Dan Auerbach says all the hubub about how “different” the Black Keys’ new album is tends to be a bit overstated.
“We’ve always had (other) instrumentation on our records,” notes singerguitarist Auerbach, 28, who along with drummer Patrick Carney. comprises the duo from Akron, Ohio. “We had Moog synthesizer on our first record. Our last EP had organ. We’ve had bass on pretty much every album we’ve made.
“So it’s not that crazy that we’re playing other instruments on our records. We just got better at it, and it shows on this record.” That said, the duo’s “Attack & Release,” which came out April 1, is in many ways significantly different from its four predecessors.
It finds the usually self-contained Keys working with a major outside producer — Danger Mouse (ne Brian Burton), known as half of Gnarls Barkley and producer of the last Gorillaz album. “Attack & Release” is also the group’s first recording in a “real” studio, Suma Studio near Cleveland, and playing a wider variety of instruments than before, including banjo.
The Keys also brought in a couple of guests, guitarist Marc Ribot and Carney’s uncle, multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney, whose flute can be heard on several tracks.
The result on “Attack & Release” is the most diverse and sophisticated album the Keys have made, maintaining the duo’s blues and rock roots, but adding new sonic dimensions and dynamics — which Auerbach says was the goal even before joining forces with Danger Mouse.
“We really wanted to branch out more so than we had before,” he explains, “and that was even more reason to have (Danger Mouse) come on board. We really wanted to use lots of instrumentation, so when we went in the studio, Pat and I just brought all the instruments we had — glockenspiels and organs and Fender Sixes (a baritone guitar and basses and all kinds of stuff).
“But that was the only idea that we had ahead of time. Other than that, it was just no rules. We just wanted to get into the studio and build from the ground up.”
The Keys’ association with Danger Mouse actually comes from another project. He recruited the group to write songs for an Ike Turner album, and the Keys responded by coming up with several songs and sending them to the West Coast, where Turner and Danger Mouse were working.
But at a certain point, Auerbach says, the Turner project grew “tedious” and he and Carney felt the pull to follow up 2006’s “Magic Potion,” their first for a major label (Nonesuch).
“After two and a half months of working on (the Turner album), we said ‘We need to record our own thing. We’ll get back to the Ike project when we get done,’” Auerbach recalls. Turner, sadly, died on Dec. 12, but the association with Danger Mouse led to a connection for “Attack & Release.”
“He expressed interest,” Auerbach says. “He said, ‘If you guys asked me to produce it, I’d do it.’ We said, ‘Well...’ I talked to Pat. We felt like we’d worked with him on this Ike thing and got to know him musically and how he works and stuff like that. He was really easy to get along with, really nice, had a lot of the same ideas about music, a lot of the same interests.
“We had nothing to lose, so we gave it a shot and it worked out great. It was just a really organic process all-around. Everyone had equal say. Brian was just like another musician hanging out. We were all really comfortable, so it was just a really good experience.”
Mixing older songs that had been road-tested with fresh material — some of which was created right in the studio — the Keys made “Attack & Release” in just 11 days. The speed was impressive because Auerbach and Carney had previously eschewed the formal studio world, preferring instead to record on their own.
“We had a lot of really (bad) experiences in studios before,” Auerbach notes. “We were pretty green and didn’t know how to communicate to a normal, everyday engineer what we wanted. Now we know all the terms and everything, whereas before it wasn’t possible to go in and create with them.”
The Keys are anxious to repeat the process, but they don’t now when that will be. The habitually hard-touring duo has shows booked into January, including the Rothbury Festival in western Michigan at the beginning of July, and Lollapalooza a month later in Chicago. Additionally, Auerbach has a full slate of production work, including bands such as the Buffalo Killers, Hacienda and the Black Diamond Heavies, as well as 18-year-old singer Jessica Lea Mayfield, who duets with him on “Attack & Release’s” closing track, “Things Ain’t Like What They Used to Be.”
Auerbach acknowledges he’s “really busy” — but says he likes it that way.
“I probably work more when I’m home than when I’m on the road,” he explains. “There’s way more down time on the road — that’s why it’s maddening, ‘cause I like to record so much. I like to be in the studio, working. When I’m on the road, there’s just so much time sitting around twiddling your thumbs. I just want to be working. I’m a freak, I guess.”
The Black Keys and Jay Reatard perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday (April 15th) at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St. Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 day of show. Call (248) 399-2980 or visit www.royaloakmusictheatre.com.
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