. And these guys are some of my favourite people in the world. Not even just musicians, they’re some of my best buds, y’know? Leon [Michels] and I, we go on family vacations together and stuff.”
What is it you can do with The Arcs that you can’t do with The Black Keys?
“I could record anything with the Keys. It’s not going to be the same thing though. So, I mean, it’s really all about these guys and their personalities and the way that Homer [Steinweiss] drums, the way that [Richard] Swift drums – y’know, those guys with Pat are, like, my three favourite drummers in the world. And only those guys can do those things that they do. They’re not, like, textbook drummers. They’re all self-taught. They play weird drum beats, and I love that about them so much.”
So why The Arcs? Obviously, there is a song by that name, but other than that?
“The song came first, then we had to search for a band name, and it’s the most ridiculous thing, looking for a band name. It’s ridiculous. But we just liked The Arcs. We liked how it sounded, we liked how simple it was, four letters. We liked what it meant. It seemed right for the project. You know, the thing is, some band names are great. Some band names, though, are terrible, but they become great because of the band – like The Beatles. That’s not a good band name, but The Beatles were a great band and they made the name bigger than what it was. So, when I found myself sitting around obsessing about band names, I realised, like, it really doesn’t matter so much. There are only so many great band names. All the other ones are just kind of okay, it’s just the band makes it good. So that helped me when I finally just went and picked The Arcs.”
So far, every article about Yours, Dreamily refers to it as a “weird, experimental thing”. How weird is this album to you, really?
“It’s not weird. It’s just what it is. I mean, it may be weird to somebody, but it’s not necessarily weird to me. I think the thing about it is that there were no rules, so we could pick and choose pieces, y’know: ‘We like the low end from this dub record and we’ll take that. And we also like the stringy guitar from this Travis Wammack song, we’ll take that. And then, like, the Dusty Springfield strings – we’ll take those and put them all together.’ I love being able to do that, and with these guys we can, y’know? It’s fun.”
The whole album is about interweaving songs, like in a jam, or on a trip or a dream. Hence Yours, Dreamily?
“There you go, [laughs] you just figured it out. Yeah, it’s supposed to flow like the scenes of a movie, maybe, like there’s a story. I wanted it to be interesting, like an interesting movie. Like, there’s a beginning and there’s an ending, and all these little twists and turns in between. That’s what I wanted to do, essentially. I wanted it to feel cohesive like a record, but I wanted it to go all over the place and take you on different little trips.”
**Did you have a specific movie in mind, though? **
“No, not really. We just sort of let it all unfold naturally. But we always kept that in mind. It had to be dreamy. We had to push ourselves a little bit to keep it dreamy.”
Including some eroticism or porn as well?
“Oh, yeah. Including some porn. Some fake porn.”
Come & Go sounds like 70s exploitation. That sort of thing?
“Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, Come & Go. Yeah, those are some old tapes that I had [laughs]. I like the idea of doing soundtracks or thinking about the record like it’s a soundtrack, because that’s how I want it to feel. I want it to feel like a good movie. I want you to visualise things, I want things to swim around in your head when you’re listening, and I want it to be really three-dimensional. You know what I mean? And I want twists and turns. I don’t want it to be so obvious, not on this record. I wanted there to be surprises.”
What’s the intro, Once We Begin, all about? It’s like an instruction for hypnosis or something…
“[Laughs] Yeah, it’s your palate cleanser before the album. It’s to get your attention and have you focus.”
Put A Flower In Your Pocket sounds like a hippie manifesto…
“I love that song so much, and I love how Swift drums on it. Y’know, there’s little moments on the record that were just so much fun to make. Like that song, Flower, it was late at night, we just started messing around on the instruments and then [snaps fingers] boom, it just happened. And we pressed record and we recorded it, and it was done. It’s so fun to be able to do that.”
Velvet Ditch was inspired by you taking a bike trip to Clarksdale, wasn’t it?
“Yeah, I rode from Nashville through Memphis, we stayed in Memphis, we took all backroads – and then we went down into Mississippi, and we went to Oxford and Clarksdale and then drove back. It reminded me of those trips that I used to take when I was a kid. At 17, 18, I started going down to Mississippi and Nashville and Memphis. I went with my dad the first time and we would go try to find musicians that I liked that I’d been listening to. Y’know, one of the trips, I went down with a buddy, we stayed in Greenville at T-Model Ford’s house and we hung out with him and I played music with him for a few days. Another trip, I went down and we saw Big Lucky Carter in Memphis and then we went over to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint and watched his kids and RL Burnside’s kids play. So riding my bike down there brought back those memories, and while I was down there I heard this expression called ‘a velvet ditch’.”
Which is the name for Mississippi, right?
“Which is Mississippi. Y’know, Oxford, Mississippi has always been a place where writers go and they coined the phrase. They started calling Mississippi ‘the velvet ditch’, because when you cross the border into Mississippi you start to notice everything is lined with kudzu: that plant that’s really soft and it lines it like carpet everywhere. And it’s soft and everyone talks real slow, things slow down, and before you know it you’ve been in Mississippi for, like, two years. You know what I mean? So, they started calling it the velvet ditch and I just loved that phrase. It made so much sense to me. Driving through cotton fields, miles of white cotton, thinking about how soft and serene it is and the rolling hills, and having the music run in my mind. It was inspiring.”
Well, maybe that’s why Jeff Buckley decided to move there in the mid-90s…
“Yeah, I mean, it’s endlessly inspiring for me, and that’s the thing: it reminded me of how inspired I was as a kid to play guitar, and when I would listen to those Junior Kimbrough records and just, like, looking at, holding the album, and looking at the cover, that great Bill Steber photograph and, like, just how that changed my life, y’know? So, yeah, Velvet Ditch is written from that perspective of myself when I was younger driving down into Mississippi and feeling that. Like, the beginning, the intro, is hectic and sharp. It’s the drive. And then once you cross the border – pfff! – everything goes soft. And so that’s what this song is. And the ending gets hectic again, that’s the trip home. That’s when you’re leaving Mississippi.”
Your father introduced you to the Grateful Dead as well, didn’t he?
“That’s the first show I ever went to see, the Grateful Dead at the Richfield Coliseum in Ohio with my dad. I just remember, I had no idea what was going on. Because, like, the audience was all dancing, the entire place. This was an arena, so 20,000 people just dancing the whole time. It seemed so weird. Everybody smelled weird. I was smelling marijuana, but I didn’t know what it was. People were passing out acid, and here’s my dad next to me dancing, y’know? And like, we heard some of the songs that he and I would listen to all the time. Yeah, I love a lot of the Grateful Dead.”
How much Asian food went into this album?
“[Laughs] A lot! We supported Chinatown throughout the making of this album. I mean, I’ve always loved soup. Y’know, Chinese food is probably the first solid food I had as a baby, pork fried rice. The thing about Vietnamese pho is, it’s good for you. It’s light and it’s homemade. And it’s everywhere, all over the States. Like, you can’t find good Chinese food anywhere, really, not in Middle America, but you can find great Vietnamese. It’s weird. And the thing about Vietnamese is the way that it’s made it has to be fresh. Like, Chinese food, they can cook the shit and it would sit all day, but Vietnamese, it has to be fresh. So when I’m on tour, it just makes me feel good, y’know? It’s good on my throat.”
You’ve got a female mariachi band on this album. Why?
“I wanted a mariachi band on Pistol Made Of Bones, and Leon knew someone who managed a mariachi band, and I said, ‘Great, we’re going to be at Electric Lady on this day. Have them come in.’ They showed up and it was an all-girl mariachi band [Mariachi Flor De Toloache] and they were fully dressed in mariachi clothing for the recording session, with the conchos. And they played and it was great, they got it and they were really sweet, and then I said, ‘Can you guys sing?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, we can sing.’ And I told them what I wanted them to sing and then I just pressed record, y’know? And they fucking nailed it. It was amazing. And they didn’t sound Spanish, they sounded like inner city New York teenagers, in the best way possible. If I’d dreamt what I wanted to have, that’s what I wanted, and they did it. So they ended up being on a few different songs, and they sing lead on Chains Of Love and they became a big part of the record.”
Guitar-wise, are you using anything different or new on this album?
“No. Whatever goes. I mean, I don’t think about that stuff any more, I really don’t. I don’t care. How comes? Well, it’s when I realised that it didn’t matter. I think I realised at a certain point, it really doesn’t matter. So, I’ll just take whatever I can. Whatever is available, I’ll use it. And then maybe it doesn’t do all the things that I want it to do, but then that becomes the style of the song. And it helps to shape the sound.”
Like the instrument dictates the song?
“Absolutely. So, there are songs that I only play direct, there’s no guitar amp, and it creates a sound. But I played a lot of bass on the record. It is all different kind of stuff, really, because they were all recorded in different places, too.”
If it hadn’t been for Pat’s shoulder, would you already be working on new Black Keys stuff?
“We would still be touring, yeah. It’d just be like… it’s crazy. [Chuckles] It took a broken shoulder to get us to stop.”
So the Keys is like a monster you created?
“Yeah, absolutely. But that’s the thing about being a musician, you don’t have any back-up plan. You work and you work and you work, and it can be taken away from you at any time. Really, I mean, people are fickle, tastes change. One day you’re up here, the next day you’re down here, and you have nowhere to go. So with that in mind, we just always kept working and working and working, ever since we started. We were just, like, hit the road and go, be in the studio every day. I think part of it has to do with coming from Ohio. Being from Akron, where you have to do things for yourself in order to get anything done. There was no music scene, there’s no clubs, there’s no record labels, there’s no anything.”
You got divorced in 2013. The year must have been hell for you?
“It was… it was trying. Yeah, it sucked. It absolutely sucked. Everything about it sucked. Yeah. It was very difficult, because I was a full-time dad and trying to make a living on the road somehow. It was weird. And trying to make a record, too, at the same time. It was really difficult.”
It’s that transitional thing, isn’t it? From struggling musician to making lots of money overnight. People don’t know how to deal with that…
“I mean, yeah, I know those people. I don’t want to become one of them.”
So how big is your bike collection by now?
“I’ve got a few. It’s all older Harleys, 30s and 40s. It’s the knucklehead, ’36 to ’47. That’s when they had the knucklehead: it’s the specific engine. And it’s a body style. They’re called the big twin. It was the first Harley that you could really go 65mph all day on. And they’re really comfortable. They’re great bikes.”
You’re also a boxing fanatic. Who’s your ultimate fighter?
“Finito Lopez. He’s the best, the best ever. I mean, he’s probably the greatest, the most pure boxer ever, and I think he went like, 90 and 0. He never lost.”
What makes a ‘pure’ boxer?
“Form. The way that he boxes. When you’re as defensive as you are offensive. Some people are brutes and just push forward and hit and hit and hit and get hit constantly. Floyd Mayweather’s a defensive boxer. Finito Lopez was a pure boxer cos he could hit just as well as he could not get hit. His game was perfect.”
How often do you box yourself?
“When I’m at home, every other day. No public appearances, not yet.”
What did you think of the Manny Pacquiao versus Floyd Mayweather fight?
“Honestly, I think they did a disservice to boxing that fight. I think it probably hurt boxing because it was supposed to be the biggest fight, the most exciting fight. It made the most money of any sporting event ever, I think, or something ridiculous – and it was awful. And then everyone was bored to death. I mean, can you imagine if you’re not really a fan, like a casual fan, and somebody says: ‘This is the biggest fight ever’ and you watch it and you’re falling asleep? It’s weird.”
Mike Tyson announced your last album on Twitter. If he should ever return to the ring, would you take him on?
“Yeah, I could take him, easy [laughs].”
We’ve heard you had some bad tours of Germany in the early days. What went wrong?
“Everything went wrong. Everything went wrong on certain tours. Some of the most miserable touring we did was in Germany, in the winter, in a Sprinter van. Autobahn’s backed up, there’s accidents for miles, we have to drive for 12 hours and it’s just gridlock. Cold air is seeping in through the cracks in the door, it’s just miserable, man [laughs]. That was a few years before Brothers. We didn’t lose money, but we didn’t make any money. And it was miserable. Yeah, by the end of the tour we were just, ‘Fuck. Oh my God. Get us home.’”
There are artists who’ve been touring the US constantly, building up an audience over there. Then they come over to Europe and it’s all different…
“I remember we did a tour a long time ago with that band The Datsuns. You remember The Datsuns from New Zealand? They were huge over here [Europe]. They were on the cover of NME. They’re, like, headlining Glastonbury. [Chuckles] And then they went to the States and did a tour, and they were still doing all the big stage moves, but in the little clubs, and nobody knew who they were. It was really funny. It was funny to watch that. It was like if U2 all of a sudden played in some place where nobody knew who they were, but they’re acting like U2 on stage, running around with headset mics and shit. It was funny.”
How do you feel about digital music? We’ve seen that giant record collection of yours.
“I buy records on iTunes every day. I don’t care. Just like with my guitars: I don’t fucking care. If it sounds good, if the music’s good, I’ll buy it. Whatever format you got, give it to me, y’know? I just want the music. And I understand that kids nowadays, they don’t buy CDs. They don’t read liner notes. Liner notes don’t even exist for most kids. So that’s hard for some people to understand.”
So you’re not a traditionalist or an elitist, but you’re open to anything, really?
“Absolutely. I would hate to just be retro. I love old music, y’know? I’m influenced by it, daily, but I don’t want to recreate it. I want to make new music. And I want to make new sounds. And I don’t want to just use the same guitar and amp that Bo Diddley played and then record it the exact same way. I love all that music and I want to be inspired by it, but when I get in the studio it’s, like, yeah, anything goes and we’ll use whatever format. With The Arcs’ stuff, we jumped back and forth from tape to cassette tape to digital MP3. We recorded stuff on our phone and put it in the computer. It didn’t matter. Whatever works.”
The Arcs’ debut album Yours, Dreamily (opens in new tab) is out now.