Perhaps all the high-water marks of late prompted Dan Auerbach to talk so lowly of his earlier work.
"When we were making our first few records, we really didn't know what the (expletive) we were doing," the Black Keys singer/guitarist admitted by phone from New York recently.
It had been a particularly momentous few days for Auerbach's smoking, snaking, Akron, Ohio-reared blues/ punk/psychedelic duo. He and his bandmate since childhood, drummer Patrick Carney, had just come off playing Madison Square Garden with Pearl Jam, The Late Show With David Letterman and a $28,000 Big Apple fund-raiser for the homeless.
The morning of our interview, they found out that their sixth album, Brothers, landed at No. 3 in Billboard, their best showing to date. Most reviews of the record also deemed it their best yet. For once, the frontman agreed with the critics.
"We didn't know how to write a song back then," said Auerbach, 31. "We were just starting to get used to playing our instruments. That was fun, and it's fun to hear it because it is so ramshackle and immediate. But we've grown up. We're not the same people — although we really did have just as much fun making this record. We liked the challenge of it most of all."
You can hear the challenges rise and tumble away on the new album. Instead of the scorching riffs and bursting beats of past Keys discs — is there a Keys fan out there who doesn't air-guitar 10 A.M. Automatic on a weekly basis? — this one features more slow-grinding, thick, funk grooves, introspective songs and cool bits of soul.
It's tempting to credit the album's fresh sound to the site where they started recording it: Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, where the Stones, Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson made some of their best records. Auerbach debunked that idea, though.
"We had a good time, but Pat and I could've made that record anywhere," he said. "There was nothing special about the studio or the equipment used. It was run-of-the-mill normal stuff. We had a super-talented engineer in Mark Neill, but the connection that Pat and I have was the key."
That connection was loosened up and tested during a yearlong hiatus for the band. In that time, Auerbach toured behind his first solo record (Keep It Hid) and produced some younger bands' records (Hacienda, Cadillac Sky). Carney put together a rhythmic ensemble called Drummer (in which he played bass) and split with his wife (hints of which permeate Brothers). The duo also made the album Blakroc with Roc-A-Fella co-founder Damon Dash and rappers Mos Def, Ludacris and RZA (a follow-up reportedly is planned).
Auerbach said these diversions cleared away the new paths on Brothers.
"In terms of songwriting, I started to open up and have fun on my solo record," he recalled. "And then the Blakroc record had a big effect, because we started all those songs for the most part with bass and drums instead of guitar and drums. We had so much fun doing that, we carried it over to Brothers. I think it reinforced the groove on this record.
"Also, working with other people definitely helped us realize how effortless it is for Pat and I to work together. It really is. We could make a record every week if we wanted to."
The Black Keys play Iroquois Amphitheatre in Louisville on Aug. 11.