Dan Auerbach Interview

On his second solo album, Waiting on a Song, the Black Keys frontman pays tribute to Nashville's great songwriting tradition, with some help from his musical heroes.
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DAN AUERBACH has been part of the Nashville scene ever since he opened Easy Eye Sound in 2010. The studio—built to capture the energy of live recording and brimming with vintage and one-of-a kind gear, from a custom 1969 Quad-Eight console to a collection of EMT plates—has hosted sessions with the Black Keys, Lana Del Rey, Grace Potter, Ray Lamontagne, and Dr. John.

In Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye studio, Auerbach (left) leans over the console, working side-by-side with Duane Eddy (center) and John Prine.
Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

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By 2016, Auerbach was ready to turn his own musical focus toward his adopted hometown. That summer, taking a break from touring with the Black Keys and his side band, The Arcs, he connected with the great singer/songwriter John Prine, and they started crafting songs in the old Nashville style, devoting day after day to the process, writing in Auerbach’s living room along with a rotating cast of writers, including executive producer David Ferguson (who has also engineered recordings by Prine, Cowboy Jack Clement, and Johnny Cash).

They emerged months later with nearly 200 songs, which were pared down to ten tracks that became Waiting on a Song, Auerbach’s second solo record and the first release on his new Easy Eye Sound label. Auerbach calls the album, “everything I love about the history of music”; these tracks focus on the essence of the songwriting, while evoking the iconic sounds of Stax, Sun, and American Sound Studios.

To record Waiting on a Song, Auerbach invited some of his musical heroes to play along. Duane Eddy, Jerry Douglas, Pat McGlaughlin, David Roe, and The Memphis Boys’ Bobby Wood and Gene Chrisman visited Easy Eye, while Mark Knopfler contributed one guitar track from London. The album was recorded live, using simple tracking techniques that gave these legendary artists space to play off of each other in the room. “Sometimes I feel I created my own Field of Dreams,” Auerbach says. “I am working with some of the greatest musicians that ever lived.”

You’ve described this record as a love letter to Nashville; what does that mean?

Well, in terms of songwriting approach, it was very Nashville. And by that, I mean the traditional songwriting sessions that Nashville is known for. That’s something that I never really did before. Even though I’ve lived in Nashville eight years, I never partook in that old-school writing process until last summer, so that was a big part of this record.

So you were writing almost daily with these guys, before going in to the studio.

Yeah. For me, I’m so used to having a studio be a part of the writing process. This was like, you don’t even get into the studio until the song is finished. That was a different thing for me. We would be somewhere else—at my house, somebody else’s house—and just a couple of people, with acoustic guitars, maybe a Wurlitzer, depending on who I’m writing with. We’d come up with a whole song, and all the changes and everything, and all the melodies. And then we’d take it to the studio and begin the recording process.

Your studio is essentially designed for live recording. Has your recording process evolved since you’ve been in Nashville?

I always pretty much have the same goal: I searched out the people who make the records that I like the sound of, or people who understand the history of recording, and I had them help me to design my room and my gear and my signal path. It’s pretty much been the same for the past eight or nine years, ever since I met people like [producer] Mark Neill or Ken Hammond in Cleveland. They taught me about recording. I pretty much kept the design concept the same ever since I learned from them.

What were some of the albums that you looked to for sonic inspiration for this record?

I always listen to Norman Petty recordings. He’s one of my mountaintops. Beatles records. Joe Meek records, and Jamaican records. For me, those are the big pinnacle of records. Then on top of that, I listen to stuff like, Fame Studios made some incredible recordings when they had the Universal Audio console. Even though Bobby and Bubba [Gene Chrisman] played on “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield, “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley, and “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond; I think the arrangements are awesome, but sonically, they’re not my favorite. For sonics, I look at certain Jamaican records, and the ones that I said, Norman Petty records.

Well, this record sounds like you’ve perfected the art of controlled bleed, for sure. How did you set up the sessions?

My studio has two rooms; there are no iso booths. The front room is isolated from the other room. In the main room, we can do drums, electric guitars, keyboards, and electric bass. And then in the other room, we can do the acoustic guitars, the vocals, and the upright bass, background vocals, strings, any of that stuff. That means we can basically cut complete full arrangements live, and that’s really the goal for me, because the more people I can get on the track, the more interesting it ends up sounding.

Most times when you get that many people together, I find that when everyone’s playing together they play way more simple parts, because they have to fit in and just be a group. There’s a bunch of people, but they’re playing very simple, and it sounds like a symphony.

As an artist who’s so hands-on in the studio, how do you balance the focus between recording and performing?

It’s taken years to get the studio to be how I want it, and I really have to depend on my engineer to be getting sounds that I want. But we’ve been working together for so long, and my studio is so dialed in at this point… I mean, the drums haven’t moved for a couple years; all of the guitar amps are the same ones I’ve been using for ten years. I’ve been using all the same guitars; all the keyboards are all hooked up. Everything is ready to go when we record, so that makes it easy to create and not have to worry about recording, because that’s what you want to be able to do, is get in the studio and not have to think about the studio. You want the studio to operate instantly. Every single instrument in my studio is ready to be recorded at any second.

You have Pro Tools and tape machines; how do you decide which to use?

We cut this record on Pro Tools. I’ve got an Ampex 440 8-track, and I’ll use that if I’m cutting a rock ’n’ roll band, or a smaller band that’s a great live band, but that’s about it. I don’t feel the need to cut to tape so much. I really do like the sounds that I get on the computer, and I know what I need to do to get the sounds I like.

I know you’re a fan of recording with dynamic mics, a sort of Stax vibe. What do you like about that approach?

A smiling Jerry Douglas looks on while Auerbach plays.
Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

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With dynamic mics, they have an inherent EQ and compression and sound that is more in line with what I want to hear. Everybody has all of these plug-ins, or whatever the fuck they’re called in Pro Tools, and it’s like all of the most popular ones are for mangling sound and degrading the sound quality. I don’t understand why people don’t get it. Nobody wants to hear high-fidelity shit. It’s not musical. That’s not the music that lives in people’s hearts forever. You know what I mean?

It has to be warm, like like the human touch, like the sound of someone’s whisper. I don’t need to hear 20k on a vocal, you know what I’m saying? Nobody ever needs to hear stuff like that, ever.

When you come to the realization that all the records that you love so much were cut with simple microphone setups, and there was high end rolled off… you almost don’t ever need to boost anything, you just need to cut some stuff to make it less muddy. It took me so long to figure this out, because there’s so much misinformation, but again, that’s why it’s important to search out the records of people that you like, and learn from them.

The Duane Eddy tracks are so distinct. Were you using multiple mics, to capture room sound?

We didn’t do much room miking with Duane. There may have been a little bit of reverb put on afterward to give it a little bit of that sound, but we just close-miked him with a dynamic mic and a good amplifier. But when you’re in the room, hearing the amp, it’s him, right there. It’s coming right out of the amp, and it is the sound that he makes. It’s so specific.

Do you have go-to dynamic mics?

Yeah, we use SM57s all of the time. I’ve got some older Electro-Voice mics, too. But they’re really nothing special; they all do the job. But it’s just the way that they sound. Sometimes you just can’t beat a 57, on almost everything.

A lot of people agree with you. And our readers love to hear that, since we’re trying to show people who are recording at home what they can do with limited resources.

You can make great-sounding records now. You really just have to use your ears, and you can figure it out. Because it has nothing to do with who’s behind all of our mics or big, expensive preamps. Mark Neill has mixed records on little Mackie consoles.

Tell me about the drums. You’re a fan of mono drums?

I’m a fan of mono drums. I think they hit harder. I don’t like the sound of a squashed room mic. I fucking hate squashed room mics. It’s like that L.A. rock sound. Nobody uses it. I think that’s one of those things, every time you open a recording magazine, somebody’s talking about that part of the sound. I’m not into it, man. I don’t like that sound.

What’s your tracking setup?

Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

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We have a mic on every drum, but we don’t always use it. Sometimes we’ll just use a kick and an overhead. We’ll record every drum, but then when it comes down to the mix, we’ll generally just rely on a couple mics, and maybe bring up one if there’s a drum fill, throw that into the mix.

We have dynamic mics on all the drums. Sometimes we’ll use a Coles ribbon mic up top because my engineer likes it. And they do sound good on the cymbals, but I don’t really think about it too much anymore, to be honest. It really has more to do with the drummer, unfortunately for microphone salesmen.

It sounds like what you’re saying is, you’re shaping the sound more from the front end, rather than on the back end of the process.

You know what I think is the most important thing in a studio? Have great headphone mixes. We have really high-end amps on our headphone mixes and a little bit of compression; it sounds like a record in your headphones. You know what I mean? That changes the way that you play, and it makes you more attentive to detail, I think.

That’s great advice. What about when you record your own vocals? What’s your setup?

I have a U67 that I really like. I think the U67 is my favorite mic, of the large guys. But most of the time—and I track a lot of vocals live—when I’m doing live vocals, I will cut on an SM7 while I play acoustic. I guess I end up using the SM7 slightly more than the Neumann. But I like to get all background vocals on the Neumann, just because it’s a bigger spread.

How about your studio’s acoustic spaces? You’ve used tiled bathrooms as echo chambers; did you do that on this record?

We do that a little bit. That might be a little bit of the room sound that you hear on Duane’s guitar. But that’s in the mix. But yeah, I have a small bathroom that’s plaster, with curved corners, and a tile floor, and it gives us a nice, little room sound.

I want to ask you about a particular song. “Never in My Wildest Dreams” feels more intimate in production approach than the other tracks. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Let’s see, there’s multiple acoustic guitars—maybe five acoustic guitars all at once on that track. Jerry Douglas is playing the dobro, and it’s a metallic one, a real big one, so it’s loud. So we kept him in the room where the drums are, and I was in the other room doing the vocals. Russ Paul was on the acoustic, Kenny might have been on another acoustic. Then we overdubbed Bubba on snare.

You worked with some true icons on this record; I can really hear that American Sound Studio influence. What did Bobby Wood and Gene Chrisman bring to the recording process to embody that sound?

Parts. They’re magic on their instruments, like Bob Dylan is a magician at work. Bobby Wood is a magician with the Wurlitzer, and Gene Chrisman is magic on the drums. I’m looking to just be around them as much as I can, to learn from them every second I’m around them.