Alone With Dan Auerbach and The Pretenders, An Interview
Currently on the tail end of a nation-wide tour with Stevie Nicks, the Pretenders are a celebrated late ’70s and ’80s British rock band known for playing a part in pioneering what would come to be known as indie rock by way of straddling the line between jangle-pop, punk, New Wave and Top 40. Produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and released earlier this year, Alone marks the 10th studio album from the Pretenders, their first effort since 2008′s Break Up the Concrete. In light of all this excitement, music journalist Jeff Slate sat down with Pretenders lead singer Chrissie Hynde and Auerbach to talk about the making of the new album.
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“It’s just in the name, that’s all it is,” Chrissie Hynde says when I ask her the difference between her new album Alone, with her longtime group the Pretenders, and her recent solo album Stockholm. “It doesn’t mean anything, the Pretenders. Jimmy (Honeyman-Scott) and Pete (Farndon) died in 1982 and 1983, but I’ve tried to keep it going. So I’ve had to talk about the fact that I’ve called it the Pretenders for 30 years, because people say, ‘Yeah, it’s just you.’ So with Stockholm I finally thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just use my name.’ But the thing is I’m a band person. I like to work within a band. I’m not a solo artist. And this album feels like a band album.”
As good as Stockholm was, Hynde is right that Alone has a band vibe and is better for it. From the rough and ready rock of the title track, “Gotta Wait” and “I Hate Myself” to the sweet but taught “Never be Together” and “Let’s Get Lost,” Alone feels like musicians who’ve played together for awhile, simply serving the songs. In fact, the album is a group of session musicians that producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys brought together, but who immediately clicked behind Hynde’s songs and delivery.
“He really gets the job done,” Hynde says of Auerbach. “He’s focused, but he’s fun. We didn’t mess about, either. We did it quickly. But he’s all about the song and he’s very traditional in that he sees a record as an album with two sides. He also has very, very clear in his vision of what it is he’s trying to achieve.”
“I suppose she’s right that I had a little bit of a vision, because I chose the band, but, I didn’t necessarily have a direction I wanted to take it in,” explains Auerbach. “I did have the songs ahead of time, but I didn’t really stick to the demos much, except for one song. Everything else we completely reimagined. For me, being in the studio and that openness is the appeal to me, and so I always try to keep it as open as possible. This time was no exception, and it was a situation where we went into the studio every morning and we just tried to create something interesting with what we had.”
Hynde credits Auerbach for creating the inspirational atmosphere that helped hone the material she showed up to the sessions with.
“The songs were not all written in one go,” she admits. “Some of this stuff was ideas I had knocking around for a long time. But because we recorded the whole album within two weeks with the same band, it created this feeling and sound. But that’s just how Dan works. And really, that’s how everyone should work. It’s the ideal way. No one wants to fuck around in a studio for years.”
Auerbach agrees, and explains that working quickly, and not laboring over things, also helped create a good working atmosphere.
“We were doing two to three songs every day,” Auerbach says, clearly still in amazement at the accomplishment. “I’m sure there were certain songs that we spent a little bit more time on it, but it became almost an unwritten thing, we didn’t even have to talk about the songs, we knew when they were done. That was the feeling throughout the record. And we didn’t have any hang-ups. There wasn’t a song that we did that we were just, like, ‘Meh, this isn’t working.’ Sometimes you can take the whole day on something and find that you haven’t gotten anywhere. We didn’t have that once on this record.”
That positive energy seeps through the speakers when you listen to Alone, but the pairing of Hynde and Auerbach came seemingly almost by accident.
“We’d run into each other every once in a while, and we’d talked about doing a record,” says Auerbach, who recalls that the last time he’d seen Hynde before working on Alone was in their shared hometown of Akron, Ohio, purely by coincidence. “But once we were able to find time in both our schedules, she was game for coming to Nashville and having that experience, of getting out of town, because she’s in London. I think it was really great, but it just kind of happened.”
Being in Nashville also allowed Auerbach the luxury of calling on some of his famous friends for support, namely guitar legend Duane Eddy.
“That was Dan’s call,” Hynde explains. “Dan knows him and works with him in Nashville. So I got a message at 3 in the morning saying, ‘Guess who I’ve got in the studio? It’s Duane Eddy and he’s playing on “Never Be Together.” I was in London. I woke up, I’ll say that. But you can tell it’s Duane Eddy as soon as he plays one note. That’s the thing about all the classic players and singers, as soon as they engage, you know who it is.”
Auerbach credits an “anything goes” attitude that he and Hynde shared, more than anything, for the success of the record.
“We had an understanding that we had the same goal in that we were trying to make the best record we possibly could,” he says, adding that “it’s always best to not really have any rules, because sometimes deconstructing music is what helps the most.”
For Hynde, who came up through the London punk scene and released her first album with the Pretenders in 1980, Alone also marks an album that once again lets her wear her American roots on her sleeve.
“Break Up the Concrete (from 2008), now that was super rockabilly album, and, you know, all those skinny little English guys, they love that shit,” she says. “But every guitar player in the world wants to play in an American rock ‘n’ roll band. But, you know, it’s pretty much the best man for the job wins. And he doesn’t have to be the best, actually, he just has to be the right person and in the right place. That’s how this band works. And this time, on this record, everyone complements each other really well. And for me, being the singer, my job is to set up the guitar player.”
“I like to get a bit of the soul of the musician,” Auerbach explains of his technique for creating the complimentary feeling Hynde credits for making the record one of her best in years. “I’m really particular with who I choose, and who I have in my studio. But Chrissie, she’s one of those people who has such a singular voice that, when she sits down at the piano, it sounds so much like her and no one else. It makes the rest of it really easy, and I always want to let those musicians speak. I tell the musicians I work with, that’s why they’re there.”
Hynde laughs when I tell her about Auerbach’s comment of her “singular voice.”
“I lost my voice when I went to Nashville to make that album,” she admits. “I had such a bad respiratory infection, and I was on Cortizone after a few days. I said to Dan, ‘Dan, I can’t fucking talk, how are we going to do this?’ He goes, ‘Ehh, don’t worry about it, we’ll do all the vocals in the last two days and it’ll make it more cohesive.’ But that’s horrifying for a singer, because you get how vulnerable you are. But as far as the rest of it, I’ve never drank a Throat Coat in my life, I’ve never warmed up, I don’t do vocal exercises, I’m not trained, I’ve never even thought about it. I personally think that all of that is psychological. But, having said that, you can train anyone to sing in a musical – anyone can be trained up to a point – but you can’t train someone to have a personality.”
“Her voice is so distinct when she starts singing, it’s nobody else,” says Auerbach, underscoring Hynde’s point.
Auerbach also tells me that he was surprised when Hynde was self-conscious about recording her vocals, and reluctant at first to have people in the studio while she cut them at first.
“She started laying this trip on me like she had issues with people being in the studio when she sang, because she doesn’t like that and she needs it to be very focused,” Auerbach says. “But I think she saw how loose and light everybody was working, and she told me a few times that she hadn’t experienced a studio like that – that it had never been quite so comfortable – and so she did all the vocals in just a couple takes. She sang live with us most of the time, and there were even some songs where we kept the live vocal. I mean that should be the story right there!”
As we wrap up our conversation, Hynde circles back to explain what she tries to accomplish when she approaches her vocals.
“It depends on what you’re singing, some songs can be very emotional to sing, so it’s nice to have a controlled environment in the studio when you’re doing them,” she begins. “But ‘I Hate Myself’ is kind of sarcastic, kind of a comedy song. And when I listen back to the album I remember that we laughed throughout the whole thing, because a lot of it was just so absurd. So that loosened things up. And then Dan had a friend there that I didn’t know – a record distributor or something – who was there after we finished the album, and he played him ‘Death is Not Enough’ and he looked over and the guy was in tears. So to me, if you’re crying or if you’re laughing or if you’re dancing, well, that’s job done for me.”
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