Interview: Mark Neill On Recording The Black Keys New Album 2010

Mark Neill produced the The Black Keys new  album ‘Brothers’ (to be released May 18, 2010) with the band over 10 days in August 2009 at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Alabama. He’s also mixed the album to his singular specifications. That’s some pressure and responsibility which was exacerbated by paranormal activity, power surges, sleep deprivation and self-imposed expectations during the recording process.

It’s arguably the most anticipated Black Keys record. After the success of ‘Attack and Release’ and the collaborative Blakroc project, the game has essentially changed for the band – there’s an expectation to produce something that raises the bar even further.

For those fans who don’t know, Mark Neill mixed Dan Auerbach’s solo record ‘Keep It Hid’ and was integral in setting up Dan’s custom analogue studio, Akron Analog . He’s someone who brings a wealth of experience with a style and attitude toward recorded music. He isn’t interested in what’s trendy, his techniques reflect the sounds of the 60s and 70s and haven’t changed since.  He’s interested in the proven analogue acoustic techniques. By recording at Muscle Shoals The Black Keys were able to access a region, a room and vibe that produced some of the most notable soul music of all time.

The Black Keys Fan Lounge recently spoke to Mark about his background, the recording process for the new album and the attitude and motivations that underpin it. When Mark sums up the album in this way, you’ve got to be excited for the expected April 2010 release of the album:

Everything that you’ve read so far about this album, about it being heavy and dark, their best record yet, that’s not spin, that’s not jive, those were honest assessments from people who were involved. If I have any clout in all of this, which I hope I do after making really good records for a long time, I really do believe The Black Keys are unique in their being brave enough to make a record that is this emotionally raw. I will say emotionally raw, sonically it’s no more raw than ‘Keep It Hid’.

This record can be summed up very very easily: they are more emotionally raw than they’ve ever been captured. Don’t think as a record producer I didn’t notice that that didn’t scare the crap out of everybody involved [laughs]. Everybody involved is still like ‘Oh my gosh!’ Because it is that good, it is a good record. Maybe people will listen to it and say ‘Oh, I don’t know, I think Chulahoma is just as good’

That would be a compliment [to be compared to Chulahoma]. That’s what I was trying to go back to secretly. Just between me and you, it’s the truth. I mean, I can’t say that stuff out loud in front of their people because that will make you feel creepy, but that’s what I was thinking when I was doing it. If they could get as tactile, and raw, I mean really to the point where you’re right there within feet of their craziness and feel the heat of that craziness I would have done my job. Sometimes that is not fun to do [laughs] but it’s fun where I hear it later, I love it.

The rest of the interview continues below the photo…

Photo Courtesy of Craig Packham: Mark Neill in the studio

The Black Keys Fan lounge: Tell me about your recorded sound and how you became involved with Dan Auerbach? Alot of people know you designed Toe Rag Studios in London where The White Stripes recorded their ‘Elephant’ record.

Mark Neill: In the late ’70s, I had all these old Ampex tube machines and we were recording demos, and remember this is South Georgia where I’m from. When I moved out to California in ’79 I still used this stuff for demos. I had a handful of older microphones and these microphones would be $30 here $50 there, very cheap. They weren’t worth anything, they’re called vintage now and worth $3000 or something stupid. In the late ’70s there was not a vintage market yet, unless you had a Flametop Les Paul you didn’t have vintage. So I didn’t think of it that way I just had the old gear because I had trained in a radio station as a teenager and was very lucky a DJ in my town in South Georgia had taken me under his wing and said ‘I’m going to show you how to operate this station, help you get a FCC license’. The radio station was stuck in time it was from 1955-ish and it had the same RCA console Sam Phillips used, same Ampex tape machines, RCA mics, everything was the same, they had a recording studio and I got to use the equipment and edit tape.

By the time I was on Sire/Warner Brothers records in 1980 as ‘The Unknowns’ which was a horrible band [laughs], with the  equipment I was stockpiling , we were using it, creating demos. Nobody took it seriously because it was old. In the early 80s I finally got rid of our singer in ‘The Unknowns’ and folded that up which was really good for us. Me and the bass player, Dave, agreed we needed to just officiate the studio as a vintage studio for use and we did it. We were surprised because here comes Ricky Nelson walking right in the door, we did his last record before he passed away. It took quite a long time to finish it and it was very protracted but it was sort of like the ‘Field Of Dreams’ movie where Kevin Costner was told by a ghost, build it and they will come.

And that studio of course is ‘Soil of The South‘?

It is, but back then we called it the ‘3 Track Shack’. It was sort of influenced by Link Wray’s ‘Shack 3 Track’. The 80s were a very dim period of time so we had a real key record with The Tell Tale Hearts, got the Paladins started on their career. We got a lot of artists under a production set up and it worked out really well. But the record industry was not receptive at all to our sound which was quintessentially old. Not old stale, but vintage, you know? That was a problem until the 90s, then it all changed. Suddenly it became very hip, vintage became a very big market. We played a satellite role in influencing the use of that gear…vaguely [laughs].

Liam (Watson) is a guy in England who had heard my records and saw articles that had included me in the 80s. we became friends and he was just setting up the first semi-pro version what became Toe Rag with some small machines. He was frighteningly talented, he could get a sound out of a cassette deck. I told him, my studio is a proven thing because it’s designed almost perfectly after Bradley’s studio, Nashville. I said if you don’t mind me imposing my view, let’s build the London version of that sort of thing. It doesn’t matter what liam uses, he was getting the sound on White Stripes’ ‘Elephant’ back when he was using cassette decks. There’s a record you should look up called ‘The Fire Department’, their first record, it sounds basically like ‘Elephant’. He did it on table top tape machines, little portable things – a couple of Revox’s. He’s so talented, I said it’s a crime he can’t man a dream vintage studio. That’s where my involvement comes in, and only that. I encouraged him to be crazy, and I encouraged him to build a studio that was a clone of our room which in of itself was patented after Bradley’s.

When Dan comes along years later and becomes interested in my thing I go over and design a room with proper acoustics that are very similar in theory to what I believe to be right. The equipment was literally custom fit to his needs based on the gear which I had been using 30 years ago. It worked it’s tried and true stuff. It’s not stuff you can buy at Guitar Centre or online. It’s custom but it’s based on gear that was used in the past.

Having said that, at this point in the writing I dont know how that works out for the hip hop project [Blakroc] cause that’s a whole different world that me and Dan talk about. That’s where I step off the platform. What they are doing in Brooklyn they might as well be speaking Chinese to me [laughs].

When I interviewed Joel Hamilton who recorded the Blakroc album with Dan and Pat, he said “I’m not as crazy about it as Dan is [laughs] like I use Pro Tools where as Dan would prefer to record to mono on quarter inch tape or something. I’ll use more than one microphone”

That’s what I do [laughs].

Yes, you’d record on quarter inch tape alone. I’m thinking your pure aesthetic is what attracted Dan to your technique?

Well, I think it did attract him. He made good use of it when we started on that solo record. ‘When The Night Comes’ was technically the first offical recording of it really. We did that in here as a demo. It was completely recorded and mixed and recorded in here as a demo. Then that spawned everything that him and Bob [Cesare] and anything I had to do with it from that point on. That’s how ‘Keep It Hid’ kind of developed over a year. It developed slowly and gradually. Of course it was mixed here and I did the sound design in here and if you like it it’s got a fabric, it’s very pleasing. It’s not an abrasive record.”

It’s really well thought out. Dan was saying the first track ‘Trouble Weighs A Ton’ is a quiet track that brings you in closer to your speakers to listen to it. It flows, it’s a really rich sound.

That is the Soil of the South trademark. It’s like a lot of country records from the 50s and 60s – it has a lot of bass on it. I’m accused of being bass heavy that way and I’ll take it as a compliment [laughs]. I like it and I’m going to stay with it.  As far as The Black Keys are concerned they’re a band without a bass player so I love the fact that Dan is fascinated with bass [laughs].

I’m a big fan of Dan’s natural abilities. I have no idea what that Blakroc stuff is all about. I will say Joel Hamilton’s comments on Muscle Shoals Sound are pretty are pretty unqualified. That console that they had there was a Universal Audio console very similar to the one I used for many many years and I brought elements of that console back there for The Black Keys to recreate that room in it’s 1969 splendour. That’s what was used, not some crazy Phillips thing. It was literally a 610 Audio Console made by a couple of guys, I think it was Paul Kelly and Stan Hendricks who were responsible for that down in Muscle Shoals.  That’s what Brown Sugar and Wild Horses [by The Rolling Stones] was recorded on. The Black Keys recorded on the same thing that the Stones recorded on in the time in the late 60s.

I brought all that gear back there for a reason because me and Dan, and only me and Dan, because no one else in that organisation shared that dream with us at all, this idea that we would go back there and it would be a revisiting of a time, space and a sound that would be that would be conducive to what The Black Keys do. To be clear, The Black Keys sound nothing like the Rolling Stones [laughs].

What’s your take on Muscle Shoals generally – is it more of an attitude, the spirit of the place as well as a sound?

The place has paranormal activity in it. Some of the people they brought around from time to time were not believers of that thing and I personally think they were made believers after being there. Growing up in the South, I’m not sure if it’s because thwere’s so much water down there or limestone or what the problem is but growing up down there I get used to what they call paranormal activity. We just call it the ‘haunts’. It’s weird energy, it’ll move sommething across the table for no reason or something will go through you like cold wind. That stuff is just normal down there – we dont give it much thought. I knew that Dan and Pat, growing up middle class in Akron Ohio, had not experienced the craziness of that situation in a recording studio. We were going to do it in Memphis but in typical Memphis style it fell apart so the Muscle Shoals Sound thing was a last minute thing. And it worked out good which is why I defended it over that [Rolling Stone magazine] Muscle Shoals Odyssey article because specifically they were too tired to have all those clear thoughts like how crummy the place was.

There were two frustrations about being there 1) we didnt know our way around the place and 2) the GPS was throwing us all over the place – it didnt have an accurate map of the area so we were driving around in circles [laughs] trying to find a Starbucks, coffee place, replacement guitar cords. You couldnt get from point A to B being a stranger in an area like that with all those rivers crossing, and all those cause ways and bridges. We didnt know where we were half the time. That’s the frustration about the place. I’d sum up the Muscle Shoals session as being stressful, and a lack of sleep because we were busy trying to get it done and any of the frustration about the area wasn’t taken seriously.

I think people miss Dan and Pat’s sense of humor too.

[laughing] I don’t think people will ever understand their sense of humor. Another thing that makes Dan and Pat very unique that most people wont talk about in the press is that they are moving targets – you dont know what’s going on with them from minute to minute. They’re friends and they’ve been friends for so long they can read each other very well. So there’s not alot of room for an outsider to read that.

Tell me about the recording if there was paranormal activity, exhaustion, amazing recording gear. How did that affect the recording process and what they ended up recording?

That’s the whole point of it. We were emotionally tired and very vulnerable to frustration such as the power company changing the power lines outside – we didn’t know that. When they did this it destroyed quite a bit of the equipment. I had to effect repairs very quickly and was able to save some of the gear. The hard disk system we were using to save everything on, all this incredible analogue recording,  saved on the hard drive got zapped as well. All the session was in tact except for a few things here and there. I would say this was the hardest record as far as time is concerned I’ve mixed as so many crazy things with the power and everything was solved quietly and efficently but the job later to sort it out and get it in a form to be mixed took a week of days to get together. I keep reiterating this, the experience was unbelievable.

You’ve said this album is the equivalent to  Radioheads’ OK Computer album and but has Pat has said: “I don’t know; we’re definitely doing something, It’s still kind of coming together. At this point I think it’s our best record, but I don’t really know how to describe it.” What can we expect? How can you describe it?

I think that Pat’s been awfully kind. I think he’s saying something very clear here. He’s speaking totally truthfully here. Pat’s saying this record we weren’t finished with the fast songs because there were just a few really up tempo numbers on here whiche were the kind of songs you’d expect out of a Black Keys record. We weren’t finished with them. We came with back with them completely not finished. That’s really what he’s saying without saying “We’re still working on it”. He’s saying saying we’ll see how it’ll come out. I think Pat’s dead on the money, if you read in between the lines. I can tell you accurately as a record producer, we’re just finishing the fast ones ‘up’, getting them tightened up for mixing. A record like this, and when you hear it I think you’ll understand.

I’ve noticed on your forum somebody said ‘What do you mean this is their first soul record?’ People don’t understand what soul means. That’s not a slam, that’s a compliment.  Soul music is very difficult to play. The people who played on soul records were not amateurs, they were not indie rock musicians, they were professional seasoned players who could probably play jazz proficiently. Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, these guys were fantastic musicians – they had the timing of a swiss watch – they were so good. The Black Keys to go in and play soul RnB music, which is the music of the area, which is something The Black Keys have always done, but to make an album of that kind of feeling, this is the first time their intentions were this focused on a project like that. I feel like they were so good as artists that they were sensitive to the area’s vibe makes you feel that way. I compliment Pat for being tactful, but being really direct – “I’m not sure what this is, it’s hard to describe and we’re still working on it” – that is dead accurate. When we’re all done with it maybe people will call it a heavy metal record, who knows? [laughs]

So, is  it generally a heavier sound?

It’s the heaviest record they’ve ever made. ‘Keep It Hid’ is heavy, this is heavier.

Like a ‘Thickfreakness’ sound, raw, straight up rock record?

No, it’s heavy in that way…how can I describe it. It’s heavy in the way a bass or kick drum plays a note you can hear the decay in the whole instrument. There’s that much space. Which is to say it’s not mashed together and treble-ly, it’s very spaced out and deep. They don’t have a bass player because they are a two piece. They didn’t de-tune their guitars to D or some low tuning, or C, and it’s heavier than most of the bands that do that [laughs]. Most bands when they want a big heavy sound they tune down to some ridiculously low tuning and they did not do that. They stayed up to standard tuning. In their craft they are making a record heavier than most of those bands make.

Some of the recent albums (Attack and Release) have delved into piano lines and mixture of elements, were there those kind of influences?

Let me say this about the way they did it before. The way they did it before I liked, but it sounded more like over dubs of those elements. This record is seamless. Sometimes you think a guitar is a keyboard, sometimes you think a keyboard is a guitar. I’m proud about what we were all doing in one room together because there was a natural ability for everyone to be on the same page without talking about it much. Pat did a lot of keyboard work on it but sometimes it sounds like a guitar.

This is the thing that is amazing about those guys, I have been quoted as saying I think these guys have been ready to make this record songs-wise. After ‘Keep It Hid’ I was convinced the next Black Keys record was going to be a monster because look what ‘Keep It Hid’ sounded like. All you have to do is add Pat to that equation an imagine how great that’s gonna be. The only reason Pat and Dan haven’t made a record like ‘Keep It Hid’ is because when you’re a big band and you’re in the music industry you have tonnes of people telling you ‘that’s a great direction’, ‘this is what radio is doing’, ‘this is what we expect’, so they don’t really listen to these people that much but they do a little bit, and it’s just enough to keep them from doing exactly what they want to do. I’ll qualify that by saying I’m pretty sure, knowing that those guys are moving targets, the two of them know what they want [laughs].

Can you explain how the tracks were laid down. Was it just the guys getting in there and feeling the vibe, having an idea and then bouncing off?

One of the production techniques I’ve always used which is really simple is if you are sympathetic to the band’s cause, and you have a record collection of 45s like I do which goes back to the 60s when I started collecting, and if I know that Dan wants to play some bass on the record and we talk about some of the incredible moments in rock n roll or rnb, I get a a feel. I brought some strange records that had bass on them. Those 45s are played in the studio and they themselves have a ton of stuff stockpiled on their iphones, all kinds of stuff. So everyone was bringing in music and playing it. Nothing in particular was influencing one particular bass line. It was just a soup being boiled. That’s what we would talk about from day to day, how far in one direction we should go.

The Black Keys are incredibly talented at assimilating a feeling and making that into an identifiable riff. I’m extremely happy those guys were hell bent on making sure none of it was similar to anything. Most people copy records they like, copy the lick. Dan and Pat on this record did not do that. We had a feel thing going on where you played a 45 or off their iphone before we got going on these huge Voice of the Theater Altec Speakers, that’s actually louder than the band, it was very easy to get excited playing a really wierd record in there really loud. But we just used the feels, we were never interested in using any direct extraction of a lick or a motif or anything.

You’ve mentioned that Dan sounds like Otis Redding with the emotion coming through his voice?

I think that Dan has been for many many years misunderstood as being quote ‘King of the indie rock, soulful, bluesy, but you know from the wild and crazy Black Keys’. They wildly under-estimate the artistic aspects of Pat’s contributions and the fact that Dan is a drag out soul singer, he can sing soul music. Not that many white kids from middle class Akron can do that [laughs], in fact none of them. I mean it as a total compliment to him that he can do it naturally and not as an imitation, he doesn’t imitate anyone that I can tell.

I know a lot of people are fans of your recording style. On this record, tell me about the recording set up, did you have just one microphone or a simple set up?

I hope no one ever tries to mix any of this [laughs] because a lot of it was captured on 1 or 2 microphones, here or there. The reason why is because when me and Dan and Pat had talked about going down there was to capture what they sound like in a given room. The way Joel Hamilton describes it about capturing different eras of music, technology and microphones, my view is just make a decision. Dan and Pat made a decision to go to the South in a cinder block old building and to capture them in that room. If you set up a Neumann microphone within a couple of foot of a source you’re going to get as good a sound as that microphone can give you. Adding more tracks and microphones is not going to help you later unless you intend on having it re-mixed by a dozen engineers. Which is not the way we designed this. We specifically designed this not to be mixed by anybody but me. But having said that we have had some discussions about radio mixes hear and there and we’ve accommodated that, but I feel sorry for the person who has to mix this [laughs]. Even over dubs are done in groups, where there are several people playing or singing into one microphone.

Photo Courtesy of David Doyle: Mark Neill and The Black Keys in the studio

12 thoughts on “Interview: Mark Neill On Recording The Black Keys New Album 2010

  1. I really think this is going to be truly a milestone Black Keys record! This is the most excited I’ve been in anticipation for a TBK LP. Thanks for this great interview.

  2. For a man of that experience to be talking in the way that he does about the new album should give all the fans something to really look forward to, sounds like it’s going to be a killer. Thanks for the interview.

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