Dan Auerbach was in his Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville producing an album for soul singer Robert Finley when he felt like calling his Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney. Guitarist Kenny Brown and bassist Eric Deaton, who performed with bluesmen RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough respectively, were together in the same room at Easy Eye and Auerbach couldn’t resist the opportunity to perform on songs from vintage blues that shaped the Black Keys along with the very men who played them. “It was too much. I had to call Pat and invite him,” says Auerbach. The unexpected result is Delta Kream, the 10th Black Keys studio album. “I wasn’t thinking of making a record… We just wanted to play some of these songs that we liked. That’s what this record is. It took us a day to do it. Most of the time, these are first or second takes. “
Delta Kream celebrates the Hill Country blues of northern Mississippi, especially songs by RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Why do these two players deserve a closer look?
They have played a crucial role in our careers, Pat and me. This is what brought us together. It was the concentric circle, where on the outside he and I liked totally different things, but in the middle it was Junior and RL. We could drive on the freeway all night and listen to them. It was just an endless inspiration for us. We loved how raw it was, we loved how simple it was. Sometimes it’s like the charm of [Sixties female rock band] the Shaggs sometimes sound like the Velvet Underground or the Grateful Dead. And it’s hypnotic.
The sessions took place a few weeks after the Black Keys’ Let’s Rock tour ended. Were you musically in tune with Pat after being on the road for a year?
Yes my boy. I feel like we’ve been on a pretty good wavelength recently. We haven’t talked about making this record. Absolutely no conversation. And then Pat walked into the room and we just hit each other. We have always had this connection. It’s part of who we are.
You never had the chance to see Kimbrough perform live, but you made a pilgrimage to his juke joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi. How old were you?
I am 18 years old. I went there with my father. It was then that his son Kenny told us that [Junior had] been ill and had like a leg amputated a few months earlier. We had no idea. But [Kenny] said, “My brother is in jail right now. If you lend us money for the deposit to take it out, we will refund you. And he plays all of daddy’s songs. And that was David Kimbrough. So I heard all of Junior’s songs and it was really amazing.
Did you put money for his deposit?
Yeah, it was like $ 24. They refunded us at the end of the evening.
You sing in a very high falsetto voice in “Going Down South”. Where is that from ?
Falsetto has always been a natural thing for me. I like to sing the falsetto. I loved the high harmony in bluegrass, that’s what I grew up listening to my family play. I love soul music when they were doing falsetto; Smokey Robinson is probably my favorite Motown artist. I think the first time I tried to do it on record was on Brothers with “Eternal Light”. It was so easy and fun. I have been doing it ever since.
Why did you revisit “Do the Romp” on Delta Kream, which the Black Keys first recorded as “Do the Rump” in 2002 The big meeting?
Because it’s just totally different. Besides the passage of time, which is totally huge, just having all these people here who are so nice to the sound. And someone like Kenny, being able to let this guy go wild. His solos are like when a pit bull jumps on you. Pat calls them eccentric and I guess I agree.
You’ve become a very in-demand producer, but you’ve said that some of the artists you work with don’t know who the Black Keys are. How does this anonymity help you in the studio?
I would prefer they knew as little as possible about me. I don’t even want them to think of me. I want them to think of themselves. We are trying to create someone’s story. It’s their future and it’s their past all in one, and it doesn’t matter which group I’m in. I’ll go over there and hit the wooden blocks on a song if that’s all it needs, or hit the tambourine on the choruses.
Yola and you reunited for her next album Stand for myself. How do you produce a voice as powerful as yours?
I think you want to surround them with a medium that is sympathetic to their sound and that includes that kind of power. And everyone in the room is like that and they get it. It’s like a magical thing that happens, and during that short time there is a very strong bond forming. There’s a lot going on there, but once everyone’s comfortable it’s like, let Yola be Yola. Just try to let it shine.
What did you want to do differently from his last album, Cross the fire?
We definitely talked about it, and we both said we wanted to make a more tempo record. We wanted to try to get into dance-y stuff. So my wheels started to spin and I basically put together a dream team that included soul, hard funk, and disco, and surrounded them with enough people who understood some changes of country, some changes of gospel. I felt like it was the right mix.
After Tina Turner’s documentary, everyone was talking about the fact that she had only had her great solo success in her mid-forties. Could that happen today with an artist like Robert Finley, who is 67 years old?
I think if that were to happen he would be a prime candidate. Because he’s a star, and when he walks into a room all eyes are on Robert. He lights up the world wherever he goes. I saw him receive three standing ovations in a row at the Ryman. He told me that when he played people would come and talk to them about their lives and then he [improvise] a song for them. He trained his brain to be able to work like this because he just cracked us up while we were recording. It was completely freestyle.
Delta Kream is to preserve the sounds of the past. Should we also be concerned about preserving our independent music rooms? Many are in danger of closing.
Yes. But it is also a difficult business. I’ve never really met a club owner who isn’t struggling in one way or another. It’s like the nose to the grindstone, from sunrise to sunset and longer. It’s hard to live. But these are the places that can change lives. They have definitely changed my life, like the Euclid Tavern in Cleveland and the Grog Shop. These are places where I saw Link Wray and RL Burnside. I wouldn’t talk to you if I hadn’t been to these places.
How has your opinion of being a white person playing the blues changed over the years? Is it something you think about more or less, or maybe in a different way than when you started?
You know, all I could really talk about is my personal experience. And I heard blues music growing up. I knew the blues before I knew Rage Against the Machine, before I really heard of anyone. I was listening to blues and bluegrass, and some songs are so similar. I felt a very close connection to that… I got to see RL Burnside playing in Cleveland and Columbus. I went to see him everywhere and he was there, alive, breathing, playing these songs, packing those little rock & roll clubs… We covered Junior Kimbrough on our very first album. Junior Kimbrough and The Beatles were equal, and that’s a perspective Pat and I come from. But also just be there and hang out with T-Model [Ford] and playing this music and learning from some of these guys, it made me feel even more connected.
Have you heard any fans say that you and Pat turned them on the black bluesmen of the past?
All the time. People always tell us they got into Junior and I love it. They walked into T-Model or something and had never heard of him [before]. I really like that on the platform that we have – being able to share with our fans the music that we love, the music that has inspired us.
You shot the music video for “Crawling Kingsnake” at Jimmy Duck Holmes’ juke joint in Bentonia, Mississippi. What is the particularity of this place?
Well, it’s America’s oldest juke joint. Jimmy Duck’s parents opened it up, so I felt like it was an amazing place to tell the story of music, tell the story of Jimmy Duck, and just give props to a national treasure. It really is the last link to this Bentonia blues style, which was popularized by Skip James.
It has been a little over a year since John Prine died. What do you miss the most about him?
I miss going out to dinner with him. The last time I saw him was at Dan Tana’s [in L.A.]. We were there for the Grammys and he called me and asked if I wanted to go to dinner, because I hooked him up at an Italian restaurant in Nashville and it became his favorite restaurant. So he said to me, “When you’re in LA, I want to show you my must-have.” Writing songs with him was like being part of a shoot or something, but when we got to hang out together it was the most fun. Drive with him and go to White Castle. He was just living his life to the fullest. Its driveway was full of Cadillacs.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Black Keys. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
In my personal life, yes. But every musical decision we made ended up working in our favor. We saw a lot of bands go from zero to 100 and start headlining festivals, and then they left. We are always here. I think in our stupid way we did the right thing.