Black & Blue

At the height of their success, The Black Keys found a new way to hit bottom

Patrick Carney (left) and Dan Auerbach in Nashville in March
Danny Clinch
By Patrick Doyle
Jun 16, 2014

THIS MORNING, DAN AUERBACH dropped his six-year-old daughter off at school, and then went home for a boxing session with his cousin, who is staying above Auerbach’s garage. Now it’s a clear April afternoon, and he’s firing up the black BMW sedan outside his modest bungalow-style home near Nashville’s Music Row, heading to one of his favorite spots for Vietnamese Pho noodles, which he eats almost every day. Auerbach cruises past the auto repair shops, laundromats and porn shops of southeast Nashville, blasting some of his recent obsessions: snarly Sixties garage rockers The Groupies, early Van Morrison deep cuts and a Mexican singer named Rigo Tovar. “I Shazam’ed this at a taco truck the other day – Seventies Mexican music with electric guitars,” he says. “It blew my f***ing mind. What did they record that shit on?!” At one point, Auerbach is so focused on his iTunes library that he drifts into the wrong lane in front of a truck. “Don’t worry,” he says with a laugh. “I could find this place in my sleep.”

He pulls into a strip mall next to a dollar store. Tanned and wearing a ragged military jacket, he enters a beige, mostly empty restaurant with the Food Network playing on a hanging box TV. He immediately orders a Vietnamese filtered iced coffee; his daughter, Sadie, has been keeping him up more than usual lately. “She’ll wake me up at 1 a.m., 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.,” he says. “I get up, walk her back and get her in bed. I’m fine with that, but I’m really trying to get her to stay in her own bed.”

Auerbach is still adjusting to life as a single dad, which includes buying Sadie her first pair of Doc Martens for school and reading to her class. In August, he finalized his divorce from his wife, Stephanie Gonis, after four years of marriage – and it’s been brutal. According to court documents obtained by gossip sites, Auerbach claimed that Gonis attempted suicide in front of Sadie and set their house on fire. (In the same report, Gonis countered that the suicide attempt was a response to “years of abuse” from Auerbach, and the fire was an accident.) Gonis reportedly committed herself to a treatment facility and later received a $5 million divorce settlement; Auerbach now has temporary custody of his daughter. “It was the most difficult year of my life, for sure,” he says. “Sadie is the only thing that matters – just making her comfortable and stable.”

Auerbach mines the emotional wreckage of the relationship on Turn Blue, the Keys’ darkest album yet, recorded at the same time as the divorce proceedings and the group’s 130-date El Camino tour. He sounds like a man being pushed to the edge – wondering if his lover is afraid of hell on the slow-burn title track and describing his daughter having nightmares about her missing mother on “10 Lovers.” On the spacey “In Our Prime,” he sings, “The house, it burned but nothing there was mine/We had it all when we were in our prime.”

At one session, drummer Patrick Carney and producer Danger Mouse privately wondered whether Auerbach was fit to be working at all. “Dan was getting frustrated,” says Carney. “I had never seen him like that. He’s usually almost too prolific. I had never seen everything just stop.”

Carney went through a bitter divorce himself, in 2009. “I didn’t have a child, and mine was hard, so I can’t imagine,” he says, but he does see a connection between his and Auerbach’s marital problems: “We’re dudes from Ohio. We were raised to get a job, have a family. No one prepares you for what it’s like to want to hold on to those ideals and balance it with this job. For years, you don’t make anything and you’re treated like shit. And then it flips. No one can prepare you for that transition, and it causes real problems.”

EVERY DAY ON HIS WAY TO HIS STUDIO, Easy Eye Sound, Auerbach drives past RCA’s legendary Studio B, where Elvis Pres-ley and the Everly Brothers recorded; he also passes the former home of Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut, where Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Bob Dylan all made music.

“Those are [the sites of] the birth of rock & roll and country and some of the sonically best records ever made – I love it,” he says, sitting under an old Rascals gig poster in his studio’s lounge.

Easy Eye is an unlabeled gray building, nondescript except for a high-security razor-wire fence out back. The lounge also features two vintage motorcycles next to a wall of biker-gang jackets, a wraparound couch, stuffed animals, shelves of rock & roll books and several Grammys. Last year, Auerbach won the Producer of the Year Grammy for his work with The Black Keys, Hacienda and Dr. John. Auerbach recently wrote songs with his hero John Prine for a possible upcoming record. “It was unbelievable,” he says. “Everything he writes is funny and true, but not over anybody’s head.” Auerbach considers these projects his most fulfilling. “Playing to 50,000 people is cool, but when I have a relationship with my idols, like when RZA says my name, or John Prine says, ‘Hey, Dan!’ – that’s the greatest.

“Everything here is mic’d and ready to go,” he says, stepping onto the black-and-white checkerboard studio floor. The live room is loaded with giant xylophones, racks of cheapo Sixties guitars and keyboards. An old Muddy Waters Chess Rec-ords promotional shot sits in a corner. “All my favorite records – Jamaican records, early Owen Bradley stuff, Memphis records – were all done in small rooms. And I love that.”

He picks up his favorite guitar, a white Japanese Kent he bought near San Francisco for $100. “I bought a 1952 Les Paul Gold Top on the same day – the most expensive guitar I ever bought and the cheapest. I never play the Les Paul, but I always play this. And that’s pretty much our entire thing.” He points out a “big, dumb” expensive condenser mic under a cover he’s used only once; instead he uses $75 dynamic microphones. “Pat and I would read forums about recording all the time when we were starting, about how you needed the most expensive equipment – they were just morons who make terrible-sounding records.”

Auerbach beams while describing his practice of “controlled bleed”: strategically placing a mic on one instrument to record another. To demonstrate it, he heads to the control room to play his latest production: Lana Del Rey. He met the singer last year through a mutual friend in New York; she ended up recording her entire second album with Auerbach. “It was amazing,” he says. “She’s a true eccentric, you know, extremely talented. She has a definite vision of what she wants to be, both musically and visually. She looks at this whole thing as this big art project that she gets to do, which is great.”

Standing under a mounted water-buffalo head, he blares several ethereal, soulful ballads with sweeping hooks. “She’s singing live here in front of a seven-piece band with a handheld microphone!” Auerbach says, with his biggest grin of the day. “No overdubs, no edits – that’s all live!”

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East

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