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The Black Keys get back to basics on ‘Let’s Rock’

The album marks their first since 2014’s “Turn Blue.” Both Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach took time out to start families.

The Black Keys — Dan Auerbach (left) and Patrick Carney — headline the United Center on Friday night.
The Black Keys — Dan Auerbach (left) and Patrick Carney — headline the United Center on Friday night.
Alysse Gafkjen

A drum machine bought at Chicago-based Reverb played an important role on The Black Keys’ latest album “Let’s Rock.” Drummer Patrick Carney, who purchased the instrument, said it completely shaped their song “Walk Across the Water,” and made it one of the most surprising songs to write.

“This weird drum machine. I bought it on this website, actually, based out of Chicago, called Reverb, which I’m obsessed with. It’s basically eBay for just musical instruments,” said Carney. “It’s a drum machine that has some synth pad sounds built in. It looked so insane.”

Carney later brought it to singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, and tried it out.

“We plugged it in and within 30 minutes we had basically the whole song written and recorded,” Carney said. “I think that one just sticks out because it is one that we basically sat down together with this drum machine and he would play the pedals and I would manipulate the sound. And we didn’t even speak. We just wrote this song pretty quickly.”

The album marks their first since 2014’s “Turn Blue.” Carney said the delay was due to both of them starting families.

“For me especially, having a baby last year, I just want to be around to see him grow up. And I think about the schedules that we had kept from 2010 through 2015 and it was insane,” he said.

“I think the reason why we hadn’t played music in five years was because we were nervous about what that looked like as far as the time commitment and both of us having little kids now, and knowing that the last two or three [albums] resulted in months and months of commitments to the road. That was something that was going to be harder to do.”

Carney feels they’ve finally figured out a good balance. While it means limiting where and how much they can tour, their schedule allows them to have “enough time to play shows for people and support the album and get back in front of our fans, but also put the emphasis of our life on our family more than on our work.”

Carney said he’s having fun playing music with Auerbach, “ultimately the thing that makes my life the happiest.” It’s that reason that propelled the two to get back in the studio after a lengthy period of not working together.

Dan Auerbach (left) and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys.
Dan Auerbach (left) and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys.
Alysse Gafkjen

“It’s just the two of us, with our engineers, and that process of just Dan and I being in the studio without an outside producer, just getting back into the idea of enjoying making music together,” he said. “And just letting whatever came out, come out.”

Many critics have called the album a return to the more straightforward blues rock of their earlier albums. But Carney describes it as a rock and roll record without keyboards and the sound of “Dan and I just having fun in the studio.”

The electric guitar is a focal point on the album. Carney went through a phase where he was playing guitar quite frequently.

“Right when we started this record, I was probably in there every day, for probably an hour a day, two hours a day,” he said. “So, by the time we started the record, Dan and I were just completely geeking out over guitars. It’s funny, because Dan said that he had been basically not playing electric guitar that often, prior to making it. Or either using more acoustic guitars or writing more songs.”

Between guitars and synthesizers, they found themselves operating in a back-to-basics manner, “back to the start, just drums, bass, and guitar, to what was kind of interesting us the most.”

The Stooges have been one of Carney’s biggest influences because of their mixture of aggressiveness and simplicity, and the album gave him a chance to mine that influence.

“To me, it’s just really exhilarating to think about what these guys did and also the fact that they basically went unappreciated for years, and certainly at the time of their existence,” he said. “A lot of the music that has inspired me through my life is stuff that was completely under-appreciated.”

The duo wrote primarily in the studio on a leisurely pace over the course of a few months. There was musical exploration as well as plenty of chances to goof off. Carney, who has known Auerbach since they were eight and nine years old, is thankful for the brotherly relationship they have.

“To know the guy to the point where I know what his baseball card collection looked like in 1989, it’s easy for us to be honest with each other,” said Carney. “So, it’s really easy to make music together, too, because we learned to play together. And being on stage with him is super comfortable, because we both trust each other.”

Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.