After years of hard work and tenacity, the Ohio native has seemingly reached the top of the industry in two different capacities, each occupying their own singular space in the music world. In one capacity, Auerbach is one half of The Black Keys, one of the biggest rock bands around today that still has plenty to offer their fans as they modernize retro sounds many deemed “uncommercial” for years and years. The other capacity has Auerbach assuming the role of a highly respected and coveted producer, one lauded for his intense commitment and perceptive ear that’s paid off handsomely for any artist that’s called on his services. It’s impressive that Auerbach has been able to reach success in these two roles almost simultaneously, but what’s even more striking is how Auerbach still seeks out success in other capacities, such as his latest project — garage rock group The Arcs.
At this stage of his career, most would expect Auerbach to begin to rest on his laurels. Still put out work here and there, but mostly coast on the sound foundation he’s built over the years as both in front of the mic and behind the scenes. Clearly Auerbach has other plans. Last summer, news of The Arcs’ formation hit and only a few months later, the band’s released their first album: Yours, Dreamily. For fans of Auerbach, it wasn’t a glaring deviation for his earlier music, but with so many more members in the group guiding the sound, it quickly becomes clear that this was not The Black Keys approach to making music. Their music was well received, with lead single “Outta My Mind” being singled out as classic garage rock, and as the band made plans to tour the country, it became clear that Auerbach had another success on his hands. Yet as any successful musician stating a new project would know, this success was never guaranteed.
“You never really know what’s going to happen,” Auerbach explains. “Just because you have success with one thing doesn’t necessarily mean that translates into another thing. It really doesn’t, especially when you’ve gotten as big as The Black Keys have gotten.” The Black Keys surely get The Arcs to the front of the steps, but nothing The Black Keys can or will ever do could stop The Arcs from tripping and tumbling down as they begin to climb. Finding success meant having quality music, something Auerbach was never worried about. “Everyone in the group has been making a living as musicians since we were 18 or 19,” he states. “Me, [Richard] Swift, Leon [Michels], Homer [Steinweiss], Nick [Movshon]. So we’ve all been at it for the same amount of time and we’ve all been friends for so long and have been making music for so long. That’s the most exciting part. All this music that we were making and just not sharing. We were finally able to do just that — share it with people.”
Though The Arcs are a side project in concept, Auerbach was quick to point that he gives the band the same focus and dedication he would give anything, Black Keys included. “That’s my dedication level to everything,” he remarks. “When I’m working on something, I’m 110% focused on it, especially when it’s a chance to learn from guys like this.” That focus extends beyond the studio too as the band gears up for touring, though Auerbach admits it’s nearly on the same level as his road journeys with The Black Keys. “It’s on the leisurely side,” he laughs. “We have two weeks coming up and it’s great. We get to play really nice, smaller venues and it’s just really fun to play live. That’s the cool thing too. We’re all pretty laid back about it and we all work so well together. It makes it easy for us to put together albums quickly, but it also makes things like this much easier even though we’ve never done it. For so many years, we’ve been playing in the studio, but that’s not really the same as playing live. That’s a different experience. To be friends with these guys and to have played music with them for so long and to now get to experience a new musical thing with them — that’s pretty cool.”
Naturally, people are going to make the comparisons between The Arcs and The Black Keys, maybe even dismissing this new venture before ever giving it a chance. Auerbach concedes that The Arcs are “certainly going to sound similar,” but with so many different voices in the band and a completely different musical connection, it’s almost impossible for it to be a copycat of The Black Keys sound. “I play guitar and sing in all the songs in The Black Keys so it’s going to be there,” he suggests. “It’s not like I’m changing my delivery to be intentionally different. I don’t really feel the need to do that. I think what I rely on more is for the voices of these guys in the group to speak a little bit louder. That’s how it feels to me because every time I’m in the studio with them, it’s just such a collaboration and those guys are just capable of doing so many things I can’t’ do or Pat can’t do. They have certain things that they’re great at. It’s just a lot of fun to watch that happen in real time.”
It’s not just about watching for Auerbach however; even though he’s a veteran and as respected as they come, many of these sessions turn into class sessions with Auerbach excitedly learning some new aspect of music and recording. “That’s why I do all these albums,” he says. “Yeah, I love making music, but also every time I make a record with someone, I learn something new here and there. I know we’re talking about The Arcs and that record, but I’ve recorded 15 since then. I was just in the studio all week long and the week before that too. I’m just constantly in there working and making music, trying something new and trying to learn something to either improve my ability or surprise me.”
For Auerbach, this current tour with The Arcs gives him a chance to get out of the studio and experience the other side of music for a change, a chance to very things up in order to stay fresh and energized something he says is not unique to the music industry. “It’s the same in any profession,” he theorizes. “You’ve seen the movie Office Space. You don’t want to end up taking the same route to the same cubicle job every day. The more you vary it, the happier you’ll be and the better you’ll be at your job. If I would stay at home, I would just got back in the studio so I think it’s good to hit the road and take a breather. I’ve been hitting it pretty hard in the studio lately too.”
At this stage of his career, there are not many “new” ways for Auerbach to mix it up other than going out on tour. Earlier this year though, working with The Arcs did allow him to take experience something Auerbach confesses he’s shied away from in the past. At the beginning of the year, the band released “Lake Superior,” a politically charged song inspired by the events of the Netflix documentary series Making A Murderer. “We all just happened to be in the studio at the same time together,” he explains. “It just came out because it was all on our minds.” For Auerbach, it was a cathartic and exciting process to go through for the first time, but even though there are many more events and news stories that pulls at his heart, he seems to have closed the door on that aspect of songwriting. “All this stuff going on in Dallas and Baton Rouge is definitely on my mind,” he says, “but being political has always been a real turn-off for me, because I think you start to lose sight of the music. It becomes too political. I like the music too much I guess. That stuff is important to talk about, but it doesn’t have a real place in my music.”
Even though Auerbach might shy away from sharing his politics, that doesn’t mean that he’ll stay silent on issues and situations that bother him as a musician or a person. This was exactly the case this past April when Auerbach and his Black Keys bandmate Patrick Carney felt slighted by Steve Miller after the duo inducted him into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Miller himself made headlines by attacking the industry and Hall Of Fame committee at the event, but what was surprising to Auerbach was how little respect he gave the duo for coming out, something that speaks far past his music which Auerbach has always been a fan of. “That had nothing to do with music,” he retorts. “It was just kind of a normal human kindness thing. Being treated the way we were treated. I think it would hurt anyone’s feelings.”
What should have been a highlight for Auerbach’s career — inducting a musical idol into the Hall Of Fame — quickly became an oversized blemish that he admits does deter him from agreeing to similar opportunities in the future. But that doesn’t mean Auerbach is letting it change his outlook. Though things bother him like everyone else, Auerbach tries to take in stride so as not to become bitter and jaded. Even more, he’s not going to overcompensate in light of this experience and suddenly become the nicest guy around. “That’s not me,” he reasons. “I don’t try to go out of my way to be overly nice because I really don’t find that to be genuine either. I just try to be real with people and that’s all I ever ask for. I don’t want to be overly nice or overly hidden. I just want to be real with people, that’s it. I don’t need my ass kissed and no one else should too.”
To Auerbach, it’s his dedication and work ethic that’s genuine about him, something that can always be counted on no matter the circumstance or environment. “I’ve always been a hard worker,” he states. “I wake up early every day. I start working on songs at 9 AM every day. I’ll take Sundays off, but I like to work like I’m at a job. I just stay at it. I don’t know what it is or why I do it. I just always have. I guess it’s just part of my DNA, both hard-working and music that is.” This omission begins to shed light on his prolific output, one that’s constantly migrating across the musical spectrum leaving Auerbach as a man incapable of definition at times. Ask him though and that might just be what he’s looking for.
“I’m not defined by The Black Keys, I’m not defined by The Arcs, and I’m not defined by who I work with. They are just part of who I am as a musician, something I’m blessed to be. I just want to make good music that seems timeless, but because it’s impossible to define what that is, that’s why the search continues and that’s why I can’t be defined.”
The Arcs with Dan Auerbach at the helm play The National this Tuesday night in Richmond. Tickets are $28 in advance and $33 the day of the show with the doors opening at 7 PM. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, click here.