The first song recorded on the first day in the studio last August changed everything for the Black Keys' new record, "Brothers."
Drummer Patrick Carney sat on the steps outside the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios building in Sheffield, smoking a cigarette in the summer Southern heat. He'd just cut the instrumental track for a new song, "Next Girl," and singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach was recording the vocals, lyrics that Carney hadn't heard.
That year had already been filled with personal and professional ventures and upsets for the longtime friends and bandmates. Auerbach released a solo album and was starting a family; Carney formed the band Drummers and went through a divorce.
But as Carney stepped back inside the old cinderblock building at 3614 Jackson Highway and heard the song about moving on, Auerbach said, his eyes lit up:
"Oh my next girl will be nothing like my ex girl.
I made mistakes back then, I'll never do it again.
Oh my next girl, she'll be nothing like my ex girl.
It was a painful dance, now I've got a second chance."
"I think Pat was really in a funk for a while there, and I think he really came out of it the first day we started recording at Shoals," Auerbach said in a phone call recently from his home in Akron, Ohio, where Carney lived before moving to New York.
"He just sort of snapped out of it. It was like he just stepped out of a fog and was ready to go from that point on."
"Next Girl" is one of 10 songs the band recorded in as many days for "Brothers" at the legendary studio, famous for its contributions to the Muscle Shoals Sound of the 1960s and '70s, along with FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.
The studio at Jackson Highway hasn't been a working studio for years and was most recently a museum, which the blues-rock band and producer/engineer Mark Neill understood before traveling to Alabama. Auerbach said he was interested in the studio because of its history, and he is open about the condition of the building. Comments he and Carney made to Rolling Stone for its Dec. 10 issue about the run-down status of the studio had tempers flaring across the Shoals, especially in the music industry.
Their remarks made nationally shed light on a problem of infighting locally.
Auerbach is positive about his and Carney's experience in the Shoals, however, and they recorded 10 of the 15 songs on "Brothers." The record, which hits stores Tuesday, is the sixth studio album released by the band since 2002, and Auerbach calls it their best yet.
While the isolation they found in Sheffield may have contributed to the stripped-down vibe of the record, he said the ultimate lesson they learned was that after years of making music together, their chemistry is fluid and produces great work, no matter where they record.
"I think what we found out, honestly, is that Pat and I can really do it anywhere," Auerbach said. "We can create music anywhere. What we learned about Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and probably all the old studios for that part, is that it's not about that room. It's about those musicians, and the engineers that recorded them. That's what makes the sound.
"If it had been all mediocre bands or mediocre players coming through, we wouldn't be talking about it."
Museums and mayhem
Muscle Shoals Sound Studios was on a short list of legendary venues where Auerbach had always wanted to record, and it won out because it was the only studio available, Auerbach said.
The studio opened in April 1969 and moved from its original location on Jackson Highway in 1978 to a building on Alabama Avenue. The studio was sold in 1985 to Malaco Records and closed in 2005. Cypress Moon Studios is now housed at the Alabama Avenue location, and Webster purchased the original building on Jackson Highway in 1999.
A self-described recording geek, Auerbach, 31, knew he and Neill were more excited to see the studio than Carney, 30, who was ready to examine the equipment and perhaps learn a few recording techniques. In August, he and Carney brought their own instruments and some of Auerbach's recording gear from his Easy Eye Sound System studio. Neill trucked his recording equipment from California as well.
They knew Muscle Shoals Sound Studios was not the working studio of its heyday; the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section is long gone, and the Rolling Stones and Paul Simon aren't stopping by to lay down a track or two.
Still, they arrived to find a museum - a collection of vintage recording gear that didn't work and photographs on the walls of legendary performers who hadn't stepped foot in the building in decades. "Lynyrd Skynyrd fans would have died and gone to heaven," Neill said, laughing.
"The first thing I had them do was take down the photographs," Auerbach said. "I didn't want to feel like I was recording in a museum."
It was still exciting, he said, a cool experience to walk in and see the vintage gear and memorabilia.
"A second later, you realize they're unusable for recording," he said. "You're like, 'All right, this is just a decoration.' I'm not into decorations. It's cool, but I didn't drive all the way here to look at stuff."
Gone were the wall treatments and carpets. Missing was the drum case that helped give the Rhythm Section its sound. The recording console didn't really work, and the tape machines weren't up to snuff. They put a piece of Plexiglas on top of the console to hold their own digital recording equipment, "guerilla-style recording," Auerbach called it.
With the original set-up, though, went the superstition that the studio itself was what is special and not the musicians. The Black Keys buckled down and worked all day every day, and Neill, talking in December from his home in La Mesa, Calif., said he couldn't have been more pleased with the experience.
Staying at the Marriott Shoals in Florence, the trio would wake early, eat breakfast at Cracker Barrel and be in the studio by 10 a.m. They'd record all day in a kind of focused frenzy, a level of productivity Neill said he couldn't recapture once he was back home from Alabama.
"It took me a week here to construct what I'd done compulsively there" on certain song mixes, he said. "Those rough mixes were almost release quality.
"I thought, 'What did I do? How did I make it do that?' "
At 48, Neill grew up in Valdosta, Ga., thinking of the Muscle Shoals area as Mecca for music, and he said he was thrilled to record here, adding that most of the technical difficulties - and even disasters - he and the band experienced had nothing to do with the studio. Utilities work on nearby telephone poles wrecked some of Neill's equipment; microphones burned out; lights would blink on and off - "mayhem," he said.
"But we got a great record out of it. You make a great record by getting it done.
"There's two spots in that town where you can get really taken care of - go to FAME, or go to Muscle Shoals Sound Studios," Neill said. "People in that town are good people, and we had a good experience and a lot of fun."
In fact, Neill is quicker to blame recording pratfalls on the ghosts he is convinced haunt the studio.
"We went there for inspiration," he said, "and by God, we got it. In spades, and ghosts."
Do you want a cheeseburger?
With the headline "The Black Keys' Muscle Shoals Odyssey," the six-paragraph article in the Dec. 10 Rolling Stone about the band's time in the studio made waves in the Shoals last winter.
"The Black Keys assumed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, where the Rolling Stones cut 'Wild Horses' and Wilson Pickett made 'Don't Knock My Love,' would have incredible mojo," the article began. "'Awesome things happened there in the sixties and seventies,' says drummer Patrick Carney. 'That's the mystique.'
"But when the Akron, Ohio, garage-blues duo arrived in August, the found a spare, run-down building in a ghost town. These days, the legendary Alabama studio also operates as a poorly maintained museum. 'We've seen all those 'making the album' videos where U2 has an outdoor mosque and Indian rugs all over the floor,' says singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach. 'And here we were walking around with a bag of Funyuns, totally burned out.' "
Soon after the issue hit the stands, e-mails were fired back and forth among Shoals music industry insiders.
Some blamed Auerbach and Carney for being stuck up; others blamed the Rolling Stone writer Christian Hoard, who didn't visit the Shoals while the Black Keys were here, saying he must have taken their remarks out of context. Still others pointed fingers at the latest owner of the studio, Noel Webster, who defended the band members and their remarks in December, calling other people's concern about the studio and its image "small-town gossip" and "nobody's business."
Rumbles of potential lawsuits came to the surface, all revolving around the musical legacy of the Shoals and specifically the "Muscle Shoals Sound," as well as who owns the rights to what. Webster owns the trademark to "Muscle Shoals Sound Studio," as well as the wordmark for the "Muscle Shoals Sound" design of an "M" and two "S's."
Arguments boil down to generally two separate points of view: From a tourism standpoint, Muscle Shoals (Sheffield wasn't named in the article) being called a "ghost town" is terrible PR. From a musicians' standpoint, the laid-back and off-the-grid feel of the area is what makes it desirable for artists seeking isolation and inspiration. Regardless of which side of the debate residents take, the article brought renewed focus to the topic of the area's musical legacy, how it was created and if it can ever be recaptured.
Rodney Hall, general manager at FAME in Muscle Shoals, said in December he was upset with Webster for opening the studio while he was still renovating it, thus opening it and the area for criticism.
"To be honest with you, if I went over to Jackson Highway and recorded over there, I would think it was boring, too," Hall said. "I mean, walk outside there and look around - it is a ghost town. I can understand why they would think that if they went to Sheffield."
Hall said he doesn't have a problem with the competition a renewed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios would present, but rather he takes issue with the perception that the studio is presently operating at the level it once did.
"(Musicians) should go, but they should know what they're getting," he said. "And they shouldn't be thinking they're getting the Muscle Shoals Sound and coming here to get this thing that's been created by people, not buildings.
"People made the sound. The buildings are just buildings."
Webster said he is working to restore the studio to what it once was, and he is the first to admit it wasn't in top operating form in August. (Updates to the website, muscleshoalssound.org, show renovated studios.)
He also called Sheffield a "ghost town," but said that was the reason it attracted big-name artists in the past.
"People come here to make records, and they don't want to be bothered," Webster said. "To (the Black Keys), there's nothing going on down here, and there isn't. It's a ghost town. There's not one venue in the entire area that has national acts. Nobody.
"That doesn't mean to sound bad about the area - that's the lure of coming here. That's why it's fun. They're not distracted; they can come here to sit here and work on their projects."
Neill said he felt bad and sad about the Rolling Stone article and its portrayal of the band as unhappy with their time in the Shoals. On the contrary, he said, "these people rolled out the red carpet for us," and he would never call the area a "ghost town."
With the long hours working in the studio, Neill, Auerbach and Carney generally only had time to kill at night when fewer retailers are open. Neill knew this would be the case, having grown up in a smaller town.
"What they were complaining about is that at night, after we were done, they wanted to go swarm around and do something," Neill said. "There's nothing. I told them that before we went out. Unless you want to go see a movie or something, or go to Walmart and stand around under the fluorescent lights. So what did we do? We went to Walmart."
If you passed a self-described "Roy Orbison-looking guy" with two "hippie-looking guys" while shopping at Walmart in August, you passed Neill and the Black Keys, he said.
"I derive ghoulish pleasure in the fact that everything was calm there, that there wasn't partying and there wasn't craziness," Neill said. "I was pleased to have that environment. It pulls things from inside of you."
Auerbach didn't mind the environment either, though recording in Sheffield felt to him not much different than recording in his basement in Akron. In fact, he has similar words for Akron that he does for Sheffield - or any non-metropolitan area with limited entertainment resources available at night.
"I love Akron, but it's got its drawbacks," Auerbach said. "It's hard to go all over the world and see all these great places and eat all this great food and come home. Do you want a cheeseburger? Or a cheeseburger?"
'What's left is legacy'
Neill stood outside the Shoals Marriott one night last August, holding his cell phone out in front of him. The rhythm of cicadas filled the summer air, and he wanted his wife to hear them.
"That thing sounds like it's from outer space!" she exclaimed.
Neill loved the music they made. It reminded him of the tunes the frogs and bugs created in south Georgia and symbolic of the music he can almost tangibly feel in the Shoals air.
Something changed in him when he was recording in Sheffield, he said, as evidenced by the mixes he created here and couldn't replicate at home.
"That really meant something to me, that my own physiological being or whatever I am vibrated different while I was there," he said. "Somehow my mind was changed.
"Down there you're just fearless, you don't even care. That makes art. That's what we call art - it's clear feeling about difficult feelings."
Auerbach is proud of "Brothers," saying it is deeper all around than the Black Keys' previous works.
"I think it's the best record we've ever made, without a question," Auerbach said. "I think we are hitting our stride. I really feel like we are just connected, you know? Stronger than ever."
He's not as inclined as Neill is to attribute that stride and connection on "Brothers" to the recording experience at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, but Auerbach doesn't write off the studio or the experience in the South. Neill and Webster do, however, say that because the record is considered a success, the recording process couldn't have been as bad or disappointing as it was made out to be.
"If it was so counterproductive, how come we got our record done?" Neill asked. "We're all humbled by that experience. We're proud of it."
"This isn't a bad thing; it's not hurting anybody's credibility. And it's not stopping clients from coming here to record," Webster said.
Neill said he was troubled by the in-fighting he discovered in the Shoals, especially in its music industry, as well as what he perceived as a lack of appreciation among the area's youth for its history.
"I did get the sense that a lot of the younger people didn't get it," he said. "I think they kind of don't realize how good they have it.
"Nashville is not the answer. That town does not provide the kind of vibe that you've got there.
"What's changed is that there's no activity now," Neill said. "What's left is legacy, and everybody's fighting for it.
"If there's ever a time when everybody needs to get together and see how to make it better, now is the time."
Sarah Carlson can be reached at 740-5722 or sarah.carlson@TimesDaily.com.