Dan Auerbach has trouble not doing anything.
The singing, guitar-playing half of the Black Keys spent much of 2008 on the road with his bandmate and drummer, Pat Carney. The duo enjoyed the critical and commercial accolades showered upon them for their fifth and most expansive album, Attack & Release, as well as some accolades from fanboy rock legends such as Robert Plant, Rod Stewart and ZZ Top — all of whom have expressed their admiration and/or desire to record with the West Akron duo.
If that weren't enough, Auerbach, 29, also found time to record and produce albums by Cincinnati's Buffalo Killers, Kent's own Jessica Lea Mayfield, family band Hacienda and the Black Diamond Heavies at his recently completed Akron Analog studios. During all that activity, Auerbach also found some studio time for himself, gathering up some friends and family. The result is his debut solo album, Keep It Hid, behind which Auerbach has undertaken an 11-date tour that stops at Cleveland's Beachland Ballroom on March 5.
Already, Auerbach's band — a sextet featuring the quartet Hacienda and Auerbach's engineer, ''right hand man'' and drummer Bob Cesare — has appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, playing the breezy pop song My Last Mistake.
That one-song gig was not just Auerbach and his backing band's — tentatively dubbed the Fast Five after one of keyboardist Abraham Villanueva's organs — national television debut:
''That was our first time actually playing together,'' Auerbach said from his home the day before Hacienda was due to arrive in Akron for rehearsals. Auerbach said he picked Hacienda (also the tour's opening act) because he knew he could trust the band and it would be prepared to play. Hacienda consists of Abraham Villanueva, piano/vocals; Dante Schwebel, guitar/vocals; Jaime Villanueva, drums/vocals and Rene Villanueva, bass/vocals.
''We rehearsed the day before the Conan show and they literally had to teach me the song because I hadn't played it since I recorded it. So they showed me what the chords were again. And we played it and after the second time we had it. So we just started rehearsing the set; we played like half of the record. They have everything memorized already and practiced.''
Auerbach said some of the songs are as many as three years old but all were re-recorded for the album to maintain sonic consistency.
''I had all these songs and the studio and all these great musicians that were friends and family and we just went for it,'' he said.
The friends and family that turn up throughout Keep It Hid include Cesare and his uncle James Quine (both are cousins to punk guitar legend Robert Quine), who plays guitar and sings harmonies on the meditative acoustic opener Trouble Weighs a Ton and the Keys-like Heartbroken, in Disrepair. Mayfield adds her voice to another delicate acoustic tune, When the Night Comes.
That song was co-written by Auerbach's father, Charles, who also wrote Whispered Words.
There is a prevalent rock 'n' roll cliche that dictates that when a member of a band strikes out on his or her own, it is assumed that he or she is trying to break away from his or her primary band's sound. But Auerbach said he had no specific desire to separate the sound or songs on Keep It Hid from the Black Keys' catalog. And while the album's quieter moments might not fit, there are a few tunes that could easily fit in the Keys' catalog.
Auerbach takes Jon & Robin's chirpy 1960s Tex-Mex tune I Want Some More and gives it a fuzzed-up percussion-heavy, voodoo-swamp beat and adds his breathy vocals that take the song to a dirty, desperate and carnal place. Other loud tracks such as Mean Monsoon and the Stooges-inspired Street Walkin' also aren't far from the Black Keys' familiar sonic territory.
''Well anything can be a Black Keys song, but when I record something without Pat and I'm immediately happy with the way it turned out, it's like 'why would I want to change this? I created this thing, here it is,' '' Auerbach said. ''Why do I want to mess with this?''
For Auerbach, who has spent more than a decade playing and performing with his high school buddy Carney, the chance to play with a six-piece band is a very different and very exciting change of pace and he said he looks forward to not having to fill all the spaces on guitar while Carney holds down the groove.
''For the first time ever we're going to be able to do every song on the record,'' he said. ''I've never been able to do that before. I get to play acoustic guitar onstage and do some harmonies and fattened-up arrangements.''
The band is unable to re-create some of the Black Keys' songs live because of its two-person format. When the Black Keys record, the duo layers its sound or sometimes uses other musicians in the studio.
And as interesting as being able to sing harmony and have organ and extra guitar is, there is one instrument Auerbach is itching to hear behind him onstage.
''I am so excited to have a dedicated maraca player whenever I want,'' he said. ''That's really why I did this record: It's just my love of maracas. They're really the unsung hero of rock 'n' roll, man.
''Think about it: What's more rock 'n' roll than maracas? Bo Diddley and the Stones got maracas . . . [screw] the cowbell, that's amateur stuff,'' he said laughing.
Auerbach, who brings a song's chords and melodies to the Black Keys before he and Carney put the unique Black Keys stamp on it, says he writes every day and believes he is still growing as a songwriter.
''I have had more and more fun writing. When Pat and I started I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I was just kind of riffing on old blues songs or old country songs that I knew, just bashing things out and making stuff up,'' he said. ''I think the more I get into songwriting — without being pompous or too professional — it's fun to craft a song.
''I definitely want there to be something there other than just some riffs, and I think we have been slowly getting better at that.''
Another of rock's cliches dictates that when a bandmember goes solo, it's because he or she is somehow feeling constrained or unhappy in his or her present band situation and is testing the proverbial waters for a possible exit.
But Auerbach said after the tour and the Black Keys' seemingly annual gig at the Coachella Festival in Southern California that he and Carney plan to get back together in June and hope to record the next Keys' album in August. And, that despite being grown men with wives, children (Auerbach and his wife, Stephanie, have a young daughter, Sadie) and side businesses (Carney runs a studio and has a label, Audio Eagle), when they get together it's like no time has passed.
''Pat and I, whenever we get together and start playing, it's like we're back in the basement, when we were 16 and 17. We have this immediate connection, this unspoken thing that just happens and that will never go away,'' Auerbach said.
''And whatever B.S. we have to go through or crap that happens with touring and in life, every time we get together it's just magic. It's always fun.''
But Auerbach added that the solo records and tours will continue.
''I think I'll keep doing it. It's fun and there's no reason not to. It's amazing to be able to play music with other people and explore other ideas,'' he continued. ''It's just a whole different thing and I think it's good and healthy and rewarding to do that.
''It's part of the healthy musician food pyramid.''
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758.