Two weeks ago, The Black Keys released their eleventh studio album Dropout Boogie. As one of the last remaining indie rock acts that broke big in the late 2000s, the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have managed to last this long by refining their bluesy garage-per viam-arena sound while finding new hooks and melodies to fit that sound into. It’s a delicate balancing act, but lest we forget that The Black Keys have been doing this exact balancing act for two decades straight.
Although 2002’s The Big Come Up is the dictionary definition of lo-fi, it didn’t take long for the band to start refining their sound. Actually, yes it did: it wasn’t until 2008’s Attack and Release that The Black Keys agreed to go into an actual studio and work with a professional producer. That actual producer was Danger Mouse, the slick technician behind the spaghetti western pop of Gnarles Barkley’s ‘Crazy’.
Attack and Release also showed a notable change in the band’s writing style, with elements of mainstream rock creeping into their sound. Songs like ‘Strange Times’ and ‘I Got Mine’ still had their roots in raggedy blues, but it was the kind of raggedy blues that could soundtrack car commercials until the end of time. This would be the style that The Black Keys would embrace on their true breakthrough; 2010’s Brothers.
As songs like ‘Everlasting Light’, ‘Tighten Up’, and ‘Next Girl’ spread beyond the cult world of indie rock, the duo made a conscious decision to lean harder into the mainstream than ever before, most notably on the single ‘Howlin’ for You’. Featuring a rollicking central drum beat and pop-adjacent melodies punctuated with fuzzy guitar riffs, ‘Howlin’ for You’ was an instant earworm. The fact that the song has been used to sell everything from video games to Honda CRVs just proves how universal The Black Keys had suddenly become.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Auerbach and Carney got into the nitty-gritty of what made ‘Howlin’ for You’ such a smash. Notably, Carney discusses how Belle and Sebastian were more responsible for inspiring the drum pattern than the more commonly cited ‘Rock and Roll Pt.2’ by Gary Glitter. Auerbach also details how the song’s signature fuzz riffs came together thanks to the unique tone of his Supro Martinique guitar.
Carney also recalled how none of the album was made with computers, which wound up being a problem. “We made the record without Pro Tools,” Carney states. “There was no grid… We had to get things tight and laid out. There was no going in there and fixing it. The timing of the tremolo was a complete headache, trying to get analogue tremolo and analogue recording to sync.”
With the album being recorded at the semi-abandoned Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, the band had to get creative with their dedication to analogue sounds. “You could only hear back twelve channels at a time,” Carney recalled. “We could never hear the whole song constructed, so we didn’t use many tracks. So there’s a lot of space on this record and it was a kind of accidental thing that was amazing.”
Check out The Black Keys dissecting ‘Howlin’ for You’ down below.