When it was announced that the Black Keys were headlining the TD Garden, it looked like a mistake. How did a duo from Akron, Ohio, disciples of Delta blues and Stax soul, sneak in the back door to the arena-rock stage? "I think we got here at our own pace— we didn't rush it," says Black Keys singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach by phone last week. "We didn't try to write songs that would get us to these arenas. A lot of people start by trying to do that. That's their goal, to have their songs on the radio, to have hits. We never thought like that — ever. We made five records never thinking about that."
KEY OF LIFE "On El Camino, I like the simplicity," says Dan Auerbach (right, with Patrick Carney). "You put it on and 37 minutes later it's over and you are in one world for the entire record."
Album number seven, the stomping, Danger Mouse-produced El Camino, dropped in December via Nonesuch to near-universal praise. Tighter and more rocking than its sprawling and diverse predecessor, 2010's Brothers, it clocks in as one of the shortest and most focused Keys efforts to date.
"I think that a 37-minute record, for me, is perfect," says Auerbach. "It leaves people wanting more if it's a good record; they want to just play it again. There are a bunch of records that I listen to that are really long and there are records that I listen to that are really short, and I appreciate aspects of all those records. I like all of the styles we got into on Brothers, and worlds we got to create with all of those different songs. But on El Camino, I like the simplicity. I like that it's a rock-and-roll record. You put it on and 37 minutes later it's over and you are in one world for the entire record."
Auerbach says he and drummer Pat Carney drew influences from the '50s onward while making El Camino, seeking a common thread in "efficient rock-and-roll songs and minimal instrumentation." But when it comes to his distinctive guitar sound, it's hard not to hear echoes of Link Wray, creator of the power chord and of the distortion-laden instrumental tour de force "Rumble."
"He was a huge influence," Auerbach Says. "I still have all of my guitar amps turned sideways because when I saw him play he turned his guitar amps sideways, because it was so loud, and you would hear the ambient sound of the amp and not just the direct speaker sound. I thought that made a lot of sense. Plus, the amps aren't blasting the audience in the face, which I think is really good, too. When I saw him, it was one of the greatest shows I ever saw in my life. There was a vocal mic and he didn't say one word; he got onstage and started ripping through songs, and 40 minutes later he was done. Everybody was screaming for an encore ,and he never came back — it was amazing."
That was at a 400-capacity club in Cleveland. The Garden offers quite the contrast if Auerbach wants to ape Wray's amplifier arrangement. But Auerbach says the locales he and Carney play now don't make a difference.